Xin chao! Welcome to Vietnam. This adventure kicks off with a group meeting at 6 pm. Look for a note in the hotel lobby or ask the hotel reception where it will take place. If you can't arrange a flight that will arrive in time, maybe arrive a day early so you're able to attend. If you're going to be late, please inform the hotel reception. At the meeting have your insurance details and next of kin information ready for collection. Because this trip doesn’t spend much time in Hanoi, why not arrive a day or two early to see the sights? Check out your reflection in beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake, wander along shaded boulevards or relax in a public park with some delicious street food (spring rolls inside rice paper rolls, anyone?). Museum-wise, why not visit the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, drop into the serene Temple of Literature or get arty at the city's Fine Arts Museum. Tonight, maybe grab a streetside stool and a fresh bia hoi and watch the motorbikes zoom by with your new mates.
Travel by bus and ferry (approximately 3.5 hours) to Cat Ba Island, the largest island in the UNESCO-listed Halong Bay. With thousands of little limestone islands scattered around, this area is one of those quintessential Vietnamese scenes in which bright green water is dotted with traditional junk boats and limestone karsts. Take a cruise around Lan Ha Bay with lunch on the boat, then get up close and personal with this other-worldly landscape by kayak. Stay overnight on Cat Ba Island and enjoy a dip at one of the beaches and a cold beer.
Wake up to the purr-fect scenes of Cat Ba and the bay and enjoy some free time at the beach. Go for a swim, kick back with a book or take a long, romantic stroll along the sand which will probably be neither long (it's an island) nor romantic (it's morning and mornings are not romantic). In the afternoon, head back to Hanoi and jump on the overnight train to Hue (approximately 12 hours). This may be your first time on an overnight train in Asia and trust us, the first time is always special. It's an experience.
Arrive in Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam. You have today free to explore. You could easily spend a couple of hours exploring Hue’s massive walled citadel and the Forbidden Purple Palace that's enclosed within it. Perhaps jump on board a Dragon Boat and enjoy a cruise up the Perfume River to visit the Thien Mu pagoda. You could also check out Dong Ba Market, which offers locally made goods, fresh produce and some tasty, tasty street food. This is a good place to try the grub that Emperor Nguyen used to feast on (banh khoai royal rice cake – can you taste the royalty?). If you like being on two wheels then maybe cycle out to one of the royal tombs such as the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc (one of the most excellent remaining examples of its kind), or set off on an optional motorcycle tour of the sights in Hue and some surrounding villages.
Continue along the coast to Hoi An by private bus (approximately 3 hours). Once in Hoi An, your leader will take you on a walking tour of this unique town which has been influenced over the years by Europe, China, Vietnam and Japan. The town was a major trading port from the 17th century onwards, and its old-school flavour is written all over its architecture. For a small town, it's pretty lively in places. In others, it's chilled out. The tour will take you down the streets that are being restored and look a lot like they did 100 years ago or more. You'll check out a historic house (formerly home to a prominent trader), the Japanese Covered Bridge, a Chinese assembly hall and a museum.
Enjoy a free day in Hoi An. Maybe wander to the Central Market and browse the paintings, woodwork, ceramics and lanterns. Hoi An is also famous for its talented tailors, so if you’ve been wearing the same shirt every day and it's starting to smell like coriander, why not hit one of the same-day tailors and get yourself something new? Or, if you're still feeling adventurous, hire a bicycle and tour the surrounding countryside (this is one of the best ways to experience rural Vietnam).
Lucky you – it's another free day in paradise. You could take a trip out to the My Son temples (World Heritage-listed beauties that reflect the rich cultural traditions of the Cham civilisation), hop on a cruise along the Thu Bon River and or get beachy with a trip to the nearby Cua Dai Beach. Afterwards, board your next overnight train. This one's to Phan Rang, a great beach town on the central coast (approximately 8 hours).
Arrive in Phan Rang early this morning for two full days of pure relaxation. With pristine beaches and arguably the best weather in Vietnam, Phan Rang is a low-key coastal city where swimming, snorkelling and seafood take priority. It's vibe is more beach beers than beach bars, so slow down and take it easy because this is meant to be a holiday, isn't it?
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Don't chill too much, there's one last overnight train to catch tonight. Swap the deck chair for a bunk bed and buckle up (metaphorically) for the seven-hour journey to Ho Chi Minh City.
Arrive in Ho Chi Minh City very early (approx. 4am) and transfer to your hotel. Then leave your gear in a day room at the hotel. Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is a whirl of sights and sounds. A blend of old and new, East and West, if you will. You can still see the French influence in the top-notch baguettes and coffee on offer. Compared to the north the food is spicier, sweeter and more varied. Much of city life happens on the streets, which are lined with shops, stalls and vendors whose wares are spread on the footpath – everything from soup to sophisticated electronics. Your leader will take you on a walk through the city to point out the best places and sites. Then you have some free time this afternoon. Well worth the visit are the Reunification Palace and War Remants Museum. Maybe join your newest and best travel buddies for a celebratory meal and drink tonight on Pham Ngu Lao Street.
Today you may be required to move to a different hotel in Ho Chi Minh City for the next section of your trip. Your leader will let you know if this is the case and will help with the transfer to the next hotel. Today is a free day. You can shop for tiny ceramic tea sets at Ben Thanh Market while snacking on chao tom (barbecued shrimp paste on sticks of sugar cane). The Cu Chi Tunnels or Mekong Delta are an interesting day trip nearby – ask your leader to book you an Urban Adventure to visit. Meet your new leader and any new folks joining your group at the meeting at 6 pm tonight.
Travel to Phnom Penh by public bus today (approximately 6–7 hours). If you're looking for a tasty beverage on arrival, hit the Foreign Correspondents' Club for a mojito on the rooftop. Or you can explore the city on a cyclo tour – generally these go to the central market, USA Embassy, Wat Phnom, Mekong river front, independence monument and Royal Palace. Phew! Maybe it's time for a traditional Khmer massage. Look no further than Seeing Hands, a great cause supporting visually impaired masseurs. Tonight, tuck in at Friends Restaurant – not only will you get a serious taste of delicious local food, you'll also support an organisation that helps vulnerable local children.
Today there's the option of visiting Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or Choeung Ek (Killing Fields) – both pretty sobering but important and informative. The very different Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda are also well worth visiting, offering brighter aspects of the past. You might also head for the National Museum or Wat Phnom (more like 'Wat Phenomenal'). If your Riels are burning a hole in your pocket, look no further than the Central or Russian markets, both choice places to interact with the locals.
Take a private bus through the idyllic Cambodian countryside to the gorgeous coast of Sihanoukville Province. Whether you like your beaches lively or chilled, you'll find something to your taste along these shores. You might like to boat out to one of the nearby islands, hire a bike for a few hours, or just kick back on the shore with a good book and a beer.
The day is wide open, so why not take a trip to nearby Ream National Park? While exotic wildlife isn't something most people think of when they picture Cambodia, this stunning, thick park is bursting with birds and other beasties.
Travel by private bus into rural Cambodia (approximately 4 hours) to the region of Kampong Speu and the village of Chambok. It's right next to the beautiful Kirirom National Park, so you can imagine how serene it is here. A homestay tonight is your chance to really immerse yourself in everyday life. Not to mention feast on a traditional Khmer dinner, prepared by your lovely hosts. Weather permitting, you might be able to trek to the awesome 40-metre waterfall nearby today too (this is optional).
Kampong Cham in a nutshell: frontier charm, French-colonial character. Take a private bus there (approximately 5 hours) and soak it all up. Koh Paen Island is a good option while you're here, and you can hire a bike and get there with no fuss (you'll just have to take a ferry over the water if you visit during wet season). The 11th-century Wat Nokor is also worth a look. A little further away are the twin 'mountain temples' of Phnom Pros and Phnom Srei which, as well as being fascinating sites of religious, historic and spiritual significance, are more than Instagram-worthy.
Take a public bus to Siem Reap (approximately 5 hours). Your leader will take you on a walk to get you acquainted with the town. Afterwards you might want to hit the markets for some cheap and tasty street food, then get some rest and relaxation before tomorrow's visit to... (drumroll please!)... Angkor Wat!
Get your camera ready, strap on your walkin' boots and get excited: Angkor is one of Southeast Asia's number one highlights, possibly THE highlight. The obvious banger is Angkor Wat, which is every bit as amazing as everyone says it is, especially at sunset. But you'll also spend plenty of time visiting the other gems of this sprawling complex, like the giant carved faces of Bayon and the crazy jungle-juxtaposition of Ta Prohm (a temple that looks like it's being swallowed by the vice-like grip of Mother Nature's tentacles). And the places Tomb Raider made famous.
Kick back in Siem Reap and wander around town, visiting its market, shops and restaurants. You may be a little templed out, so take this opportunity to explore your options and do something different. Depending on the season, you might be able to visit Tonle Sap, the big freshwater lake, for a glimpse of local life. Adventure-seekers and adrenaline-junkies can do the Angkor zip-line course that will have you soaring like an eagle over the lush rainforest. For even more bragging material, you can learn the tricks of the trade in a Khmer cooking class. And if you just can't not go back to Angkor, longer passes than the standard 1-day passes are available, just ask your leader.
Drive from Siem Reap to Bangkok in a private minivan (approximately 8–9 hours, including border crossing and lunch). Again, your leader will assist with the border-crossing formalities. If you expect a soothing and charming backwater, think again – it's go, go, go in Thailand's frenetic capital. If you don't go home exhausted from here, you didn't do it properly! Still, the khlongs (canals) are a great escape from it all – maybe take a boat to the highly recommended Chinatown for a delicious street food dinner. A Thai massage may also be a good option at this point. Those staying on can perhaps visit the Grand Palace, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, or the very cool Jim Thompson museum.
Your adventure comes to an end today, with no more activities planned. You're free to depart the accommodation at any time after check out.