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Laos and Vietnam, Mountains and Hill-tribes

A 2-week tour through the remote and spectacular mountains of northern Laos and Vietnam travelling overland from Luang Prabang to the Plain of Jars and Sapa before finishing in Vietnam's capital Hanoi

Laos and Vietnam Overland Tour

Mountains and Hill-tribes – a fascinating and varied 2-week Northern Laos and Vietnam tour. This superb voyage through some of Southeast Asia’s most remote, least-known but spectacular regions begins in the ancient Lao capital and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang, Discover its well-preserved French period architecture, colourful markets, riverside cafes and fabulous ancient temple before travelling overland through the dramatic mountains, forests and myriad rice terraces of Northern Lao and Vietnam.

We’ll meet some of the kaleidoscope of traditional hill-tribe peoples who inhabit these mountains; explore the remote and enigmatic Plain of Jars – recently added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list – visit the spectacular limestone landscapes of Sam Neua including the famous ‘Hidden City‘ of Vieng Xai and explore the celebrated rice terraces of Mu Cang Chai and the picturesque, mountain-top former French hill station of Sapa. From here we continue to our final destination, Vietnam’s bustling, fun capital and also UNESCO-listed, Hanoi.

A wealth of varied and spectacular sites and range of superb landscapes plus of course, as is usual in Southeast Asia, plenty of friendly locals to meet and sumptuous local cuisine to sample.

A 2-day Halong extension also allows you to include the fabulous, and gain World Heritage, scenery of Vietnam’s Halong Bay while, for those with a few more days to spare we offer a comprehensive 3-week version of this Laos and Vietnam tour – ‘Unexplored – the Far North‘ – beginning in Thailand’s Chiang Mai and travelling by road and river through the Golden Triangle region and scenic yet rarely-visited northwestern Laos before arriving in Luang Prabang.

Also note, again for those with a bit more time to spare and looking for a few days quality ‘R and R’ time, we propose beach and island extensions to either Mui Ne or Phu Quoc either of which can be easily reached by domestic flight from Hanoi Airport.

Laos

Itinerary

Here's an idea of what you can expect to do and see day-to-day.

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Day 1 - Luang Prabang - arrival and walking tour

Arrival in Luang Prabang and check-in to a charming hotel situated in a converted French period villa with an afternoon walking tour of the town’s fabulous temples, lanes and colonial architecture with a chance to check out one of the enticing riverside cafes before a local-style welcome dinner.

Overnight: Luang Prabang Transport: Walk,  Meals: D, 

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Day 2 - Luang Prabang - into the surrounding hills

Journey into the picturesque surrounding hills to visit the spectacular Kuang Si Waterfalls and excellent Free the Bears Rescue Centre plus halts en-route to discover the fascinating and still very traditional village life of some of the area’s inhabitants.

Overnight: Luang Prabang Transport: Minibus, Walk,  Meals: B, 

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Day 3 - Central Highlands - overland to Phonsavan

Departure across scenic mountains to Phonsavan in Xieng Khouang Province – location of the enigmatic Plain of Jars. Stops on the way include Khmu and Hmong villages as well as a visit to a hidden cave temple that served as an army hospital during the Indochina war. Arrival in Phonsavan and atmospheric dusk visit to one of the famous jar sites followed by the Mines Action Group to learn about the work they do in clearing the area’s unexploded bombs.

Overnight: Phonsavan Transport: Minibus,  Meals: B, L, 

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Day 4 - Plain of Jars - day tour and the ruins of Muang Khuon

Morning visit to hill-top Jar Site 2 followed by a short hike to the picturesque forest setting of Site 3, consisting of over around 150 of the giant carved jars. Afternoon visit to the evocative ruins of the nearby ancient city of Xieng Khouang, now known as Muang Khoun.

Overnight: Phonsavan Transport: Minibus, Walk,  Meals: B, L, 

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Day 5 - On the road - heading northeast to Sam Neua

Departure for the remote town of Sam Neua in the far northeast of Laos. Stops en-route include Hmong and Khmu settlements, a Tai Phong weaving village, plus photo stops for the breathtaking scenery. We’ll also visit the mysterious Hintang Menhirs, Laos’s very own ‘mini-Stonehenge’.

Overnight: Sam Neua Transport: Minibus,  Meals: B, L, D, 

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Day 6 - Sam Neua - the 'Hidden City' and karst scenery

Our short tour of Sam Neua Town includes a walk along the river to the local market, before setting off to Vieng Xai. This extensive cave system, where the Pathet Lao leaders lived during the Indochina War, has become known as the ‘Hidden City’. In the afternoon a leisurely hike brings us to some of the lesser-visited cave sites plus an opportunity to view more of the area’s beautiful, limestone karst scenery.

Overnight: Sam Neua Transport: Minibus, Walk,  Meals: B, L, D, 

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Day 7 - Pu Luong - into Vietnam

Early morning departure through more spectacular countryside and past traditional Black Tai villages to the nearby border crossing at Nam Meo. From here we’ll head into the stunning scenery of Vietnam’s Pu Luong National Park for a short hike, bamboo rafting trip and overnight accommodation in a well-appointed eco-resort.

Overnight: Pu Luong Transport: Minibus, Walk,  Meals: B, D, 

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Day 8 - Heading norh - rugged mountains and hill-tribe villages

Departing Pu Luong we cross the Da (Black) River and head north to picturesque Mu Cang Chai district. This is a rugged, mountainous and sparsely inhabited region of northern Vietnam where most of the local people you will see are from either the various Tai or Hmong minorities. Overnight in traditional stilt houses at another beautifully located eco-lodge.

Overnight: Mu Cang Chai Transport: Minibus, Walk,  Meals: B, L, D, 

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Day 9 - Mu Cang Chai - more mountain vistas and rice terraces

Morning hiking trip through awe-inspiring scenery and traditional hill-tribe villages. The magnificent and sometimes vertiginous Hmong rice terraces are reputed to be the country’s most spectacular. The afternoon provides an opportunity to relax in the delightful setting and explore the area at your own pace.

Overnight: Mu Cang Chai Transport: Walk,  Meals: B, 

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Day 10 - Sapa

Our next leg takes us over the high mountain ranges towards the Chinese border with a morning drive to Sapa. Afternoon at leisure in this picturesque old French hill-station lying in the shadow of the mist-shrouded Fansipan Mountain – at over 9,500 feet, the highest summit in mainland Southeast Asia.

Overnight: Sapa Transport: Minibus,  Meals: B, D, 

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Day 11 - Sapa - hike through the hills

Leisurely day hike through the area’s incredible scenery – known to the French as the Tonkinese Alps – terraced rice paddies, bamboo forest, towering peaks, crystal clear streams and visits to traditional villages of the local Red Dzao and Black Hmong minorities.

Overnight: Sapa Transport: Walk,  Meals: B, L, 

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Day 12 - Tam Ho and on to Hanoi

Head southeast on the last leg of our journey with the morning exploring the Ban Ho Area – home to more bucolic mountain scenery and predominantly Hung and Tay minority villages. From here an afternoon drive takes us into Vietnam’s capital Hanoi where we’ll stay in the bustling but fun Old Town district.

Overnight: Hanoi Transport: Minibus, Walk,  Meals: B, L, D, 

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Day 13 - Hanoi

Morning at leisure and departure at your convenience. Airport transfers are included if you purchase the ‘with flights’ package. If you purchased your own flights, airport transfers can be arranged on request.

For those with a couple more days to spare an extension to Halong Bay, staying overnight on a traditional style junk is available.

Extra nights in Luang Prabang and Hanoi, before or after your tour are available on request.

Overnight: Departure Transport: Walk,  Meals: B, 

Print Itinerary

Details

The nitty-gritty, the things you need to know, the answers to your burning questions.

Vietnam, rice terraces near Sapa

Just a few of the many highlights

Rugged mountain scenery, remote valleys inhabited by myriad hill-tribe people, spectacular rice terraces and traditional villages on this fantastic trip through the mountains of Indochina

  • Explore the ancient temples, colonial architecture, narrow lanes and bustling markets of UNESCO World Heritage Luang Prabang
  • Visit the picturesque and enigmatic 'Plain of Jars' archeological site in northeastern Laos
  • Explore Hanoi; its historic old town, Hoan Kiem Lake, museums, markets, cafes and fascinating street-life
  • Sample local coffee on cafe terraces and take in the incredible mountain vistas or meet the local hill-tribe peoples in Sapa Town
  • Journey through some of Southeast Asia's most dramatic mountain scenery in northern Vietnam's Tonkinese Alps
  • Discover the delicious and contrasting cuisines of Laos and Vietnam in restaurants, local cafes, street markets

Air Departures (UK)

  • 23 November 20 2,400 GBP
  • 24 December 20 2,600 GBP
  • 26 January 21 2,400 GBP
  • 23 February 21 2,400 GBP

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  • 22 March 21 GBP
  • 17 April 21 2,400 GBP
  • 17 May 21 2,400 GBP
  • 19 June 21 2,400 GBP
  • 19 July 21 2,400 GBP
  • 17 August 21 2,500 GBP
  • 18 September 21 2,400 GBP
  • 18 October 21 2,400 GBP
  • 14 November 21 2,500 GBP
  • 20 December 21 2,500 GBP

Land Departures

  • 24 November 20 1,400 GBP
  • 25 December 20 1,400 GBP
  • 27 January 21 1,400 GBP
  • 24 February 21 1,400 GBP
  • 23 March 21 GBP
  • 18 April 21 1,400 GBP
  • 18 May 21 1,400 GBP
  • 20 May 21 1,400 GBP
  • 20 July 21 1,400 GBP
  • 18 August 21 1,500 GBP
  • 19 September 21 1,400 GBP
  • 19 October 21 1,400 GBP
  • 15 November 21 1,500 GBP
  • 21 December 21 1,500 GBP

Guaranteed Places Left Special Price Solo Traveller Closed

*Air departures are from the UK. Land departures start from Luang Prabang

*Land departure dates correspond to the FIRST day of the itinerary.

We choose our hotels based on a combination of location, comfort and convenience. Here is a *selection of the types of hotel/rooms you can expect to stay at on this tour...

Villa Chitdara Luang Prabang view

  • 'French colonial' chic at Luang Prabang's Villa Chitdara
  • Friendly staff, a relaxed atmosphere and central location
  • Great spot for exploring the old World Heritage town

Pu Luong Eco Garden view

  • Well-appointed and beautifully-located eco lodge
  • Delightful garden setting and stream fed infinity pool
  • Convenient setting on the edge of Pu Luong National Park

Sunny Mountain Hotel Sapa view

  • Our choice in the old French hill-station of Sapa
  • Hmong chic at our favourite Sapa hotel, the Sunny Mountain.
  • Friendly staff, comfy rooms, great views make a fine spot

MK Premier Boutique Hotel Hanoi view

  • Located right in the heart of Hanoi's picturesque old town
  • Great staff, coffee shop, rooftop bar and cracking breakfast
  • Handy for exploring or just relax in their street-side cafe

*This list should be considered a guide only, hotels/rooms may change (without notice) depending on availability.

Visa Info & Notes

Visas: 
Laos: 30-day tourist visas are issued at the visa on arrival counters at international airports as well as any land entry point. These are available for most nationalities with the exception of certain African and Middle Eastern countries. (You can check the list at this link.) For some reason, Swiss, Luxembourgeois and Russian passport holders are exempt from visas while any nationalities not included in the visa on arrival list will need to apply at a Lao embassy or consulate beforehand.

Requirements are at least 6 months passport validity, a minimum of 1 blank page and 2 passport-sized photos. Application forms are available at immigration counters though if arriving by flight they are usually handed out by cabin crew while for land crossings our guides are on hand with forms and assistance.

The fees are only payable in $US except for Thai/Lao land crossings where baht are accepted and this is where things do get slightly complicated as pricing does vary from country to country. Most European passport holders plus South African, Australian and NZ are charged $30 with the exception of Swedish who pay $1 more and British who pay an extra $5.  US citizens are also charged $35 while, for reasons we can’t fathom, Canadians pay $41. (Note a $1 overtime fee is charged for public holidays and outside of standard Lao office hours.)

A Lao tourist visa is a 1-page stick on type and you’ll receive additional, regular-sized,  entry and exit stamps.

Vietnam: Visas are no longer required for citizens of some countries including France, Spain, Italy, Germany and the UK for single-entry visits of up to 15 days. For longer visits, and for visitors from some countries, a visa MUST be obtained in advance from your embassy. Your entry point is Na Meo, Thanh Hoa Province. You are arriving by road on day 7. Your point of exit will be Hanoi Airport. The address during your visit is c/o Golden Tortoise Travel, Hoang Hoa Tham St, Allee 465, no 13, Hanoi.

VISA INFORMATION FOR UK & US CITIZENS ONLY – ALL other nationalities will need to consult the relevant embassies in their countries. Any visa/immigration costs are not included in the price of the tours – you will need to pay for these in addition, as indicated.

Tipping: we recommend a kitty system for the smaller, daily tips such as hotel/restaurant staff and local guides and drivers. Amounts inevitably vary with group size but would generally be in the region of $3-4 per person, per day. With regards guides accompanying you for longer periods we’d recommend a separate tip of approximately $5 per person, per day though of course, this is always discretionary and performance-related. (Local currency or USD are fine.) 

Meals: Breakfasts are generally hotel buffets with lunch and dinners based on local food. Your tour-leader will usually order a selection of dishes, local-style, while a number of meals are not included, which allows you to ‘do your own thing’ or take a break if you’re feeling ‘riced out’.

Although you may assume Lao cuisine is little-known outside of Laos the fact that it’s hugely popular in neighbouring Thailand is a good reference and indeed many well-known Thai dishes such as the famous green papaya salad (som tam) and spicy minced pork salad (laap) are of Lao origin. Certain dishes can be pretty firey – though your tour-leader can, of course, ask for them to be toned down – while the more Chinese and Vietnamese influenced dishes, which will be more familiar to foreign travellers, being generally mild.

Both vegan and vegetarian diets are easily catered to.

Accommodation: while all choices generally fall into the comfortable 3* range – en-suite and air-conditioned – certain of these destinations are seriously off the beaten track so please don’t expect anything too fancy! We have posted a selection of sample accommodation on the lefthand hotel tab but please note that as we try and avoid the larger hotels, availability, in high season particularly, means we use several options in each destination. Please note that since many establishments are on the small size, swimming pools are not a common feature.

Activities: note that no activities are compulsory and that all, including trekking, can be tailored for any fitness level or alternatives suggested.

Further info: more details and photos of our ‘Mountains and Hill-tribes‘ tour or check our Lao reading and viewing list here.

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