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Day by Day Itinerary

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.

Bangkok Ho Chi Minh City Expand All
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    We depart on an overnight flight across the Pacific and cross the International Date Line.

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    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.

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    See the Grand Palace in Bangkok

    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.

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    See the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok

    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.

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    Discover Bangkok's floating markets

    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.

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    Explore the Kanchanaburi region of Thailand

    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.

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    Explore Uthaithani on a rice barge cruise

    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.

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    Explore 13th century Sukhothai

    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.

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    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.

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    Encounter the Hill Tribes during a tour of Thailand

    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.

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    Discover the night bazaar in Chiang Mai

    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.

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    Explore the forest of Thailand on an elephant trek

    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.

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    See Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai

    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.

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    Explore the canals of Bangkok at sunset

    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.

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    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.

    Explore a street market in Bangkok

    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.

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    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.

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    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 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.

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    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.

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    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.

    Discover Halong Bay on a traditional Vietnamese Junk boat

    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.

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    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 afternoon and transfer to our hotel. Tonight, enjoy dinner on your own.

     

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    This morning, we fly from Danang airport to Nha Trang. Upon arrival in Nha Trang, we set out to experience A Day in the Life of Xóm Gio, tranquil riverside community. 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.

    After checking into the hotel, we’ll enjoy time to freshen up before dinner together at a local restaurant.

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    After breakfast, 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 two-hour boat tour also takes us to a beautiful beach. Afterward, we return to the hotel for an afternoon at leisure. Lunch is on your own.

    This evening we'll enjoy a lively roundtable discussion about Vietnamese culture before setting off for dinner on our own.

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    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.

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    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.

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    Explore Ho Chi Minh City

    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.

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    Explore Ho Chi Minh City during a Mekong Queen boat cruise

    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.

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    See the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam

    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.

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    Fly to Bangkok for a final night in Thailand. Or, if you’re extending your adventure, you’ll fly to Phnom Penh to begin your optional post-trip extension, Phnom Penh & Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

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    • Meals included:

    Depart for the airport early this morning for your flight to the U.S.

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Weather & Regional

Before you travel, we encourage you to learn about the region of the world you'll discover on this trip. From weather and currency information to details on population, geography, and local history, you'll find a comprehensive introduction to your destinations below.  Visit our “What to Know” page to find information about the level of activity to expect, vaccination information resources, and visa requirements specific to this vacation.

What to Know

For more detailed information about this trip, download our Travel Handbook below. This document covers a wide range of information on specific areas of your trip, from passport, visa, and medical requirements; to the currencies of the countries you’ll visit and the types of electrical outlets you’ll encounter. This handbook is written expressly for this itinerary. For your convenience, we've highlighted our travelers' most common areas of interest on this page.

Download the Travel Handbook

What to Expect

Pacing

  • 14 locations in 31 days with 4 one-night stays
  • International flights from Los Angeles to Bangkok depart around midnight, crossing the International Date Line, and 1 internal flight that requires early wake-up
  • Airport transfers in Bangkok take approximately 1 hour

Physical requirements

  • Not appropriate for travelers using wheelchairs, walkers, or other mobility aids
  • You must be able to walk 3 miles unassisted and participate in 5-7 hours of physical activities each day
  • Agility and balance are required for embarking boat, raft, and barge, and riding songtaew taxi truck and elephant

Climate  

  • Daytime temperatures range from 80-90°F
  • March-May are hottest during the day, with high levels of humidity; rains are possible between August and October

Terrain

  • Travel over some bumpy unpaved roads, walk along city streets and ancient ruins, and visit monuments often with uneven paths and walkways with no handrails

Transportation

  • Travel by 25-passenger coach, 30-passenger boat, raft, barge, junk (wooden sailboat), songtaew taxi truck, and elephant
  • 6 internal flights

Accommodations & Facilities

  • All accommodations feature private baths and Western-style toilet facilities
  • In some locations, only Asian-style toilets (squat-style rather than seats) may be available

Travel Documents

Passport

Your passport should meet these requirements for this itinerary:

  • It should be valid for at least 6 months after your scheduled return to the U.S.
  • It should have the recommended number of blank pages (refer to the handbook for details).
  • The blank pages must be labeled “Visas” at the top. Pages labeled “Amendments and Endorsements” are not acceptable.

Visas

U.S. citizens will need a visa (or visas) for this trip. In addition, there may be other entry requirements that also need to be met. For your convenience, we’ve included a quick reference list, organized by country:

  • Thailand: No visa required.
  • Vietnam: Visa required.
  • Burma (optional extension): Visa required.
  • Cambodia (optional extension): Visa required.

Travelers who are booked on this adventure will be sent a complete Visa Packet— with instructions, applications, and a list of visa fees—approximately 100 days prior to their departure. (Because many countries limit the validity of their visa from the date it is issued, or have a specific time window for when you can apply, we do not recommend applying too early.)

If you are not a U.S. citizen, do not travel with a U.S. passport, or will be traveling independently before/after this trip, then your entry requirements may be different. Please check with the appropriate embassy or a visa servicing company. To contact our recommended visa servicing company, PVS International, call toll-free at 1-800-556-9990.

Vaccinations Information

For a detailed and up-to-date list of vaccinations that are recommended for this trip, please visit the CDC’s “Traveler’s Health” website. You can also refer to the handbook for details.

Before Your Trip

Before you leave on your adventure, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:

Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)

What to Bring

In an effort to help you bring less, we have included checklists within the handbook, which have been compiled from suggestions by Trip Leaders and former travelers. The lists are only jumping-off points—they offer recommendations based on experience, but not requirements. You might also want to refer to the climate charts in the handbook or online weather forecasts before you pack. Refer to the handbook for details.

Insider Tips

Accommodations

Main Trip

  • Vietnamese junk

    In the privacy of our OAT small group, we cruise the island-studded waters of Halong Bay on a traditional wooden sailboat known as a junk. We'll appreciate its modern touches, including private baths with showers and air-conditioned cabins. Onboard, we can relax on the sun deck or enjoy a drink from the bar.

Main Trip

  • Tawana Hotel

    Bangkok, Thailand

    The 265-room Tawana Hotel is centrally located in Bangkok, very close to both Skytrain and subway stations, whether you walk or use the hotel’s complimentary tuk-tuk. Rooms are air-conditioned and include a safe, minibar, coffee and tea-making facilities, and private bath. Amenities include an outdoor pool and three on-site restaurants.

  • Hin Tok River Camp

    Kanchanaburi, Thailand

    Perched on the peak of Hintok Mountain, with inspiring views of the River Kwai and the lush local flora, the Hin Tok River Camp in Thailand features an on-site open-air restaurant and a swimming pool fed by a natural spring. The 32 tented, air-conditioned rooms feature a minibar, refrigerator, and private bath.

  • Wangchan River View

    Phitsanulok, Thailand

    Newly constructed in 2013, this modern hotel is located in the city center of Phitsanulok, close to the Nan River with easy access to public transportation. Nearby attractions include Wat Phra Sri Rattana, the King Naresuan Bridge, and Phitsanulok's popular night market. Each of the 116 air-conditioned rooms features TV, WiFi, and a private bath. Try to make time to relax at the hotel’s Thai massage center.

  • Maeyom Palace Hotel

    Phrae, Thailand

    This 104-room hotel provides basic amenities in an off-the-beaten-path location. In your down time, relax at the outdoor pool, bar, or the on-site restaurant with garden seating. Rooms are air-conditioned and feature TV, minibar, and private bath with shower.
  • Golden Pine Resort & Spa

    Chiang Rai, Thailand

    Golden Pine Resort & Spa in Thailand is in the heart of pineapple country, far from the busy city streets, surrounded by fields and rice paddies. The 90-room resort features an outdoor pool, restaurant, bar, and spa. Rooms are broken into individual, air-conditioned cottages and include TV, minibar, shower, and tub.

  • Napatra Hotel

    Chiang Mai, Thailand

    Fronted by a small garden, the modern Napatra Hotel is located about a mile from Chiang Mai’s historic city center. Each of its 68 rooms is designed in a sleek style with bright colors and has air-conditioning, a plasma-screen TV, WiFi access, and a private bath.

  • May De Ville Grand Hotel

    Hanoi, Vietnam

    Conveniently located in central Hanoi—within walking distance to the Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, and other local attractions—the May De Ville features a restaurant, salon, and sauna. The hotel’s 81 air-conditioned rooms are outfitted with satellite TV, coffee- and tea-making facilities, safe, Internet, and private bath with hair dryer.

  • Camellia Hotel

    Hué, Vietnam

    This hotel is ideally situated at the center of Hué, Vietnam, close to the Huong River, with 106 guest rooms decorated in Vietnamese style. Rooms offer hair dryers, plasma TVs, Internet connection, minibars, bathrobes, private balconies, and delightful views of the city.

  • Lotus Hoi An Hotel

    Hoi An, Vietnam

    This hotel offers a free shuttle to downtown Hoi An and nearby beaches like Cua Dai, but its free-form swimming pool, bar, and restaurant options entice many guests into staying on site. Each of the 65 guest rooms has a private balcony, air conditioning, coffee- and tea-making facilities, free wireless Internet, a minibar, and a private bath with a hair dryer.

  • Yasaka Saigon Nha Trang Hotel & Spa

    Nha Trang, Vietnam

    The seaside Yasaka Saigon Nha Trang Hotel & Spa offers private beach access and beautiful views of Nha Trang Bay. Each of the 201 air-conditioned rooms features comfortable modern furnishings in the local style, as well as TV, Internet access, and private bath. During your free time, you may enjoy access to the rooftop swimming pool and bar, two on-site restaurants, spa, and garden area. 

  • Sammy Dalat Hotel

    Dalat, Vietnam

    Located in the city center and convenient for public transportation, the Sammy Dalat Hotel features a combination of unique French and traditional Vietnamese design. The hotel features 92 rooms that include satellite TV, minibar, Internet, and private bath with hair dryer.

  • Hoang Hai Long Hotel

    Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

    Decorated in a modern Vietnamese style, this 106-room hotel is ideally situated in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1, within walking distance of Ben Thanh Market. A restaurant, coffee shop, spa, and fitness center are all on site. Guest rooms are air-conditioned and have free WiFi, satellite TV, coffee and tea-making facilities, and private bathrooms with hairdryers.

  • Pantip Suites

    Bangkok, Thailand

    Surrounded by gardens, Pantip Suites is close to Lumpini Park, the largest park in central Bangkok, as well as the Silom shopping strip and Patpong night market. Take advantage of the outdoor swimming pool, a fitness center, and on-site restaurant. The 148 modern suites offer kitchenettes, TVs, and air-conditioning.

  • Mandalay Hill Resort

    Mandalay, Burma

    Located at the foot of Mandalay Hill, the First-Class Mandalay Hill Resort offers views of the nearby pagodas, iconic Royal Palace, and Irrawaddy River. Hotel amenities include a lounge, café, and restaurant. Each air-conditioned room features a TV, safe, coffee- and tea-making facilities, and private bath with hair dryer.

  • Angkor Home Hotel

    Siem Reap, Cambodia

    The Angkor Home Hotel is located in the heart of Siem Reap. Each of the hotel’s 84 guest rooms has an oversized bed, TV, air-conditioning, minibar, coffee- and tea-making facilities, and safe. There is a swimming pool, gymnasium, and spa on the premises, and the on-site restaurant serves Khmer, Asian, and Western cuisine.

Extensions

  • Tawana Hotel

    Bangkok, Thailand

    The 265-room Tawana Hotel is centrally located in Bangkok, very close to both Skytrain and subway stations, whether you walk or use the hotel’s complimentary tuk-tuk. Rooms are air-conditioned and include a safe, minibar, coffee and tea-making facilities, and private bath. Amenities include an outdoor pool and three on-site restaurants.

  • Chatrium Hotel

    Rangoon, Burma | Rating: Superior First Class

    This modern 303-room hotel is centrally located in Rangoon on the western shore of Kandawgyi Lake. The hotel features a pool, fitness center with sauna and Jacuzzi, three restaurants, two bars, and a terrace overlooking the lake and nearby Shwedagon Pagoda. Rooms are equipped with a private balcony, cable TV, safe, minibar, coffee- and tea-making facilities, and private bath with hair dryer.

  • Aye Yar River View Hotel

    Bagan, Burma

    The Aye Yar River View Hotel is a resort-style hotel set on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. Hotel amenities include two restaurants, a bar, outdoor pool, and fitness center. There are 103 air-conditioned rooms, each with telephone, satellite TV, minibar, coffee- and tea-making facilities, and private bath with hair dryer.

  • Sedona Hotel Mandalay

    Mandalay, Burma

    Set on four acres of manicured gardens, the Sedona Hotel boasts an outdoor swimming pool, fitness center, tennis courts, restaurant, and bar. The 247 air-conditioned rooms feature satellite TV, minibar, safe, and private bath with hair dryer.

  • Cardamom Hotel

    Phnom Penh, Cambodia

    The Cardamom Hotel features a range of guest services, including a fitness center, restaurant, business center, and bar. It is only a short walk away from the central market, the National Museum, Wat Phnom, and the Royal Palace. The hotel features 102 air-conditioned rooms including satellite TV, a telephone, minibar, coffee- and tea-making facilities, Internet, and private bath with hair dryer.
  • Allson Angkor Paradise Hotel

    Siem Reap, Cambodia

    The Allson Angkor Paradise Hotel is located in the heart of Siem Reap. The hotel has 169 rooms, each featuring traditional Khmer decor, air-conditioning, cable TV, private bath, safe, hair dryer, coffee- and tea-making facilities, and minibar. The hotel’s amenities include a fitness center, outdoor swimming pool, and two restaurants serving Asian fusion and international cuisine.

  • Angkor Home Hotel

    Siem Reap, Cambodia

    The Angkor Home Hotel is located in the heart of Siem Reap. Each of the hotel’s 84 guest rooms has an oversized bed, TV, air-conditioning, minibar, coffee- and tea-making facilities, and safe. There is a swimming pool, gymnasium, and spa on the premises, and the on-site restaurant serves Khmer, Asian, and Western cuisine.

Flight Information

Flight Options to Personalize Your Trip

You can choose to stay longer before or after your trip on your own, or combine two adventures to maximize your value. Here are more ways to create the OAT adventure that’s right for you:

  • Extend your adventure and lower your per day cost with our optional pre- and post-trip extensions
  • Choose our standard air routing, or work with us to select the airline and routing you prefer
  • Make your own international flight arrangements directly with the airline, applying frequent flyer miles if available
  • International airport transfers to and from your hotel, including meet and greet service, are available for purchase
  • Stay overnight in a connecting city before or after your trip
  • Request to arrive a few days early to get a fresh start on your adventure
  • Choose to “break away” before or after your trip, spending additional days or weeks on your own
  • Combine your choice of OAT adventures to maximize your value
  • Upgrade to business or premium economy class
  • Extend your Land Tour-only Travel Protection Plan coverage and protect the air arrangements you make on your own—including your frequent traveler miles

The air options listed above will involve an additional fee of $100 per person for confirmed requests (as well as incremental airfare costs based on your specific choice).

Or, when you make your reservation, you can choose our standard air routing, for which approximate travel times are shown below.

Standard Air Routing

w/out standard air $3390
w/ standard air $4890

Partner since: 2000
Total donated: $439,025

Making a difference in Vietnam and Thailand

Simply by travelling with OAT, you support the work of the nonprofit Grand Circle Foundation. Alan and Harriet Lewis created the Foundation with the mission of changing people's lives through travel—which includes both the travelers who journey with OAT, and the local people who welcome us so warmly into their homelands.

Learn more about our work in Vietnam and Thailand, and what you'll experience during your itinerary:

A Day in the Life of Xom Gio Village and Don Chum Village

Meet the People of Xom Gio Village

Each Day in the Life is specially tailored to showcase daily life in your destination—in this case, the riverside community of Xóm Gio in Nha Trang and the Northern Thai village of Don Chum. You’ll get to know the local people through sharing a meal and conversation together, gaining an authentic glimpse of what life is really like here—and not just the typical tourist’s version.

Read More

A Day in the Life of Xom Gio Village and Don Chum Village

Each Day in the Life is specially tailored to showcase daily life in your destination—in this case, the riverside community of Xóm Gio in Nha Trang and the Northern Thai village of Don Chum. You’ll get to know the local people through sharing a meal and conversation together, gaining an authentic glimpse of what life is really like here—and not just the typical tourist’s version.

"This was one of the most thorough Day in the Life experiences I’ve had. The opportunity to see people’s living conditions, appreciate the difference that Grand Circle’s contribution of four houses meant, and to have a long discussion with ample time for questions with the chief of the village (and find out how rural Vietnam is organized) was truly unique."

Judith Disla, 21-time traveler
New York, New York

Meet the People of Xom Gio Village

Meet the People of Xom Gio Village

In Thailand, we'll experience A Day in the Life of a village that specializes in weaving bamboo baskets. 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. 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 enjoy a Home-Hosted Lunch with a local family.

In Vietnam, your Day in the Life experience will bring you to the tranquil riverside community of Xóm Gio. Here, you’ll see firsthand the improvements made possible by Foundation support—and the support of travelers like you. Upon arrival, you’ll be welcomed as a guest of the village chief, who will invite you into his home for a discussion about the village’s history and culture. You’ll then savor lunch—which you’ll help to prepare with the guidance of the chief’s wife. After you bid farewell to the chief and his wife, you’ll tour several homes that have been remodeled with support from Grand Circle Foundation, and visit with families who live there. Here, you’ll learn about everyday life and be introduced to the local cottage industry—and the bamboo baskets for which the village is known. You’ll then enjoy a walk through the village, passing fields of vegetables and rice paddies on your way to a small family-run business where chopsticks are milled. Before you depart, you’ll stroll through the vibrant village marketplace where you can pick up some exotic fruit for an afternoon snack.

By the end of each Day in the Life, we hope you’ll come away with a true sense of what life is like in rural Thailand and Vietnam—and of the warm and welcoming spirit of the people who call these villages home.

Grand Circle Foundation

Supporting a World Classroom: Vietnam and Thailand

The eager and inquisitive students of Dar Et-Taleb will welcome you

By funding improvements in local schools and orphanages, the Foundation’s World Classroom initiative is focused on supporting society’s most precious resources: its children. In Vietnam, you’ll visit a local orphanage supported by Grand Circle Foundation: Minh Tu Orphange and one of three elementary schools supported by Grand Circle in Northern Thailand. Our projects have ranged from purchasing bedding to providing school supplies and bicycles.

Read More

Supporting a World Classroom: Vietnam and Thailand

By funding improvements in local schools and orphanages, the Foundation’s World Classroom initiative is focused on supporting society’s most precious resources: its children. In Vietnam, you’ll visit a local orphanage supported by Grand Circle Foundation: Minh Tu Orphange and one of three elementary schools supported by Grand Circle in Northern Thailand. Our projects have ranged from purchasing bedding to providing school supplies and bicycles.

"The visit to the Mae Yang Rong School was inspiring. When a young child grabs your hand and says, 'Come with me, I want to show you my school,' [and] they show you the computers that the Grand Circle Foundation had bought the school—then you know why you travel with OAT."

Jose Garcia, 4-time traveler
Miami, Florida

Minh Tu Orphanage

Partner since: 2002 • Total donated: $196,654

The eager and inquisitive students of Dar Et-Taleb will welcome you

The Minh Tu Orphanage was founded by a Buddhist nun named Minh Tu, who literally found a baby on her doorstep. Her goal in founding this orphanage was to change the lives of orphans by educating them and encouraging their independence—thereby giving them the courage and confidence to face any of life’s problems. As you’ll see during your visit, the children are in excellent hands.

Since we began our partnership, Foundation funds have built and renovated a new dining room; purchased bedding for the children; bought study supplies like chairs and calculators; provided a generator; paved the girls’ dormitory; supplied 20 computers and 15 bicycles; and renovated bathrooms.

When Minh Tu sees the children growing up with such love and care, she says, “My heart feels warmer. On behalf of these disadvantaged children, we appreciate and thank the Foundation so much for your kind-hearted support. We hope to save more and more orphans from despair.”

Baan Boonyapark Early Childhood Center, Baan Don Chum Primary School, Baan Mae Yang Rong School

Partner since: 2000 • Total donated: $79,502

Altogether, Grand Circle Foundation supports three schools in Thailand. Our grants have constructed and renovated classrooms and a library; installed toilets and a water filtration system; purchased traditional costumes and musical instruments for the children; acquired office equipment and computers; created athletic fields and installed athletic equipment; provided bicycles so that children don't have to walk to school; improved the road leading to the school—and even provided a barber shop, an organic farm, and a fish pond. 

School in session:

We can visit Minh Tu Orphanage year-round. The Thai schools are in session mid-May through early March and closed for vacation during the full month of October.

Gifts to bring if you're visiting:

  • Stationery supplies, especially crayons and coloring books
  • Beginners' English storybooks and picture books
  • Small toys (like dolls) for baby girls
  • Baseball caps for boys and colorful barrettes or hair clips for girls
  • CDs/DVDs of children's music or cartoons
  • Cookbooks of different cuisines for older students working at the pagoda's on-site vegetarian restaurant
  • Socks for students (plain white for girls and plain brown for boys)
  • Photos of families and hometown to share
Grand Circle Foundation

Alan and Harriet Lewis founded Grand Circle Foundation in 1992 as a means of giving back to the world we travel. Because they donate an annually determined amount of revenue from our trips, we consider each one of our travelers as a partner in the Foundation’s work around the world. To date, the Foundation has pledged or donated more than $97 million in support of 300 different organizations—including 60 villages and nearly 100 schools that lie in the paths of our journeys.

Read More

Save 10% when you reserve by 9/30/14

It’s simple with our Good Buy Plan: The earlier you reserve and pay in full by check or electronic funds transfer, the more you’ll save on your 2015 departure of From Siam to Saigon: Thailand & Vietnam Revealed—a value of up to $699 per person.

This example demonstrates how you can save, based on a 9/10/15 departure:

  ORIGINAL PRICE
per person
SAVE 10%
when you reserve
by 9/30/14
SAVE 6%
when you reserve
by 11/30/14
Land Tour only price: $3490 $3141 $3281
Add a Burma & the Irrawaddy River extension: $1895 $1706 $1781
Add international airfare out of Los Angeles or San Francisco: $1600 $1440 $1504
Total price per person $6985 $6287 $6566

Use our Dates & Prices feature to begin planning your trip, determine your savings with our Good Buy Plan calculator, and Request A Call to speak with our expert Travel Counselors.

Private Departures—New for 2015

Now you can reserve a Private Departure of From Siam to Saigon: Thailand & Vietnam Revealed for your exclusive group of as few as 4 travelers. Enjoy a truly special adventure—starting from only $800 per person.

On your private departure, you can …

  • Travel in an exclusive group of friends or family members
  • Bring along several generations of your own family
  • Tailor the pacing of activities
  • Work with your Trip Leader to create unique experiences and special memories

"We wanted to take a family trip and called OAT to see if we could arrange a private departure. We has a great adventure—one that was extra special as it was just with family. We had all the lodges to ourselves and great guides. Everything ran like clockwork. I couldn't think of one thing to make the trip better."

P. Smilsky
11-time traveler
Eastham, MA

Group Size Additional Cost
4-6 $1700 per person
7-9 $800 per person

For more details, call our Group Sales Team
1-800-353-6262 and select Option #3.
Your representative can also tell you about the benefits of reserving a group of 10 or more.

This program is available on new reservations in 2015 only, and cannot be combined with any offers, including our Vacation Ambassador Referral program. The additional cost of a Private Departure is per person, on top of the departure price and varies by trip. Private Departures do not include any changes or additions to our standard itineraries. Age restrictions may apply to some itineraries and must be at least 13 years old to travel with Overseas Adventure Travel. Ask your Group Sales Team for details. Additional taxes and fees will apply. Standard Terms & Conditions apply. Every effort has been made to present this information accurately. We reserve the right to correct errors.

Halong Bay

Vietnam’s legendary emerald waters

by Molly Mastantuono

This surreal seascape, the "Bay of Descending Dragons," is an enduring symbol of what it means to be Vietnamese.

For centuries, the ethereal beauty of Vietnam’s Halong Bay has cast a spell on locals and visitors alike, often rendering observers incapable of speech: John Rey, an early 20th century French journalist, concluded that what lay before him was “an indescribable, fanciful scene.” And Revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh matter-of-factly hailed Halong Bay as “A marvelous scene that no one person could communicate to another.”

As more and more American travelers are discovering, it’s quite common to feel awestruck (and inarticulate) upon encountering this UNESCO World Heritage Site and its otherworldly landscape. A wide expanse of emerald-green water off the northeastern coast of Vietnam, Halong Bay is punctuated by nearly 2,000 schist and limestone islands of varying shapes and sizes, each crowned with lush vegetation and often shrouded in mist.

According to geologists, these iconic islands formed around 250-280 million years ago, when tectonic shifts forced thousands of limestone mountains to rise up from the seafloor. As water levels subsided, these submerged mountains became sun-dappled islands, which have been transformed by erosion into their evocative present-day shapes.

But for those who live here, Halong Bay is cherished for more than its spectacular scenery. In a land where fantastic legends are regarded as sober fact, and ancestors are likened to omnipotent deities, this surreal seascape is an enduring symbol of what it means to be Vietnamese.

Mystical Origins

For many Vietnamese, the history of Vinh Ha Long is immortalized in its name, which translates as “Bay of Descending Dragons.” As the story goes, a fierce mother dragon and her equally feisty children were dispatched from heaven to defend the Vietnamese people from Chinese invaders sailing south through Halong Bay. The benevolent beasts did so by spewing forth thousands of pearls and jade gemstones which, upon striking the water (or the ships), turned into the dramatic islands that visitors see today.

Of the nearly 2,000 islands scattered throughout the bay, roughly half have been named—and their often whimsical appellations are directly attributable to their animalistic, gravity-defying forms. For example, there’s Hon Con Coc, or Toad Islet, which bears a striking resemblance to an oversized (nearly 30-foot-tall) amphibian. But other limestone formations in the bay aren’t as easily discernible. To wit: a pair of towering, close-set islets with astonishingly narrow bases known as Hon Trong Mái, or Male and Female Chicken Islands. (These islands are so popular locally that they were chosen to appear on the official seal of Halong Bay created by the Vietnam National Tourism Administration.)

Much like snowflakes, it appears that no two islands are alike—which is one reason why travelers find Halong Bay so enchanting. And after boarding sleek traditional wooden junks and threading their way among the islands, visitors soon discover that no two vistas are alike, either. Rather, the constant interplay of sunlight and shadow on stone ensures visitors will encounter sublime scenery, wherever—and whenever—they look.

Hidden Charms

Quite a few of these seemingly solid limestone masses are home to extraordinary subterranean settings: vast caverns, or grottos, festooned with garlands of stalactites and stalagmites and accented by the occasional placid pond or rushing stream.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, each of these caves comes with its own special story of creation. And, just as the shapes of the islands influenced the names they were given, the distinct geological formations found within each grotto lend credence to its mythical origins. Such is the case with Thien Cung, or Heavenly Palace, grotto, the narrow entrance to which makes the first glimpse of the 427-foot-long cavern all the more breathtaking.

According to a popular folk tale, the Dragon Prince and his beloved bride, May, chose Thien Cung as the site for their lavish wedding, which lasted for seven days and seven nights. A motley crew of guests attended the nuptial celebrations, and their visages—including a group of dancing fairies, two lions with flowing manes, sinuous snakes, and several elephants—are ostensibly reflected  in the vivid “fossils” that appear on the grotto’s walls.

Historic Halong

While the unique patterns on the rocky interior of Thien Cung hint at what may have happened there, other grottoes have yielded actual fossils that prove humans have long inhabited Halong Bay.

In 1967, archaeologists discovered a veritable treasure trove of artifacts—including human teeth and bone fragments, stone axes and other tools, and petrified snail and mollusk shells—in Soi Nhu grotto. After thoroughly analyzing the find, scientists concluded that these early Vietnamese inhabitants lived in Soi Nhu between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, making it one of the earliest known settlements in the country. Today, most Vietnamese regard Soi Nhu culture—and Halong Bay—as the birthplace of their national culture and identity.

Other archaeological finds reflect more recent Vietnamese history. In Dau Go grotto, experts found pieces of wooden stakes they believe are linked with a 13th-century military battle against invading Mongols. In 1288, General Tran Hung Dao used the cave to make and store hundreds of ironwood stakes, which he then planted in the riverbeds of the Bach Dang River. Tran tricked the Mongols into sailing into the river at low tide, where the stakes effectively turned them into sitting ducks, facilitating an easy Vietnamese victory. The site of one of the most important military triumphs in Vietnamese history, Dau Go grotto is perhaps the most revered site in Halong Bay.

With so much history and folklore attached to this scenic expanse in the Gulf of Tonkin, there’s clearly more to Halong Bay than meets the eye. Indeed, it seems there’s a legend to explain both the existence and importance of every alluring limestone island—which, considering there are nearly 2,000 of them, explains why so many visitors are left slack-jawed with awe after encountering Vietnam’s watery wonderland.