Saigon, Vietnam

  Also known as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Saigon boasts an electric, near palpable energy and is Vietnam's largest metropolis and its undisputed capital for commerece. For the casual visitor, Saigon can seem a chaotic collage of traffic-clogged roads and urban bustle, with nary a green space in sight. Yet thousands of expats and Vietnamese immigrants couldn't imagine living anywhere else. They've long since fallen prey to the hidden charms of one of Southeast Asia's liveliest cities.

  If every town had a symbol, Saigon's would surely be the motorbike. More than three million of them fly along streets once swarming with bicycles. Cruising along boulevards and back alleys astride a xe om is the quickest way to sensory overload - daily fare in this tropical town. Teeming markets, sidewalk cafes, acupuncture clinics, centuries-old pagodas and sleek skyscrapers all jockey for attention against the bustling backdrop. Yet the city hasn't forgotten its past. The ghosts live on in the churches, temples, former GI hotels and government buildings that one generation ago witnessed a city in turmoil.

Mekong Delta

  Vietnam's "rice basket", the Mekong Delta is a watery landscape of green fields and sleepy villages, crisscrossed by the chocolaty brown canals and rivulets fed by the mighty Mekong River. Its inhabitants - stereotyped as an extremely friendly and easy-going lot - have long toiled on the life-sustaining river, with their labors marked by the same cycles governing the waterways.

  After winding its way from its source in Tibet, the Mekong River meets the sea in southernmost Vietnam. This delta-plain is lush with rice paddies and fish farms. Once part of the Khmer kingdom, the Mekong Delta was the last part of modern-day Vietnam to be annexed and settled by the Vietnamese.

Hanoi, Vietnam

  Hanoi is where the exotic chic of old Asia blends seamlessly with the dynamic face of new Asia. Where the medieval and modern coexist. It's a city with a quixotic blend of Parisian grace and Asian pace, an architectural museum piece evolving in harmony with its history, rather than bulldozing through it like many of the region's capitals.

  A mass of motorbikes swarms through the tangled web of streets that is the Old Quarter, a cauldron of commerce for almost 1000 years and still the best place to check the pulse of this resurgent city. See the bold and beautiful dine at designer restaurants and cut the latest moves on the dance floor. Hanoi has it all, the ancient history, a colonial legacy and a modern outlook. There is no better place to untangle the paradox that is contemporary Vietnam.

Halong Bay

  Majestic and mysterious, inspiring and imperious, words alone cannot do justice to the natural wonder that is Halong Bay, where 3000 or more incredible islands rise from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Halong Bay is pure art, a priceless collection of unfinished sculptures hewn from the hand of nature. A Unesco World Heritage Site, the vegetation-covered islands are dotted with innumerable grottoes created by the wind and the waves. Besides the breathtaking vistas, visitors to Halong Bay come to explore the countless caves.

  Ha long means "where the dragon descends into the sea". The legend says that the islands of Halong Bay were created by a great dragon that lived in the mountains. As it ran towards the coast, its flailing tail gouged out valleys and crevasses; as it plunged into the sea, the areas dug up by its tail became filled with water, leaving only pockets of high land visible.

Luang Prabang, Laos

  Luang Prabang is a tonic for the soul. The former royal capital taps into the senses in a way few other cities can. It's thick with the perfume of pearly frangipanis and the enticing flavors of high-quality Asian and European food. The greens of the giant shade trees contrast with the burnt siena robes and bare-foot silence of countless Buddhist monks and novices collecting alms. And the gleaming temples, French-era palaces and villas, and the multiethnic peoples who live here give Luang Prabang a romantic and relaxed feel that can captivate even the most jaded travellers.

  At the confluence of the Nam Khan (Khan River) and the Mekong River, this ancient royal city retains its color despite being Laos' foremost tourist showpiece. This is in part because it is Unesco Heritage Listed, which means a blessed ban on buses and trucks, and in part because of the quiet benevolence of its residents, which lulls visitors into somnambulant bliss. Although Luang Prabang teems with travellers, it is not a party destination, and the 11:30pm curfew mercifully maintains its traditional disposition.

Vientiane, Laos

  As Laos opens up to the world, Vientiane is growing, but it can still mount a strong case for being the most relaxed capital city on earth. The combination of tree-lined boulevards and dozens of temples contribute to an atmosphere of timelessness, while the kaleidoscopic architectural styles reflect its historic influences: from classic Lao through Thai, Chinese, French, US and Soviet.   Today it's the stage for the subtle yet dramatic struggle between Laos' communist past and inevitably more capitalist future. You can dance to live music with trendy Lao youth, but the lyrics might have been censored. Or take in the fading glories of the revolution in the Lao National Museum, then pop across the street to another new restaurant in what is becoming one of the best-value eating cities on earth.   Vientiane isn't full of must-see sights, but the 6400 Buddha images at Wat Si Saket, the lotus-inspired lines of Pha That Luang and Patuxai are all worth a look, while the surreal Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park) is, like the city itself, not short of appeal.

Government Links

US Consulate Saigon, Vietnam

US Embassy Hanoi, Vietnam

US Embassy - Vientiane, Laos

Vietnamese Consulate - San Francisco

Laos Embassy - Washington, DC

Transportation Links

Lao Airlines

Bangkok Airways

Vietnam Airlines

Thai Airways

Nok Air - Thai domestic airline

Siem Reap Airways - No longer flying as of 2009

Accommodation Links

Site-seeing Links

Halong Bay Tours

Picking the right Halong Bay tour - Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum

Halong Bay - Tour vs Independent - Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum

Mekong Delta homestay

Ben Thanh Market

Hanoi's Old Quarter

Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum - Uncle Ho's final resting place

Khao San Road - center of the backpacker universe

Jim Thompson's House - famous farang landmark in Bangkok

Wat Ratchanatda - Buddhist temple in Bangkok

Movies & Books

Apocalypse Now

Platoon

The Deer Hunter

Full Metal Jacket

Good Morning Vietnam

Leg 1 RTW 2009 Leg 3

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