Indochina: Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia (trip)

Indochina: Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia

  • Bangkok, Thailand
  • Active & Adventure
,  Vietnam
,  Cambodia
,  Laos
,  Luang Prabang
,  Hanoi
,  Hue
,  Hoi An
,  Siem Reap
,  Ankor Wat
,  Cham Island
,  Bangkok
,  Thailand
,  Phnom Bakeng
,  My Son Ruins
,  Mekong River
,  One Pillar Pagoda
,  Perfume River
,  Forbidden Purple City
,  Dong Ba Market
,  South China Sea
,  Roulos Temples, Cambodia

from $6,395* per person14 DaysMarch, November
Boutique accommodations Exertion level: 3
Operator: Boundless Journeys 16 people max

Our Indochina cultural tour through Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia will find you walking through Buddhist temples in Luang Prabang, the market streets of Hanoi and Hué, and the extraordinary temples of Angkor. Each day, we do as the locals do, walking or pedaling our way through villages, or cruising Ha Long Bay, the Mekong, and Perfume River in longboats. The sensory experiences of Southeast Asia call to mind the mysteries of ancient cultures, the serenity of Buddhist teachings, as well as modern images of French colonialism and embattled landscapes - they are, to say the least, powerful.

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Locations visited/nearby

Indochina , Vietnam , Cambodia , Laos , Luang Prabang , Hanoi , Hue , Hoi An , Siem Reap , Ankor Wat , Cham Island , Bangkok , Thailand , Phnom Bakeng , My Son Ruins , Mekong River , One Pillar Pagoda , Perfume River , Forbidden Purple City , Dong Ba Market , South China Sea , Roulos Temples, Cambodia

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DAY 1  
Luang Prabang, Laos

Walking - easy, 3-4 hours.

This morning we meet our local guide at the designated meeting point in Bangkok for a short flight to Laos and the beginning of our adventure. Upon our arrival in Luang Prabang, our guide helps us through the visa process and we drive to our historic hotel to check in and drop off our bags.

After a brief rest, we meet for a walking tour of this ancient Lao capital with its quiet streets and beautiful pagodas. If the weather is good, we may climb the 300-plus steps to the top of Mount Phousi for sunset over the city and the Mekong and Khan rivers. Tonight we dine together at our hotel, where we enjoy a traditional Baci ceremony, a ritual used to bring good wishes upon special events with offerings to the spirits.
Alila Luang Prabang, Luang Prabang

DAY 2  
Pac Ou Caves and the Mekong River

Walking - easy, some stair climbing.

Those who wish can rise early, by 6 a.m., for transport into town to observe the pageantry of the local monks making their morning alms rounds. With countless saffron robes aglow in the early morning light, Luang Prabang quietly comes to life. It is truly a special time to be on these city streets.

We return to the hotel for breakfast, and gather to begin the day’s exploration. Driving north, we pass through local villages on our way to the Pac Ou caves, situated at the Mekong’s confluence with the Nam Ou River. Here we explore sacred hollows in the limestone cliffs, once inhabited by Buddhist monks, which are now thought to be the home of guardian spirits. Many Lao pilgrims make their way here annually, on the Lao New Year, to visit the countless gilded Buddha statues. From the river, we climb a series of steps to the lower cave and enter into its candlelit recess.  

Those looking for a bit of an invigorating challenge continue still higher to the upper caves, before returning to river level where we meet our longboat for the return journey to Luang Prabang on the Mekong River. It is a lazy cruise downstream and we have the pleasure of taking in life on the river banks: solitary fishermen throwing their nets, grazing water buffalo, and women panning for gold.

We disembark near Wat Xieng Thong, an important temple built in the 1560s by King Setthathirath, and now home to the national museum. This afternoon, you can choose to continue exploring town independently, or return to our hotel to relax before the evening’s dinner at the exquisite Le Elephant Restaurant, offering a unique French-Lao fusion cuisine. After dinner we visit the night market, browsing among the many woven goods brought for sale by the local villagers. With the main road through the Old Quarter blocked to traffic, and the vibrant colors and soft lights of the market brightening the night, it is the perfect way to wind down an enjoyable day.
Alila Luang Prabang, Luang Prabang

Lao Villages and Kuang Si Waterfalls

Walking - easy, 3-4 hours; optional swimming.

This morning after breakfast we board a boat on the Mekong River so we can explore the villages and temples on the far shore. First we stop at Wat Long Koun, a beautiful temple that dates back to the 18th century. Walking along the river to Wat Chom Peth we find ourselves with a stunning view over the storied Mekong. After visiting Ban Xieng Men, a typical Lao village, we continue to the pottery village of Ban Chan before returning to Luang Prabang by boat.

After lunch and a short rest, we leave town to discover the beautiful Kuang Si Waterfalls. Surrounded by bamboo forest, these multi-tiered falls and their milky-green pools offer a cool departure from the heat of the day.

Later, we make our way back to town with time to explore at our leisure, and you are free to dine on our own during our last evening in this lovely city.
Alila Luang Prabang, Luang Prabang

Since 1994 when President Clinton lifted the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam, the nation has been working hard to rebuild its economy.  Largely overlooked by the international community in the years after the war, Vietnam has recently enjoyed an influx of visitors eager to experience all the country has to offer. The combination of capitalism and communism is readily visible from north to south, and with this comes both a welcoming attitude to visitors, as well as a determined national pride.

What one experiences traveling through Vietnam today is an ever-present reminder that the country’s rich history dates back much further than the recent historical events which come so quickly to mind. With evidence of inhabitants in the Red River Delta (the cradle of Vietnamese culture) since 5000 B.C., there is a great deal to see in Vietnam that speaks of powerful dynastic rule and an interesting blend of world religions.

Luang Prabang to Hanoi

A leisurely morning finds us taking in the view of the Mekong as the sun rises, or making a last trip to the local market for photos and crafts. After lunch we say good-bye to this pleasant city as we travel to Hanoi.  

Our one-hour non-stop flight finds us in Hanoi, Vietnam by late afternoon. Upon arrival, we check in at our luxurious hotel, on the banks of Ho Tay Lake, overlooking the 800-year-old Golden Lotus Pagoda. Tonight we enjoy a traditional water-puppet show – a colorful pageant accompanied by beautiful music – before dining in the hotel’s excellent restaurant.
InterContinental Westlake, Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh’s House, One Pillar Pagoda, Temple of Literature, Old Quarter

Walking - easy city tour, 3-5 hours.

With so much to see in Hanoi, we start early for our exploration of historic cultural sites.  We begin at the Presidential Palace where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked from 1954 to 1969. Originally the home of the Governor General of Indochina, the immaculate grounds became the center of revolutionary activity once North Vietnam achieved independence in 1954. Ho Chi Minh opted not to move into the palace at that time, believing it belonged to the North Vietnamese people, and instead lived in the neighboring “House on Stilts.”  Here the revered Uncle Ho worked amidst the gardens, mango alley, and the carp-filled pond. The whole structure has been preserved in perfect condition, a tribute to the well-loved leader.  

Next we visit the One Pillar Pagoda, built after King Ly Thai To’s vision of a bodhisattva sitting on a lotus in 1049. The lotus-shaped temple sits atop a pillar jutting out of a lily pond. Soon after the temple was built, the King’s wife gave birth to a son, and today childless couples still visit the pagoda to make prayer offerings.

The Temple of Literature is perhaps Hanoi’s best-preserved ancient site. Also built in the 11th century, Van Mieu, as it is known in Vietnamese, served as the national university for 700 years.

Midday we take a break for lunch at a unique culinary venue.  KOTO Restaurant, a stop for nearly all important foreign dignitaries to northern Vietnam, is a place where young people are taken off the streets and employed, after an extensive screening process and an eighteen month training program. The concept, explained by the restaurant’s name - Know One, Teach One - is designed to spread opportunities among those who have had few.  

Our afternoon hours take on a slightly different focus as we sample the bustle of everyday life in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. We experience the rush of walking amidst shoppers, business people, families taking meals together at curb-side eateries, and the myriad of shops in which to browse.

After freshening up, we dine this evening at the acclaimed Seasons Restaurant.
InterContinental Westlake, Hanoi

Ha Long Bay

Scenic Cruise - 4-5 hours; optional swimming.

This morning after breakfast we drive out of Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, where we board our own private junk for a trip around this magnificent UNESCO World Heritage site, one of the natural marvels of Vietnam. Covering an area of 1,000 square miles, Ha Long Bay contains numerous tiny islands with sparsely forested slopes and is dotted with beaches and grottoes created by wind and waves. We enjoy a delicious seafood lunch on board and sail around a portion of this immense bay for the entire afternoon, stopping to visit some stunning rock formations and beautifully illuminated caves. In the late afternoon we return to Hanoi for a final night in this fascinating city, and you are again free to dine on your own.
InterContinental Westlake, Hanoi

Hanoi to Hué; Perfume River Cruise

Walking - easy, 3-5 hours.

Early this morning we fly from Hanoi to Hué in central Vietnam. From 1802 to 1945, Hué was the country’s political capital under the Nguyen Dynasty’s thirteen emperors. Hué was very much caught in the crossfire during the years of war with the Americans. The educated populace tended to support neither the North nor the South, but still they suffered from their location in between the two.  Hué experienced truly awful devastation when, during the 1968 Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese held the city for nearly a month, using the ancient Citadel as their base of operations. American soldiers fought to regain it but did so only after an estimated 10,000 people died (many of them Hué civilians) and the city’s many important historic cultural sites were destroyed. Restoration is steadily underway, and today you will find Hué to be a rather small and quiet town, especially in comparison to the northern and southern capitals of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.  

Our exploration begins with a leisurely boat ride up the Perfume River, which bisects the city into its north and south banks. Along our way south, we pass farmers at work in their fields, watch young boys paddling their shallow wooden boats as they fish, women washing clothes along the banks, and the central mountains revealing themselves around each bend in the river. It is an idyllic setting, one we can genuinely appreciate after the lively streets of Hanoi.

Our destinations are the tombs of emperors Minh Mang and Khai Dinh. Minh Mang’s tomb was built after his death in 1840 by his heir, and it remains a tranquil tribute with its sense of order, stone carvings and statues, elaborate gates, and well-manicured gardens.

Completed in 1931, Khai Dinh’s tomb demonstrates the architectural penchant of its time: a combination of Asian and European motifs. It is characterized as much by the dragon pillars of the entryway as it is by the colorful glass mosaics inside the main hall.

After taking in these historic sites, we freshen up at our hotel and perhaps go for a swim in the courtyard pool before heading out to sample the local fare at a nearby restaurant.
La Residence Hotel and Spa, Hué

Hué’s Forbidden Purple City

Walking - easy, 4-6 hours.

After breakfast, we depart for a day exploring the fortified citadel walls. In the early 19th century, Emperor Gia Long conscripted thousands of laborers to build a replica of the Forbidden City in Beijing. They dug a ten kilometer moat and earthen walls to form the outer perimeter. Later, the earthen walls were replaced with those of two-meter-thick stone. The Emperor decided to locate his own palace within the walls of the citadel, and a second, smaller set of walls and moat were built to define the area of the Forbidden Purple City.  Here a network of palaces, gates, and courtyards served as his home and the core of his empire.

Also largely destroyed during the 1968 Tet Offensive, the city has now been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and those buildings that remain have been painstakingly restored. Sadly, much of the site was badly damaged during the war and has been given over to rice fields.

Late in the afternoon we choose either to explore the local Dong Ba market, which is just across the Trang Tien Bridge outside our hotel, or relax by the pool. Dinner tonight is at the hotel.
La Residence Hotel and Spa, Hué

Hué to Hoi An: Hai Van Pass, Cham Museum, Marble Mountain, Hoi An Ancient Town

Walking - easy, 2-3 hours.

Today we enjoy seeing the mountainous coast of central Vietnam as we leave Hué and drive to Hoi An. En route, we ascend Hai Van Pass, with its incredible views over the lagoon and the South China Sea.  

On the south side of the pass, 67 miles from Hué, is Danang. Here we stop to visit the Cham Museum and its collection of over 300 sandstone sculptures; this is the world’s largest collection of artifacts from the Cham people, dating back to the 4th century.

Continuing on, less than ten miles outside of Danang, we stop for a short climb up the Marble Mountains to see the shrines and limestone caves that blanket the hills.  Hoi An is less than twenty miles further from this point.

After our arrival and hotel check-in, our guide orients us to this old port town with a walking tour of its historic sites. We begin with the Japanese Covered Bridge, a Hoi An landmark. Built in the 16th century, the bridge was constructed to link the Japanese quarter with the Chinese quarter.  From here we make a visit to some of the city’s heritage housing, like the Phung Hung House. This multi-storied mansion embodies Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese architectural features, and has belonged to the same family for eight generations. Inside we see the altar dedicated to the worship of past ancestors.

Before the end of the day we visit the best of the local museums and pagodas before returning to our perfectly-located hotel to freshen up. Situated a short walk from the town center, and backing up to the peaceful Thu Bon River, our home for the next few days enables us to best enjoy this special city while also being pampered after days full of exploration.  

This evening we enjoy a relaxing dinner at our hotel. After dinner, the French patisserie, near the hotel’s pool, is just the place for dessert for those who have had a full day. Others may choose to see the city at night and sit at one of the many sidewalk cafés for a late evening treat.
Life Resort, Hoi An

Day 10
Independent exploration of Hoi An

Optional cooking class, biking, fishing, cultural tours, or shopping (all can be arranged at additional expense).

Because Hoi An has such a variety of appealing activities, today we have an opportunity to choose independently from a number of offerings. For cooking enthusiasts we can arrange a cooking class to learn the secrets of Vietnamese cuisine’s ingredients and signature dishes. Those who enjoyed the Cham Museum may opt to join a group going to the My Son Ruins, an hour’s drive south, to see the original home of many of the statues. Also located here are remnants of towers and temples from the Kingdom of Champa, built between the 4th and 13th centuries.  

For those who prefer an active day, guided cycling trips are available from Hoi An, winding their way on country roads through small villages. Avid fishermen are also in luck, as authentic fishing experiences can easily be arranged for today’s activities.

Lastly, for those who wish to bring home some truly unique souvenirs, Hoi An is a terrific shopping destination. With tailor shops scattered throughout the old town, you can stop in for some custom made clothing (allow 4-6 hours for items to be made – make these stops early in the day), or handmade silk lanterns in all shapes, sizes and colors.  Handbags are popular, as well as vibrantly-colored paintings by local artists. The choices are seemingly endless and you will have fun with the local shop keepers in your search for fantastic local goods.

The evening brings another opportunity to dine on our own, this time at one of Hoi An’s many fine restaurants, as we prepare to say goodbye to Vietnam.
Life Resort, Hoi An

When you arrive in Siem Reap you will see the latest chapter of Cambodian history being written. New hotels abound in an effort to support the curiosity of travelers eager to visit the magnificent temples of Angkor that have been, in recent decades, virtually unreachable. With years of territorial wars in Southeast Asia, bombing by the United States, and still more years of a brutal civil war, Cambodia has suffered greatly. What remains now is the task of continued rebuilding, and reacquainting foreign visitors with the wonders of the powerful ancient Khmer culture.  

Angkor Wat is widely considered one of the world’s greatest architectural masterpieces. The Angkor complex includes 70 ruins in an area of nearly 80 square miles. Declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1992, a number of organizations have been at work to restore what has been destroyed, and replicate what has been stolen. You will encounter temples in differing states of repair. Inevitably you will find yourself moved by what you see and hear: the history carved in stone, and the stories told by the Khmer people.

DAY 11
Fly to Siem Reap; Introduction to Angkor

Walking - moderate, uphill, 1-2 hours.

This morning, a short drive back to Danang brings us to the airport from which we will fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia with a brief layover along the way in Ho Chi Minh City. Upon arrival we are met by our local guide and transferred to our hotel in the heart of town.

In the afternoon, eager to see the jewel of Indochina, we take a short drive to Angkor.  Angkor Wat, the world’s largest temple at one square mile, is the best preserved of all in Angkor. Construction of this three-tiered structure began in 1120 and was completed thirty years later. Each stone is intricately carved in scenes telling stories from Khmer history and Hindu legend. At nearly 13,000 square feet, Angkor Wat’s sandstone carvings represent the longest continuous bas-relief in the world, and the finest of Khmer art.  

Even though Angkor was abandoned in the 15th century, outside of war time it has remained a pilgrimage site for Cambodians as well as Buddhists, Hindus, and admirers from all around the world. The bas-reliefs tell the story of these enamored visitors, as the sandstone has been worn to a glossy sheen from the trailing fingers of admiring hands.

To complete our first day’s exploration, we go to the place where we can best take in the view of the entire area: Phnom Bakheng, sitting on top of a two-hundred foot hill. The moderately strenuous climb is worth the effort; dating back to either the 9th or early 10th century, this temple offers incredible views over Angkor Wat to the southeast, and of the sunset over the countryside to the west. This introduction to Angkor ensures that we will wake early tomorrow eager for a full day of exploration.

We enjoy a relaxed dinner at our hotel, and then retire in comfort after a day of travel.
La Résidence D’Angkor, Siem Reap

DAY 12
The Temples of Angkor

Walking - easy, 5-7 hours.

To take advantage of the cooler air and the lovely morning light, we start out early to visit some of the true highlights of Angkor: Angkor Thom, Ta Phrom, and the exquisite Bantreay Srei.  

Ankor Thom, or the Great City, is a Buddhist monument, the walls of which form a tremendous square, enclosing an area of 900 hectares. They are surrounded by a wide moat, which is crossed at each of the five city gates by statued causeways. Inside we find an array of historical sites, including the life-size freizes of the Leper King Terrace and the mysterious and beautiful Bayon Temple. The Bayon is an incredible manifestation of the spiritual beliefs of the Buddhist king, Jayavarman VII, who built it. With one of the four faces of each of the original 54 towers looking in each direction, they seem to symbolize both the omnipresence of Lokesvara (the kingdom’s bodhisattva), as well as the king himself, perhaps overlooking the four corners of his vast kingdom.

At Ta Phrom, immense kapok trees grow langorously over and amid the gray sandstone temples, with racous green parrots keeping watch. This unrestored area offers a glimpse of how the temples looked when “rediscovered” by Henri Mouhot in the 1860s.  

After a break for lunch, we visit the temple of Bantreay Srei, a complex of intricately carved red sandstone temples, located a few miles from the main complex of Angkor. The delicacy of the carvings is entrancing, and displays an entirely different style than the temples we explored this morning.

As we return to Siem Reap, we have the opportunity to explore a current issue that plagues Southeast Asia – the devastation wrought by landmines left over from past conflicts. A landmine museum, overseen by a former child solder named Ra, offers a poignant overview of this problem. The facility is not only a museum, but also an orphanage, school, and clinic to landmine victims. Ra has now dedicated his life to eradicating landmines, and to date has removed more than 50,000 from the countryside.

At the end of the day we retreat to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club for dinner, and another evening in Siem Reap.
La Résidence D’Angkor, Siem Reap

DAY 13
Roulos Group Temples and Tonle Sap Lake

Walk – easy to moderate, 4-5 hours. Optional afternoon biking – easy, on rural trails.

This morning we journey further back in time to discover the Roulos Group Temples: Lolei, Prah Ko, and Bakohng, built in the 9th century.   

After lunch and a midday respite, we venture out to Tonle Sap Lake, where we visit the unique floating village of Chong Kneas. This lake is at its most beautiful in the fall after the rainy season has filled it completely, but it is an interesting cultural exploration at any time of year.

Alternatively, we pick up bikes for an easy ride on scenic country trails. The riding route through Wat Trak and the Roulos Group is well established and not technical in nature. As we cruise through the landscape, we get a feel for what life is like in the villages outside of Siem Reap. We may even see the local women in colorful garb carrying their produce to and from the market. A ride such as this allows us to step away from the minute details of the bas-reliefs and take in the splendor of the area as a whole.

To celebrate the conclusion of our rich two-week journey through Indochina, we dine this evening at Madame Butterfly, a restaurant which serves the finest Khmer cuisine in a converted traditional wooden home.
La Résidence D’Angkor, Siem Reap

DAY 14
Return flight to Bangkok

This morning we fly from Siem Reap back to Bangkok where you may either continue your travels independently, or prepare for late afternoon flights home.

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