Small Groups: Never more than 10-16 travelers—guaranteed!
Travel to Thailand and Vietnam on this extraordinary in-depth adventure, and discover two distinct and unforgettable Asian nations. First, we’ll explore Thailand—once the Kingdom of Siam—taking in the glittering wats (temples) of Bangkok, then venturing north to explore the lush banks of the River Kwai, passing through rural towns and villages where ordinary tourists rarely venture. In Chiang Rai, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos converge, we explore the fabled Golden Triangle, home to remote hill tribes who have preserved their unique lifestyles for centuries. And in Chiang Mai, “rose of the north,” we discover the spiritual heartland of this devoutly Buddhist nation. Then we’ll visit Vietnam, an ancient and alluring country. Today it has emerged from the shadows of war, offering travelers a chance to rediscover a land rich in culture, as well as landscapes. We’ll discover Hanoi and bustling Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon), visit lovely Halong Bay, and sail the Mekong Delta. In the ancient cities of Hué and Hoi An, we’ll get a glimpse of traditional Vietnamese life, and in Nha Trang, we’ll experience the country’s close relationship with the sea.
We depart on an overnight flight across the Pacific and cross the International Date Line.
Your hotel room in Bangkok is reserved so that you can check in immediately upon arrival, very late in the evening. An OAT representative greets you at the airport and assists with transfer to the hotel, where you'll meet the travelers who joined the pre-trip extension to Burma & the Irrawaddy River.
After breakfast this morning, your Trip Leader, who will be with you throughout your trip, will give you a briefing on Bangkok at our hotel, followed by a visit to the Royal Barge Museum and Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn. To get there, we sail aboard motorboats down the river and along the klongs, or canals, through residential areas on the outskirts of town. We become part of Bangkok’s lifeblood as we cruise its network of rivers and klongs—a part of Bangkok most travelers never see. We pass small sampan-style boats used by local people as their families’ transportation, water taxis, small wooden homes and luxurious teak houses on stilts, greenery, and ornately decorated Buddhist temple complexes on the shore.
After lunch at a local restaurant, we return to the hotel for an orientation walk of the surrounding area. You’ll have leisure time to shop on your own or relax before we gather again for a Welcome Dinner.
After breakfast at our hotel, we’ll have the chance to see the floral market at Pakklong Talad before continuing our exploration of Bangkok. Step into the Old Kingdom of Siam at the Grand Palace of Thailand, a sprawling compound of ceremonial halls, gilded spires, and ornate buildings. The ancient city’s defining landmark since 1782, the palace became the centerpiece of a new Thai capital called Krung Thep (city of angels), known outside of Thailand as Bangkok. It was King Mongkut (or Rama IV) who ruled from this palace, expanded trade with the West and was romanticized in the musical The King and I.
The focal point of the palace is the Emerald Buddha. Carved out of jade and adorned with gold, the Emerald Buddha made a dramatic appearance in 1434, when it was found hidden in a temple stupa. Since 1785, the Emerald Buddha—the most highly revered image of the Buddha—has resided in the Royal Chapel of the Grand Palace.
After lunch on your own, spend an afternoon at leisure making your own discoveries in Bangkok.
This evening, enjoy an optional excursion to see the beautifully painted murals at the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. Afterwards, we watch a stunning and epic Thai musical production and have dinner.
This morning, we have breakfast and then depart Bangkok, stopping to see the Floating Market of Damnern Saduak. Then we arrive in Kanchanaburi Province, a green region where the riverside scenery belies its dramatic history, portrayed in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai. It was here that Allied POWs and Asian conscripts were forced to build the infamous World War II railway. In the summer of 1942, World War II was raging across Europe and Asia. The Allies were rapidly capturing the sea routes to Burma, forcing the Japanese to develop an overland supply route from the east to support their troops. The Japanese decided that the most viable option was a railway that followed the River Kwai through the dense jungle on either side. About 200,000 Asian laborers and 61,000 Allied prisoners of war built this 260-mile stretch of rail in abominable conditions—for every half-mile of track laid, 38 POWs perished.
Following lunch at a local restaurant, we visit Kanchanaburi’s War Cemetery and have a chance to walk on the original bridge on the River Kwai. We continue to our lodge by motorcoach, and settle down for dinner upon arrival.
We start with breakfast at our hotel and then drive to Hellfire Pass for a 45-minute walk on a woodland trail. (The trail has many stairs, but you can avoid them by turning back after walking through Hellfire Pass.) The area is now peaceful, but many lives were lost during the World War II construction of one of the most difficult sections of the River Kwai Railway: To lay track here, Allied POWs and Asian conscripts carved through solid rock—almost entirely by hand. We visit the sobering Hellfire Pass Museum. Then, we board our longtail speedboat for an hour-long cruise on the River Kwai, disembarking at Paksaeng Pier. After our cruise, we enjoy lunch together at a local restaurant before returning to our lodge for some time at leisure.
Dinner tonight is at a local restaurant.
After breakfast, we set out early this morning, and drive through rice-growing country to Uthaithani. We then board the Khiri Nava, a large traditional wooden rice barge, and cruise past peaceful scenes of river life. Many local people live on the raft houses that line both sides of the Sakae Krang River, and you might see farmers tending their small fish farms. We have lunch as we cruise on the river for about an hour and a half. We then continue to Phitsanulok. Late in the evening, we check into our hotel and later, have dinner at a local restaurant.
After breakfast this morning, we head for Sukhothai, Thailand’s largest collection of historic ruins. This is the place where the Thai nation was born, the kingdom’s magical and spiritual center. With its cache of remarkably preserved columns, shrines, temples, and palaces, it epitomizes old Siam. We ride a tram through the well-kept grounds of this historical park to see the monuments, and learn about its most famous king, Ramkamhaeng. Not only did this legendary ruler leave a great legacy of art and architecture, he left stones inscribed with a chronicle of his achievement. King Ramkamhaeng is credited with inventing Thai script, as well as with amazing skill at hand-to-hand combat on elephantback, the spread of Theravada Buddhism, and developing relations with China. But even his colorful legend pales in comparison to the evocative palette of Sukhothai, “Dawn of Happiness.” Then we enjoy lunch together at a local restaurant.
In the afternoon, we travel approximately five hours to Phrae, where we visit a cloth-dyeing workshop and end the day with dinner at a local restaurant.
Today, we have a special treat: A Day in the Life of a northern Thai community. First we explore the stalls of a local market, seeing fresh produce and the popular snacks of the region. Next we have a chance to meet the children of a village school (when in session, May-Sep and Nov-Feb), sponsored in part by Grand Circle Foundation, and enjoy a student performance. We continue on a walking tour to the senior center, and learn how to make local crafts in a nearby workshop. Later, we join in a roundtable discussion with the women of the village, and stop by a house that provides traditional medical treatment. Finally, we have a Home-Hosted Lunch with a local family.
Saying goodbye to the village, you can rest on a two-hour ride as we travel to Chiang Rai. We arrive at our hotel in time to take an orientation walk of the neighborhood before dinner at a restaurant in town.
Please note: Grand Circle Foundation supports four schools in Thailand. Depending on the day of the week and the pacing of our itinerary, our school visit may occur instead on Day 6. Your Trip Leader will advise you of exact scheduling.
In the morning, we visit the small village of Mae Chan. Here we switch to open songtaew taxi trucks to transfer to a rural town where we will spend time with another hill tribe. Here we can admire the compact huts, see the women in their traditional clothing, and glimpse a way of life that has changed little in centuries.
More than 20 distinct, semi-nomadic tribes inhabit northern Thailand and the borderlands of Myanmar and Laos. Some have obscure origins, most have their own language, and all have unique customs. We visit the Long Neck and Long Ears tribes.
After lunch, we continue to the Golden Triangle. At one time, the hill tribes in this region relied on the cultivation of opium for survival—including several bands of Chinese nationalist followers of Chiang Kai Shek, who have been living here (somewhat in hiding and in dwindling numbers) since the Revolution! But times have changed. The government has established many programs to introduce more viable crops, and most of the people are law-abiding farmers. Tourism has become a more profitable and safe alternative than drug smuggling. The hill tribes are more concerned about preserving their old traditions. And life in the Golden Triangle is much gentler and more peaceful than in the old days.
This evening, we’ll dine together at a local restaurant.
Relax and enjoy the passing landscapes as we travel most of the morning to Chiang Mai—the principal city of the north, a major cultural center, and a favorite with visitors. The city’s medieval walls encircle an amazing 36 temples, and the metropolitan region boasts some 80 more official religious sites.
Lunch will be in Chiang Mai at a local restaurant. This afternoon, join your Trip Leader on a visit to a gem gallery. Chiang Mai holds some of the leading miners of sapphires, and it's the world's largest cutter of colored stones.
Dinner tonight is on our own. Later, explore the well-known Night Bazaar on foot to experience a cavalcade of sights and sounds. You’ll find costumed dolls, carved teakwood artwork, and hill tribe crafts, as well as modern items from DVDs to lamps. Chiang Mai is the nation’s premier crafts center, and you'll have an opportunity to learn how local craftsmen created their products throughout your stay here.
This morning we visit the Mae Taman Elephant Camp for show of trained elephants, and then we embark on a forest trek by elephantback. We ride for about an hour on the backs of these gentle giants, enjoying a grand view of the forest. We return to camp by elephant and then board small bamboo rafts and float downstream. We'll enjoy lunch at the camp.
Because so many of our travelers have fallen in love with Thai cuisine, we’ve arranged a cooking class for you at a local Thai home later this evening. Upon arrival, we meet our instructor. For one hour, she shows us how to prepare delicious Thai food, which we then enjoy for dinner.
Before breakfast this morning, you have the option of visiting a local temple to witness traditional Buddhist alms giving. After breakfast, we’ll visit the temple of Wat Chedi Luang and have a discussion with its Buddhist monks. Then we’ll see the most magnificent of the city’s temples, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, which we reach by riding up its mountain slope and negotiating hairpin turns until we come to a flight of 306 stairs, flanked by snarling naga serpents whose tails coil up to the temple. From this vantage point, Chiang Mai seems minute below. We'll have the option to walk up the stairs or take a funicular.
You’ll have the afternoon to explore Chiang Mai on your own, perhaps sampling the renowned northern dish, khao soi (yellow noodles and meat in a spicy, coconut-curry broth) for lunch. In the evening, we enjoy making personal connections with the Thai people as we have a special dinner in the home of local residents.
This morning, we have free time to explore Chiang Mai and enjoy lunch on our own before heading to the airport for our afternoon flight to Bangkok.
After checking in to our hotel in Bangkok, spend an evening at leisure making your own discoveries in the city. You are free to choose a local restaurant for dinner on your own this evening.
Today, we explore the city of Bangkok. We begin with a walk through a traditional market in Chinatown, filled with colorful shops selling fruit, snacks, incense, and items used in local rituals. Then we pay a visit to Wat Trimitr and its Golden Buddha, the largest Buddha made of pure gold in the world.
Continue your explorations with a visit to Bangkok’s oldest temple, Wat Po, where you’ll see the colossal statue of the reclining Buddha.
After lunch on your own, we arrive at the Jim Thompson House, former home of a mysterious American turned silk merchant, for a tour of the traditional teak houses whose pieces were moved here from various parts of the country. Jim Thompson is credited with revitalizing Thailand’s silk industry and expanding its international markets. We’ll return to our hotel by public transportation in late afternoon.
Tonight, we gather for a dinner cruise on a river rice barge, and return to our hotel for the evening.
After breakfast at our hotel, we depart for the airport for our flight to Hanoi. We check in to our hotel and take an orientation walk around the neighborhood. We gather together tonight to enjoy dinner at a local restaurant.
After breakfast this morning, we enjoy a full-day tour of Hanoi, where we’ll drive through the French quarter and view the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the national leader whose memory is honored here, and go inside to view the former president’s preserved remains. We’ll also see the distinctive One Pillar Pagoda, and stop for a visit to the Temple of Literature. Please note: The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum is closed every Monday and Friday (outside grounds and garden area will be open on these days) and normally closed from September 4 through November 5 for preservation and maintenance of the building.
After lunch at a local restaurant, we visit the Museum of Ethnology, where we’ll learn about the fascinating cultural diversity of this ancient land. We then continue our explorations of Hanoi with a walking tour through the Old Quarter. Stretching along the banks of the Red River, Vietnam's charming capital retains much of its French colonial character. As we explore by foot, we’ll see Vietnam's history reflected in the French-influenced public parks and tree-lined boulevards. Please note: On Mondays, the Museum of Ethnology is closed. If our tour of Hanoi is on a Monday, our visit to the Museum of Ethnology will be replaced by a visit to Hanoi's History Museum or Fine Arts Museum.
After enjoying some free time for your own discoveries, we’ll gather for dinner at a local restaurant this evening.
This morning is free for independent exploration of this fascinating city. Because Hanoi was isolated from Western development after 1954, it has a uniquely preserved concentration of French and Chinese Colonial-era architecture. You may want to stroll to interesting traditional and contemporary art galleries or visit some of Hanoi’s other attractions including Hoan Kiem Lake, West Lake, Quan Thanh Temple, and the Opera House.
Or you can join us on an optional tour of rural Tho Ha. Twenty miles north of Hanoi, the Nhu Nguyet River surrounds this traditional village. After a drive and brief ferry ride, we’ll discover wonderful architecture and hard-working, friendly people. The main industries here are rice paper and pig farming. After visiting a local family to see rice paper in the making, we’ll walk the village and mingle with the locals and then stop for lunch. This tour is a great opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of rural life in Vietnam.
After breakfast, we set off for Halong Bay—the Emerald Bay of Vietnam—a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Some of the roads to the bay are rough, but the journey offers quiet views of the flat green countryside dotted with rice paddies and small villages. We arrive in the early afternoon and transfer to a pier for our overnight cruise.
With its clear, emerald waters and mountains draped in velvety cloaks of vegetation, it’s little wonder that Halong Bay has been the inspiration for generations of Vietnamese poets. Resting peacefully across the Gulf of Tonkin near the Chinese border, this region—literally “the bay of the descending dragon”—is dotted with more than 3,000 mountain islands, whose jagged profiles seem to rise out of nowhere.
Against the backdrop of innumerable caves, beaches, soaring cliffs, and grottoes, the Vietnamese go about their daily lives, fishing and harvesting, reaping the riches of the land and sea. Vietnamese fishermen nimbly navigate in lacquered and woven-wood coracles, lozenge-shaped, rudderless vessels that resemble an oversized tub. Oar-propelled fishing boats, or sampans, abound as well, many occupied by whole families.
Our vessel is of particular interest. We board a junk, a wooden sailboat in the traditional Vietnamese style. We drop anchor at an island pierced with surreal grottoes, then enjoy lunch onboard ship. We resume our cruise in the afternoon and enjoy dinner on our boat, where we will spend the night.
We cruise back to the port this morning and transfer to the airport for our flight to Hué, located on the central coast of Vietnam, north of Danang. We arrive in Hué this evening and transfer to our hotel. Tonight, enjoy dinner on your own.
After our breakfast at the hotel, we explore Hué, the former imperial capital, built by the first king of the Nguyen Dynasty during a time recognized as the golden age of Vietnam. For centuries, Hué has been a main cultural, religious, and educational center of Vietnam—and the reputation continues with the many students who live there today. The older section of Hué is a moated, walled citadel surrounded by eleven stone gates. We'll take a boat ride on the Perfume River to visit the unofficial symbol of Hué—the seven-story Thien Mu Pagoda. We’ll also tour the citadel, find the Imperial Enclosure, and see its inner Forbidden Purple City, a private area reserved for the emperor. Then we share a savory lunch with the Buddhist nuns at the Dieu Thanh Pagoda before returning to our hotel for some time at leisure.
Later, we visit with the children at Minh Tu Orphanage, which was founded by three Buddhist nuns who literally found a baby on their doorstep. Now privately run and locally supported, the facility provides a home for almost 200 children and offers care and nurturing to the region’s youth. The orphanage also receives support from Grand Circle Foundation. We'll have a chance to meet some of the children on the playground, tour the infant care rooms and the boys and girls dormitories, and see a typical lunch in the dining room. Our visit will conclude with a discussion with one of the nuns who runs the orphanage.
This evening, we enjoy a water puppet show, an art form in which puppets are suspended over water, directed by puppet masters who must sit semi-submerged for hours at a time. The tradition of water puppetry is at least 1,000 years old, originating with peasants in the Red River Delta of the north. The puppets, which the French used to call “the souls of the Vietnamese rice fields,” are made of the water-resistant wood of the fig tree and depict villagers, farm animals, dragons, and more.
Afterwards, we’ll enjoy dinner together at a local restaurant.
We rise early for breakfast before our drive to the town of Hoi An, an ancient, well-preserved port town that’s changed little in the past two centuries.
En route to Danang, we stop at China Beach, the setting for the eponymous TV show about a U.S. army base in Vietnam—now a peaceful 18 miles of white sand and waves. Upon arrival, we enjoy lunch at a local restaurant and check into our hotel before taking a walking tour.
A well-known feature in this port town is the Japanese covered bridge with its own temple and statuary. We take a walking tour of the ancient quarter and see its historic streets and mossy houses, including the Phuc Kien Congressional House and Japanese Bridge. Most of Hoi An’s historic houses have been maintained in their traditional design, with brick exteriors and wooden interiors. And after many centuries of maritime trade, the town boasts a multicultural air: Traders from Persia, Arabia, China, Japan, and India, as well as the first Christian missionaries to reach Vietnam, have all left their mark.
Tonight, we head to a local restaurant for a Vietnamese cooking class, where we'll learn the secrets to preparing some local specialties. We’ll savor the fruits of our labors for dinner.
After breakfast, we travel through the rice fields of the countryside to My Son Sanctuary, Vietnam's most significant ruin from the Champa kingdom, which prospered from the second to the 15th centuries.
My Son was established as a religious center in the fourth century in a lush, isolated valley overlooked by Hon Quap (Cat's Tooth Mountain). Today, it is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and supported in part by Grand Circle Foundation. We walk these red-brick ruins, enjoying time to admire the delicate masonry and to take in the peace of the place. We'll return to Hoi An in time for lunch at a local restaurant before an afternoon at leisure. Dinner tonight is on your own.
Or join us this afternoon on optional cyclo-rickshaw ride through a rural area of Hoi An, followed by a Thu Bon River cruise. We'll travel by cyclo-rickshaw to Cam Nam village, view Hoi An's historic cityscape from a different vantage point during a cruise along the lovely Thu Bon River, and sample a slice of daily life at the central market. We'll dine at a riverside restaurant, enjoying local cuisine with the panorama of the city's eclectic architecture before us.
This morning, we fly from Danang to the town of Nha Trang.
Upon arrival in Nha Trang, we board traditional wooden “drawing boats” to visit a local fishing village on Mieu Island. The views of the water are lovely, with rocky inlets, palm-lined beaches, and refreshing breezes. Our boat tour also takes us to a beautiful beach nearby, where you can relax and enjoy lunch on your own. Afterward, we return to the hotel for an afternoon at leisure. This evening we’ll gather together for dinner at a local restaurant.
Today, we set out to experienceA Day in the Life the tranquil riverside community of Xóm Gio. We’ll be guests of the village chief, who’ll invite us into his home for a mid-morning discussion about the village’s history and culture, followed by a savory lunch prepared with our help and the guidance of the chief’s wife. Afterwards, we’ll tour several homes that were remodeled with support from Grand Circle Foundation, visiting with families who live there. We’ll learn about daily life and then be introduced to the local cottage industry—the bamboo baskets for which the village is known. Then we walk through the village, passing fields of vegetables and rice paddies on our way to a small family-run business where chopsticks are milled. Before departing for the hotel, we’ll stroll through the vibrant village marketplace where you can pick up some exotic fruit for an afternoon snack.
We’ll enjoy some free time back at the hotel and then take part in a lively roundtable discussion about Vietnamese history and culture. Tonight, enjoy dinner on our own.
After breakfast, we travel overland to Dalat, nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring, admiring the rice paddies, vegetable patches, and gently sloping hills that we pass by. Prized by Vietnamese for its mild climate, Dalat, nestled in the mountains, was the site of the summer residence of Vietnam’s last emperor, Bao Dai. We arrive in Dalat around noon, and after lunch at a local restaurant, we embark on a tour of Dalat, where we’ll view the city’s French quarter, Dalat Central Market, and Hoa Binh Square. We also ride a cable car to the hilltop Truc Lam Pagoda.
This evening, we'll learn more about Vietnamese culture over dinner with a local family in their home. This is another chance for you to meet with people who call Vietnam home, learn about their daily lives, share a little of yourselves, and really experience local culture.
This morning, join us for an optional tour that focuses on Dalat’s agricultural production and village life. We'll stop at a market garden to learn about flower-growing in this region. We'll also visit a silkworm factory and discover the process of silk-making from its very beginning. Then we'll continue on to the isolated traditional village of Buon Chuoi (Banana Village) to meet the Chil people, a hill tribe that practices subsistence farming. This tour includes lunch.
If you haven't joined our optional tour, you'll enjoy lunch on your own before joining your fellow travelers and departing for our visit to Dalat University this afternoon to learn about the Vietnamese system of education during an informative discussion with a professor and local university students.
From here, we’ll enjoy a look into the city’s hill tribe life. Founded in 1897 and built up as a vacation retreat for French colonial officials, Dalat still retains a dignified European air—and the presence of some 30 distinct hill tribes here, each with their own language and traditional dress, gives us a delightful opportunity to experience traditional Vietnamese culture. We’ll get a glimpse of this culture during a visit to the village of the K'ho people, where we'll be treated to a hill tribe dance performance.
This evening, we'll enjoy dinner together at our hotel.
Following breakfast, we head to the airport for our short flight to Ho Chi Minh City. Formerly known as Saigon, it is now a modern seaport and the country’s largest city. Upon arrival, we embark on an included city tour, which brings us first to the War Remnants Museum to see its artillery and armor collection and gain a North Vietnamese perspective on the "American War." Next, we'll see the Catholic Cathedral of Notre Dame. The structure was completed in 1880 and is said to be on the site of an old pagoda. We also see the architecture of the majestic Post Office, built during the same time period and featuring two enormous murals depicting maps of Vietnam as it was many decades ago. Our tour continues to the former U.S. Embassy.
After a meal of traditional noodle soup at a local restaurant, we'll check into our hotel and enjoy free time before embarking upon a unique tour of the city by cyclo-rickshaw. This evening we dine together at our hotel.
This morning, we travel to Cai Be to board a Mekong Queen boat. We'll cruise the Mekong River, passing by many colorful floating markets and disembarking for a tour of a local handcrafts village. We also ride through the canals to visit Mrs. Kiet’s house, a Mandarin home that has been in the same family for generations and is now an active agricultural learning center. We enjoy lunch at Mrs. Kiet’s and a stroll through the orchids and gardens before returning to Cai Be. Then we drive to our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, where you can enjoy the evening at leisure.
This morning, perhaps you’ll join us for an optional tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels. We’ll explore the village of Cu Chi, which sits on a vast network of tunnels stretching more than 125 miles. These tunnels allowed the Viet Cong to control a large area near the former Saigon. Many American visitors find this tour an especially emotional experience, as they discover how many North Vietnamese soldiers lived in the tunnels during the war. Lunch is included in this optional tour.
You'll have the afternoon at leisure. This evening, we gather at a local restaurant for a special Farewell Dinner.
This morning we enjoy free time before our afternoon flight to Bangkok for a final night in Thailand. Or, if you’re extending your adventure, you’ll fly to Siem Reap to begin your optional post-trip extension, Phnom Penh & Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Depart for the airport early this morning for your flight to the U.S.