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Unexplored – The Far North; Thailand, Laos and Vietnam

A real 'here be dragons' tour as only a 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

Number 1 in Wanderlust Magazine's Top 9 Long Journeys for 2020

Our Unexplored, the Far North is 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 Golden Triangle, across the dramatic mountains and forests of Northern Laos and into the lush valleys and high peaks of Northwest Vietnam, inhabited by myriad, still very traditional, hill-tribe minorities.

Travel from northern Thailand’s charming Chiang Mai to UNESCO World Heritage sites Luang Prabang and the enigmatic Plain of Jars and the explore the Hidden City of the famous Vieng Xai Caves. Crossing the Lao Vietnam border at Nam Meo we’ll continue to Pu Luong National Park, the spectacular rice terraces of Mu Cang Chai and the picturesque old French Hill station of Sapa all set amid the awe-inspiring mountains (the Tonkinese Alps to the French) and myriad hill-tribe villages of northwestern Vietnam.

Our tour finishes in the Vietnamese capital – also World Heritage-listed – Hanoi offering, for those with an extra couple of days to spare, the possibility of adding on a 2 day, 1-night extension to fabulous Halong Bay with an overnight stay onboard a traditional-style wooden junk.

Conversely, for those with less time, a shorter, 2-week version, of this tour, Mountains and Hill-tribes, begins in Lao’s Luang Prabang before following a similar itinerary to the Plain of Jars, Mu Cang Chai, Sapa and Hanoi.

Also note that for anyone wishing to add on a few days quality ‘R and R’ after your Thailand Laos and Vietnam tour domestic flights from Hanoi can whisk you directly to Phu Quoc Island or, by way of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) Airport, to Mui Nei.

Laos

Itinerary

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

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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 before an evening tour of the famous night-bazaar and a local-style welcome dinner.

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

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

Scenic drive through the mountains to neighbouring Chiang Rai Town – the main commercial centre for the infamous ‘Golden Triangle’ region – so-called because of its former notoriety for warlords and opium cultivation.! A stop on the way to visit the unique ‘White Temple – Wat Rong Khun – and overnight in charming chalet-style accommodation set in a lush tropical garden.

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

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

Tour of some of the sites of this far-flung 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 and visit the unusual Opium Museum, before following the Mekong River, via the ancient city of Chiang Saen, to our day’s destination, the delightful riverside town of Chiang Khong.

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

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Day 4 - Across the Mekong - into Laos

Cross the Mekong into Laos and upcountry through scenic mountains to the remote town of Luang Nam Tha near the Chinese border. Stops on the way at villages of the Lanten and Khmu ethnic minorities, as well as the 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, 

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Day 5 - Luang Nam Tha - Nam Ha National Park

Visit the Nam Ha National Protected Area. Hike through the spectacular scenery and visit hill-tribe villages to discover 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 villagers as medicine or food, as well as cooking up a traditional-style, Akha ‘jungle lunch’!

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

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Day 6 - Road trip - 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 with an overnight stay in traditional Lao-style wooden chalets set high on the banks overlooking the river.

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

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Day 7 - Nong Khiaw - boat trip up the Ou

Journey by boat up the Ou River. The section north of Nong Khiaw is perhaps the most spectacular stretch of the river as it winds its way through dramatic limestone escarpments where we’ll stop at a Khmu/Hmong village accessible only by boat.  Return to Nong Khiaw, with some time to relax in this superb mountain setting, explore the area on foot or bicycle or just sit back on your balcony and admire the scenery.

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

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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 with an afternoon arrival in the ancient Lao capital and now World Heritage site of Luang Prabang and perhaps sunset at the nearby Phu Si hill temple?

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

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Day 9 - Luang Prabang - walking tour and afternoon at leisure

Walking tour to discover the fabulous temples and French colonial architecture with the afternoon at leisure to allow you to wander the quiet, picturesque lanes, check out the hill-tribe handicraft market or a well-placed riverside café at your own pace.

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

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Day 10 - Kuang Si - into the surrounding countryside

Head into the picturesque, surrounding hills where we’ll visit the spectacular Kuang Si Waterfalls and excellent Free the Bears Rescue Centre. Stops en-route allow us to discover the fascinating, and still very traditional, village life of some of the region’s local people.

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

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Day 11 - Central Highlands - overland to Phonsavan

Travel along scenic mountain roads to Phonsavan in Xieng Khouang Province – location of the famous and enigmatic Plain of Jars. Stops include Khmu and Hmong villages as well as a hidden cave temple that served as an army hospital during the Indochina War. An atmospheric dusk trip to one of the famous jar sites plus a visit to the Mines Action Group to learn about the work they do in clearing the area’s unexploded ordnance complete our day.

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

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Day 12 - Plain of Jars - Muang Khoun ancient city

Off to the hill-top Jar Site 2 from where we’ll take a short hike through the countryside to the picturesque forest setting of Site 3 housing over 150 of the huge stone jars. In the afternoon we’ll continue by road to the evocative ruins of the ancient city of Xieng Khouang, now known as Muang Khoun.

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

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Day 13 - Hua Phan - mountain scenery, menhirs and village visits

Departure for the remote town of Sam Neua in far northeastern Laos. Our journey includes a visit to the mysterious Hintang menhirs, (Lao’s own mini-Stonehenge), stops at Hmong and Khmu settlements and a Tai Phong weaving village, as well as plenty of photo opportunities of the breathtaking scenery.

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

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Day 14 - Sam Neua - Vieng Xai Caves

After a stroll around Sam Neua town, including a riverside walk to the local fresh market, we’ll set off on the short drive to visit the former Communist Vieng Xai cave complex, now known as the Hidden City. The fascinating tour includes the famous tunnels, as well as lesser-visited sites hidden among the area’s beautiful karst, scenery.

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

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Day 15 - Pu Luong- 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 here we’ll head into the stunning scenery of Vietnam’s Pu Luong National Park for a short hike, bamboo rafting trip and overnight at a superb eco-resort.

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

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Day 16 - North through the mountains

Today will take us across the Da (Black) River to Yen Bai district and the famous Hmong rice terraces of Mu Cang Chai – celebrated as the most spectacular in Vietnam. Overnight in another comfortable eco-lodge set on a wooded island amid the paddy-fields.

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

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Day 17 - Mu Cang Chai - Vietnam's most spectacular rice terraces

Morning hike to discover the spectacular landscapes and visit some of the local villages with time at leisure in the afternoon to explore further at your own pace or just relax in the delightful setting of the eco-lodge.

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

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

Our next leg takes us over the high mountain ranges towards the Chinese border on a morning drive to 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 feet, the highest summit in mainland Southeast Asia.

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

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Day 19 - Sapa - day hike through the mountains

Leisurely hike through the area’s incredible and varied scenery – known to the French as the Tonkinese Alps – including terraced rice-paddies, Hmong and Dzao villages, bamboo forests, towering peaks and crystal clear streams.

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

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Day 20 - Ban Ho and on to Hanoi

The last leg of our journey takes us southeast to Ban Ho district – home to Nung and Tay minorities as well as more sumptuous mountain scenery. In the afternoon we continue to Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi and a check-in to our boutique-style hotel in the city’s bustling Old Town before our farewell dinner.

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

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Day 21 - Hanoi - morning at leisure and end of tour

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.

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

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

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 visa regulations, Bac Ha, Flower Hmong

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
  • Journey through some of Southeast Asia's most dramatic mountain scenery in northern Vietnam's Tonkinese Alps
  • Tour of the infamous Golden Triangle region: border markets, scenic landscapes, ancient cities and the famous opium museum
  • Sapa - sample local coffee on cafe terraces and take in the incredible mountain vistas or meet the myriad local hill-tribe peoples
  • Discover the delicious and contrasting cuisines of Laos and Vietnam in restaurants, local cafes, street markets and even a jungle picnic

Air Departures (UK)

  • 15 November 20 2,950 GBP
  • 16 December 20 3,150 GBP
  • 18 January 21 2,950 GBP
  • 15 February 21 2,950 GBP
  • 9 May 21 2,950 GBP
  • 11 June 21 2,950 GBP
  • 11 July 21 2,950 GBP
  • 9 August 21 3,150 GBP
  • 10 September 21 2,950 GBP
  • 10 October 21 3,050 GBP
  • 6 November 21 3,150 GBP
  • 12 December 21 3,150 GBP

Land Departures

  • 16 November 20 2,100 GBP
  • 17 December 20 2,200 GBP
  • 19 January 21 2,200 GBP
  • 16 February 21 2,200 GBP
  • 10 May 21 2,100 GBP
  • 12 June 21 2,100 GBP
  • 12 June 21 2,100 GBP
  • 10 August 21 2,100 GBP
  • 11 September 21 2,100 GBP
  • 11 October 21 2,150 GBP
  • 7 November 21 2,200 GBP
  • 13 December 21 2,200 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 view

  • 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

Nong Kiau Riverside view

  • Spectacular riverside location on the banks of the Ou
  • Traditional Lao-style wooden stilt chalets
  • Convenient location, a short stroll to Nong Khiaw Village

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:

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

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 style 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 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.

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 ‘Unexplored – the Far North‘ tour or check our Lao reading and viewing list here.

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