If you’re heading on a Vietnam vacation in the near future, odds are you’re spending the majority of your time in the north or south, either taking in the colonial charms and sprawling old city of Hanoi, or experiencing the rush that is Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. However, don’t spend all your time in the north or south. Be sure to include Central Vietnam as well. Home to a long stretch of sunny beaches, old colonial towns, and imperial treasures of the past, Central Vietnam is an absolute must-see.
Whether you’re lounging on erstwhile-titled China Beach in Danang, strolling across the Japanese Covered Bridge of colonial Hoi An, or exploring the Imperial City of Hue, you’ll find so much to occupy your mind and ignite your senses in Central Vietnam. There’s no denying that Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are incredible places to visit on a Vietnam vacation, but don’t limit yourself to these metropolises. A visit to the country’s centre will reveal so much about Vietnam’s culture and national charm.
Soaking in the Sun of Danang
Located smack-dab in the middle of the country, Danang has long been unfairly dismissed as a provincial backwater. It was an important port during the French colonial era, but since the wars of the mid-20th century, the city has been known for little more than the beaches that American soldiers knew as China Beach.
Luckily, all that is changing, as Danang is one of the fastest-growing cities in all of Vietnam, well worth exploring on a Vietnam vacation. While Danang cannot top nearby Hue or Hoi An in terms of historical landmarks, it has plenty of charm in its own right. The waterfront along the Han River is exploding with new hotels, apartments, and fancy restaurants that will reframe your conceptions of a so-called sleepy backwater. The crazy bridges that span the city’s rivers, including the Dragon Bridge, add some variety to getting around town. And the most popular attractions in the city – the famous beaches, My Khe and Non Nuoc – are no slouch either.
The sand is soft on your feet and the warm waves will make sure you never get chilly, even on a windy day. The way the beach attracts the city’s crowds is a spectacle to behold. If you head there around noon, when the sun is at its highest and the heat most unbearable, you’ll find the beach mostly deserted. However, once the sun dips and the workday ends, the beach fills to the brim with city dwellers wanting to relax for the evening. If you were to take a nap on the empty beach in the afternoon until early evening, you’d awake to thousands of people sharing the sand with you, as if your unconscious mind willed them into existence while you slept.
If you are more culture hound than beach bum, you’ll still be in luck when exploring Danang on a Vietnam vacation. Within the city, you can visit the Museum of Cham Sculpture to learn about the Hindu Champa Kingdom that controlled the region during much of the Middle Ages. You can also head to Cao Dai Temple or Danang Cathedral to get a taste of divergent religious traditions that influenced the city in the past.
Danang is also conveniently located near several cultural and natural landmarks. In addition to being an inexpensive base for exploring Hoi An and even Hue, you can arrange a day trip to the archaeological site of My Son, which has over 20 structures from the Champa Kingdom that reigned over 1,000 years ago. You can also head west of the city to see the Ba Na Hills, or head south to visit the Marble Mountains, which are five limestone and marble hills with incredible weathered surfaces and various Buddhist sanctuaries scattered among them.
While in Danang on Vietnam vacation, be sure to taste some of the famous local dishes, such as Mi Quang, which is a dish of wide rice noodles served with meat, herbs, and a small amount of strong broth, and Bun mam, a vermicelli beef soup with a thick, fermented broth, which is reminiscent of Cajun gumbo.
Vietnam’s Charming Colonial Port, Hoi An
If you travel around one hour south of Danang, you’ll hit Hoi An, widely considered the most charming town in all of Vietnam. Once you enter the Old Town, you’ll see why people find Hoi An so charming. The town is full of colonial architecture and charming Buddhist structures. As well, cars and motorbikes are nowhere to be seen during many hours of the day. The vehicle ban during certain hours helps keeps the Old Town pollution-free and easy to navigate by foot.
Hoi An was largely untouched by the war, so its colonial architecture remains mostly intact. The city served as a major port during much of Vietnamese history, with traders from Europe, China, Japan, and India frequently visiting and bringing their culture along with them. The town’s architecture reflects these diverse cultural influences. Head to the trade market or Cam Nam Island to get the best sense of how the town was in centuries past.
While in the past merchants dominated the Old Town, today you’ll find many tourism businesses that have replaced the merchant houses, temples, and tearooms. If you want to get a custom suit or dress made during your trip, the many tailors in this part of the town will be happy to accommodate you. If you simply want to retreat from the tropical heat and relax in the shade with a drink in hand, you’ll find many bars, lounges, and restaurants where you can do just that.
The Old Town is Hoi An’s main attraction and you’ll want to spend most of your time walking its streets and engaging with locals, while on your Vietnam vacation. On Tran Phu Street, you’ll find plenty of shops and restaurants that cater to travellers; here you might find some crafts or ceramics that you’ll want to take home with you. The Japanese Covered Bridge is the most famous site in the city and the one specific attraction that is a must-see. Built in the early 17th century, the bridge sits on the west side of town, crossing the canal. You’ll find Buddhist shrines with statues of a monkey and a dog at either end of the bridge. You can also head to the Museum of Trade Ceramics to learn about the town’s history in extensive detail and marvel at intricate ceramic works from the past.
In terms of food, you’ll find plenty to satisfy your appetite in Hoi An. You can head to the Central Market Food Hall to hit up food stalls selling Mi Quang and Cao lau, a noodle dish with pork and greens that is specific to Hoi An. If you want fancier fare, splurge with a visit to Brother’s Café, the town’s top restaurant. Located in an old colonial police station by the river, the restaurant provides food and atmosphere in abundance.
The Imperial Capital, Hue
Hanoi might be the oldest city in the country and one of the oldest in Asia, but Hue, located northwest of Danang, was the seat of imperial power and the national capital through the 19th and early 20th centuries. The city came to prominence as the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty, which controlled much of South Vietnam for centuries.
Today, Hue is your best spot in the country to get in touch with imperial Vietnam. While many of the historical buildings were destroyed during the Vietnam War, plenty of sites do remain and offer a fascinating glimpse, on your Vietnam vacation, into the opulent past. Chief among them is the Imperial City of Hue, which warrants some comparison to the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.
Also known as the Dao Noi Citadel, the Imperial City of Hue is a massive walled palace with several halls, inner and outer courts, and temples within its grounds. While most buildings were destroyed during the war, the remaining buildings are in the process of restoration and open to visitors. You can visit the Imperial City during daytime hours for a small fee and explore the site for yourself, on a Vietnam vacation. In addition to the thick stone walls and moats surrounding the city, you can see a replica of the Royal Theatre and various royal tombs.
The Imperial City isn’t Hue’s only historical landmark. Located on the Perfume River, the city itself is picturesque and particularly striking when the sun is out. When clouds and rain descend on the city, it becomes moody and evocative. Along the river, you’ll find tombs of past emperors, such as Minh Mang, Khai Dinh, and Tu Duc. The Thien Mu Pagoda is particularly impressive, standing seven stories tall along the north bank of the river. The north side of the river also has the Museum of Royal Fine Arts, which houses treasures of the imperial past.
If you head to the south side of the river, you’ll find French colonial buildings and many restaurants specializing in Central Vietnamese delicacies. This is where you can feast on Bun bo Hue, a beef soup with vermicelli noodles that is specific to the city. As for culture, the people are fairly conservative compared to wild Ho Chi Minh City or even Hanoi. If you’re looking for thumping nightclubs, you’ve come to the wrong place. However, the city’s numerous pubs will make sure a stiff drink is within reach at day’s end.
If you’re interested in day trips while staying in Hue, you can head to the former Demilitarized Zone that was 70km north of the city during the Vietnam War. There you can explore the Vinh Moc tunnels, Khe Sanh Combat Base, and other strategic locations of the war.
Central Vietnam boasts a lot of history and culture within a relatively small area. If you’re planning a Vietnam vacation for your near future, be sure to take a few days in the country’s centre to explore the imperial past in Hue, shop for souvenirs in the Old Town of Hoi An, and relax on the beaches of Danang.
If you visit Vietnam but skip the country’s centre, you’re depriving yourself of iconic experiences. So plan to visit Danang, Hoi An, and Hue on your Vietnam vacation and ensure you get a full portrait of this incredible Southeast Asian country.