You should arrive at Heathrow airport to take your overnight direct flight to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines.
After our morning arrival, we transfer to the five–star Melia Hotel, for three nights on bed and breakfast. This is a fabulous hotel with three restaurants, lovely pool, fitness centre and all the facilities you would expect from a major international property. We have a wonderful introduction to Hanoi on our trip into the city’s old town by cycle rickshaws with time for some lunch before returning to our hotel. The rest of the day is at leisure.
Today we explore Hanoi, past and present. The French created this gorgeous colonial city of tree lined avenues, belle epoque villas, grand public buildings and an Opera house, all built around more than a dozen enchanting lakes. This graceful scene blends beautifully with its old quarter, a tangle of narrow streets, the commercial heart of the city for hundreds of years and now full of tiny shops, pagodas and the ever-present populace astride their bicycles and mopeds. During our guided tour we also see the beautiful Temple of Literature dedicated to Confucius and Vietnam’s first university, and the imposing marble mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh himself, embalmed and eerily on display. This afternoon is free for you to explore this beautiful city as you wish. You could even visit a traditional water puppet show - a real spectacle where, as the name suggests, with the aid of fireworks and music, folk stories are played out by skilful puppeteers.
Today we visit Vietnam’s greatest natural wonder, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Halong Bay. Leaving Hanoi, we enter a timeless landscape of rice paddies, following the Red River delta to the emerald seas of the Gulf of Tonkin. Just offshore, some 3,000 limestone islands and outcrops rise almost vertically from the sea, forming one of the most extraordinary and spectacular bays in the world. As we board our converted Chinese junk and glide along the jade-green waters it’s not hard to imagine how the myths of their creation began: a dragon is said to have plunged into the sea and its thrashing tail sculpted the craggy islands. We visit some of the vast and beautifully illuminated caves and grottoes before having lunch on board. We return to Hanoi late afternoon.
Today we fly south to Danang and then drive over the stunning scenery of the Hai Van Pass before descending to Hue, Vietnam’s last royal capital and its traditional centre of religion, culture and education. It’s one of the country’s most beautiful small towns, bisected by the serene Perfume River and dominated by its immense Citadel. This houses the ancient capital, encircled by an amazing 6 miles of high, 65 foot-thick walls and a moat. Tonight we stay for two nights on bed and breakfast basis at the excellent five-star Imperial Hotel Hue.
This morning we start with a leisurely river cruise to the magnificent seven-storied Thien Mu pagoda, a working Buddhist shrine, affording beautiful views towards the mountains on the border with Laos. We then visit the incredible complex of the Citadel and within it, the Imperial City. We see the Palace of Supreme Harmony, which contained the emperor’s throne and was the site of the most important official ceremonies and functions. Everything is painted in the royal colours of red and gold and the whole building is a stunning example of the magnificent lifestyle enjoyed by the Vietnamese royal family. In the afternoon we visit Emperor Tu Duc’s mausoleum. More interested in poetry than running the country, Tu Duc’s lifestyle suggests he had plenty of free time - he had 104 wives, 50-course meals and tea made from the dewdrops of lotus blossoms! It took 3,000 workers three years to build his amazing mausoleum, which includes a large lake, pavilions and a theatre. Lunch is included today and the evening is at leisure.
Today we fly to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the locals still insist on calling it. Brash and boisterous, it has real zest for life. Built virtually from scratch by the French, on a bend of the wide Saigon River, we stay three nights on bed and breakfast at the excellent, five-star Equatorial Hotel. Saigon is Vietnam’s culinary capital offering a very wide variety of excellent dining experiences, from top class restaurants in swish luxury hotels to French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Indian options, plus everything in between.
This will be a day to remember! We visit the famous Cu Chi tunnels, a complex underground network stretching for 200 kilometres, which included hospitals, meeting rooms, sleeping quarters and kitchens. Begun during the last years of French rule and vastly expanded during the 1960’s, the tunnels provided a base for the Vietcong from which to attack US forces within just 30 miles of Saigon. Our visit here is a fascinating insight into these times: we see the tunnels themselves and examples of the many mantraps and stake pits which protected them. Despite being carpet-bombed, the tunnels were never really penetrated and should you wish, you may even try out real period weapons on a firing range. We continue through rural farming communities back to Saigon. In the afternoon our city tour covers all the major sights including the colonial-style central post office, the cathedral and the Reunification Palace where famously in 1975, a tank burst through its gates in the final defining moment of the Vietnam War. We also see the War Remnants Museum and the lively Ben Thanh market a fascinating insight into Saigon daily life, you can find anything here, all at extremely good prices!
Today we drive out of Saigon towards the great Mekong River delta. The first stop is at one of the many islands where we walk through a typical village and try out several different types of tropical fruit that are grown in the area. Travelling in small boats we continue our exploration through the narrow canals by visiting the aptly named Coconut Island, where locals specialise in producing rice paper, coconut cakes and other local delicacies. Dappled sunlight filters through the wide leaves of the mangroves as we arrive at a typical local restaurant for lunch of local Mekong specialities, including the famous and delicious deep-fried elephant ear fish! We return to Saigon in the afternoon.
Our last morning in Vietnam and we have just enough time for a morning walk round Saigon centre, a coffee and a delicious pastry in one of the many cafés before taking the short flight to Phnom Penh and our hotel, the centrally-located four-star Palace Gate Hotel for two nights on bed and breakfast.
Today we’ll visit the majestic Royal Palace with its silver pagoda and the fascinating National Museum. After lunch in a local restaurant, we visit the Tuol Sleng Museum – originally a school, turned into the country’s most notorious prison by the Khmer Rouge, it now charts the terrible suffering during their occupation of the city. Finally there’s time for a stop at one of the local markets before we return to our hotel for the evening.
We leave for the airport and our short flight to Siem Reap, staying three nights at the five-star Angkor Palace Resort and Spa (2018 departures) or four-star superior Borei Angkor Resort & Spa (2019 departures) with breakfast.
Today we see the haunting soft morning light rise over the eerie temples of Angkor. Surrounded by jungle, shrouded in mist with a tropical dawn chorus reverberating in the air, this is something you will never forget! We visit the huge fortified 13th century city of Angkor Thom, with its five monumental gates, and 300-foot wide moat - its centre containing one of Angkor's most remarkable sites, the temple of Bayon. Crowned by over fifty towers, each with four enormous carved heads looking out in every direction, this is an awe-inspiring masterpiece of Khmer art. We'll also visit the smaller temple of Ta Prohm which has been left in its natural, unrestored state, with giant tropical trees bursting through the ruins, their roots clinging like vast tentacles across the walls and roofs. After lunch at a local restaurant and late in the afternoon we see the massive temple of Angkor Wat, one of the largest religious structures in the world. The main entrance faces due west to catch the rose-red glow of the setting sun a truly magical time of day.
Today we have left free for you to return to the many monuments of Angkor, explore Siem Reap or relax around the attractive pool at the hotel. Alternatively, you could take an interesting tour to the nearby lake of Tonle Sap to visit a floating village (subject to season and water levels) or try your culinary skills by taking an optional half day cooking class.
An afternoon transfer to the airport for the short 1h.30 flight to Luang Prabang. Our hotel is the three-star superior Luang Prabang View Hotel with breakfast, located on a low hillside with wonderful views overlooking the town and verdant mountains beyond. There’s a stunning pool, restaurant, bar, a spa and a regular shuttle into town. Our Superior rooms have twin or double beds, bath with separate shower, hairdryer, safe, TV, tea/coffee facilities and free wi-fi.
The whole of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO-protected area, containing a wonderful fusion of beautiful French colonial buildings and traditional Lao houses. After breakfast our walking tour explores this amazing small town, with its quaint Royal Palace. The Mekong flows through the town and we board a private boat for a journey upriver, through beautiful scenery, to the Pak Ou caves, set in a limestone cliff and filled with hundreds of Buddha statues. We stop at a couple of riverside villages en-route to see some traditional rice-wine making and weaving. Lunch will be served on the boat. Next, it’s the magnificent Royal temple of Wat Xiengthong, with its sweeping roofline in the classic Laos style. As dusk falls, the main street is closed to vehicles and the fascinating night market takes over, full of great street food stalls and wonderful handicrafts.
This morning you can witness and even partake if you wish, in the early morning ritual of ‘Tak Bat’, or offering alms to the monks, a tradition providing some wonderful photo opportunities. You’ll also visit the market to see the locals shop for superb fresh produce. Not far from town is the picturesque Kuang Si waterfall, where you can cool off with a refreshing swim in the many turquoise pools and walk along the woodland trails. Just adjacent is the Bear Rescue Centre whose worthy mission is protecting the rare Asiatic black bear. We arrive back in Luang Prabang by lunchtime and the rest of the day is at leisure.
We fly back to the UK via Hanoi, arriving at Heathrow the next day.
We arrive back in the UK in the morning after a truly unforgettable tour.