In this article, Torsten explores regional cross border tours, which he believes could improve Vietnam’s low rate of return visitors. Tour itineraries in Vietnam traditionally move from north to south or south to north, but this needn’t – and shouldn’t – be the only option, he argues.

Why is it that over 90% of tourists come to Vietnam and never return? I firmly believe that the classic north to south (or south to north) tours are partially to blame. I also believe that regional cross boarder tours may provide somewhat of a solution.

By regional cross border tours, I refer to itineraries that pair a specific region in Vietnam (north, central or south) with the two countries west of Vietnam: Laos and Cambodia. We could also include southern China in this type of tour, though I won’t be talking about Vietnam’s northern neighbor in this article. 5 to 8 days would be optimal for these tours, though it would be possible to stretch these tours to 2 weeks.

Regional cross border tours from Vietnam to Laos and Cambodia
may provide a tourism solution (Photo credit: Bien Nguyen)

In the early days of Vietnam tourism, it was appealing to visitors that they could come and see the whole country (i.e. the parts that were open to tourism): Halong Bay, Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Saigon and the Mekong Delta. Most tourists would do this trip in 6 to 12 days and once they were safely back home, they usually didn’t look back. Vietnam? Done.

Since those early days, many more destinations have opened up to tourism, including Sapa, Ninh Binh and Phong Nha to name just a few. It’s impossible to see everything in just one trip, so visitors these days pick what they want, ignore the rest, and still never come back. Vietnam? Done, mostly.

I believe that encouraging visitors to focus on a region rather than the whole country should go some way in breaking this trend, as this way visitors are more likely to return and see the regions that they missed.

Instead of starting from sunny Saigon to a drizzly Hoi An, visitors could be encouraged to stay in the south in December and head into Cambodia (Photo credit: Bien Nguyen)

One big problem with covering the whole country in one trip is the weather. If visitors take in all three regions then they are bound to come into contact with undesirable weather at some point. If they focus on one region only, they can take advantage of the different seasons and avoid weather-related disappointment.

A December tour that starts in sunny Saigon before heading up to a drizzly Hoi An, miserable Hue, and ice cold Hanoi isn’t the best option. Instead, visitors could be encouraged to stay in the south in December and head into Cambodia. They can come back to Vietnam on subsequent holidays to visit the central and northern regions in spring and autumn respectively.

Pairing the three regions of Vietnam with Laos and Cambodia isn’t complicated. Consider the following:


  • Northern Vietnam – Northern Laos
  • Central Vietnam – Southern Laos
  • Southern Vietnam – Cambodia

While tours pairing southern Vietnam with Cambodia are already well established, the other combinations have largely been ignored. The opportunities for itinerary design are endless and although I can’t go into every tour, I can give some examples:

The opportunities for itinerary design are endless.

Luang Prabang (Photo credit: Bien Nguyen)

Hanoi – Luang Prabang 

Northern Vietnam and northern Laos offer some excellent nature. Starting in Hanoi, one can move west to Pu Luong and/or Mai Chau for some classic Vietnamese countryside. Continue to the border with Laos and to the Nam Et – Phou Louey National Park, which is home to some of the few remaining tigers in Southeast Asia. From there, a tour can include the caves of Vieng Xai and/or the Plain of Jars before finishing in Luang Prabang. 


Danang – Pakse 

Central Vietnam and southern Laos can be combined for a varied tour that takes in a range of different activities, including beaches, old towns, nature and ancient temples. Starting in Danang, a tour can take in Hoi An and the surrounding beaches before heading north to Hue. Head to Laos, taking in the DMZ on the way, and settle in Savannakhet before going south to Pakse. From Pakse, the 4000 islands and/or Wat Phu are easily reached.

There are logistical challenges when designing these tours, but that shouldn’t be a reason not to offer them. When developing these kinds of tours, it’s important to keep in mind the following:


  • The start cities and end cities need to have airports, and ideally they should also have international connections to and from those airports.
  • All the different international border crossings need to be considered (there are six between Vietnam and Laos; three between Vietnam and Cambodia).
  • Visas may need to be arranged and obtained beforehand, as not all the international border crossings allow visa on arrival.

Professionals in Vietnam would do well to educate the travel community about the possibilities that the former Indochina has to offer.

Overseas customers know that there are more countries in this part of the world; many of them are looking for alternatives to the classic tours. The problem is that they are typically limited by their travel agents’ insufficient knowledge of Southeast Asia. Professionals in Vietnam would do well to educate the travel community about the possibilities that the former Indochina has to offer. And companies that successfully design and sell innovate regional cross border tours will see happy return customers wanting to explore the regions they missed the first time.

This content is also available in: Vietnamese