Set off on an epic overland journey from Hanoi to Kunming. Explore Vietnam’s northern jewels, from the tranquil waters of Halong Bay to the colourful hilltribes in Sapa. Cross the border into China and pass through fairytale landscapes of terraced rice paddies, unusual stone forests and historic villages.
Tour Hanoi’s historic sites, take an overnight cruise on Halong Bay and trek to hilltribe villages near Sapa.
Travel through Yuanyang’s remarkable rice terraces and explore Lijiang’s historic old town, two of China’s UNESCO-heritage sites.
Wander through the old town admiring ancient stables used by traders in the past and visit Shibaoshan’s 9th-century stone sculptures.
Vietnam China, from Hanoi to Kunming - 18 Days / 17 Nights
Upon arrival in Hanoi, be met by the guide and private car and be transferred to the hotel for check-in.
Overnight in Hanoi.
This morning be met by the guide at the hotel for departure after breakfast. The first stop will be the Museum of Ethnology (Closed on Monday) to observe Vietnam's diverse culture through the Museum’s unique presentation of artifacts and dress used in daily life. The next stop will be the Temple Of Literature, Vietnam’s first university. Constructed in 1070, the gardens and well-preserved architecture offer a relaxing glimpse into Vietnam’s past.
Enjoy lunch at a local restaurant before continuing on to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum (closed on Mondays and Fridays), as well as his private residence from 1954 until 1969. The wooden ethnic minority style house, which was built on stilts, is surrounded by lovely peaceful gardens. In the same complex, you will see the One Pillar Pagoda, founded by King Ly Thai To in 1049. This structure has become an important symbol for the people of Hanoi.
The last stop of the day before returning to the hotel is Hoa Lo Prison (formerly known as the “‘Hanoi Hilton’” during the American war).
Overnight in Hanoi.
Leave Hanoi at around 08:00 for the drive to Halong Bay.
Arrive in Halong and board a traditional sailing junk. A welcome drink will be served as the boat leaves the harbour, check-in to the cabin then enjoy a delightful fresh seafood lunch served while cruisinge through the limestone cliffs and emerald waters of Halong Bay.Take in the stunning scenery of this UNESCO-designated World Heritage site.
After lunch, cruise to the magical landscape of Dinh Huong Island, Ga Choi Island, Dog Island, Binh Phong Mountain, Sung Sot Cave, before making a round over Titov Beach. Enjoy sunset on the top of the Titov Mountain or take a bamboo row boat to discover water tunnels with many coral reefs in a scenic lagoon. Hop back on board and enjoy dinner on board with fresh seafood, salads, and fruits.
Overnight on junk boat.
Distances and journey time:
Hanoi to Halong Bay (180km): 4hrs 2.5 hours by Expressway
Wake up to a fresh morning in the middle of the bay, the sun rises on Halong in the morning and breakfast is served (brunch on some boats) while the vessels cruises slowly through the magnificent rock formations and back towards port. Disembark and transfer back to Hanoi.
Arrive in Hanoi late in the afternoon, enjoy a one hour tour by cycle, a chauffeur-pedalled tricycle, through Hanoi’s Old Quarter, also known as ‘“36 streets”’. This bustling area of narrow streets and alleys is home to literally thousands of small businesses and shopkeepers. It's a great place to explore, especially by cycling, with plenty of photo opportunities along the way.
Overnight in Hanoi.
At 08:00 depart for less than 1-hour drive to Bat Trang ceramic village which is located to the east of Hanoi along the Red River; here you can wander freely into any of the workshops or galleries inside the village. Records show that Bat Trang was an important centre for ceramic production in Vietnam and the region as far back as the 15th century. The style of the ceramics being made has changed little and the same traditional motifs are still being used.
The journey to But Thap Pagoda takes a half hour, along the way see everyday Vietnamese life, the working of the rice fields and the simple villages. It is thought that the origins of the But Thap Pagoda datinge back to 6th century, although much of what is seen you will see was constructed in the 17th century. The principal attraction of the pagoda lies inside. The statue to the Avalokitesvara or Goddess of Mercy has no fewer than 11 faces, 994 arms and 994 eyes – each eye resting on the palm of a hand. If you wish and time permits visit one of the villages surrounding the pagoda.
Use the day room at a hotel near Rail Station to for freshen up before taking the overnight Express Train to Lao Cai.
Overnight on train.
Upon arrival in Lao Cai, meet up with the local guide and be transfered to the hotel in Sapa for breakfast (early check-in is included) then take a rest.
After lunch depart with the guide for a half-day trekking tour to Ma Tra – habitant of Black H’Mong. Take a short walk through the town of Sapa and along a dirt trail to pass the beautiful gardens and lush pine forests. Arrive at a small village of Suoi Ho inhabited by Hmong ethnic minority hiding away from civilization. Their house is normally built from land materials and has no windows because of the cold in the winter. Continue the walk through rice paddy fields and spectacular scenery to Matra before heading to the church of Ta Phin, where the car and driver will be waiting for the transfer back to Sapa.
Overnight in Sapa
Pick-up at the hotel at 09:00 and drive 8 km to Lao Chai to visit Mrs. Do (pronounced “zuh”) and her family. They will, in a short interactive demonstration, teach you the process of how to spin hemp from bark into yarn, weave cloth on a loom, and dye cloth using natural, traditional methods. Take a turn “waterproofing” and shining the cloth using the traditional method of honeycomb “stones” placed under flat rock manipulated by your feet. Try your hand at each step along the way experiencing how the beautiful, traditional clothing of the H’mong are harvested, spun, and masterfully embroidered to a lavish end.
After, drive 30 minutes east of Sapa to Hang Da, the starting point for a hike to Sa Seng. This walk is mostly downhill and takes you along a dirt road set in a narrow valley lush with greenery, a sparkling river, and in season, spectacular waterfalls. Black H’mong homes are clustered along the way and where one can see families working their fields. If in the right season, enjoy the opportunity to see the hemp dyeing process in many homes along the way.
This is a chance to truly understand the complexity and natural rhythm of this fabric making process that produces the garments whose colours capture the eyes and provide stunning photo opportunities. Additionally, along the way, medicinal and fragrant herbs grow freely. The guide will explain how these herbs are used in day-to-day Vietnamese life. Drop at the river and enjoy a prepared picnic lunch.
Mid-afternoon, a vehicle awaits for a transfer to meet Topas Ecolodge
Overnight in Topas Eco Lodge.
Spend the day at leisure exploring the charming city independently.
Overnight in Topas Eco Lodge.
Cross the Chinese border at Hekou and head to Yuanyang (4 hours depending on the traffic) with the Chinese guide and drivers.
It is hard to describe in writing the Yuanyang rice terraces, which are without a doubt the most beautiful in China and possibly the most impressive in the whole of Asia. Even UNESCO recognises the natural beauty of the rice terraces and is in the process of registering them as a World Heritage site. Cascading down the mountainside through bamboo canals, the water transforms the mountain face into a truly wonderful vision giving the impression that the rice terraces are steps for giants leading to the mountain top. In spring (between March and April), considered by photographers as the best time to visit, the sky is reflected in the paddy fields full with water, resembling a never-ending mosaic of mirrors. In summer they turn an emerald colour and from October onwards they look like pools of honey. Other than in December and January when the fields are dry, each season offers something different but equally breathtaking.
For the more adventurous in the group savour the local delicacy of eel, easily found in many local restaurants, and which are used in the rice production process. Just before the rice is harvested they are added to the paddy fields saturated with water to aid in this process. Take dinner in the early evening in preparation for a heavy day ahead.
Stop at the hotel and head to Laohuzui, literally ‘“The Tiger’s Mouth”’, to enjoy the sunset. Here rice terraces continue as far as the eye can see, and the panoramic view is simply breathtaking, even dizzying for some.
Overnight in Yuanyang.
This morning, set off extremely early depending on the location of the hotel/guesthouse to admire the sunrise at Duoyisu where the rice paddies seem to cascade endlessly into the valley floor.
It is recommended to dress warmly as the early morning can be rather chilly. (This can be admired from the hotel terrace on the standard options at the end of this itinerary.)
Breakfast at the hotel.
From here visit a local market in a Hani Minority Village. The Hani, otherwise known as the Akha in Southeast Asia, has a population of around 1.5 million and are mainly settled in Yunnan. In spite of their modest numbers (compared with the scale of the Chinese population as a whole), they are famous for they mastery in the art of rice terrace sculpting and drainage systems. It is believed that they were the first people to implement this rice production method.
Often living in rugged areas where fertile land is hard to come by, throughout the centuries the Hani have adapted their farming methods and have transformed 12,000 hectares of hillside into arable land making rice production their principal source of income. Nowadays tourism brings much money to the region, also considerably improving the local infrastructure. The Hani, also found in Xishuangbanna in the Southwest of the region, are well known for their tea culture. The market is held daily, rotating between different villages in the area.
It is mainly the Yi and the Hani who come to buy their supplies for the week ahead or who sell their produce on the market. The busy market is to be appreciated for its traditional hustle and bustle and its bright and vivid colours.
Then, take a walk through the rice terraces starting at Duoyishu and finishing at Bada, taking around 4 to 5 hours depending on the speed. See, without disturbing their daily work, some of the local men and the buffalo working the fields while the women pick the rice.
Be rewarded for the effort upon your arrival in Bada to enjoy the evening’s sunset. Although the view from Duoyishu and Laohuzui are more impressive, the view from Bada is special for its visceral beauty. Although the view is from a less elevated vantage point, it is much closer to the terraces themselves enabling you to take in the full glory of the work of the Hani. Depending on the season you may be able to enjoy the sun sparkling on the water in the rice paddies and the crickets chirping in the trees. It’s an unforgettable experience.
Overnight in Yuanyang.
Travel to the ancient Chinese garrison town of Jianshui, taking us back to a more traditional age. Yunnan, much like the majority of the regions on the peripherals of China, is stuck between two worlds, a kind of time warp between central China and its bordering nations. Lots of the local members of ethnic minority groups have ‘“cousins”’ in Laos, Vietnam and Burma. Yunnan, just as in the neighbouring regions of Guangxi and Guizhou, has long represented the rebellious or “separatist” part of China, in part due to its inaccessible location far from the Empires’ powerbases, and its rugged landscape. Learn all about the ancient kingdoms, trade routes and tumultuous periods of war in this region that is rich in history and culture.
Visit the Confucius Temple, which despite its remoteness from the heart of ‘“Classical China”’ is still considered to be one of the most beautiful in the country. It is particularly known for its green lotus pool which poetically symboliszes the immense scale of knowledge.… Whilst there you can absorb the unique ambience of Chinese parks, filled with the elderly chatting and playing Mah-jong.
The region is equally as well known for the residences of two families built in the 19th century, The Zhang Family Estate and The Zhu Family Estate.
The Zhu Estate is located at the heart of the old town and is one of the most stunning examples of traditional housing in the entire country. An intricate labyrinth of more than 2 hectares of bamboo groves, pavilions, courtyards and bandstands, it is entirely concurrent with one’s mental image of Imperial China – and this at the heart of a border region! The estate is today a hotel, but it’s old-worldly charm is well protected, and this tourist role will probably protect it against an uncertain future.
The Zhang Estate is located at Tuanshan, around 15 km from Jianshui. This seemingly timeless village is an interweaving lattice of avenues that hide the stunning former residences of merchants, who made their money in the salt trade. These houses are interspersed with the more common ochre houses of the village, which are often left unoccupied. The Zhang Estate, with its square courtyards, sculpted doors and richly decorated friezes is the best example of such a house.
Before returning to Jianshui, we will visit the Twin Dragon Bridge, taking its name from the two rivers which weave like a dragon dragon-like through its 17 arches. It is one of the oldest bridges in all of China, and is a wonderful piece of stonework. After this stop, we will head back to the hotel.
Overnight in Jianshui.
Next on the itinerary will be the county of Lunan. Discover one of the major attractions of the region and a must see, Shilin or literally The Stone Forest. Shilin is an endless maze of rocky peaks in an intriguing array of shapes and sizes that are a result of chemical erosion of the rock over time caused by rain and wind. Although Shilin can be quite a touristy spot, it is easy to escape the crowds on a visit to lesser-known places. Explore the quieter and less frequented Black Stone Forest, which is roughly 10 km away from the main site but just as impressive. Learn all about the legend behind this site and be sure to follow the guide in the maze of fascinating ‘stone trees’.
Depending on the weather, enjoy a picnic lunch in the middle of the forest with stunning scenery and a chance to avoid the crods and the high prices of the restaurants on-site.
En route to the Kunming Airport, see some of the old train tracks first seen at the start of our the trip. From Kunming, fly to Lijiang where the eventful day comes to an end. Be met at the airport by the local guide, and transferred to the hotel.
Welcome to Lijiang! This magnificent labyrinth of traditional redwood and brick houses topped with grey slate roofs, canals, stone bridges and cobbled streets in 1999 was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Small interior courtyards are furnished with flowers and bushes to which the locals tend and that give this town its beautiful, and special, aroma. It’s a real paradise at the heart of Naxi people and culture. The Naxi people are most notable for their expertise in canal building which assures ensures that each home has running water and as well their matrilocal and matrilineal social organisation structure.
Overnight in Lijiang and prepare to learn all about the arts, culture and livelihoods of the Naxi people tomorrow.
This morning , it is recommended to get up early to enjoy the peace and quiet of the early morning. Lijiang is also known as the ‘“Big Inkpot”’ due to the network of canals which flow through the village resembling an inkpot that has been knocked over. Crossing over the labyrinth of alleyways arrive at the ‘“Lion Hill”’ which offers a fantastic view over the village below. At the top, there will be a chance for a quick coffee break on the terrace to relax after the ascent to the top.
Afterwards, visit the Mu Palace which is named after the Chinese Empire warlords who ruled this magnificent residence in this region during the Mongol Dynasty (13th century). The palace is a vivid example of Ming and Qing architecture, based on the same style of architecture as the Forbidden City in Beijing.
Following the visit to the palace, head to the edge of the old town and enjoy the local market and get a feel for the ‘real’ Lijiang. Get to see locals still dressed in traditional clothing selling teas, vegetables, fruits and even daily tools in a very vibrant and animated atmosphere.
From here, walk to the Black Dragon Pond Park in the north of the town which offers, on a clear day, a panoramic view of the famous Jade Dragon Mountain that will be visited on the next day.
Then head back to the Old Market Place, at the vibrant heart of the old town.
This evening, wander around town at leisure and observe the daily routine of people placing red lanterns outside their homes as night falls.
Please note: This day will be spent entirely on foot, and as sometimes the cobbled streets can be slightly slippery we recommend wearing sturdy shoes. The order in which we visit the sites may be modified depending on the hotel in which we stay.
Overnight in Lijiang.
Today, take a trip up Jade Dragon Mountain which stands majestically to the north of the city. The mountain, also called Satseto in the Naxi language, takes its name from the God of War in the Dongba religion.
A popular tourist site, visit a quieter and lesser-known route, called the Yak Prairie. The view of the glacier from here is as equally as stunning as from the more popular destinations.
Have lunch en route to Shaxi before arriving in the evening.
Shaxi is a traveller’s oasis that used to be a major stop on the Tea-Horse Road that ran through the region, forming a major part of its heritage and history. Less well known than the Silk Road, it still remains a key trade route between the most remote areas of Xishuangbanna (in the far south of Yunnan) known for its pu'er tea, Tibet and, by extension, Nepal, Laos, Burma and India where other goods are traded.
Nowadays Shaxi is a subtle blend of an oasis, a kind of western cowboy town, a backpackers’ haunt and a typical Chinese village that is unlike anything else in China. Ancient stables have been perfectly renovated and transformed into charming hotels, whilst traditional wooden homes have been changed into restaurants and cafés, where travellers can enjoy the relaxing ambience of the village and recharge their batteries. It's common in Shaxi to just sit on a bench all day, appreciating the peace and quiet, as village life slowly passes by.
Overnight in Shaxi.
Shaxi is typically the kind of place to revitalise oneself. Enjoy a free morning here by exploring the maze of paved avenues that make up the heart of the old town, or equally by discovering the surrounding countryside that is notable for its okra earth, logically, in the houses in the village made of earth-bricks. Cross the bridge to the south and be in the heart of the local countryside, an ancient caravan route.
Optional: Visit the dramatic Three Terraced Pavilion, an extremely rare building in such a remote area. Whilst there, it is worth taking the opportunity to visit the nearby Buddhist Temple.
One is lucky if the visit to Shaxi falls on a market day, held every Friday. The market attracts many Bai and Yi peoples, the two major ethnic groups that populate the region. They often come down from remote corners of neighbouring mountains to exchange all types of food products and day-to-day necessities.
Shortly after lunch be taken to Shibaoshan (literally ‘stone treasure mountain’) , an impressive collection of temples, caves and stone sculptures, the most ancient of which dates from the 9th century, and which detail the life of important figures from the Nanzhao kingdom (8th-9th century). Learn all about the religious effigies and the believes surrounding them.
Then, take a walk with spectacular views of the surrounding valley and villages. But watch out! The area is home to monkeys who are often on the lookout for snacks that passers-by carry.
After the walk, return to Shaxi and spend the rest of the evening at leisure.
Overnight in Shaxi.
Today, head off to Dali. Dali is home to the Bai minority and was a stronghold of the kingdom of Nanzhao (738-902) and epicentre of the Dali Kingdom (937-1253). Learn about Dali’s history and enroute observe the ethnic ‘Bai’ people. Literally translating to ‘white’ in chinese, the group is most distinguishable by their predominantly white clothing and unique homes in Dali old town.
On the way, stop at the Three Pagodas at the Chongsheng temple. The temple is a mystical emblem of the town and stands proud at the foot of the Changshan Mountains. Learn about why the Three Pagodas are fondly known as the Thousand Awakening. Once a vast monastic centre before it was unfortunately almost completely destroyed in an earthquake, the remaining temple was restored and transformed into a museum. Visit the site which is particularly impressive when the sun sets behind the mountains and illuminates the ochre colour of the pagodas.
Then, head on to the old town of Dali, and find some typical Bai homes. A relaxed and warm atmosphere seems to ooze from these white walled homes. Find paintings representing mountains, running water, birds and flowers. Their front porches, famous throughout the country, are distinguished by their beautifully carved arches. Take a stroll in the old town.
Overnight in Dali.
Today, travel by car along the shores of the lake, discovering the daily life of the Bai fishermen set against the background of the impressive Cangshan Mountains. The pace of life for most local people hasn’t changed much in decades. Get a real sense of the local culture Visit a local market that is held every day in different villages around the lake.
Transfer back to Dali airport and fly to Kunming. Be welcomed by the local guide and driver and be transferred to the hotel.
Overnight in Kunming.
Today, depart for onward travel plans to the next destination, or be transferred to the airport for flight back home.
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