Category: Heritage


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!”


When it comes to cruising, the best way to stimulate your appetite for the increasing-popular activity is aboard a small vessel, according to a recent Travel + Leisure article.

I couldn’t agree more. I’m all about exploration by boat. And not the deep-sea kind, either. River journeys actually. Trips that let you glimpse the daily life along rivers such as the Irrawaddy or Mekong from the quiet comfort of your cozy cabin. Or from the sundeck of a replica paddle-wheeler, as a tropical breeze blows soft against your face.

Got two weeks? Think about the Irrawaddy-to-Inle experience in Myanmar. The trip includes five nights aboard the RV Pandaw, whose staterooms are 170 square feet in size and beautifully finished in teak and brass. A featured pitstop is Ava, the capital of Burma between 1364 and 1841.

For a shorter — but no less extraordinary — adventure, consider a tour from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to the Mekong Delta, a vast network of distributaries dubbed “a biological treasure trove” by World Wildlife Fund.

Thousands of tourists visit the Cu Chi Tunnels everyday, an immense network of connecting underground passageways just outside of Ho Chi Minh City.

The 121 km-long complex of tunnels is where thousands of Vietnamese soldiers supporting the north hid out during the Vietnam War. Even though the tubes have been enlarged to accommodate visitors, they are still extremely claustrophobic — just wide and tall enough to walk through stooped over. They are dark. And ventilation in them is poor.

To tour the tunnels, visitors need not get down and dirty or be ready to overcome fears. Experienced guides are there to tell stories and answer questions about what happened in various ‘rooms’ underfoot.

Saigon Profile: Meet ‘Uncle Nam’, a Cu Chi Expert
Uncle Nam is one such guide. He was born in the district of Cu Chi and lived in the tunnels as a soldier and vegetable grower from 1963-1975.

For more than a decade, he called the subterranean labyrinth home. He even met his better half down there.

Uncle Nam made lots of friends in the tunnels, as well. He realized just how many friends he had when he was injured by a U.S. bomb; his comrades gave him the best seat in the house — “near the vent, where there was much more air to breathe,” he remembers.

Nowadays, the 66-year-old draws energy from the people visiting the tunnels in hopes of learning more about Vietnamese culture. He enjoys leading tours because it keeps him active and bolsters his self-worth.

“I am proud of where I come from,” says Uncle Nam. “It makes me happy to be able to contribute to my hometown.”

If visiting Cu Chi, ask for Uncle Nam. He is a delightful guide, and more than happy to show you around a place he knows well.

View of Vang Vieng, Laos

View of Vang Vieng, Laos

“I was born to Laotian parents, so I grew up hearing the language and listening to stories of the culture,” says Nouane Vorachak, a tour specialist in Laos. Six years ago she moved to Laos from France and says it was one of her best decisions ever.

Nouane now knows Laos like the back of her hand.

“I now get to introduce my beautiful country to travelers and to organize the perfect trip is my way of making dreams come true,” she reveals.

Nouane has experienced some splendid moments in this Indochina country. Her most unforgettable one was watching the sun set on the river in Vang Vieng after a long day of kayaking.

Nouane says she would next like to “cruise the majestic waters of the Malay archipelago,” Nouane says. “It’s the largest group of islands in the world and I know touring Indonesia by boat would be wonderful to see.”

Nouane is content to explore more of Laos until she is able to check that Indonesian journey off the list. She loves talking to others about what makes her home country so great.

“I always try to make the floating restaurant in Tha Ngone near Vientiane part of the itinerary,” Nouane adds. “There’s no better way to enjoy lunch than on a big raft cruising up the river.”

In addition to Vientiane, there are other stunning destinations to explore in Laos, such as Luang Prabang, widely considered the nation’s spiritual capital.

Consider Cambodia by Bicycle

Say ‘Cambodia‘ and most people nowadays instinctively think of Angkor Wat, an awe-inspiring collection of ancient temples in Siem Reap that draws millions of tourists every year.

Phan Sophea

Phan Sophea

But there’s more to this tranquil country than its famous ruins of a lost civilization, says Phan Sophea – a Cambodia-based travel specialist.

“Angkor Wat is amazing, but if you want to experience the real Cambodia, there’s no better way than to cycle from Phnom Penh to Udong, which is also steeped in history,” he says. “In fact, it was home to a succession of kings for more than 200 years, starting in the early 1600s.

“The trip to Udong offers a great look into the culture and local way of life. And along the way, you can try fishing at beautiful Ta Mok Lake.”

If anyone would know it’s Sophea, who’s passion for biking is rivaled only by his love for Cambodia. In fact, he still rates cycling around Koh Trong Island, in northeast Cambodia, as his all-time favorite adventure.

“Planting a tree at the local wat was an unforgettable experience for me,” he recalls.

As for why Sophea enjoys travel so much, the answer might surprise you.

“All credit goes to rugby,” he says. “The sport has allowed me to travel and meet people from all over the world. In turn, it created a desire in me to experience the ‘real world.’ I work in the travel industry now because I want to make the world a less foreign place and help people experience the beautiful country of Cambodia.”

But of course, exposing globetrotters to one of Southeast Asia’s most historic and bucolic destinations is not the road warrior’s only goal in life.

“My dream is to do the triathlon event in Kampot, on Cambodia’s coast,” Sophea says. “My mission is to be an ‘iron man’ one day.”

Tour to exploring Cambodia by bike, including Angkor Wat.

Ta Prohm, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Ta Prohm, Siem Reap, Cambodia