Until recently the north-east of Laos was pretty much inaccessible for all but the most resilient of travellers due to immigration problems, appalling roads and lack of accommodation. Things are slowly being improved and whilst you should still expect a bumpy ride at times, it's well worth the effort.
Start in Luang Prabang before heading east to the ‘Plain of Jars’, Sam Neua and the Vieng Xai Caves, a virtual city to 23,000 people during the ‘secret war’. Cross into Vietnam at Na Meo and journey into the stunning Mai Chau valley for some superb trekking and outdoor opportunities, before completing your journey in culturally rich city of Hanoi.
As with all our holidays, we have created lots of free time for you to enjoy as you please. If you would prefer a more ‘complete’ travel programme, we will be happy to oblige. We can also tailor this holiday to meet your exact needs - your holiday, your way.
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Day 1: arrive Luang Prabang
Upon arrival in Luang Prabang you will be met by your guide for the transfer to your hotel. The remainder of your day is at leisure.
An option (although we highly recommend it; in fact, we almost insist) for early-risers (05h30) is a very special dawn visit to witness the long lines of orange-robed monks leaving their pagodas to receive offerings of food from Luang Prabang residents. Ask your guide for how best to join in if you wish to. Return to your hotel for breakfast, or enjoy a pastry and coffee at one of the many stalls already doing a roaring trade.
After breakfast, enjoy a tour of this stunning city. Your circuit begins at the former Royal Palace, now the National Museum, (closed on Tuesdays). Visit Wat Mai, a temple renowned for its golden bas-reliefs. During Pimai (the Lao New Year celebrations in April), the Prabang - normally housed in the Royal Palace Museum - is put on public display in this temple. You will then continue on to the most photographed temple in Luang Prabang (quite an accolade!) - Wat Xieng Thong.
Also visit Wat Visoun, entirely rebuilt after its destruction in 1887 by the invading Black Flags from southern China. In the courtyard of Wat Visoun stands the Watermelon Stupa, which is shaped like the fruit it takes its name from. You will also visit Wat Aham, where you will find the altar of the 'two geniuses of Luang Prabang’ and Wat That, where the ashes of King Sisavang Vong are interred inside the large central stupa.
In the afternoon visit the excellent Arts and Ethnology Centre which gives an insight into the ethnic and cultural mix of Laos. Continue to the weaving and textile villages of Ban Xangkhong and Ban Xienglek. Our final stop of the day is a climb Mt Phousi, which offers a spectacular sunset and a panoramic view over Luang Prabang and the Mekong River.
Overnight in Luang Prabang.
Day 3: Luang Prabang, Big Brother Mouse Village
Today, few books are available in Laos and they rarely reach the rural villages and the children that need them most. Big Brother Mouse is a locally run project committed to changing this by publishing books that help to make it fun and easy to learn to read. One means of circulating these books is reliant upon visitors to help with their distribution.
Start the day with a visit to the Big Brother Mouse shop to select some books for the morning’s visit. Heading north out of Luang Prabang you’ll soon leave the paved roads en route to Ban Khia Luang village. Upon arrival there will be ample time to visit the school, play with the kids and watch them enjoy their new books. There is also the opportunity to explore the rest of the village and the local temple.
A traditional lunch is prepared and served by the villagers before returning to Luang Prabang where the remainder of your day is at leisure.
Overnight in Luang Prabang.
Morning departure by car for Phonsavan in the province of Xieng Khuang. It is a long drive (approx 8 hours total) but you will pass through some stunning Lao mountain landscapes and there will be plenty of opportunities to break the journey. Upon arrival in Phonsavan transfer directly to your hotel.
Overnight in Phonsavan
Day 5: Phonsavan, Plain of Jars
Your guide and driver are at your disposal all day to explore Xieng Khuang Province. As well as exploring more of the Jar-sites, also include a visit to the MAG (Mine Advisory Group) centre in Phonsavan.
The remainder of the morning is dedicated to exploring the mysterious ‘Plain of Jars’. En route to the site you will visit villages of the H’mong minority people where you can learn about the communities and their way of life.
The impressive archaeological sites are covered with hundreds of mysterious jars, scattered across the surrounding plateau. The biggest jar measures over three meters in height and many are believed to be more than 2500 years old.
There will be plenty of time to explore the three main sites and, due to its remoteness the crowds are likely to be a little thin on the ground! Continue on to Muang Khoune, the old capital of Xieng Houang. This area was heavily bombed during the Indochina War and the more recent Vietnam War from across the border. Take time to visit former French settlements and the temple of Wat Phia Wat.
Overnight in Phonsavan.
Day 6: Phonsavan, Hintang, Sam Neua
Today’s drive is long and in parts the roads are windy and slow. However the mountainous landscape is breathtaking and there are plenty of opportunities to break the journey at small villages and look-out points. You will also stop have the opportunity to stop at the village of Hintang where you will discover mysterious menhirs or standing stones. No one is quite sure who built them or why, one theory is that they mark burial sites.
Arriving in Sam Neua in the late afternoon, the remainder of your day is at leisure - Sam Neua is compact enough to wander around in an hour or so, and there are some interesting markets and restaurants to check out.
Overnight in Sam Neua.
Day 7: Sam Neua, Vieng Xai Caves
Morning departure, heading further east to Vieng Xai, famous for the caves that provided shelter to up to 23,000 Laotians during nine years of aerial bombardment during the ‘secret war’. The caves have only recently become accessible to visitors and it is hoped that the opening of some of the 480 caves will help to bring investment into one of the poorest regions in all South-East Asia.
Having had plenty of time to explore the caves, transfer to your guesthouse in Vieng Xai, where the remainder of your day is at leisure. There is a beautiful natural lake in the centre of the small town, and a pleasant lakeside restaurant at which to enjoy delicious North-East Laotian fayre.
Overnight in Vieng Xai.
Morning transfer to the border point of Na Maew. Upon crossing into Vietnam, you will be met by your new guide and continue by roads to the spectacular Mai Chau Valley. During your time in and around Mai Chau there will be plenty of opportunities to enjoy some light trekking or cycling, visit several minority tribe villages, explore caves, visit local schools or simply relax in one of the most picturesque regions in Vietnam. The programme is very flexible and your guide will be happy to discuss alternative activities if required.
In the evening, return to the extremely comfortable Mai Chai Lodge, where you can also enjoy some traditional dances performed by the local Thái tribe people.
Overnight in Mai Chau.
Day 9: Mai Chau Valley, Trek & Cycle
Today can be as active or as laid-back as you choose, with the option of staying close to the lodge and enjoying some short walks in the rice paddies, exploring the nearby Mo Luong (soldier) cave and relaxing around the swimming pool appealing to many.
For those that wish to make a little more of their day, it's an hours drive to a H'Mong Village where you can walk to nearby villages, speak with H'Mong people and enjoy a picnic lunch at a local home.
In the afternoon return to Mai Chau where the remainder of your day is at leisure.
Overnight in Mai Chau
Day 10: Mai Chau Valley Cycle Tour, Hanoi
Once again your programme remains flexible although you will be departing for Hanoi in the early afternoon and therefore staying within in the vicinity of Mai Chau is advised. For many a gentle stroll to the Thái villages of Pom Coong and Lac will appeal.
After lunch, return to Hanoi where the remainder of your day is at leisure.
Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, ranks amongst the world's most attractive and interesting cities. It was first the capital of Vietnam in A.D. 1010, and though the nation's capital moved to Hue under the Nguyen dynasty in 1802, the city continued to flourish after the French took control in 1888. In 1954, after the French departed, Hanoi was declared Vietnam's capital once again. The remnants of over 1,000 years of history are still visible here, with that of the past few hundred years wonderfully preserved.
Overnight in Hanoi.
Day 11: Hanoi, City Tour
Enjoy a full day tour of Hanoi. Your guide will be happy to personalise your programme, however we would recommend sites such as Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, One Pillar Pagoda and a stroll around Hoan Kiem Lake. For many the Temple of Literature is a highlight worth lingering over. Built in 1070, this complex of atmospheric halls, pavilions and courtyards is dedicated to Confucius and scholars. Of special note are the 82 remaining steles of stone shaped like turtles which are elaborately carved with the names of candidates that sat the Royal examinations. A walking tour through the Old Quarter will provide another fascinating insight into the character and history of the city, before moving on to Dong Xuan Market with its bustling stalls and brisk trading of day-to-day local goods.
After lunch, consider visiting the very popular Ethnology Museum or the central Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by American POW's during the war. Alternatively your guide will be happy to discuss alternative places of interest that you may wish to consider.
In the evening we recommend staying in and around the Old Quarter where there is a large selection of excellent restaurants and cafes to choose from. There is also the amazing 'street-food' such as Pho to be found on every corner!
Overnight in Hanoi.
Day 12: depart Hanoi
Extend your holiday to Halong Bay
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