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Unexplored, The Far North

A real 'here be dragons' itinerary as only little over a hundred years ago much of this remote, mountainous region of northern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam was still just a large blank on the map

Northern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam Tour

A 3 week off the beaten track Thailand, Laos and Vietnam tour. Little more than one hundred years ago much of these northern reaches of Southeast Asia were still marked on maps as simply ‘unexplored’! This northern Indochina tour will offer you the chance to journey overland through some of these remote, rarely visited, but truly spectacular regions; from Thailand’s infamous former Golden Triangle region, across the dramatic mountains and forests of Northern Laos and into the lush valleys and high peaks of Northwest Vietnam, inhabited by myriad traditional hill-tribe peoples. Travel from Chiang Mai to UNESCO World Heritage Luang Prabang and the mysterious Plain of Jars, the awesome limestone scenery and famous Vieng Xai Caves of Sam Neua Province, the picturesque old French Hill station of Sapa and on by train to our final destination, Hanoi.

For those with an extra couple of days to spare then add on a 2 day, 1 night extension to fabulous Halong Bay with an overnight stay on board a traditional style junk.




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

Day 1 - Chiang Mai - arrival and time to explore

Arrival in Chiang Mai, the cultural and historical capital of Northern Thailand. Afternoon free to relax or explore this charming, friendly city and an evening tour of the famous night-bazaar.

Extra accommodation in Chiang Mai before your tour is available if required.
Airport transfers are included if you purchase the 'with flights' package. If you purchased your own flights, airport transfers can be arranged.

Overnight: Chiang Mai Transport: Walk,  Meals: D,

Day 2 - Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai - over the mountains

Leisurely morning to wander around one of the local markets or relax by the pool before an afternoon drive through the mountains to neighbouring Chiang Rai Town; main commercial centre for the infamous ‘Golden Triangle’ region – so called because of it’s former notoriety for warlords and opium cultivation. Evening tour of the lively night bazaar.

Overnight: Chiang Rai Transport: Minibus, Walk,  Meals: B, L, D,

Day 3 - The Golden Triangle - botanical gardens and ancient city

Tour of some of the sites of this far northern region. Beginning at the splendid, mountain-top, botanical gardens of Mae Fah Luang we’ll travel to Sob Ruak, where Burma, Laos and Thailand meet, visit the unusual Opium Museum, before following the Mekong River via the historic, ruined city of Chiang Saen, to our day’s destination, the riverside town of Chiang Khong.

Overnight: Chiang Khong Transport: Minibus, Walk,  Meals: B, L, D,

Day 4 - Luang Nam Tha - cross the Mekong to Laos

Cross the Mekong into Laos, where we’ll begin with a visit to the ruined Foreign Legion outpost, Fort Carnot, located on a hilltop in Huay Xai. From here we’ll continue upcountry with a drive though scenic mountains to the remote town of Luang Nam Tha near the Chinese border. We will stop on the way at villages of the Lanten and Khmu ethnic minorities, as well as the only recently discovered, Kao Rao limestone cave system. Accommodation at a beautifully situated eco-lodge on the banks of the Tha River.

Overnight: Luang Nam Tha Transport: Minibus, Walk,  Meals: B, L, D,

Day 5 - Nam Ha National Park - day trek

Day trip into nearby Nam Ha National Protected Area to hike through some of the spectacular scenery and local hill-tribe villages, discovering the traditional way of life of the area’s ethnic Akha people. Guides will show you some of the various forest plants used by the hill-tribe peoples as medicine or food, as well as cooking up a traditional style Akha ‘jungle lunch’!

Overnight: Luang Nam Tha Transport: Walk,  Meals: B, L, D,

Day 6 - Nong Khiaw - mountain drive to scenic Nong Khiaw

Drive across the mountains of Oudom Xai Province to the picturesque village of Nong Khiaw on the banks of the Ou River. En route we will visit a Hmong village and a hill-tribe market before staying overnight in traditional Lao style wooden chalets set high on the banks overlooking the River.

Overnight: Nong Khiaw Transport: Minibus,  Meals: B, L, D,

Day 7 - Nong Khiaw - boat trip up the Ou

This morning we will enjoy a boat trip up the scenic Nam Ou; the section north of Nong Khiaw is perhaps the most spectacular stretch of the river as it winds its way through dramatic limestone escarpments.  We will stop off at a Khmu/Hmong village inaccessible by road.  After lunch we will return to Nong Khiaw, with some time to relax in this superb mountain setting.  Options are to discover the area on foot or bicycle or just sit back on your balcony and admire the mountains and river below.

Overnight: Nong Khiaw Transport: Boat, Walk,  Meals: B, L,

Day 8 - Luang Prabang - Pak Ou Caves and on to Luang Prabang

Morning drive south, following the Ou River Valley, to the famous cave temples near Pak Ou. Lunch in a riverside café and village visit with an afternoon arrival in the ancient Lao capital of Luang Prabang. Sunset at the nearby Phu Si hill temple.

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

Day 9 - Luang Prabang - morning at leisure & afternoon walking tour

Nestled in the mountains, long isolated from the outside world, we’ll discover UNESCO World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang, with it’s fabulous temples and French colonial architecture.  We will taste Lao delicacies and the famous Lao beer (optional!) in riverside cafes. The morning is at leisure to allow you to wander the quiet, picturesque lanes or check out the hill-tribe handicraft market with an afternoon walking tour of the town.

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

Day 10 - Luang Prabang - into the surrounding countryside

Day trip through the picturesque, surrounding hills to visit the spectacular Kuang Si Waterfalls with the chance to discover the fascinating, and still very traditional, village life of some of the region’s local peoples.

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

Day 11 - Central Highlands - overland to Phonsavan

Leaving Luang Prabang we will travel along scenic mountain roads to Phonsavan Town in Xieng Khouang province – location of the famous and mysterious Plain of Jars. Stops on the way include Khmu and Hmong villages as well as a reminder that this region played a major part during the Vietnam War as we visit a hidden cave temple that served as a former army hospital. Late afternoon arrival in Phonsavan and atmospheric dusk visit to one of the famous jar sites.

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

Day 12 - Phonsavan - Plain of Jars and Muang Khoun ancient city

Morning visit to the Mines Action Group or MAG office, to learn about the work they do in clearing land mines and unexploded ordnance in the area. We then travel out to the picturesque Jar Site 2, and begin our 1 hour trek along the ridge to the impressive, hill-top Jar Site 3. Lunch in Phonsavan before an afternoon visit to the atmospheric ruins of the ancient city of Xieng Khouang, now known as Mang Khoun.

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

Day 13 - Sam Neua - mountain scenery, menhirs and village visits

Departure for the remote town of Sam Neua in far Northeastern Laos. The journey will allow plenty of stops to visit to Hmong and Khmu settlements, a Tai Phong weaving village, as well as opportunities to take photos of the breathtaking scenery. We’ll also visit the mysterios Hintang menhirs, (standing stones) about which practically nothing is known….  Overnight in the small town of Sam Neua.

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

Day 14 - Sam Neua - Vieng Xai Caves

The day begins with a short tour around Sam Neua town, including a walk along the river to visit the local fresh market, before setting off on the short drive to Vieng Xai Caves where the Pathet Lao leaders lived during the ‘Secret War’. The fascinating tour includes a visit to the ‘Kaysone Phomvihane Cave’, (the leader of the Lao communist movement), and the ‘Prince Soupanouvong, (‘Red Prince’) Cave’.  In the afternoon an easy walk brings us to some of the lesser visited cave sites hidden among the area’s beautiful karst, scenery.

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

Day 15 - Mai Chau - across the border to Vietnam

Early morning departure through more spectacular countryside,and past traditional Black Tai villages to the nearby border crossing at Nam Meo, from where we’ll head into the stunning scenery of Vietnam’s Pu Luong National Park. A hike through the forest staying overnight as guests in a White Tai village.

Overnight: Mai Chau Transport: Minibus, Walk,  Meals: B, L, D,

Day 16 - Nghia Lo - mountains and hill-tribes

Today will take us on to Mai Chau, across the Da River to Nghia Lo 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. We will overnight in the small town of Nghia Lo.

Overnight: Nghia Lo Transport: Minibus,  Meals: B, L, D,

Day 17 - Tan Uyen - more dramatic mountains and rice terraces

We’ll continue a leisurely drive northwards to Tu Le, a region settled predominantly by the Dzao ethnic group, passing through more glorious mountain scenery.  We’ll also have the chance to visit the rice terraces at Mu Cang Chai – reputed to be the country’s most spectacular. Overnight in the small town of Tan Uyen.

Overnight: Tan Uyen Transport: Minibus, Walk,  Meals: B, L, D,

Day 18 - Sapa - arrival in the old French hill-station

Our next leg takes us over the high mountain ranges along the Chinese border to our destination of Sapa. This picturesque old French hill-station overlooking a spectacular valley, lies in the shadow of the mist shrouded Fansipan Mountain – at over 9,500 ft the highest summit in mainland Southeast Asia.

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

Day 19 - Sapa - day hike through the mountains

Day hike through the area’s incredible scenery – known to the French as the Tonkinese Alps. We will enjoy terraced rice paddies, Hmong and Dzao villages, bamboo forests, towering peaks and crystal clear streams.

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

Day 20 - Lao Cai - night sleeper for Hanoi

Morning at leisure to explore the town, roam the bustling hill-tribe market, or simply sit back on the hotel balcony and admire the view. Late afternoon transfer to nearby Lao Cai town for the night sleeper train to Hanoi.

Overnight: Sleeper train Transport: Train,  Meals: B, D,

Day 21 - Hanoi - tour of some of the sites

Arrival in Hanoi and check-in to a downtown hotel. An afternoon tour of the city will include 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. In the evening catch a performance of the highly original water-puppets before a guided tour of local street food.

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

Day 22 - Hanoi - morning at leisure and end of tour

Morning at leisure and lunchtime end of tour and departure.

A 2 day/1 night extension to explore the incredible scenery of World Heritage Halong Bay is available.

Extra accommodation in Hanoi after your tour is available if required.

Airport transfers are included if you purchase the 'with flights' package. If you purchased your own flights, airport transfers can be arranged.

Overnight: Departure Transport: Walk,  Meals: B, 

Print Itinerary


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

Vietnam, Bac Ha

Just a few of the many highlights

Visit some of the most spectacular yet little known destinations of Indochina on this 3 week tour through remote mountains of northern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam

  • Discover the ancient temples, bustling markets and quiet lanes of Thailand's charming northern historic capital, Chiang Mai
  • Explore the ancient temples, colonial architecture, narrow lanes and bustling markets of UNESCO World Heritage Luang Prabang
  • Sapa - sup coffees on cafe terraces and take in the incredible mountain vistas or meet the myriad local hill-tribe peoples
  • Tour of the infamous Golden Triangle region: border markets, scenic landscapes, ancient cities and the famous opium museum
  • 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 and even a jungle picnic

Air Departures (UK)

  • 12 July 18 2,950 GBP
  • 7 August 18 3,050 GBP
  • 6 September 18 2,950 GBP
  • 1 October 18 2,950 GBP
  • 24 October 18 2,950 GBP
  • 18 November 18 2,950 GBP
  • 14 December 18 3,050 GBP

Land Departures

  • 13 July 18 2,100 GBP
  • 8 August 18 2,100 GBP
  • 7 September 18 2,100 GBP
  • 2 October 18 2,100 GBP
  • 25 October 18 2,100 GBP
  • 19 November 18 2,100 GBP
  • 15 December 18 2,100 GBP

Guaranteed Places Left Special Price Solo Traveller Closed

*Air departures are from the UK. Land departures start from Chiang Mai

*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...

Laluna Resort, Chiang Rai view

  • Comfortable individual chalets in a stunning tropical garden
  • 5 minute tuk-tuk ride from the town's lively night bazaar
  • Pool, spa, massage and excellent in-house restaurant

Namkong Riverside Hotel, Chiang Khong

  • Namkong Riverside in the small border town of Chiang Khong
  • Perfect location overlooking the Mekong River and Laos
  • Comfy well-appointed rooms and friendly service

The Boat Landing, Luang Namtha view

  • The charming Boat Landing, a family run eco-lodge
  • Traditional style accommodation in a riverside setting
  • Wonderful, authentic local food in the in-house restaurant

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

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

  • Not sure about the name but the hotel's great
  • Located in the heart of Hanoi's picturesque old town
  • 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

Thailand: No visa in advance is required. A free 30 day visa for Thailand is issued on arrival at an international airport.

Laos: No visa in advance is required. A 30 day visa can be obtained for you at the border. Approx. $38).

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 15. 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.

Further info: more details and photos of our ‘Unexplored – the Far North‘ tour or check our Lao reading and viewing list here.

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