Imperial Cities of Thailand and Vietnam

January 1/3–18, 2014

At a time when Europe was struggling through the Dark Ages and America was yet to be visited by Columbus, the cultures of Southeast Asia were thriving. In the north of what is now Thailand, the Lanna kingdom was well established, with Chiang Mai (founded in 1296) as its capitol. To the south, the capital of Siam, Ayutthaya (founded in 1350), rivaled European cities in its splendor until it was sacked by the Burmese in 1767. To the northeast, Vietnam was breaking free of Chinese rule that extended from 111 B.C. until the rise of indigenous Vietnamese power in 968. The vestiges of Chinese aesthetics remain clearly visible.

In Bangkok ― a stunning, 21st-century city of more than 8 million people ― we'll see impressive palaces and temples of the Chakri dynasty, established by Rama 1 in 1782. A short trip to Ayutthaya will reveal a wide range of temple architectures, from the Khmer, Burmese, and historical Thai styles. Traveling north to Chiang Mai, we'll explore the distinctive mix of Burmese, Chinese, Tai (Lao) influences that inform the Lanna style.

In Hanoi, we will visit the Temple of Literature (a university established more than 1,000 years ago), as well as sites related to "the American war." A side trip to Ha Long Bay will provide a glimpse at one of the most dramatic seascapes in the world. We'll travel on to Hue and explore its Imperial City (established in 1804) and the temples of the Nyguen dynasty (late 18th to early 20th centuries). The journey concludes with a brief stop in Ho Chi Minh City.

Along the way we’ll discuss Southeast Asia as a cultural crossroads, and we’ll find time to visit markets, museums, and cultural shows, and, of course, enjoy fabulous food.

Discover Thailand and Vietnam

Chiang Mai is a dynamic and modern city which has successfully managed to combine its rich history and traditions with its increasingly modern side. Chiang Mai has cultural riches, relative peacefulness, fantastic handicraft shopping, delicious food and proximity to many natural treasures.

Bangkok is an exhilarating attack on the senses. Sukhumvit's malls and gleaming skyscrapers are just a veneer of modernity for a city firmly rooted in ancient Buddhist beliefs and traditions. Watch saffron-robed monks on their morning alms rounds, clouds of incense rising above the Grand Palace's golden spires, and long-tail boats gliding along the Chao Phraya River at dusk to discover Bangkok's underlying sense of calm and the spirit of old Siam.

The grand old dame of Asia, Hanoi lay in a deep slumber after Vietnam's partition in 1954, until the effects of economic reforms kicked in four decades later. The city survived American bombs and Russian planners to emerge relatively unscathed in the early 1990s as an example of a French-conceived colonial city. Huge mansions line grand boulevards, and lakes and parks dot the city, providing a romantic backdrop to the nonstop soundtrack. There are still moments of Paris, as the smell of baguettes and café au lait permeate street corners. Known by many names down the centuries, Thanh Long (City of the Soaring Dragon) is the most evocative, and let there be no doubt that this dragon is on the up once more.

Hue is culturally and historically significant. It was once Vietnam's Imperial City and later the country's capital under the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1945). The first citadel and Imperial City was built by Gia Long in 1803 on a former royal site; many of the city walls still stand, battle scarred from fighting with the French as far back as 1873, and later with the Americans during the notorious Battle of Hue in 1968. Perhaps most captivating is daily life on the Perfume River, with its many dragon boats, houseboats, and long-tail vessels dredging for sand.

Fasten your seatbelts, as Ho Chi Minh City is a metropolis on the move ― and we're not just talking about the motorbikes that throng the streets. Saigon, as it's known to all but city officials, is Vietnam at its most dizzying: a high-octane city of commerce and culture that has driven the whole country forward with its limitless energy. Saigon is a name so evocative that it conjures up a thousand jumbled images. Wander through timeless alleys to ancient pagodas or teeming markets, past ramshackle wooden shops selling silk, spices and baskets, before fast-forwarding into the future beneath sleek skyscrapers or at designer malls, gourmet restaurants and minimalist bars. The ghosts of the past live on in the churches, temples, former GI hotels and government buildings that one generation ago witnessed a city in turmoil, but the real beauty of Saigon's urban collage is that these two worlds blend so seamlessly into one.

City descriptions provided by and

Program leaders

Mary Griep, St. Olaf Professor of Art, and her husband, Randolph Jennings, led the Term in Asia program in 2000-01 and 2003-04. Between programs they remained in Chiang Mai, Thailand from 2001 to 2003, where Mary held an appointment as Artist-in-Residence at the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture, and Randolph served as a program director in the international study office of Payap University.

Mary's long-term Anastylosis project, a series of large drawings of 12th century sacred spaces took its initial shape during her artist residency in Chiang Mai, with drawings of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Thatbinyinyu in Burma, and a number of wats (temples) in Thailand. Through this work, she developed a deep appreciation for the religious, cultural, and architectural influences that have shaped the region.

Through their extensive travel across Southeast Asia, they enjoyed the hospitality and civility of the region, the sense of pride in national histories, and the marvelous architecture. They also enjoyed an unbelievable number of really great meals. They look forward to continuing their exploration of these dynamic cultures, and to sharing the excitement with a lively group of fellow travelers.

What to expect

Most of our movement will be by air-conditioned private motor coach. Movement within each city and at cultural/historic sites will at times be on foot, or by water taxi. You should be capable of walking up to five miles per day over possibly uneven terrain, of climbing stairs that may not have handrails, of climbing in and out of various types of transportation, of keeping pace with an active group of travelers on long days of traveling (including in the crowded and noisy Chiang Mai night bazaar), of dealing with the emotional highs and lows that can occur when experiencing different cultures, and of traveling with a group for several hours each day.

Hotels will be tourist class (four star or superior rating) with private baths, air conditioning, and English-speaking staff.

Temperatures and potential rainfall throughout the program will vary greatly. Averages in January for each stop are:

  • Chiangmai: high 84º, low 58, rainfall .3 inches
  • Bangkok: high 89º, low 71, rainfall .4 inches
  • Hanoi: high 66º, low 58, rainfall .7 inches
  • Hue: high 74º, low 63, rainfall 7.1 inches (Hue is notorious for its wet weather. The rainy season last longer than the Vietnamese average, and even during the so-called dry season, it rains regularly)
  • Ho Chi Minh City: high 88º, low 72, rainfall .6 inches

You should plan on seeing your family physician or a travel doctor at least four to six weeks prior to departure, preferably earlier, to talk about routine vaccinations. For more information on travel health, visit or

Program fee

The program fee is $4,830 per person through August 31, 2013. Based on double occupancy, it includes seminars by Mary Griep and Randolph Jennings, accommodations, breakfast daily and group meals as listed on the itinerary, admissions for group activities, ground transportation (except airport transfers) and gratuities for group meals and guides. After August 31, 2013, the program fee is $4,980 per person. For single occupancy, add $1,079.

Payment schedule

Forms for registered travelers:

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