Paddling the Pearls of Indochina
Arrive in Hanoi and transfer to our hotel. There may be time to enjoy a rickshaw ride on your own through the old city before we gather for a buffet welcome dinner of Vietnamese specialties and a trip briefing with our Expedition Leader.
Day 2: Hanoi / Ha Long Bay
On a tour of Hanoi we see Ho Chi Minh’s residence and the first university in Vietnam, the Temple of Literature, built in the 11th century. Drive through the rich farmlands of the Red River Delta to Ha Long Bay where we board our private boat, a classic sailing junk that we sleep aboard for the next two nights. We'll enjoy lunch while cruising a more remote section of the bay among the hundreds of sculpted limestone pinnacles that rise from the turquoise water. This afternoon we have a briefing on our kayaks, followed by our first opportunity to paddle among the karst formations of the bay, backdropped by jungle-draped mountains. Return to our boat for a dinner of fresh local seafood, followed by an optional night paddle.
Day 3: Kayaking Ha Long Bay
We spend the day exploring hidden lagoons and grottos on the periphery of Ha Long Bay where tourists rarely travel. We'll paddle around intriguing islets and see traditional fishermen at work. As we reach the more exposed waters on the edge of the bay, we'll have magnificent views over the open expanse of the South China Sea.
Day 4: Ha Long Bay / Hanoi / Luang Prabang, Laos
After waking early to experience sunrise over the water and islands, we enjoy a final morning of paddling on Ha Long Bay. Lunch is served as we cruise back to Ha Long City where a shuttle awaits to return us to the airport in Hanoi to rendezvous with our early evening flight to Luang Prabang. This intriguing city was the former royal capital of the Kingdom of Laos until the Communist takeover in 1975. Tucked into an elbow of the Mekong River in remote and mountainous northern Laos, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is packed with cultural treasures, from golden-roofed Buddhist temples and French colonial villas to the traditional Lao wooden houses that line its peaceable streets.
Day 5: Luang Prabang—Tad Kuangsi Waterfall & City Tour
This morning we drive to the stunning waterfall at Tad Kuangsi, pouring from turquoise-blue mineral springs renowned for their health qualities. We will also visit a nearby Asiatic black bear rescue center, which houses animals that have been taken from bear-bile farms where the bile from their gall bladders is extracted for use in traditional Asian medicine. The organization also seeks to protect Laos' wild bear population from other threats. This afternoon we explore the historical treasures of Luang Prabang. The Royal Palace, with its mosaics of glittering cut glass, is magnificent. Our city tour also visits the 16th-century royal temple complex of Wat Xieng Thong and the 18th-century Wat Mai monastery, one of the largest and most architecturally impressive in Laos. This evening we discover the savory flavors of Northern Laos as we enjoy a traditional meal in the colorful night market.
Day 6: Luang Prabang—Mountain Kayaking
Today our focus is on the natural beauty of northern Laos as we head into the scenic mountains of Luang Prabang province to explore two very different mountain rivers by kayak. The small jungle-shrouded Nam Ming includes some mild rapids before it merges in the open mountain valleys with the larger Nam Khan. Back in Luang Prabang there's time after dinner to return to the lively night market for some shopping in the renowned textile and handicraft markets.
Day 7: Luang Prabang / Pakse / Xe Pian Wetlands
Still the spiritual center of Laos, Luang Prabang thrums with the activity of its many monks, carrying umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun. We rise early to feed them: according to tradition, lay people feed the monks in this life so that in the next, people will do the same for them, opening the path to enlightenment. After breakfast, we fly to the far southern part of Laos, where we’ll drive to the village of Ban Khiat Ngong. This afternoon we'll ride elephants to an ancient monastery overlooking the Xe Pian Wetlands to experience firsthand the tranquility of this beautiful but threatened environment. Once known as the land of a million elephants, Laos is still home to more animals than people—some 1,200 wildlife species, in fact. Laos has Asia’s lowest population density, and traditional village life remains refreshingly simple. We overnight at an atmospheric eco-lodge in harmony with our natural surroundings.
Day 8: Xe Pian Wetlands / Mekong Paddling 4,000 Islands
We bid farewell to the local villagers, then drive two hours to our put-in on the Mekong River. For the next four days we'll paddle a little-visited section of the storied river, passing traditional scenes of rural life on the banks. Our first paddle is a two-hour journey downstream to Don Khon, where we stop for lunch near a thundering set of rapids called Liphi, or “Jumping Spirits.” As we continue kayaking this afternoon, we’ll hope to glimpse the rare and endangered Irrawaddy dolphins native to the Mekong. We spend the next three nights camping in tents in near traditional villages, where we'll enjoy the hospitality of local residents as we take our meals with them.
Days 9 & 10: Mekong Flooded Forest
As the Mekong current slows, we enter a unique seasonal wetland habitat of flooded old-growth forest, which provides a natural sanctuary for diverse birds that flock here to nest. Few foreigners visit these parts, and our presence is sure to be a novelty for the villagers we meet, assuring us of unique and genuine cultural encounters. Continuing downstream through several sections of flooded forest, we try to identify as many bird species as possible. Such large areas of inundated woodlands, so far upstream from the river’s mouth, are rare; the Amazon is one of the few comparable areas on earth.
Day 11: Mekong / Siem Reap, Cambodia
The river expedition portion of our trip concludes today, and we continue by road to Siem Reap. A half-day’s drive brings us to this city at the heart of the old Khmer empire. Siem Reap's colonial and Chinese-style architecture is evident in the Old French Quarter and around the Old Market, but it is as the gateway to Angkor Wat for which it is best known. We check in to our hotel, tucked amid lush gardens, before visiting Phanom Pakeng temple at sunset.
Day 12: Siem Reap—Angkor Wat & Temple Complex
Today we are immersed in the wonders of Angkor. Few historic sites on earth can compete with the grandeur and scale of this legendary archaeological wonder. This maze of ancient temples and palaces dating from the 9th-15th centuries is almost overwhelming in its scale and detail. More than 1,000 stone temples lie among the forest and rice fields, many of them half-buried beneath a tangle of jungle vines. At sunrise we visit Angkor Wat, then continue to the temples of the Rolous group. These structures mark the beginning of classical period of Khmer civilization, dating from the late 9th century. This evening we enjoy a farewell dinner together.
Day 13: Siem Reap / Home
After breakfast you are transferred to the airport to connect with your departing flight.