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Three Cultural Capitals

Thailand, Vietnam & Laos

An Overland Expedition from Chiang Mai to Hanoi via Luang Prabang

Duration

17 Days

From

USD 4,950

Ride Rating

Difficult

Group Size

6 - 12

Trip Description

  • This cross border adventure takes place across 3 countries, and 17 days/ 16 nights, it covers three of the most interesting and unique cities in the world as well as the overland journeys between them.  Starting in the Northern Capital of Thailand, Chiang Mai, to Luang Prabang in Central Laos and ending in Hanoi, Northern Vietnam.
     

  • Even for seasoned travelers, this ride offers a broad perspective across 3 countries in one of the most fascinating regions on the planet.  
     

  • Our journey begins in the walled city of Chiang Mai, the northern cultural capital of present day Thailand, and former center of the Lanna kingdom.  Riding northeast via hill tribe villages via Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle, the confluence of Mekong and Ruak rivers, triple border of Burma, Laos and Thailand. 

  • Crossing from Thailand into Laos by boat, we land at Pakbeng, before riding on through areas where foreigners are rarely seen, to experience river life en route to Luang Prabang. After an exploration of our second capital, we ride North East to Nong Kiaw, on a bend in the Nam Ou river, to undertake the 100 waterfalls trek, before taking a boat ride to Muang Khua, a deeply tribal region with a range of ethnic communities based around the many rivers.  
     

  • Entering Vietnam, the different farming and architectural practices are immediate.  Rice paddies framed by karst peaks and dense forest gradually give way to larger areas of population, and our final Capital, Hanoi, the center of former French Indochina. Today it boasts rich history, from Ancient temples, to French colonial structures, reminiscent of old Provence.  The city showcases the deeply artistic nature of the Vietnamese people and the best of Vietnamese cuisine and culture, only recently recognized by the rest of the world.

Ride Overview

Average Daily Distance: 45 mil/ 72 km​

Average Daily Climb: 2,150 ft / 650 m​

  • This ride is rated 'Difficult'. In total, the ride covers approximately 500 mi / 801 km climbing 7,274m/ 23,865ft over 11 riding days.

  • Most of the days are undulating with several longer climbs, mainly on tarmac roads, with very little extended climbing or steep grades albeit potholed in sections, we regularly encounter sections on Red top or Laterite roads.
     

  • We have included transfers to avoid some of the tougher climbs or busier sections. Throughout the ride, we will have air conditioned vehicle support, if you are tired or just fancy a rest, you can ride in the van with your bike until you are ready to get back in the saddle.
     

  • Having local riding guides, and daily briefings, we will always know what is coming. GPS tracks broken down day by day as well as accommodation list with contact details are provided. A rear support van/ sweep will always be behind the last rider.

Itinerary

Day 1: Welcome to Chiang Mai, secret cycling capital of Asia

Chiang Mai, the ancient walled city, and centre of the Lanna Kingdom. This low rise city has retained much of it’s charm and culture, which, like the excellent northern cuisine, is quite different from other regions of Thailand to the south. Today you will be met at the airport, and transferred to our hotel, a quaint village style resort within the old quarter. Spend today walking the narrow streets, exploring ancient temples, (which are all around), or sampling locally grown coffee, and the unique Northern Thai cuisine. Our guide team will be on site from 5pm to assist with bike fitting. Tonight we will meet at 6pm and transfer a short way to a welcome Happy Hour and Dinner by the riverside.

Ride: -

Meals: Dinner, Happy Hour

Accommodation: Tamarind Village

Day 2: Chiang Mai and the Ping River road to Chiang Dao

Chiang Mai sits in a bowl shaped valley, with steep climbs all around. Today we will avoid a steep start and the Monday morning bustle with a short transfer out of town to a local coffee stop where we will get ready for our first ride. Our route soon picks up the quiet backroads and fruit farms. Our way is plied by tribal farmers in brightly coloured traditional dress from many different ethnic groups including the fascinating Akha and Lahu minorities. We will take lunch in a local Tai Village with views of limestone cliffs, then continue our ride towards Chiang Dao on a mix of red dirt trails and some rolling tarmac.

Ride: 80kms / 49Miles +540m/ +1771ft

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Happy Hour

Accommodation: Sleeping Tree

Day 3: Farm Trails of Thaton

More trails today, but somewhat different scenery, as we head towards Thaton, a rural area where life has remained largely unchanged for centuries. Rice paddies and Orange and Mango plantations give way to Doi Pahombok, the second highest mountain in Thailand, and a natural border with neighbouring Myanmar. We follow the valley and river trails to our destination, a sleepy river village resort. Our Happy Hour this evening is on the banks of the Mae Kok, watching river life float gently by.

Ride: 75kms / 47Miles +498m / +1633ft

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Happy Hour

Accommodation: Maekok River Village Resort

Day 4: Chiang Rai, The Elephant City

Today begins with a 1hr boat ride on the River Kok, taking us and our bikes past tribal villages to a forest reserve. After dropping us off, we will ride a short way to the riverside for lunch before picking up tarmac again and riding all the way to Chiang Rai, a city famed for it’s elephants and preserving it’s peaceful, traditional way of life. As we approach the city limits, we will visit Wat Rong Khun, one of the most impressive temples in Thailand. Totally white on the outside, and adorned with some surprising sculptures, it was created as a life’s work, by the National artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.

Ride: 55kms / 34Miles +540m / +1,771ft

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Happy Hour

Accommodation: Laluna Resort

Day 5: The Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle, was a phrase coined by the CIA, during the notorious history of the region, as one of the worlds largest opium producers. Much has changed these days, as crops have been replanted with flowers and other legal alternatives. Today we will complete our North Thailand section, with a ride to the very tip of the Thai side of the triangle. Where we can look out to Laos and Myanmar from Thailand, before we explore and learn more about this troubling time in the region's history, before transferring to our accommodation. Our lodge tonight is a comfortable community based eco lodge, looking to our next country.

Ride: 75kms/ 46Miles +350m / +1,148ft

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Happy Hour

Accommodation: Ban Sao Garden

Day 6: Slow Boat to Laos

Today we will take a break from the saddle, transferring to cross the border checkpoint in the morning, before boarding our private riverboat, and cruising towards our first stop in Laos, Pakbaeng. Along the way, we will take lunch on the boat, and if we have time, can stop to look around one of the sleepy riverside villages to acclimate to the pace of slowlife in Laos. Tonight’s accommodation is a real treat, a luxury hotel overlooking the mekong with spectacular vistas. If we are lucky we can see the Elephants from the nearby sanctuary take their evening bath as the sun goes down. At Happy Hour tonight, we will meet our Laos support team, for a briefing on the adventure to come.

Ride: -

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Happy Hour

Accommodation: Le Grand Pakbeng

Day 7: Pakbaeng to Luang Prabang

Today we will transfer to avoid a steep climb on narrow roads, then ride the best 60kms of the route, before transferring the last section to the UNESCO world heritage site of Luang Prabang, avoiding the toughest climbs, and increased traffic on the single inbound road, we cross the mekong on a local ferry. Arriving in time to cycle around the UNESCO protected peninsula and admire the unique architecture of the famous ‘Gem of Southeast Asia’. Tonight, dinner is at your leisure, it is a perfect time to walk the colourful night market in the centre of town, soak up the atmosphere and pick up some unique handicrafts.

Ride: 60kms / 37Miles +850m / +2,788ft

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, -, -

Accommodation: Sala Prabang

Day 8: Hike & Bike, Luang Prabang & Kuang Xi Falls

We begin with a one hour transfer to the peaceful serenity of Long Lao Village, a small community of Hmong & Khummu families, we stroll through the village and witness the traditional and challenging way of life. Pre-Covid the village received a lot of visitors due to its close proximity to the town and their commitment to managing a trail that leads to the must see attraction of northern Laos, Kuang Xi waterfalls. The pretty fairytale falls and azure blue swimming pools are an unforgettable sight. Our 9km trek takes around 2-3 hours, we will pass through agricultural land, rice fields, and rubber trees before we enter the jungle proper. After a few kilometres we arrive at a clearing with a meditation cave and watering hole. This pristine oasis is the source of the falls and is a lesser know spot for a cooling plunge. Our lunch is a picnic spread served at the bottom of the falls accompanied by the roar of the cascade. We will have an hour to enjoy the serenity of the falls and visit the moon bear sanctuary, before we get back in the saddle to bike the mostly downhill ride back to the city. Stopping on the way back for an Ice cream at the Laos Buffalo Dairy. This Social Enterprise project educates rural communities on animal welfare and provides subsistence farmers with a secondary income through buffalo ‘rental’. Top flavours include Apple Pie, Black Sesame and Salted Caramel.
We arrive back into Luang Prabang around 3-4pm enough time to unwind before Happy Hour sundowners on the banks of the mekong followed by a fantastic meal at a Vocational Training restaurant providing support and opportunities for local marginalized youth. 

Ride: 9km (5.5mi) Trek/ 27km (17mi) Ride

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Happy Hour

Accommodation: Sala Prabang

Day 9: Nong Kiaw - Gateway to Tribal Laos

Today is a long ride but on flat roads, and with a couple of options for riders who would prefer to ride less. We begin by crossing the river to visit the Pak Ou cave complex, a series of holy sites filled with offerings and Buddha effigies. Following the Nam Ou river Eastwards, we will ride into the increasingly tribal North of Laos. Today's ride is long and undulating route, sopping for lunch along the way, and arriving to Nong Khiaw, an archetypal village, set on a bend in the river, flanked by cliffs and lush jungle. Our well earned Happy Hour tonight is by the riverside, and we will likely hear from the characterful owner of our accommodation, a long term resident of the area.

Ride: 115kms / 71Miles +1,350m / +4,429ft

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Happy Hour

Accommodation: Nong Kiaw Riverside 

Day 10: Muang Khua by River Boat

Today will be a full day on the river, and we must prepare accordingly, as the ride will be 6-8 hours. As we take a local longtail boat to Muang Khua. This deeply tribal region is the best place in Laos to see a wide range of hilltribes and ethnic groups, and the river is the best place to witness authentic Laos. Daily life is on display at every turn, with children and families washing, cooking and cleaning in the river waters, to fishermen plying their trade. It is also a fantastic place to see birds and wildlife. To prepare for this river expedition, think of sun protection (hats, suncream etc.) Hydration, and comfort, (maybe bring an inflatable cushion or a parasol.) After our river journey, we arrive to Muang Khua with time to explore this authentic hillstation town, and enjoy the view from the foot bridges spanning high above the river below. Our guesthouse in the remote town is basic but very pleasant, and we will eat dinner in a popular local restaurant.

Ride: -

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Happy Hour

Day 11: Good Morning Vietnam (Border Crossing)

Our second border crossing today, as we ride a series of switchbacks leading over some straightforward passes to the border with Vietnam. After saying goodbye to our Laos guides, and completing immigration procedures, we will meet our Vietnam support team, and mount new bikes again, riding onwards to the town of Dien Bien Phu. Heavily populated by Hmong ethnic groups, the town is the capital of the Dien Bien region and has a fascinating strategic history, leading directly to Vietnam’s independence from French colonial rule. On arrival in the town, we will visit the new War Museum. Over Happy Hour we will get to know our Vietnamese support team better, and hear details about our ride to come.

Ride: 69km / 43Miles +890m / +2,920ft

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Happy Hour

Accommodation: Him Lamm Resort

Day 12: Dien Bien Phu to Tuan Giao

Our ride today starts with a long gradual climb to a pass, but then becomes an easy pedal, passing through many Tai ethnicity villages en route to Tuan Giao. Our overnight lodgings are in the commune of Tuan Giao, and have wonderful views of the surrounding hills. The quiet market town is a great place to walk around, take a local coffee and experience Vietnamese village life.

Ride: 80km / 50Miles +690m / +2,263ft

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Happy Hour

Accommodation: Tay Bac

Day 13: Tuan Giao to S’on La

Today's ride is one of the most scenic on our trip.  We will transfer part of the way up Pha Din (“Heaven and Earth” pass). From the summit at 1,450m, we can enjoy panoramic views down through forest to the landscape of green rice fields and karst valleys below. Our descent will roll on for 15kms, past wandering water buffaloes and waving Tai and Hmong children.

Ride: 75km / 47 miles +435m / +1,427ft

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Happy Hour

Accommodation: Muong Thanh Luxury

Day 14: Stilt houses of Mai Chau

We transfer a short way to avoid the steepest of the hills surrounding the town, starting our ride in spectacular scenery and gradually descending into a landscape overshadowed by looming karst cliffs. After a light lunch, we'll continue into lush, terraced rice paddies set against the jagged cliff backdrop. This region is predominantly populated by Black Tai (Tai Dam), minority cultures who we will regularly encounter along the way. As we approach Mai Chau, situated at 1000m, we enter a landscape of plum orchards and tea plantations. Our accommodations tonight are a real treat, and at happy hour, we will take in the view over the water.

Ride: 64km / 40 Miles +467m / +1,532ft

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Happy Hour

Accommodation: Mai Chau Lodge

Day 15: Journey to Hanoi

Passing traditional stilted houses, we ride deeper into tribal countryside, occasionally travelling through Tai and Muong hamlets. Coffee plantations line the hillsides all around, as we cross the sparsely populated district of Mai Chau. The area is home to the Tai ethnic minority hill tribe, builders of the distinctive houses which we will encounter. We end our ride out of town, and transfer past the artery roads into our final Cultural Capital. The bustling streets of Hanoi somehow combine French and Vietnamese influences seamlessly, creating an atmosphere that is uniquely French Indochina. Our accommodation for the next two nights is one of the many trendy, art inspired boutique hotels in the old quarter of the city. The evening is free for you to explore the streets, bars and restaurants.

Ride: 50km / 31miles +170m / +557ft

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, - , -

Accommodation: The O’ Gallery Hotel

Day 16: Hanoi Exploration

Today we will take in a lot of the city — from ancient temples and Ho Chi Minh’s sanctuary, to colorful museums and lively street life in Hanoi's Old Quarter. The first stop is the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, a prison camp dubbed as such by US POWs during the American War. We then head to one of the largest and oldest churches in Hanoi, St Joseph’s Cathedral, to admire the Gothic architectural style often compared with Notre Dame de Paris. We’ll visit the Mausoleum of Uncle Ho, final resting place of Ho Chi Mihn, and President Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house, where he lived from 1958 to 1969. Crossing back downtown for traditional coffees by Hoan Kiem Lake. We stroll along Huc Bridge, decorated with ornate Vietnamese designs, and connected to Ngoc Son temple, an island in the lake. The serene complex, surrounded by water and dappled trees, is a favorite for locals. In the evening we will take in a Water puppet show before heading out to a popular local restaurant to enjoy the best of Vietnamese cuisine, and our farewell happy hour and dinner.

Ride: -

Meals: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Happy Hour

Accommodation: The O’ Gallery Hotel

Day 17: Goodbye Hanoi, departure day

Our guide team will arrange a transfer with bike boxes to the airport, or alternatively stay on
and enjoy this vibrant city a little longer. For those heading back to the US, a morning
departure will likely allow you to arrive back in the US on the same day, due to the time
difference.

Ride: -

Meals: Breakfast,

Accommodation: -

Bikes

Bring Your Own

Due to the condition and variation in roads, the ideal machine for this ride is a mountain bike or hybrid touring bike fitted with front suspension, geared for some climbing and with a minimum 35mm tyre width. If bringing your own bike, please make sure that it is in excellent working order, and that you bring sufficient parts and supplies to complete the distance. Tubes and compressed air cartridges can be requested in advance. Tandems and Bike Fridays can be accommodated on this tour upon request. 

Bike Rental

Limited bike rentals (Mountain Bike) are available from WeAdventure upon request. Saddles, clips and accessories can be fitted to rental bikes at the bike fitting in Chiang Mai.  Due to strict import restrictions, rental bikes will be changed at each border crossing. Personal bikes will not be affected by this. Ebikes are extremely limited and require additional logistics, so please make sure to request these well in advance.

Local Bike Hire: ​

  • Mountain Bike - USD 450 

  • E-Bike - USD (limited availability, on request)

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Inclusions

What's Included
  • Arrival and departure drop off.

  • 17 nights accommodation with 17 breakfasts, 17 lunches, 14 dinners, 13 happy hours.

  • Guiding and support services, boat transfers.

  • Entry fees when mentioned.

  • Snacks & drinks whilst riding.

What's Not Included
  • National and international airfares

  • Bike rental

  • Single room supplement *

  • Guide team gratuities

  • Travel insurance

* Single rooms are available on request at a surcharge of 1,190USD per room.

See our FAQ for more information about our cancellation policy and answers to common questions.

Essential Info

Visa and Entry Conditions

Given the complex nature of multiple land border crossings, we will work with you prior to the tour to secure evisas and pre approvals as required.  As usual you will need:-

  • Passport (valid for at least 6 months from date of  entry)

  • Visa if required 

  • Flight itinerary

  • Hotel booking confirmation

Consult the Thai Embassy website for the latest entry requirements.

Health and Vaccines

It is advised to have the standard following vaccinations: typhoid, polio, tetanus and hepatitis A. 

Weather

December is the best time to travel to the area we will visit.  It is a cooler season with average  temperatures between 68F and 85F.  A light jacket is advised for evenings. For riding, starting rides in the morning with layers, and peeling off in the warmth of the day is the best strategy. Support vehicles are always on hand to carry day bags which can be accessed easily.

Money and Expenses

It's a good idea to have some cash on you for incidentals, either in USD or better yet some local currency.  ATMs, which are abundant in Thailand and Vietnam, are the easiest ways to get local currency. In Laos, most ATMs do not accept foreign cards, and are often out of order.  Visiting a local bank branch is usually the easiest way to change or withdraw money.  Having some US dollars in cash will enable you to change some money, incase of card issues. Cards are accepted in chain and larger establishments, but a few baht notes are accepted everywhere.