Multi Day Vietnam Photography Tour



Opium Trail




From: $



Private Photography Tour

Departure Date:

November 2, 2023

Group Size:

5 People

or call +84 07 9515 0522

On the Opium Trail

Northern Vietnam’s historical opium trade and the landscape in which it flourished.

Capture the raw beauty and rich culture of northern Vietnam on the trail of its historical opium trade. We start at Hanoi’s luxury Metropole Hotel, nestled deep in the capital’s French Quarter, from where we’ll enjoy photographic excursions to snap both remnants of Indochine and daily life in this fascinating city. We’ll then catch the overnight Victoria Express train to the hill station of Sapa, a town blessed with a diverse population of montagnards, the colourful hill tribes of Vietnam, as well as spectacular surrounding rice terraces. Heading east through the vast mountains, we encounter colonial palaces and scattered ruins of French forts and gun emplacements, all remains of that nation’s management of the opium trade in northern Vietnam a century ago. In Ha Giang province, we’ll stay at an ancient H’mong house, now reconstructed as a homely eco-lodge, with ‘opium rooms’ still retained in the design. Our trip culminates with.the unforgettable Meo Vac tribal market, a final photographic feast to round off a unique adventure

This is a premium photographic adventure, and we’ll enjoy the best accommodation available along the way. We’ll also taste the most delicious cuisine in a part of the world already renowned for its culinary excellence. Between train journeys, we travel by spacious and comfortable minibus, with an extra vehicle to transport our luggage between accommodation. At the same time, our close connection to the people of this region, local friendships and many years of experience give us unparalleled access to the authentic life of locals and the area’s most stunning vistas. As working photographers and journalists, with many years of teaching experience, we provide you unique insights and knowledge about Vietnam and photographic storytelling.

Opium Trail Tour Map

Book your seat now with a simple $500 deposit


This photographic adventure involves moderate activity: travelers should be in good health, comfortable walking or standing for extended periods, and prepared for several hours of activity on some days. Excursions may include navigating uneven terrain, and walking on paths with steep ascents/descents.


We’ll pick you up from the airport and transfer directly to our hotel, the historic Metropole. Opened in 1901, and designed in the classic French colonial style, the hotel has been welcoming the great and good for over a century, with former guests including Charlie Chaplin, Graham Greene, Jane Fonda, and more recently Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. As well as a swimming pool and stylish cocktail bar, there is even a war-era bomb shelter on the premises. After settling in, we’ll meet up that evening for welcome drinks and dinner, and a look at the adventure ahead.

We’ll make a reasonably early start the next morning to explore the French Quarter and other vestiges of the colonial past in modern-day Hanoi. Our wander will include the Opera House, Hoa Lo prison, which served as a detention centre for both Viet Minh revolutionaries during the colonial period and American POWs such as John McCain during the Vietnam War, and St. Joseph’s Cathedral. We’ll also sample some of the culinary remnants of Indochine, like Hanoi-style filter coffee, freshly-baked banh my sandwiches and bo sot vang, beef in red wine sauce. Along the way, we’ll capture pictures of the city’s bustling street-life and develop a photo story about today’s Hanoi. We’ll have a delicious lunch at a restaurant set in a restored colonial mansion, then head out to the Museum of Ethnology for an introduction to the history and tribal cultures of northern Vietnam. This will give us a strong foundation for our understanding of the adventure to come, the people we’ll encounter and the place of the opium trade in the history of this part of the world. After a late afternoon rest back at the hotel, we’ll enjoy dinner together before climbing aboard the luxury Chapa Express sleeper train to Sapa. The train passes through a residential area, with many houses right next to the tracks, before crossing Long Bien Bridge, built by the French in 1902, and known at the time as Paul Doumer Bridge, after the governor-general of French Indochine. Indeed the railway line north, travelling all the way to Kunming in China, was originally laid as a way of connecting these colonial outposts and maximizing trade as well as arms shipments to the Kuonmintang. Today the line remains a single-guage one, meaning a slow but comfortable journey through the night and into the Lien Hoang Son mountain range.

We arrive in Lao Cai at dawn, and our private car takes us up the short and winding route to Sapa, with mist rising from the rice terraces alongside, and H’mong and Dzao traders appearing from trails out of the forest. We’ll stop to capture shots at carefully-chosen locations, with a look at how to shoot landscapes with a human persepctive. We arrive at the Chapa Ecolodge for check-in and breakfast at around 8am. After a brief wander around Sapa town to visit the tribal market we’ll strike out for a photographic trek into the spectacular rice terraces around town. Along the way we encounter people from the area’s diverse tribal communities, including Red Dzao, Black H’mong and Tay. We’ll visit minority villages and photograph people living their daily lives, both at work and play. The H’mong in particular once had a close relationship with the government of Indochine, and they are still the most extroverted and entrepreneurial of the tribes in this region, with many speaking foreign languages such as English and French more fluently even than they speak Vietnamese. In Sapa town, we’ll visit the ruins of a French gunnery, now used as a tea shop. Towards late afternoon we head up to the O Quy Pass, to capture one of the region’s most stunning sunsets, with unforgettable views across the northwest mountains.

Today we begin our journey east, travelling to Bac Ha town in time for the big ethnic minority market. H’mong, Hoa and Tay people descend on the town to trade, barter and catch up with old friends, making for a carnival of colour and festivity. We’ll be working on a photo story about the market, including context shots, portraits, and a focus on details. It’s also a great time to pick up some souvenirs, such as textiles and antiques (look out for the opium pipes) but make sure to put your haggling hat on! We’ll have lunch in Bac Ha, and then visit ‘Dinh Vua Mèo’, the H’mong King’s Palace. This well-preserved, palatial house served as the home of France’s chosen local chief, who helped to manage the opium trade in this area. We’ll explore the interior of the palace, and also look at how to take different kinds of architectural shot, particularly using original framing techniques. Later, we head down to the River Chay, where we’ll enjoy a longboat trip up the beautiful gorge to Tien Cave. Landscape photography opportunities here are fantastic, especially as the sun begins to dwindle in late afternoon.

We head into stunning, remote Hoang Su Phi province, the road taking us alongside many steep rice terraces. This mountainous area is home to a rich tapestry of ethnic minorities, most living as they did a century ago, except for the occasional mobile phone and the omnipresent motorbike. We’ll take our time to work on landscapes at several stunning spots, and also photograph local people along the way. We reach the beautiful Pan Hou EcoLodge in time for lunch. In the late afternoon, we’ll take a short trek to explore the local area, and have an introduction to the local minorities, visiting their villages and photographing their daily life. There are spa and Dzao-style bath and massage services available at Pan Hou – a treat for weary photographers.

This morning we head further north into the remote area around Ban Luoc. As well as the splendid rice terraces here, we’ll encounter people on their way to work or school, making for fantastic candid pictures of the life of the montagnards. We’ll head out for a trek to several nearby minority villages, giving us a close-up encounter with the fascinating and hospitable people of this area. We’ll eat lunch locally, before exploring more in this area. Returning to Pan Hou, we’ll have a group review of photographs taken so far, and a look at selecting the best images from our collection.

We hit the road again today, this time heading north into legendary Ha Giang province. The route takes us first out of the mountains into Ha Giang city, but we’re soon heading up again towards the Dong Van Rocky Plateau. A winding road takes us up steep cliffs and then through small local towns. Our first glimpse of the Plateau before us is at ‘Heaven’s Gate’ above Quan Ba town. We’ll stop here for panoramic landscapes, before heading down to our eco-lodge near Quan Ba town. Our eco-lodge is based in a traditional Red Dzao village, and we’ll have a unique opportunity to meet and talk to the villagers. They’re very happy to pose for portraits, and also for us to photograph them at work and play, as we have a strong friendship with the people here, going back many years. The surrounding countryside is also something to behold, and we’ll have a short trek in the valley below towards sunset, with a chance to capture some incredible landscapes. Our eco-lodge is designed according to the style of traditional Dzao homes, but equipped with very comfortable beds and running hot water. We’ll settle down for a delicious home-cooked meal with our Dzao hosts before bed-time.

It’s an early start this morning, with some spectacular sights to come. We first travel through an immense gorge, overlooked by towering, jagged peaks, and here we find ruined battlements erected by the French colonial army. The battlements are situated just above the road, giving guards a sniper’s eye view of anyone travelling the road south. This is a great spot to capture shots of the gorge and river rushing through. We follow the road up into the fertile and forested hills around Yen Minh, where we break for lunch. In the afternoon, we climb up steep ascents to the rocky plateau, an unearthly landscape of volcanic rock and boulders. We’ll take our time to admire and capture pictures of the scene, and also images of the colourfully-clothed minority people eking out a life in this barren land. There are still some fantastical landscapes along the way to Meo Vac, and we’ll venture into picturesque adobe villages near the road to photograph daily life up-close. Finally we arrive at our resting point for the next few days, a beautifully restored Hmong homestead, Auberge de Meo Vac.

This morning we head up to the Ma Pi Leng valley, the deepest gorge in South-East Asia. The views here are astounding, even compared to what’s come before, the road winding along the side of the gorge, the river Nho Que a sliver of blue far below. We encounter more of the volcanic humps we saw yesterday, but these ones are four or five times the size, and many contain enormous caverns. Tiny H’mong villages spill across the mountainsides, bringing the true vastness of this landscape into perspective. We’ll take our time to enjoy and photograph this unforgettable place. We’ll have lunch in Dong Van, followed by a steep but worthwhile trek up to ‘Don Cao’ the ruins of a French fortification dating back to 1887, another remnant of the opium trade in the region. The fortress also offers panoramic views across the valley. We’ll then pass the Hmong King’s palace at Sa Phin, a simpler, but no less striking counterpart to the one in Bac Ha. The Palace houses photographs and artefacts, such as opium pipes, dating back a century.

Today we venture further afield to Lung Cu, a small, spectacularly-set town right on the Chinese border. Along the way, we encounter minority people living much as they must have more than a century before, reliant on the thin produce of the land, especially corn. In Lung Cu, we’ll meet members of the colorful LoLo minority, one of the least populous groups in Vietnam, and have a chance to take portraits of our friends here. On the way back to Meo Vac, we’ll stop by the Nho Que River, where we can climb aboard a longboat for vertical views of the incredible gorge.

Meo Vac ethnic minority market starts early, with tribal people descending from all over the surrounding area. Many come to town on foot, travelling from their villages since before dawn. As well as a busy trading event, for livestock, textiles and agricultural produce, this is a social event. The food shacks within the market fill up with market-goers for a breakfast often involving bottles of corn wine and much laughter and gossip. Naturally, this is a fantastic photographic experience, so it’s best not to get too distracted by the offers of a morning bottle of corn wine. We’ll work on a 3 picture story exploring the people and activity at the market. After lunch in Yen Minh, we pass through remote Du Gia province, which offers more spectacular mountain scenery and stops with the local Red Dzao people. We’ll also have another encounter with the ruins of a French colonial garrison at the bottom of a vertiginous valley. We arrive in Ha Giang in late afternoon, and check into our comfortable hotel.

Today, we hit the road back to Hanoi, following the Ha Giang river south, and return to the capital in early evening. We check back into the Metropole before dinner together.

We meet after breakfast for coffee and a picture selection session and review. It’s been a spectacular adventure, with many pictures to choose from, but we will edit our selection down to a final story. After lunch together, we are free to explore Hanoi or set off for further adventures.

Guiding Team

Our photographers are no ordinary guides. We’re adventurers, teachers and assistants, as well as experienced shooters.  We’re up at dawn to catch the best light, and always looking out for unexpected moments and details that make for great photography. Our guides are committed to making sure you enjoy exploring Vietnam through photography as much as we do. Your pictures and your experience are always the priority.
Photographer Adrien Jean will lead On the Opium Trail 2022.  Adrien’s work has featured in numerous exhibitions & publications in both Vietnam and France, and he has been represented by the French agency Hans Lucas since 2020. A long-term resident of Vietnam, he has traveled and photographed throughout the country, documenting ethnic festivals and life in less-visited regions. For more about Adrien and his portfolio, please click on his profile above. A wider selection of his work from Vietnam and around Asia is available at Hans Lucas. Praise for Adrien Jean –  “If you like the off-the-beaten-track experience through the eyes of someone who is genuinely passionate about his art and style of photography, then this is for you. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience and conversations and sharing tips on photography!” (Joji, Japan) ‘Highly recommended. Adrien is very knowledgeable and brought me to a ton of places I would have never found by myself. Moreover, some of the locals already know him, which makes for easier contact and great shots. I got some solid advice from him and left the experience a better photographer.’ (Mounir, Tunisia)

Recommended Equipment

  • Digital Camera or Film Camera
  • Selections of lens
  • Cable release
  • Tripod
  • Memory cards
  • ND Graduated filters
  • Laptop/tablet
  • Storage device


Throughout the trip, we stay in quality 4 & 5 star hotels or the best mountain eco-lodges available locally.  In some places there are shared bathroom facilities.  There is a surcharge for single bookings.  If you are open to sharing with someone outside your group, we will do our best to make sure your preferences are met

The detailed list of accommodation for the tour is –

Hanoi – Sofitel Metropole Legend Hotel

Sapa – Chapa Ecolodge

Bac Ha – La Beauté

Hoang Su Phi – Pan Hou Ecolodge

Nam DamChook Bungalow

Meo Vac –  Auberge de Meo Vac

Ha Giang – Phoenix Hotel (or upgrade to Papiu Resort)


Throughout the tour we travel by comfortable, air-conditioned 16 seat private minibus.  There will be enough room in the vehicle to carry our maximum 5 guests, guide, driver, luggage and camera gear.  Please however bring a maximum of 1 large suitcase, small daypack and/or camera bag.

Pricing and Dates

20232nd November$5525
20247th November$6110
20256th November$6110
20265th November$6110
20274th November$6110

Prices are per person based on double occupancy and do not include international airfare to/from your destination or internal flights during the tour.  Single supplement is available at $675 per person.  On private tours, surcharges may apply to certain travel dates based upon international or local holidays, as well as local events and festivals. All prices and fares are quoted in U.S. dollars and are subject to change.  See the terms and conditions for this trip for more information.

Early Bird Bookings

We offer an early bird discount of 5% if  tour bookings are made at least 12 months in advance of departure. 

Payment Process

We take an initial holding deposit of $500 per person, which is non-refundable. The remainder is due 3 months in advance of the departure date. We also confirm tour departure at this point, and people can go ahead and book flights.

Cancellation Policy

Tour cancellations incur a fee based on your time of notice before the tour commences.

The time frame and fees for cancellations are as follows –

90 to 61 days before departure is 25% of the trip price.
60 to 46 days before departure is 50% of the trip price.
45-0 days prior to departure is 100% of the trip price.

Group Size

We take a maximum number of 5 guests per tour leader.  With larger groups we will split between 2 tour leaders


Tour departures will be confirmed 3 months in advance, and depend on a minimum number of guests.  Guests should not book flights until they receive confirmation of the tour departure.


This is a small private group tour with designated departure dates. However we can tailor this tour or something similar to your required dates.

What's included
  • Transfers upon arrival and departure
  • Accommodation as indicated in the itinerary
  • All transportaion
  • Meals as indicated in the itinerary
  • Daily activities and excursions as indicated in the itinerary
  • All gratuities
  • local guides and government permits
What's not included
  • Airfare to and from destination, as well as internal airfare where applicable
  • Trip cancellation insurance or any other travel insurance
  • Visas
  • Alcoholic beverages


Villia (CANADA)
Read More
We were delighted with our trip, On the Opium Trail. We could not have asked for a more congenial and attentive guides, Duc and Nhan outdid themselves. Duc's ability to approach people and to get them to enjoy his company gave us an entry point for interacting with people. His profound respect for the ethnic minority peoples really impressed us and provided the means to engage with people on an equal footing. Our Opium trail guide, Nhan was an attentive and knowledgeable with a great sense of humor. We spent much of our trip smiling and laughing with the two of them. In Hanoi, Brett and Ling were great guides and instructors. Overall you have a great team who go the extra mile. The accommodations were great, the food fabulous and the car and driver were both superb. We had an exceptional time, see VIF again!


Yes. We offer a 5% early bird discount on all featured tours if bookings are received 12 months in advance of departure.

We take an initial holding deposit of $500 per person, which is non-refundable (unless we call off the trip for some reason). The remainder is due 3 months in advance of the departure date. We also confirm tour departure at this point, and people can go ahead and book flights.

Our Cancellation policy includes the following fees and cut of periods:

90 to 61 days before departure is 25% of the trip price.

60 to 46 days before departure is 50% of the trip price.

45-0 days prior to departure is 100% of the trip price.

We take a maximum number of 5 guests per 1 tour leader.  With larger groups we will split between 2 tour leaders.

Yes, you do.  You will be asked to sign a legally-binding liability disclaimer before tour departure

Please see the What to Bring list included in each itinerary

It’s a good idea to do this, as you’ll have a chance to get over the jetlag and do a bit of exploring before the action begins.  We can help you arrange accommodation and adventures.

Yes, apart from your own shopping and alcohol (but we’ll cover some wine and beer along the way, don’t worry)

As early as possible – tours book up fast

Please see terms and conditions included on each tour page

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Opium Trail

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Customize Your Photography Experience

Our unparalleled knowledge of travel and culture in Vietnam, and where and when to get the best shots, mean we are experts in designing tailormade photo tours.  We have planned and run tours for everyone from professional photographers on a mission to amateurs who want to get to know their cameras better on an adventure.  Each person and group is different, so once you’ve completed the few questions below, expect to answer a few more before we can create your ideal photographic adventure.


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