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 unparallelled 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.
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.
Flights arrive at various times of day. 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 Victoria 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 Victoria Hotel for check-in and breakfast at around 8am. This boutique hotel draws design inspiration from both Indochine and the tribal cultures of the area, and will serve as a luxurious HQ for our time in Sapa. 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. 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. Overnight at Victoria Hotel Sapa.
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 ‘Nha Vuong Meo’, 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. Overnight at our boutique hotel in Bac Ha.
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 beautiful Pan Hou Eco-Lodge 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 minority people of the area, visiting their villages and photographing their daily life. Pan Hou Eco-Lodge offers spa and traditional massage, which will be a welcome relief for weary photographers. We’ll enjoy dinner and drinks in the lodge’s stylish restaurant.
It’s worth getting up early this morning for a sunrise shoot in the mountains above the eco-lodge. As well as the splendid light, people are on their way to work in the fields, and children on their way to school, making for fantastic candid pictures of the life of the montagnards. After breakfast, 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 return to the lodge for lunch. In the afternoon, we’ll have a group review of photographs taken so far, and a look at selecting the best images from our collection. Dinner and overnight at Pan Hou.
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. At Sa Phin, we stop at the H’mong King’s Palace, a simpler, but no less striking counterpart of the one in Bac Ha. The Palace houses photographs and artefacts, such as opium pipes, dating back a century. It’s then a short drive to our resting point for that night, Dong Van, and we check into our very comfortable hotel.
After breakfast, we’ll trek up to the ruins of a French fortress overlooking Dong Van, a spot offering a hawk’s eye view of the whole valley. Then our minibus takes us 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 before heading down to our eco-lodge in Meo Vac.
Explore Meo Vac on foot. Our eco-lodge is a H’mong fort restored as a boutique accommodation, and we’ll enjoy a morning relaxing at the lodge, sharing pictures and discovering the locale. After lunch, we venture into the lower part of Ma Pi Leng, and we’ll take a short trek to discover traditional H’mong villages. 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. We return to the eco-lodge after sunset at Ma Pi Leng, and enjoy a delicious meal by a roaring fire.
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 a last lunch at our lodge, we hit the road back to Ha Giang, travelling a different route through the rocky plateau. There are still some fantastical landscapes along the way, and we’ll venture into picturesque adobe villages near the road to photograph daily life up-close. 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 a final lunch together, we are free to explore Hanoi or set off for further adventures. Flights or other transport depart at various times, with complimentary transfer.FAREWELL
Tour leader Duc Nguyen is a highly successful commercial and travel photographer, and one of our most popular guides. He has travelled widely throughout Vietnam, and has work published internationallly. He is currently also chief photographer for a major national tourism project in Ninh Binh province.
A Hanoian born and bred, he has led numerous tours for Vietnam in Focus, including regular tours in his hometown, northern adventures in Ha Giang and Mu Cang Chai, as far south as Mui Ne, and of course our cross-country Vietnam by Rail photo tour.
Duc is fluent in English and Vietnamese, and apart from his photography work manages a popular cafe on Hanoi’s West Lake.
Some comments from our guests on Duc’s guiding:
- Digital Camera or Film Camera
- Selections of lens
- Cable release
- Memory cards
- ND Graduated filters
- 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 – Victoria Sapa Hotel
Bac Ha – Sao Mai Hotel
Pan Hou – Pan Hou Ecolodge
Nam Dam – Dzao Lodge
Dong Van – Hoa Cuong Hotel
Meo Vac – Auberge de Meo Vac
Ha Giang – Ha Giang Phoenix Hotel
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
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 $625 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 10% if tour bookings are made 6 months in advance of departure.
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.
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.
We take a maximum number of 5 guests per 1 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.
- 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
- Alcoholic beverages