Overview: Discover the natural beauty and cultural diversity of Vietnam with an exciting adventure spanning the picturesque hills and pinnacled bays of the north, to the bustling energy and green deltas of the southland.
We start along the shady boulevards and French-style architecture of Hanoi, then embark on a boat cruise in the haunting waterscape of Halong Bay. The trip continues to unfold among the colorful minority hill tribes of Sapa, ancient monuments of My Son, the charming old port city of Hoi An, and cosmopolitan Saigon. Join us in this exotic land, rich in exciting history and unique culture.
Leadership: The Vietnam North to South Tour Leader is Effie Fletcher. For many years Effie led Sierra Club backpacking trips and is a graduate of the National Outdoor Leadership School's course for Outdoor Educators. She maintains her certification as a Wilderness First Responder. In the last two decades, she's led many overseas tours and treks to Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Tibet and Vietnam. A practicing Buddhist, Effie is the coordinator of the Dharma Journeys Pilgrimages, and is a graduate of Goddard College in Vermont. Note that with an undersubscribed group of four or less, our experienced local staff will lead this trip.
North To South In Vietnam Day-To-Day Itinerary Detail:
Pre Trip Days: In transit from your home (Americans lose one day crossing the international date line). Fly to Hanoi, Vietnam. Your group leader or guide can meet your flight at your scheduled arrival. They must wait for you outside the customs hall, so we meet after you collect your luggage and pass through Vietnam customs on your own.
Day 1: Arrive in Hanoi where you are greeted by your guide to transfer to your hotel to check–in and get settled to rest or sleep after your long flight to Vietnam. We overnight at a comfortable, modern hotel in Hanoi. (No Meals)
Day 2: After breakfast at the hotel, start your day at with an exhilarating one hour tour by cyclo, a chauffeur-pedalled tricycle, through the quarter. This bustling area of narrow streets and alleys is home to literally thousands of small businesses and shopkeepers. The ambience of the centuries-old market has changed little over time. The street names reflect the original business districts — such as Silk Street, Paper Street, Jewelers Street. Hanoi is the only city in Vietnam that has retained its merchants' quarter. A maze of narrow streets lined with myriad shops, the Old Quarter is fascinating. It's a great place to explore, especially by cyclo, with plenty of photo opportunities all around you.
Later, attend a traditional water puppet show, a uniquely northern Vietnamese art form especially designed for depicting scenes from rural life and episodes of national history. Then enjoy a Vietnamese dinner at a local restaurant. Vietnamese cuisine is diverse and delectable. Dining at local restaurants will be a pleasant and integral part of our trip. We overnight at our Hanoi hotel. (Breakfast, Dinner)
Day 3: This morning, meet your guide after breakfast at the hotel to depart on your tour. Your first stop will be Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, as well as his private residence from 1954 until 1969. The wooden ethnic-minority-styled house, built on stilts, is surrounded by lovely and peaceful gardens. Built despite his request for cremation, the final resting place of Ho Chi Minh is a glass sarcophagus set deep in a monumental edifice that has become a site of pilgrimage. In the same complex you will see the One Pillar Pagoda, founded by King Ly Thai To in 1049. It is said that the emperor built the tiny pagoda after a vision and was soon rewarded with a son. Today childless couples come to make offerings to this pagoda. This pagoda, built of wood on a single stone pillar is designed to resemble a lotus blossom and has become an important symbol for the people of Hanoi.
We continue to the National Fine Arts Museum (located in colonial France's former Ministry of Information) — an eclectic mix of contemporary Vietnamese art, religious pieces, lacquer-ware and sculptures. We move to the Temple Of Literature, Vietnam's first university. Constructed in 1070, its well-preserved architecture and peaceful gardens offer a glimpse into Vietnam's past.
Enjoy lunch at a favorite restaurant before encountering Hoa Lo Prison (formerly called the "Hanoi Hilton" during the 1960s). Your visit will also include the Buddhist Tran Quoc Pagoda on West Lake (one of the oldest in Vietnam) and Quan Thanh Temple (Taoist, dating from the Ly Dynasty). Our last stop today will be the Museum of Ethnology, where you observe Vietnam's diverse culture through the Museum's unique presentation of artifacts and dress used in daily life. We overnight at our Hanoi hotel. (Breakfast, Lunch)
Day 4: Take an early departure from your hotel to Halong Bay, for a journey through the lush farmlands of the Red River Delta. Legend has it that the archipelago of limestone formations was created by a dragon spitting out pearls along the coast to protect the country from invasion. The pearls grew into more than 3,000 islands of magnificent limestone cliffs.
The romance of old Vietnam still lingers — with beautiful karst islets randomly scattered with traditional red sailed junk plying across the waters. With 3,000 limestone and dolomite islets sprinkled over an area of 1,500 square kilometers, Halong Bay offers a wonderland of karst topography similar to Phuket in southern Thailand and Guilin in China.
You'll observe the daily life of small Vietnamese Villages where you see villagers work in local rice fields, take live pigs to market on bicycles or motorbikes, and plough the fields with their sturdy water buffaloes. Arrive in Halong and board the Victory Star, a wonderful replica of a classic steamship of colonial French Indochina. Your welcome drink is served on the sundeck. With luxurious cabins, a restaurant, bar and sundeck, this is the ultimate Halong Bay experience. Lunch is served on board. While cruising along the emerald green waters, try a traditional Vietnamese foot massage.
We spend our day cruising Halong Bay past the islands of Trong, Mai, Am, Chen, and Cong Troi (Heaven Gates). Our trip also includes Ba Trai Dao (Three Peaches Islands), the pelican caves of Bo Nau and Thien Cung (Heaven Palace). Transfer to a rowboat to visit Vung Vieng fishing village. This is a floating village set amidst beautiful scenery. Enjoy an exotic sunset and a scrumptious buffet dinner. Before retiring to your cabin, return to the sundeck for your nightcap and wonder at the quiet serene canopy of stars. We overnight onboard. (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)
Day 5: Early morning onboard offers a Tai Chi class on the sundeck. If Tai Chi doesn't interest you, view the awakening of Halong Bay's boat people. Explore and cruise for early morning photography opportunities. You'll be served a bisquit and tea. Visit Sung Sot Cave (cave of surprises) the largest in Halong Bay. Then, continue our cruise. Arrive back at Victoria's private pier for disembarkation. Your guide is waiting to return you back to Hanoi where you will arrive in a few hours. We'll stop at a fine restaurant for dinner before arriving at the Hanoi Railway Station for the night train to Sapa. This evening we board the train bound for Lao Cai. We overnight onboard on simple berths with clean sheets in four-person compartments. (Breakfast, Dinner)
Day 6: Arrive in Lao Cai Station, near the Chinese border, where we are met by our guide for breakfast options at a local restaurant. We'll go to Bac Ha Market — a very interesting local market frequented by Tu Di, Dao Tuyen, Ha Nhi, Flower Hmong and Giay minorities. We pause for lunch in a local restaurant or picnic. After lunch, explore the village and perhaps visit a local house. Embark on a scenic drive to the historic French colonial hill station of Sapa. Our route meanders through a spectacular landscape of rice-terraced mountains with Black Hmong and Red Dao hill tribe people dressed in their colorful native clothing walking along the road.
Sapa, located in the steep hills of the Hoang Lien Son mountains, is centered around a restored French cathedral originally built in the 1920s. Streets leading from the cathedral are lined with food stalls, shops and markets. Surrounding Sapa are excellent hiking areas where ginseng and mushrooms grow wild. There are incredible views of Vietnam's highest mountain, Fan Si Pan (10,315 feet) and the deep valleys below. Sitting precariously at the edge of a high plateau, this small market town enjoys a cooler alpine-like climate. We visit the 328 foot high Thac Bac Waterfall, which swells impressively during the rainy season, and later, the highest mountain pass in Vietnam — Tram Ton Pass (6,233 feet), on the north side of Fan Si Pan. Finally our vehicle arrives in Sapa and to our hotel where the evning is at leisure. Overnight at our hotel in Sapa. (Breakfast, Lunch)
Day 7: Today we'll do some exploring of Sapa and the surrounding villages by foot. Depart Sapa on a trail through lush gardens and a beautiful pine forest before we arrive at the Black H'mong village of Matra. The H'mong group is believed to have migrated from southern China into Vietnam only over the last 300 years. Today they live extensively throughout the north of the country. Continue from Matra passing rice fields crowned by spectacular scenery, to the Red Dao Village of Taphin. Like the H'mong, the Dao migrated from China. Along the way you may be lucky enough to see children attending a local school before you reach Tahpin. Your vehicle awaits to return you to Sapa where the rest of today is free at leisure. (Breakfast, Lunch)
Day 8: Today is free activity. This evening, transfer to Lao Cai station for the return train to Hanoi as we overnight onboard. Overnight on Train. (Breakfast, Dinner)
Day 9: Our train arrives early in Hanoi. We'll have our breakfast in a local restaurant before we make our airport transfer for the flight to Hue. Upon arrival in Hue, take a short city tour to witness the elaborate mausoleums of Emperors Tu Duc and Khai Dinh as well as the Imperial Citadel, from where the Nguyen Dynasty ruled between 1802 and 1945. A traditional dinner is at a private home designed by Enha Vuon, a famous architect. Dinner is served in the garden by the lady of the house. Overnight at our hotel in Hue. (Breakfast, Dinner)
Day 10: After your hotel breakfast, youll begin a half day tour of Hue — the former imperial capital of Vietnam. We will take a dragon boat ride boat upstream along the romantically named, Perfume River — past tranquil gardens and lakes. Hue's best-known religious sites, the Thien Mu Pagoda and the mausoleum of former Emperor Minh Mang, are found here. We then visit the Imperial Citadel, where the Nguyen emperors once ruled Vietnam between 1802 and 1945. Modeled after the Forbidden City in Beijing, it was built in the early 19th century. The walls enclose numerous palaces and temples, as well as towers, a library, and museum. Overnight at our hotel in Hue. (Breakfast)
Day 11: Drive south to Danang through the inspiring Hai Van Pass (4900 feet) — Vietnam's geographical (and psychological) boundary between north and south. The peak of the pass remains perpetually shrouded in clouds. Continue on to the charming and relaxed town of Hoi An. Believed to have been settled over 2,200 years ago, Hoi An was a thriving seaport and a base for seafaring nations seeking new sources of wealth throughout Southeast Asia. Even ancient Arab trading documents mention Hoi An as a stop along their trade routes.
On arrival, enjoy an interesting half day tour through the trading port of Hoi An. Its unique architecture and lifestyle have changed little over the years. We'll meander through the ancient town center and visit the sites of former merchants' homes, a 400 year-old Japanese covered bridge, and a Chinese communal hall. Before we return to our hotel, enjoy browsing and shopping in the one of the most colorful local marketplaces in all of South East Asia.
Known as Faifo to early western traders, Hoi An was one of Southeast Asia's major international ports during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Its prominence as a port declined during the 19th century as the mouth of the Thu Bon River silted up, making it too difficult to enter by sea. Though the city's days of international trading are over, Hoi An remains a delightful city to visit as one of the few places in the country that has not been destroyed by war. Later, embark upon a private boat to take a short cruise along the Thu Bon Rivert. Dinner at a nearby cafe. Overnight at our hotel in Hoi An. (Breakfast, Dinner)
Day 12: After breakfast, we're off for a half day trip to the capital and religious centre of the former Champa Kingdom. My Son, 40 kilometers southwest of Hoi An, sits in a lush green valley with dozens of red brick towers and sanctuaries dating from the seventh through the thirteenth centuries. My Son is one of the most stunning sights in the Hoi An area and Vietnam's most important Cham site. My Son is considered to be the Champa's counterpart to the grand cities of Southeast Asia's other Hindu-influenced civilizations such as Cambodia's Angkor and Burma's Bagan. The monuments are set in the shadow of the massive Cat's Tooth Mountain. It is thought that My Son was active as a sanctuary in the 3rd and 4th centuries and was dedicated to kings who had attained god-like status. Your guide will steer you through the museum and the holiest of sites before returning to Hoi An. We return to Hoi An for free time and overnight at our hotel in Hoi An. (Breakfast)
Day 13: After breakfast at the hotel, your day is free to explore the sights of Hoi An or relax on the beach or at the pool. Overnight at our hotel in Hoi An.(Breakfast)
Day 14: Transfer by private car to the airport for your departure flight to Saigon. Your last Vietnam guide and private car will meet you at the airport to begin a full day city tour of Ho Chi Minh City — still called Saigon by many locals. This dynamic city has a unique life of its own. Visit the city's bustling Chinatown (Cholon) which begins with a stop at Thien Hau Temple. From the temple take a cyclo ride — the most appropriate and unusual way to explore Cholon (literally meaning 'big market'). The ride takes you to the lively Binh Tay Market and a lacquerware factory where workers continue this ancient tradition.
Our tour continues to the War Museum and the former Presidential Palace. From the palace it's best to travel on foot (but your car will be available at all times) to visit the major sights of colonial Ho Chi Minh City. In the thirty years since reunification, Saigon has resumed its status as the economic center of Vietnam. The bustle of Vietnamese life is everywhere in HCMC: the street markets are vibrant and bustling, the pavement cafes are filled with businessmen, and the city boasts Vietnam's finest restaurants and an intense nightlife. Within this teeming metropolis, however, remain 300 years of timeless traditions and the beauty of an ancient culture. We visit Notre Dame Cathedral, set in the heart of Saigon's government center; the Jade Emperor Pagoda, a key meeting place for Chinese secret societies; and the Ben Thanh Market, Saigon's central market. Its surrounding streets make up one of the city's liveliest areas.
After this historical visit, it's time for a scoop of fantastic ice cream at Fanny's, a quaint little parlour with French atmosphere. Stroll and explore the trendy boutiques and shops on Ton That Thiep Street. Overnight our hotel in Saigon. (Breakfast, Snack)
Day 15: We depart early for Cai Be — deep in the heart of the Mekong Delta. Embark on your private deluxe junk (boat)to cruise to Cai Be's colorful floating market. We'll also visit a local home factory producing rice paste, rice pop corn and coconut candies. We'll return onboard cruising on to the Evergreen Islands — located on the Mekong River, through large networks of meandering tributaries, criss-crossed with countless canals. We have lunch on Turtle Island at a restaurant specializing in Mekong Delta specialties. After lunch, we continue to Vinh Long — absorbing the passing landscapes and typical rural life on the Mekong Delta. Disembark and transfer to Can Tho for the night. Overnight at our hotel in Can Tho. (Breakfast, Lunch)
Day 16: Transfer to your boat for a colorful cruise to visit the Cai Rang Floating Market where you explore a lively scene. The waterways are packed with people from the surrounding rural areas to sell their fresh fruits and vegetables. On our drive back to Saigon enjoy a lunch stop at My Tho. Overnight at our hotel in Saigon. (Breakfast, Lunch)
Day 17: After breakfast, enjoy a morning drive through pastoral landscapes to the Tay Ninh Province, in western Vietnam. At Tay Ninh visit the Cao Dai Great Temple. This temple is one of the most striking structures in all of South East Asia, combining pagoda and cathedral, incorporating various religious concepts and practices. The Cao Dai religion was founded in 1920.
After lunch, visit the famous Cu Chi Tunnels — an incredible underground network constructed by Vietnamese resistance fighters (Viet Cong) during their long struggle for independence. Cu Chi was an important base during the war due to its strategic location. The Viet Cong built over 120 miles of underground tunnels connecting command posts, hospitals, shelters, and weapon factories. Up to 16,000 North Vietnamese guerillas could live in these tunnels at any given time, though the usual number was more often between 5,000 and 7,000. Dug in hard laterite clay with hand tools and without the use of cement, parts of this amazing network were never discovered during the war. We'll enjoy an excellent dinner and overnight at our hotel in Saigon. (Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner)
Day 18: Your private car will meet you at the hotel to transfer you to the airport for your departure flight home. (Breakfast)
Important Note: This itinerary is designed only as a general trip guide to the schedule of our days. Changes may be made at any time as we go along and our flexibility will depend upon local conditions.
Travel Details: If you are making your own arrangements, note that you must arrive in Hanoi no later than December 1, 2016 and that you can not depart earlier than December 18, 2016. Ask our ticketing agent to book a room should you have an overnight stopover. You are welcome to arrive early or stay late for extra days. We can arrange additional nights at any of our hotels or guest houses for you. Airport pickup for early arrivals or late departures can also be arranged upon request.
Expenses: Additional travel-related expenses include: Your flight to the trip starting point of Hanoi and your Visa(s). When purchasing your international ticket to Vietnam, compare your cost options as this trip begins in Hanoi and ends in Saigon. Should you need a return flight to Hanoi (the meeting point) we can arrange that for you at an additional cost. We also recommend that you purchase travel insurance which includes coverage for trip cancelation as well as our required emergency medical evacuation coverage. Many levels of trip insurance can start at $50USD. Please see our Policy section for complete information on our trip cancellations policies. Payment for additional services may be required at the time the service is received. Please refer to the booking information section of our application form for more information.