Archive for August, 2012


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.

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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.”