Vietnam is one of the most interesting countries you will ever visit, with stunning natural landscapes and a fascinating society and culture. The country is astoundingly diverse, stretching along a fertile coastal strip of land sandwiched between the South China Sea and rugged forest-draped mountains bordering Laos. Remnants of French colonialism are still observed through architecture, food, tree-lined boulevards and a thriving cafe culture.
Cambodia’s spirit is embodied in the stunning temple ruins of the Angkor Empire, a civilization which once presided over most of present day Southeast Asia. The Khmer Rouge took control of the country in 1975 and began one of the worst episodes of genocide in recent world history, until they were overthrown by the Vietnamese in 1979. Since UN assisted elections in the early 1990s Cambodia is now a stable democracy and a safe country to travel in.
In Vietnam, we hike in the mountainous north, home to fascinating highland minorities. We boat and kayak through incredible Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site with its myriad islands. We explore the history-rich towns of central Vietnam. In the far south we boat and cycle through the impressive Mekong Delta. Throughout we learn about the history and resilience of the Vietnamese people.
In Cambodia we undertake our volunteer service projects in rural villages, and experience the awe-inspiring majesty of the temple ruins at Angkor Wat. We hear first-hand accounts from survivors of the devastating Khmer Rouge period, and contrast this with visits with grassroots development organizations making a tangible and empowering difference in the lives of marginalized communities. During this program you’ll learn an enormous amount about the social and cultural history of both countries, and how their unique histories have shaped the environment and people.
This summer abroad program is suitable for high school graduates, gap year students, university students and graduates, ideally 18 – 24 years. Optional transferable academic credit is available to all participants.
Facilitated by our supportive and experienced Program Instructors, this is an excellent summer, study abroad or gap year option for students or graduates wanting to develop personal and leadership skills, and be exposed to and immersed in cultures different to their own.
Hanoi is the political and cultural capital of Vietnam. You will be met on arrival in Hanoi by your Program Instructors. We begin a comprehensive orientation before we head out exploring the colorful streets of the 'Old Quarter', where everything imaginable is being bought and sold on the streets. Our dollars become Vietnamese Dong and we’ll have the chance to try a new language and take part in local life at street-side restaurants and markets. The following day we explore the countryside around Hanoi by bicycle.
We leave the intensity of Hanoi behind and drive into the mountains near the Laos border. In a valley called Mai Chau, we stay in a traditional Tai (tribal minority) village and spend time exploring the valley - hiking and learning about life in this rural community. We then hike into the Pu Long nature reserve to stay in another Tai village, where we can swim in a series of small waterfalls.
We travel to the coast and embark on our traditionally styled wooden live-aboard ‘junk’ to explore spectacular Halong Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay – studded with 1500 limestone islands rising sheer from the sea. We explore the islands and lagoons by sea kayak, and cruise on our junk, navigating twisting passages amidst stunning Karst landscape. We visit floating villages, home to a significant fishing and pearl farming community.
On our final afternoon we return to Hanoi. Then “all aboard” the Reunification Express for our overnight train journey to the old imperial capital, Hue.
We take a mystery tour of Hue and its environs. Our ‘posse’ of moto-taxis join the melee of bicycle traffic as it surges along tree-lined boulevards. School girls wearing traditional silk ao-dai glide past stalls laden with red dragon fruit as Buddhist monks and produce-laden women jostle by. From Emperors’ tombs to Buddhist pagodas, you’ll really get a feel for this city. Don’t leave home without your sunglasses, camera and a ready smile for your personal ‘moto’ driver.
We travel to our favorite Vietnamese town. Hoi An is renowned for its diverse architectural heritage, masterful tailors, abundant silks and superb cuisine. The town has UNESCO World Heritage status and its profusion of old houses, quiet streets and covered bridge are being preserved and restored. Hoi An is also the ultimate place to have affordable clothes tailor-made to order. There’s a beach nearby for sunrise yoga and people watching on the riverfront is hard to beat! We participate in a craft workshop at a vocational training organization, and take a half-day cooking class learning how to whip-up fantastic Vietnamese dishes.
A flight south takes us to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), and a visit to the legendary Cu Chi Tunnels – over 150 miles of tunnels, in some places several floors deep, where Viet Cong forces built pseudo-cities underground, enabling them to infiltrate and control large areas around Saigon virtually undetected.
Then to Saigon, a city of stunning contrasts, bursting with energy and a 24-hour go-go-go attitude. We venture out into the maelstrom of people, cyclos, motos, carts, trucks and taxis to zigzag our way to the War Remnants Museum, a chilling memorial to the atrocities of the Vietnam War. Then lighten up with a stroll around the unusual Presidential Palace and Ben Thanh, Saigon’s central market.
The Mekong Delta, Vietnam’s rice bowl, is one of the largest river deltas in the world. You’ll be in awe of its fertile abundance as we explore by bicycle and boat, visiting small farms and workshops on islands among the myriad branching waterways and tributaries. Homestay with a rural family tonight.
We cross into Cambodia, where we get a taste of culture and an understanding of rural life by home staying for 3 nights with a wonderful Khmer family in Angtasom. Afternoons we volunteer teach at the Hope for Happiness Center, a free school supporting local students’ educational and vocational opportunities. Our time at this homestay is a program highlight for many students.
Then onward to Kampot, on Cambodia’s south coast. Over the next 3 days we volunteer with an NGO and a marginalized community, to build two simple homes for community members – a challenging and rewarding project.
When not working on the home, the group will volunteer teach at the Chumkriel Language School, and participate in a workshop at Epic Arts, an NGO which promotes integration of people of all abilities using the arts as a form of expression, empowerment, education and employment – vital in a country where an estimated 1 in 250 people have some form of disability.
Uncover the tragic history of the Khmer Rouge regime with a visit to Tuol Sleng Museum. Support a Khmer café providing vocational training for some of Phnom Penh’s 20,000 street kids. There is also time to visit the Killing Fields, and some free time to immerse yourself in the wonderfully chaotic Russian Market, undoubtedly one of the more interesting markets you’ll ever visit.
Leaving Phnom Penh, we drive to Siem Reap, from where we explore the impressive remnants of the Angkor Empire. The Angkor Wat temples are the largest temple ruins on earth and you’ll be amazed by them. Through mammoth carved stone panels, stories unfold of historical events, tales of gods, and legends. See the restoration of some temples and the disintegration of others as the jungle reclaims them. Explore elaborate twisting passageways, stone causeways and moats. Wonder at the civilization that created them – at its peak, with a population of one million people, it exceeded the size and complexity of any other city in the world.
We'll visit the Phare Circus and Artisans D'Angkor, both inspiring organizations supporting vocational opportunities for youth.
We also have time in Siem Reap to reflect on our journey together and appreciate new friendships and perspectives, before departing this beautiful country and flying home.
Note: Each week there will be some designated free time in a town or city so that you can catch up on email and laundry, rest, and explore independently with others in the group.
Open to high school graduates, university students and graduates, ideally 18 – 24 years. This program is suitable for anyone of average fitness with an enthusiasm for conservation, humanitarian work, new experiences and different cultures. You need to be open-minded, and committed to and prepared for some physical work whilst on the volunteer component of the program. It is an excellent option for students and graduates wanting to be exposed to and immersed in a culture different to their own. You don’t need to have had previous experience with international travel or any of the activities offered.
Our accommodation will vary from welcoming homestays and simple lodges with shared facilities, to modern hotels and guesthouses with private bathrooms. Laundry and WiFi will be available most days, except while on expeditions and at community stays. Accommodation is diverse, comfortable and carefully chosen to fit our needs.
Meals are fresh, tasty, healthy and varied. Special dietary requirements and vegetarians are catered for. Food is a highlight when travelling in Asia and throughout there will be the opportunity to eat authentic Asian or Western style food. 85% of meals are included in the program cost. The remaining few meals are not included to allow a choice of when, where and what we eat. For the meals not included, you will have the option of dining out, or self-catering with others in the group. We recommend you budget the sum of $10 per day for drinks, snacks, and meals not included in the program cost (approximately $300 for the program).
Visas (pre-arranged by Pacific Discovery); All in-country travel and transport including one flight within Vietnam; All accommodation; Most meals; All activities, excursions, entry fees and adventure travel as described in the itinerary; Service learning projects; Informal lectures from resident experts on conservation, eco-tourism, history, and development; Experienced Program Instructors and local guides; An online image library for your program.