While many visitors make a beeline for the larger Vietnamese cities of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, the long narrow strip that makes up Central Vietnam boasts a dense collection of spectacular sights and attractions. Roughly speaking, the Central portion of the country can be divided into two areas: the Central Coast and the Central Highlands. A far cry from the wet and tropical climate of the South, Central Vietnam’s warm and dry climate means most visitors make a beeline for the sunny seaside resorts dotted along the coast.
Da Nang is Central Vietnam’s main jumping off point, thanks in large part to its well-connected airport and white-sand beaches. Other hotspots in the region include the historical town of Hue, which once served as the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty. Coupled with its pristine gardens, the splendid palaces of Hue’s old Imperial City transport visitors back to the charms of yesteryear. The last several years have also seen Hoi An, which was once a small fishing town, explode with popularity as word spreads of the quaint and colorful Chinese vibe of its narrow streets.
Central Vietnam is also home to many reminders of the cruel war which ripped the country apart. The area once marked out the dividing line between North and South Vietnam, and many visitors would suggest that the divide is still evident today. Though there is little to see on the ground, the battlefields of the demilitarized zone are a poignant reminder of Vietnam’s tragic war-torn history.
The Central Highlands of Vietnam offer up the perfect destination for visitors that want to explore off the beaten track. Majestic waterfalls, fertile plantations and lofty peaks offer the perfect peaceful getaway, and the misty forests of the Central Highlands are home to thriving communities of gibbons, bears and elephants. Hilltop escapes to towns such as the “Frenchified” Dalat, which rejoices in an eternally spring-like climate, also make Central Vietnam well-worth exploring.
Hue (pronounced “Hway”) is a must-visit destination for travellers seeking the spirit of Old Vietnam. Ancient palaces and pagodas are sprinkled generously across the town, which is a seat of traditional culture and delectable cuisine in the central region. A sprawling mass of temples, moats, museums and galleries, The Citadel was the former seat of government, and is Hue’s unmissable attraction.
Every two years, the city holds a weeklong Hue Festival, packed full of traditional ceremonies and performances to honor the former capital city's cultural traditions. Another festival, held every one to two years at the end of the year, is the kaleidoscopic Dalat Flower Festival which showcases the region's floral diversity.
Nearby Hoi An exhibits its own historic charm, and was once a major port. The barrage of noises and smells that accompany modernisation in other Vietnamese cities is entirely absent here, making the town a quaint getaway destination. Once known as Faifo, Hoi An was one of the principal ports on the Spice route of the Cham Kingdom, which once stretched from Hue down to Phan Tiet to the south of Nha Trang.
Hoi An’s old-world charm is also thanks to the wealth it amassed as a bustling trading port in the 19th century. As such, the town now embodies an eclectic range of Asian influences that make it a enchanting melting pot and a magnet for tourists. Hoi An Museum of History and Culture displays an eclectic range of treasures from 9th Century Cham relics to intriguing photograph exhibits from the early 20th Century, while the Museum of Sa Huynh Culture is also well worth a visit if you can’t get enough of Vietnam’s colorful past.
Some of the most enticing beaches on the eastern coast are also easily accessible from Hoi An, and visitors that want to explore further evidence of Vietnam’s Cham history should factor in some time to explore Da Nang on the coast.
The region also boasts its own regional cuisine, distinctly different from the Chinese-influenced tastes in the North and the spice- and herb-infused fare in the south. Hue Imperial Cuisine – a culinary remnant from the lavish royal banquets during the Nguyen Empire – features smaller portion delicacies presented beautifully.
The former capital of Hue still emanates the royal splendor of its days as the seat of the Nguyen emperors.
UNESCO World Heritage statuses provide an easy must-visit list of historical sites, including the walled fortress of the Imperial City (which once housed the Purple Forbidden City) and royal tombs. Not far from Da Nang, the Hindu temple complex of My Son, also a UNESCO Heritage Site, also offers insights into the Cham Kingdom which once occupied this area.
Dalat has the feel of a lofty French ski resort that has been re-positioned in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The town was built as a summer escape for aristocrats who wanted to enjoy the cooler climate in distinctly French surroundings. There is plenty to do in Dalat, from swinging the irons on the golf course to exploring the villa-style palaces built by the last emperor of Vietnam Bao Dai. Xuan Huong lake, is located at the centre of the town and is a popular destination for honeymooners on a romantic stroll.
The shimmering Lak Lake is the largest natural body of water in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, covering 700 hectares during the rainy season. The rural scenery is picture-perfect, and travellers seeking a window into the authentic rural culture of Central Vietnam often visit the ethnic minority villages nestled on the shore of the lake. One of the villages, M’lieng, is only accessible via boat or on the back of an elephant.
Located 9km south of downtown Da Nang lie the mystical craggy outcrops known as the Marble Mountains. Each of the five mountains is topped with a Buddhist pagoda, and is named after the natural element it is said to represent (metal, wood, water, fire, earth). The Marble Mountains are one of Vietnam’s most important pilgrimage sites, and several Buddhist temples have even been built into their cavernous grottoes. Thu Son (Water) is the most famous of the mountains, and a number of Buddhist and Hindu shrines have been created within the depths of its natural grottoes. In addition to the spiritual significance of the Marble Mountains, they are a popular destination for those who enjoy to take in the great outdoors with a pleasant hike.
Nha Trang is arguably Vietnam’s most famous coastal resort town, and boasts a livelier character than other beach destinations such as Phu Quoc. Nha Trang’s potential as a bathing destination was recognized by the French, and the town later became a popular R+R stop off for American soldiers. While the town’s main draw is its white-sand beaches, the Po Nagar Cham Towers that overlook the town are impressive stop-offs for temple enthusiasts.
The slow upgrading of Vietnam’s north-to-south train line (also known as the Reunification Line) means that it is relatively simple to negotiate train journeys up and down the Central Coast portion of Vietnam. The journey from Hanoi to Hue is particularly scenic, although the train does not stop at the notable Central destination of Hoi An. However, there are no onwards connections for travelers that want to penetrate the Central Highlands by rail, so it is necessary to switch to bus or other means of transportation. Timetables and ticket fares are easily available from online sales agents.
The lion’s share of tourist bus travel is done on privately-owned “open tour” buses as opposed to national services. Private companies tend to offer through-tickets between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, with passengers free to hop on and off as they like at various points en route including Dalat, Nha Trang, Hue and Hoi An. The cost of the ticket depends on how far you decide to travel, however, the buses are comfortable and air-conditioned, and the fact that they don’t make unscheduled stops them faster than national bus services.
To cover short cross-city journeys, private metered taxis are available for hire, although visitors with a sense of adventurous often prefer local forms of transport, like the cyclo. Motorbike taxis are also popular, and many have their own sidecar to accommodate extra passengers. However, if you do decided to hail this kind of transportation on the street it is vital to agree on a price before hopping aboard. Writing down the numbers can often help to avoid potential confusion.
The majority of nationalities require a month-long tourist visa to enter Vietnam. Visas should be obtained prior to your arrival in the country, although they can be extended once you arrive.
The majority of visitors entering Vietnam via air will end up in either Hanoi in the north or Ho Chi Minh City in the south. However, Da Nang Airport is the main air hub for the central region and is well-served by domestic connections. It also offers a small number of regional international connections, and visas are available on arrival at this airport. Hue also has its own small airport which offers connections to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Central Vietnam is well served by The Reunification Line – the single railway track that runs from the northern Chinese border to Ho Chi Minh City. Hopping on board a train in Vietnam is a great way to soak up the stunning scenery, from grazing water buffalo in the paddies to vistas of the South China Sea, even if stopping at a plethora of country towns does slow the service down a little. The overnight journey from Hanoi to Hue is one of the most popular routes used by tourists who want to take in the moving panoramas outside the train windows.
Visitors tend to enter Central Vietnam en route from northern Hanoi or Southern Ho Chi Minh when they are travelling by bus. The main border crossing in the South is from the Cambodian border town of Moc Bai. If you are coming from the North, the Dong Dang and Lao Cai crossings are situated on the border with China. It is also possible for regional travelers on a tight budget who can spare an entire day on the road to make the bus trip to Hue from either Pakse of Savannakhet in Laos.