‘South of the Clouds’ | Vietnam and Yunnan Tour
Travel by rail and road from Vietnam's Tonkinese Alps up the Red River Valley into Yunnan. Awe-inspiring landscapes including 4 Chinese and Vietnamese World Heritage Sites
Vietnam and China tour
South of the Clouds – a 16-day northern Vietnam and China tour. When a Yunnanese Prince crossed the cloud-covered mountains of Sichuan to travel to the imperial Chinese court, he informed the Emperor that his Kingdom lay to the ‘south of the clouds’ and the Mandarin translation – Yunnan – has stuck to the present day.
This unique and highly original itinerary begins in Vietnam’s bustling capital Hanoi and takes you by train to the Chinese border via the picturesque mountain-top French-era hill station Sapa and the spectacular hill-tribe market at Bac Ha. We then cross the frontier into Yunnan on foot over the bridge linking the two countries before making our way up the Red River valley to visit the spectacular 1,000-year-old, UNESCO listed, Hani rice terraces at Yuanyang,
From here we make our way overland through Yunnan’s wonderful landscapes and historic sites; Jianshui, Lake Fuxian, Kunming with it’s surreal Stone Forest and Dali to the charming ancient town of Lijiang. Our last leg takes us via the awe-inspiring Tiger Leaping Gorge to the town of Zhongdian, (now officially renamed Shangri La!) on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.
In addition to the famous sites, we’ll take in plenty of lesser-known destinations as well as local markets and street-life as well sampling the province’s highly varied and sumptuous cuisine and meeting the inhabitants of what’s widely acknowledged to be China’s friendliest region.
For those with less time to spare please note that a shorter, 10-day, version of this Vietnam and China tour – World Heritage Sites of Yunnan – is also available, starting and finishing at Kunming International Airport and taking you overland to Dali, Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge and Shangri La. Accordingly the first half of this tour, Hanoi to Kunming overland, is also available separately as our 9-day Red River Valley tour.
Here's an idea of what you can expect to do and see day-to-day.
Day 1 - Hanoi - arrival and time to explore
Arrival in Hanoi and check-in to a downtown hotel. Afternoon free to relax or explore the city with perhaps an optional evening performance of the unusual water-puppets before a welcome local-style dinner introduces you to Vietnam’s celebrated cuisine.
Overnight: Hanoi Transport: Walk, Meals: D,
Day 2 - Hanoi - tour of some of the city's sites
Day tour of some of the city’s sites, including Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, the 11th-century University, Hoan Kiem Lake and a walking tour of the narrow streets of Hanoi’s bustling old commercial quarter. Evening departure by sleeper train for Lao Cai in the far north.
Please note, single accommodation is not available on the sleeper train and therefore accommodation will be on a shared basis.
Overnight: Night sleeper train Transport: Minibus, Train, Walk, Meals: B, L, D,
Day 3 - Bac Ha - the hill-tribe market and on to Sapa
Morning arrival and drive to nearby Bac Ha to visit the spectacular Flower Hmong market. After lunch we’ll continue to Sapa, a picturesque old French hill-station overlooking a spectacular valley and lying in the shadow of the mist-shrouded Fansipan – at over 3,100 m the highest summit in mainland Southeast Asia.
Overnight: Sapa Transport: Minibus, Train, Walk, Meals: B, L, D,
Day 4 - Sapa - hike through the hills
Morning hike through the area’s incredible scenery, known to the French as the Tonkinese Alps taking in Dzao and Hmong minority villages, picturesque rice terraces, bamboo forest and towering peaks. Afternoon at leisure to explore the town or roam its bustling market.
Our hike can be tailored to suit any fitness level
Overnight: Sapa Transport: Walk, Meals: B, L,
Day 5 - Yuanyang - cross the border and Hani rice terraces
Crossing into China’s Yunnan Province at the town of Hekou, we’ll follow the scenic Red River Valley northwest into the Ailao Ranges and the small mountain-top town of Yuanyang. Afternoon visit to the region’s truly awe-inspiring and now UNESCO World Heritage, rice terraces – carved out of the mountainsides over thousands of years by the local Hani & Yi minorities.
Overnight: Yuanyang Transport: Minibus, Walk, Meals: B, L, D,
Day 6 - Jianshui - dawn over the terraces and on to Jianshui
Optional sunrise trip to the fabulous terraces before checking-out the lively local market, a trading centre for myriad local minority peoples. On to historic Jianshui to visit the 14th-Century Confucian Temple, the 2nd largest in China, and the amazing Zhu Mansion, with its 42 courtyards and 250 rooms! Overnight in a family-run hotel in the heart of the old town.
Overnight: Jianshui Transport: Minibus, Walk, Meals: B, L, D,
Day 7 - Jianshui to Kunming - via Tuanshan and Fuxian Lake
Morning visit to the fascinating village of Tuanshan, one of the last remaining fortified villages in Southwest China. This village, originally founded during the Ming Dynasty, receives very few visitors despite being recently placed on the UNESCO Protected List. Leaving Jianshui we’ll continue north, via the superb Fuxian Lake, to the Province’s capital, Kunming.
Overnight: Kunming Transport: Minibus, Walk, Meals: B, L, D,
Day 8 - Kunming - the Stone Forest and afternoon at leisure
Morning trip to the spectacular karst formations known as the Stone Forest – another of Yunnan’s UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. An afternoon at leisure in Kunming to discover some of the City’s pagodas, or perhaps the lively flea market and a stroll around the fantastic Green Lake Park?
Overnight: Kunming Transport: Minibus, Walk, Meals: B, L,
Day 9 - Weishan - up the Old Burma Road to Dali
Old and the new today as we begin with a ride from Kunming to Dali on the famous ‘bullet train’. A tour of picturesque Weishan Town – one of the oldest and best-preserved towns in Yunnan, yet one of the least visited – before arriving at our day’s destination, the ancient walled city of Dali, ‘capital’ of the region’s colourful Bai minority.
Overnight: Dali Transport: Minibus, Train, Walk, Meals: B, L, D,
Day 10 - Dali - at leisure; explore the town or take a cable-car to a mountain park
At leisure to explore this scenic old walled town, former capital of the powerful Nanzhao Kingdom, now centre for the ethnic Bai people – beautifully situated between the Azure Mountains and the shores of Lake Erhai. Explore the old streets, check-out the market or handicrafts, walk the city walls or take a cable car to a nearby mountain nature reserve?
Overnight: Dali Transport: Walk, Meals: B,
Day 11 - Shibao Mountain - sacred mountain and on to Lijiang
Early departure to catch the bustling morning market in the lakeside Bai village of Xizhou, before heading north with a spectacular drive to the superb temple grottoes of sacred Shibao Mountain. In the afternoon we’ll continue to the charming and beautifully preserved old town of Lijiang.
Overnight: Lijiang Transport: Minibus, Walk, Meals: B, L, D,
Day 12 - Lijiang - explore the World Heritage town
Discover the ancient centre of the Naxi Culture and now World Heritage site Lijiang, dramatically situated beneath the towering peaks of the 5,500m Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Wander the beautifully preserved cobbled streets that line the streams running through the picturesque old town and visit the scenic Black Dragon Pool Park.
Overnight: Lijiang Transport: Walk, Meals: B,
Day 13 - Tiger Leaping Gorge - into the mountains
Morning visit to one of the outlying villages to discover more of the unique Naxi culture, before heading north towards the spectacular Tiger Leaping Gorge via the famous ‘First Bend in the Yangtze’. Our overnight stay will be at the friendly, family-run and stunningly situated Sean’s Guesthouse in the village of Walnut Grove in the centre of the Gorge itself.
Overnight: Walnut Grove Transport: Minibus, Walk, Meals: B, L, D,
Day 14 - Tiger Leaping Gorge - take a day hike or explore the village
Day in Tiger Leaping Gorge. Options, depending upon fitness and inclination, include a day hike along the gorge, pony trekking, a walk around the scenic village and surroundings, or merely relaxing on the guesthouse terrace taking in the superb views.
Overnight: Walnut Grove Transport: Walk, Meals: B,
Day 15 - Zhongdian - onto the Tibetan Plateau
Scenic morning drive to the Baishui limestone terraces and on to the Tibetan Plateau and the town of Zhongdian – now officially renamed Shangri La. Lunch at a Tibetan family’s house followed by a visit to the spectacular monastery (Ganden Suntseling), with a short hike through the surrounding hills to check out the scenery and the local villages.
Overnight: Zhongdian (Shangri La) Transport: Minibus, Walk, Meals: B, L, D,
Day 16 - Kunming
Morning at leisure in Zhongdian, afternoon flight to Kunming International Airport* and end of tour. (*There are several flights per day to Kunming departure can be scheduled according to any connecting flights.)
Extra nights in Hanoi prior to your tour or Kunming after your tour are available on request.
Please note, we encounter high altitudes on the Tibetan Plateau, (up to 3,200m), but we’ll ascend gradually.
Overnight: Departure Transport: Minibus, Plane, Walk, Meals: B,
The nitty-gritty, the things you need to know, the answers to your burning questions.
Just a few of the many highlights
Hanoi, Bac Ha hill-tribe market and Sapa's scenery provide the Vietnam highlights before moving on to Yunnan's World Heritage Hani rice terraces, Stone Forest and Lijiang old town
- Explore the old mountain-top hill station of Sapa with its spectacular scenery and myriad traditional hill-tribes
- Explore historic lakeside medieval Dali Town with it's old city walls, lanes and handicraft shops or stroll through the nearby mountain park
- Optional hike down the dramatic Tiger Leaping Gorge - spectacular scenery guaranteed
- The incredible yet little known rice terraces of Yuanyang - certainly amongst the most spectacular of Asia
- Stay in the heart of World Heritage Lijiang and explore the labyrinth of narrow cobbled lanes, ancient houses, streams and bridges
- Sample the superb and highly varied local food of northern Vietnam and southern China
Air Departures (UK) *From
Guaranteed Places Left Special Price Solo Traveller Closed
*Air departures are from the UK. Land departures start from Hanoi
*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...
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
Vietnamese sleeper train view
- We use 4-person, air-con sleeping berths
- Berths equipped with reading lights & elecric sockets
- Upgardes to private cabins available if desired
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
Lin An Hotel Jianshui view
- Our clear favourite for exploring picturesque Jianshui
- Beautifully decorated, with large well-appointed rooms
- Central location in Jianshui old town
Landscape Hotel Dali view
- Central location in UNESCO World Heritage Dali Town
- Recent construction but faithful to traditional style
- Choice of bars and restaurants and in-house massage and spa
Old Town Castle Hotel Lijiang
- Hill-top location overlooking Lijiang Old Town
- Set in the heart of the World Heritage City
- Great views, comfortable rooms, helpful staff
Sean’s Guesthouse Tiger Leaping Gorge view
- Simple but comfortable family run Sean's Guesthouse
- Vertiginous views across Tiger Leaping Gorge
- Meet Sean & his wonderful family & try their awesome cooking
*This list should be considered a guide only, hotels/rooms may change (without notice) depending on availability.
Visa Info & Notes
Vietnam: Visas are no longer required for citizens of some countries, including Italy, France, Spain, Germany and the UK for single-entry visits of up to 15 days. A visa MUST be obtained in advance for longer visits, or for citizens of other countries. They are available from your nearest Vietnamese embassy at a cost of about £40 (c. $60). Further information, as well as e-visas on arrival, are available on the internet, for example, www.vietnam-visa.com or www.vietnam-immigration.org
China: A visa must be obtained before arrival in China. Your entry point in Hekou on day 5 of the itinerary. You will be arriving by road from Vietnam. Your address in China is c/o China Panorama travel & Yunnan Panorama International Travel Service Co. Ltd.
Further info: more details and photos check our ‘South of the Clouds‘ category on our All Points East travel blog.
Here is what out guest have to say about their experience on this tour...
Rosemary and Robert
" We want to say how much this tour has meant to us. We had such wonderful experiences of seeing people who live very different lives from us and getting to have a little understanding of what is important to them. The kind of close contact came from having guides who were not only local but who came from the minority groups that we visited. I would also like to stress how professional our guides were and how their dedication to their own districts and people made this trip unique.
Over the past fifteen years we have travelled extensively and independently but on the whole in more ’accessible’ places. This time our holiday was much more unusual, varied and we learnt so much from it.
From our first contact, we have felt supported and we thank you for having a program which allowed us to have such a fascinating and interesting time.
Pete & Viv
" We always fancied seeing the “real” China and meeting some of the ethnic minorities, and so, “South of the Clouds” was just what we were looking for. No one else seems to offer the cross-border experience from chaotic Hanoi. The overnight train north was surprisingly comfortable and left ample time to explore markets and meet the locals in Northern Vietnam.
We visited a vast range of places from very small fortified villages with populations less than 100, modest towns, and vast cities like Kunming, so got a real feel for Chinese life. Hotels were generally modern with all the expected facilities, normally privately owned rather than corporate. Sean’s Guest House in Tiger Leaping Gorge just took the prize (spectacular position) from the Lin An Inn in Juan Shui (courtyard). Local guides were knowledgeable with good English, led us to sites off the beaten track, and found restaurants at lunchtime and evening with local dishes. We had a couple of half days trekking - a welcome break from the road – and spectacular views in Tiger Leaping Gorge. This is the second time we have used All Points East – they come with a full recommendation. "
" Many thanks for another great ALL POINTS EAST trip – this time to North Vietnam and Yunnan. I thoroughly enjoyed the holiday – Mark was an excellent tour leader – his enthusiasm for photography meant that we photographic addicts were well catered for. I have no hesitation in continuing to promote APE in my forthcoming photo talks. "