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Whether you’re in the actual capital of Hanoi or in the commercial capital of Ho Chi Minh City, in the mountainous northern precincts or the sand-swept southern coastal areas, evidence of style abounds in Vietnam. It’s in everything from what the Vietnamese wear, such as the elegant ao dai, to the architecture of the buildings.

It should come as no surprise. Not when the country’s storied history is examined even somewhat closely.

Vietnam’s affinity for style — and, by extension, art — can be traced as far back as 8,000 BC, when experts believe this part of the world began creating pottery. Over the years, Vietnam’s art has been most influenced by China (Confucianism) and France, which ruled Vietnam from the late 1800s until the mid 1900s.

But what’s developed is a country with a personality all its own. For proof, one need look no further than some of Vietnam’s must-visit galleries.

In the western suburbs of Hanoi, Nha San Duc has been hosting local and international artists for years now. The two-story ‘house on stilts’ includes old statues and artifacts — many of which are for sale — and serves as a venue for exhibitions, installations and performances.

In Ho Chi Minh City’s first district, Craig Thomas Gallery is where it’s at for those with a passion for art of a more contemporary kind. The founder moved to Vietnam in 1995, became actively involved in the city’s art scene in 2002, and opened the gallery in 2009.

That’s also when Tadioto debuted in Hanoi. Owned by Nguyen Qui Duc, who worked as a journalist in the U.S. before returning to Vietnam, the six-story space is where to go for everything from live music showcases and literary readings to photo exhibitions and late-night cocktails.

We all know Japan is one of the more tradition-rich countries in Asia. For proof, one need look no further than the geisha culture, or how the Japanese go about entering a house. (No shoes, please; only ghosts wear them inside!)

But if you really want to soak up Japanese tradition, there might not be a better way than to visit an authentic onsen, a kind of spa that involves bathing in a hot spring, au naturel.

Onsens have been a part of the Japanese culture for ions. They’re the result of the country’s volcanic activity, are popular for their therapeutic qualities since many Japanese people believe that a good soak in a proper onsen heals aches, pains and diseases and are therefore a big driver of domestic tourism.

“In my opinion, a trip to Japan isn’t complete without a trip to an onsen,” said Hisae Komatsu, a travel specialist in Japan. “Try to make sure you book a hotel or ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) that has its own private onsen. The more traditional the better.”

So what do you most need to know before pampering yourself in a relaxing onsen soak? For starters, wash carefully beforehand and place your towel on your head while in the water.

Learn a few more key tips and you’ll be well on your way to enjoying this bathing ritual at any of the more than 3,000 onsens — including Lonely Planet’s Top 10 — that can be found throughout Japan.

Consider Sleepier End of Laos

Talk to people who have been to Laos and chances are they’ll share the travel experiences they had in low-key Luang Prabang or temple-rich Vientiane. Or both. After all, those two places are considered the main draws when it comes to tourist attractions in the country.

But talk to those in the know and chances are you’ll hear other names too, such as the Bolaven Plateau and Si Phan Don and Si Phan and Pakse. Places in the Southern part of the country that no one would argue are off the proverbial grid but rest at the crossroads of three other Southeast Asian countries — Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

The region’s appeal also lies there. In and around Pakse, for instance, you’ll explore pre-Angkorian temples, coffee plantations and sustainable tourism projects in wildlife sanctuaries. And you’ll be struck by the lack of urgency.

Same goes for Si Phan Don, a collection of 4,000 islands scattered throughout the lower Mekong River. Here, it’s all about chilling out and breathing the world in — an activity made all the more easy thanks to the fact none of the islands have cars on them. By and large, locals farm coconut, kapok and bamboo, and only turn the electricity on in the evenings.

There’s a reason Angkor Wat is one of the most popular tourist spots in Southeast Asia. The complex of ancient temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia, is an elegant formation of awe-inspiring architectural wonders.

But the Khmer Empire’s reach extended well beyond Angkor, and those other temples are also well worth a visit.

One of them is Banteay Srei, which is near the quiet lake villages of Kampong Kleang and Kampong Phluck. Another is Beng Melea, which actually pre-dates Angkor Wat. It’s about an hour and a half from Siem Reap and features the same layout as Angkor Wat. But the central tower has completely collapsed and most of the structure is overgrown by trees. It is the only temple where you can climb over the stones on a fixed circuit, and you hardly ever see any other tourists on your way.

Farther north you’ll find Koh Ker, which has only recently been made accessible. The place was briefly the Angkorian capital during the 10th Century.

“Koh Ker is interesting for its huge, pyramidal temple and unique style,” says Phan Sophea, a Cambodia-based travel specialist. “And the newly-paved road out there takes you through gorgeous farmland.”

Phan also marvels at Preah Vihear, which rests on a clifftop overlooking the vast Cambodian plains, making it one of the most spectacular of all Angkorian temples.

“Getting there is an adventure in itself,” he says. “First you have to climb the cliff — either on motorbike or in a pickup truck — but once on top you are rewarded with amazing views, hardly any tourists, a beautiful temple and the feeling that you are doing something not everybody does.”

Toshogu Fall Festival

There are all kinds of reasons to visit Asia. The food is out of this world. The beaches are awesome. The value is off the charts.

But to truly gain an understanding of the cultures in this exotic part of the world, you’ve got to visit during a festival, say those who live there.

In Myanmar, the Elephant Dance Festival trunks – er, trumps – all, says Yangon resident, Ye Thi Ha Thwin.

In the town of Kyauk Se, about 30 miles from Mandalay, locals make elephant figures out of bamboo frames and the skin out of cloth. The statue is decorated with colorful, shiny paper.

A team includes two men who climb into the elephant to perform the dance in front of large crowds.

In Thailand, the best festival could very well be the Naga Fireball Festival, says Pornsurang ‘A’ Siriwandee, a Bangkok resident.

The two-day event takes place in historic Nong Khai, around the full moon of the 11th lunar month.

“It’s going to sound crazy,” A says, “but that’s when unexplained fireballs rise out of the Mekong River with great intensity, shoot into the sky and then disappear.”

The festival also features long-tail boat races and a sound and light show.

“Expect lots of people at festivals in Japan, too,” says Hisae Komatsu, who lives in Tokyo. “The Japanese love their festivals — especially Takayama Autumn Festival, Sapporo Snow Festival and Awa Odori Summer Festival — and plan their holidays according to them. So, hotel bookings must be made way in advance!”

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Have you seen The Hangover Part II? If so, you may remember the scene where the guys first meet with Paul Giamatti’s character, Kingsley. It’s at a restaurant on the rooftop of a building that overlooks all of Bangkok.

It wasn’t a contrived set; the restaurant actually exists. It’s called Sirocco, and you don’t have to be a movie star to go there. Nor do you have to own celebrity status to order a drink at its Sky Bar, where the signature cocktail is called the Hangovertini.

Sky Bar is among many skyscraping watering holes in Thailand’s capital city. Other favorites include Nest, A Level, Vertigo, Roof at Muse Thonglor and Red Sky, which is located in the center of the city but somewhat under the radar.

A great time to go to any of these bars is after you’ve explored a little bit of Bangkok by foot.

“Get a sense of the city from ground level, then go up to one of the rooftop bars for the aerial perspective,” says A Siriwandee, a Thailand-based tour specialist. “Around sunset is obviously ideal.”

The only thing to remember before setting off for a cold one is that dress codes apply at most of the rooftop bars, “so just be conscious of that,” says A.

ImageWhether we’ve read it or not, the 1997 novel Memoirs of a Geisha by American author Arthur Golden is a story we’re all familiar with. After all, the book not only became a bestseller, it drew the attention of Rob Marshall, who made it into a motion picture that earned six Academy Award nominations.

What few Westerners know, however, is what the definition of a geisha actually is. According to a review on Amazon.com, it’s a “rigorous” profession. And according to dictionary.com, it’s “a Japanese woman trained as a professional singer, dancer and companion of men.”  

While the geisha culture isn’t as prevalent as it used to be, it does still exist in certain parts of Japan. One such place is beautifully balanced Kyoto, which was the country’s capital for more than 1,000 years.

But think again if you think you can just take it all in by walking around the geisha districts of Kyoto.

“There is no guarantee you will see a geisha,” says Ms. Hisae Komatsu, a travel specialist in Japan, “unless you are with a guide like ours.”

Our guide is one of the foremost Western experts on geisha — a man who has lived in Kyoto for more than 20 years, was married to a former geisha, studies Japanese arts and is a lecturer on Geisha Studies at Kansai University.

“The travelers I’ve talked to are blown away by the elegance and beauty of it all,” says Hisae. “It’s such a unique experience. You not only get to have a conversation with a real geisha, you have access to someone who can answer any question about a geisha’s life.”

ImageVietnam continues to make a name for itself as a destination with underground excursions.

The tunnels at Vinh Moc, in the central province of Quang Tri, once housed an entire village and today host travelers who want to experience the grim depths of wartime living.

The tunnels at Cu Chi, where the National Liberation Front staged strikes on Saigon and the occupying American forces, are one of the country’s top draws.

Now, add one more to this roll call of subterranean adventures. In late May, the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi opened a wartime air raid shelter that once harbored the likes of Joan Baez and Jane Fonda and that was only rediscovered during construction of the hotel’s Bamboo Bar last summer.

To visit the shelter, you have to be a guest of the hotel. But a night’s stay at the Metropole is one splurge worth making anyway.

The shelter is a warren of corridors and chambers, preserved as it was in the days when sirens resounded all over Hanoi. Though this space is dank and austere, it’s relatively luxurious when you compare it to the earthen tunnels of Vinh Moc and Cu Chi.

Upon rediscovery, the hotel didn’t find any skeletons in this closet. Just an old wine bottle, some old light bulbs and old electrical outlets and air ducts. Oh, and some graffiti from one Bob Devereaux, an Australian diplomat who scratched his name in the wall one day back in 1975.

For more on the shelter, including images and video, check out the Metropole general manager’s blog.

Four-Wheel Fun in Bali

ImageThere are many different ways for you as a tourist to explore a destination.

In Siem Reap, Cambodia, you could hop into a motodop, a covered, two-wheel cab that’s hitched to the back of a motorbike.

In Saigon, Vietnam, you could climb onto a cyclo, which is characterized by a chair that’s attached to the front of a bicycle.

But perhaps nowhere is sightseeing more adventurous than in Bali, where visitors are lured by ‘VW safari’ tours — 4×4 excursions by Volkswagen Kübelwagen, a type of jeep originally built during the second world war as a military vehicle.

“There’s no better way to take in the surroundings of Bali’s hilly interior than by VW safari,” says Eva Sihotang, an Indonesia tour specialist. “With the top down, you get these incredible panoramic views of the island’s terraced rice paddies and can breathe in fresh mountain air.”

She is probably most fond of the stretch between Mount Batur and Ubud, for its windy roads that present vistas of mountain streams, small Balinese villages and those terraced rice fields. And you can quickly put the top up in case a tropical shower suddenly hits.

“I always get a kick out of the kids we pass, too,” she says. “They’re always waving and shouting hello because they think it’s a cool and unusual form of transport, as well.”

Such four-wheel fun is a must-experience during any dream trip to the Island of the Gods.

Sometimes you have to leave home to truly appreciate it. That’s Eva Sihotang’s belief. And that’s why this Indonesia-based tour specialist is familiar with more than West Java, where she grew up.

“Being able to communicate with people from different parts of the country opens you up to experiences you wouldn’t otherwise get to enjoy,” she says.

Eva, who now resides in Bali but continues to explore the entire archipelago, thinks “living away from home has made me more enthusiastic and more culturally aware of the diversity of Indonesia, which has so many islands and so many dialects.”

Eva, an avid diver, likes to channel Jacques Cousteau and survey what’s underwater. Her favorite dive site is off the East Coast of Bali, around the USS Liberty shipwreck, the result of a Japanese torpedo strike during World War II.

“The marine life at Liberty is incredible,” Eva comments. “Especially at night. There’s something magical about it, just like traveling itself!”

As for exciting experiences on land in Indonesia, she recommends setting your compass for Gili Trawangan, the largest of Lombok’s Gili islands, about an hour by boat from Bali.

“One of the coolest things is to watch a movie at the beach cinema,” Eva adds. “The atmosphere is beyond imagination.” Do what you want there, but whatever you do, don’t miss taking a seat on the sand once the sun goes down, she says.

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