Things to Do in Central Vietnam
History lovers flock to this 2,000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site, where Hindu, Arab and Chinese influences are reflected in breathtaking architecture, eclectic food and rich culture.
Naturalists will appreciate the quiet beaches just a short bike ride from the city center, while wanderers will love the pedestrian-only streets of Ancient Town lined with quaint shops and bustling vendors.
Urban skyscrapers and big-city development have yet to touch this former shipping port, which means travelers can enjoy a taste of what Hoi An once was and what Vietnam used to be.
This stunning island is located in close proximity to the hot-sea currents that rise from the equator. As a result, it’s home to incredible underwater coral reefs that attract topical fish, sea turtles and other rare and beautiful marine life. The warm waters that draw diverse wildlife also bring researchers, oceanographers and snorkelers to the shores of Hon Mun Island.
It’s possible to explore the waters from the safety and comfort of a glass bottom boat, but travelers say that dipping below the surface and getting up close with local wildlife is the best way to truly experience the beauty of Hon Mun. Almost every dive shop in the vicinity offers trips to the crystal clear waters of Hon Mun, where visibility is almost always ideal. Rainbow Reef and Tiger Wall are two of the most popular dive sites near Hon Mun Island.
Sometimes called the beach capital of Vietnam, Nha Trang is known for its scenic shores and few are more delightful than the yellow sandy stretch of Nha Trang Beach. This 6-km destination is ideal for swimmers, sunbathers and snorkelers, who will likely find uninterrupted turquoise blue waters to explore on their own. While a slightly more social scene can be found at jumping beach joints like Sailing Club and the local brew house, deserted island vibes can be found further down towards the south side. A popular promenade offers a scenic place for an evening stroll and the nearby town comes alive with plenty of entertaining nightlife options once the sun goes down.
The five limestone hills that make up Vietnam’s famed Marble Mountains are each named after one of the five elements: fire (Hoa), wood (Moc), metal (Kim), water (Thuy) and earth (Tho). And while their shadowy caves and hidden tunnels draw thousands of travelers to wander this destination each year, its proximity to beautiful and ancient Buddhist and Hindu grottoes and access to a stunning summit are other reasons to make the voyage.
Travelers can climb the more than 150 steps that lead to the summit of Thuy Son, where incredible views of natural landscapes as well as access to these grottoes. Visitors can explore Huyen Khong and Tang Chon, as well as the Tam Thai pagoda, which was built in 1825. These ancient religious monuments showcase the region’s age-old tradition of stone carving, thanks to relief work chipped away from the mountain’s marble façade.
Constructed in 1804, this massive fortress designed for the Gia Long Emperor, is surrounded by a zigzag moat and defensive barrier that’s 21 meters thick. But visitors to this citadel-in-a-citadel-in-a-citadel won’t need to swim across rivers or scale towering walls to get a look inside. The Imperial Enclosure is accessible by crossing one of the 10 pedestrian bridges into the once royal land. Pass through Ngo Mon (Noon) Gate, once reserved for those in power, then wander through Flag Tower (Cot Co) and stare up at the nation’s tallest flagpole before weaving through the Nine Dynastic Urns representing different Nguyen kings.
My Son Sanctuary is more than just the "beautiful mountain" its namesake describes. These Hindu ruins, which were constructed between the 4th and 13th centuries, pay homage to deities like Vishnu, Krishna and Shiva. Ancient and impressive towers and temples sit upon emerald hills in the Duy Xuyen District of the Quang Nam Province in central Vietnam. Visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage site can wander through eight groups of 71 structures, which some visitors say are less impressive than Cambodia's Siam Reap.
Still, what was once considered the homeland of the Cham people today remains an incredible example of Vietnam's indigenous culture.
Situated at the mouth of the Cai River in Central Vietnam, just a few kilometres north of Nha Trang, is the ancient Po Nagar Cham Towers complex. Constructed between the 7th and 12th centuries by the Cham people who once ruled the central plain of Vietnam, the towers were built in honor of Yan Po Nagar, the ruler of this area, who later came to be identified with the Hindu goddess, Bhagavati. Today, only four of the original towers in the complex remain. The tallest of the temples, Po Nagar Kalan, is the most impressive in terms of architectural prowess. It stands at over 25 meters tall and, according to the inscriptions, was the place where Po Nagar was worshipped, with animal sacrifices made in her honor. In the center of the complex is at the Cri Cambhu tower, representing the goddess of fertility, with the remaining two temples serving as shrines to the Hindu gods, Shiva and Ganesh.
Impossible to miss, Lady Buddha dominates the landscape of Da Nang. The marble statue, perched on the side of Monkey Mountain and visible from nearly anywhere in the city, stands 220 feet (67 meters) tall and measures 56 feet (17 meters) in diameter. Inside the statue, a flight of stairs leads up to 17 floors, each representing a different aspect of the Buddha.
The name Lady Buddha is a bit deceiving. The statue in fact depicts Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy can be found in coastal areas throughout Asia, as she is believed to bring calm to the sea. The giant statue stands in front of the beautiful Linh Ung Pagoda, with its gardens and small souvenir shop operated by monks.
More Things to Do in Central Vietnam
Encompassing more than 154 square miles (400 square kilometers) of an old French hill station, Bach Ma National Park protects one of the most visually stunning natural areas of Central Vietnam. More than 1,400 species of plants grow in the park — a fifth of the total flora in the country — alongside 132 species of mammals and 358 species of birds. Among the rarer residents, many of them nocturnal, are the douc langur, leopard, stump-tailed macaques and Asiatic black bear.
The ruins of French resorts and villas lie scattered throughout the park, evidence of the era when French residents of Hue retreated to the cooler climes of the park during the hottest parts of the year. Well-marked trails wind through the park, and there are a few guesthouses at the summit.
Founded in the 19th century, the Long Son Pagoda has been attracting travelers thanks to its stunning façade, traditional peaked roofs and ornately decorated mosaic dragons. Its peaceful interior pays homage to seven monks who lit themselves on fire during the 1960s in an act of protest. Travelers will find hand-carved busts of these men surrounding a massive white seated Buddha, who’s perched in a lotus blossom looking out at these martyrs.
Visitors can explore the grounds and make their way to the top of the hill and platform surrounding the massive Buddha, where incredible views of nearby towns and the Vietnamese countryside do not disappoint.
One of Da Nang’s more unusual and unexpected attractions is a bridge in the likeness of a dragon spanning the River Han. If the golden dragon slithering across the water isn’t impressive enough, on weekend evenings its body is illuminated by 2,500 LED lights and its head spouts fire and water over the river’s eastern bank.
Opened in 2013, the Dragon Bridge carries a six-lane roadway and two sidewalks over the river. The bridge measures 2,000 feet (610 meters) long and 123 feet (37.5 meters) wide. As the shortest road link between the Da Nang International Airport and the bulk of Da Nang city, visitors arriving or departing by air often pass over this bridge.
The Perfume River may have gotten its fame from the film Full Metal Jacket, but visitors to Hue traveled on this scenic body of water even before the movie’s 1987 debut. Each fall, blossoms from nearby orchards drop into the river, producing the unique fragrance that gives this river its name. The unpolluted waters offer cooling breezes for cyclists riding along the winding banks of local rice fields, and breathtaking views of Ngu Binh Mountain. Watch the sun go down and the city light up while you enjoy a cool beer on a late-afternoon dragon boat ride through Hue.
Built in the early 1900s, this massive market is a hub for local life in Nha Trang City. Originally constructed on a seven hectare pond, Dam Market was damaged during the Vietnam War and later resurrected as a three-storey building that’s jam packed with souvenirs, meat and fish stalls. Locals make their way to the popular market in the earliest hours of the morning and comb through stalls manned by friendly men and women in search of the day’s freshest. Travelers will find just about everything inside this eclectic marketplace that’s ripe with all of the energy and excitement of Nha Trang City life.
My Khe Beach is situated in the northernmost part of the stunning 30-kilometer stretch of coast known as China Beach near Da Nang in Central Vietnam. Widely considered to be Vietnam's most picturesque beach, this lengthy stretch of spectacular coastline is famous for being visited by American troops during the Vietnam War.
My Khe is the ideal beach for holidaymakers visiting Central Vietnam, particularly between May and October, with its smooth white sand, gentle gradient, and abundance of coral and marine life. The beach’s low pollution, pleasant temperatures, and calm waters also add to the appeal here (although the waves become much more dramatic come September-time, making for some ideal surfing conditions).
There are an abundance of accommodation, food, and retail outlets in the area, as well as places to hire surf and snorkel equipment.
On the north bank of the Huong River is Hue’s lively Dong Ba Market, stretching out for 16,000 square meters. Still retaining its old bell tower from when it was first opened by King Dong Khanh in 1887, the atmospheric market is divided into separate sections, with the whole upstairs floor dedicated to clothes.
Though Hue has plenty of supermarkets, Dong Ba is an important market for locals and a great place to experience Vietnamese life, with 5,000 to 7,000 people coming here to barter daily.
While you’re at Dong Ba Market, look out for popular local handicrafts like non la bai tho (conical hats with poems woven in the design), xung sesame candies, and Tuan black tea. Dong Ba is also a great spot for trying traditional regional food like beef vermicelli. You’ll find the street vendors serving specialty dishes on the ground floor of the market, on the street parallel to the river.
Winding high through the Annamite Range above the South China Sea, the drive along Hai Van Pass between Danang and Hue is all jungle-clad mountains and glittering views out to sea. Known as one of the best coastal roads in the world for driving, thanks to a stint on BBC’s Top Gear, the 21-km-long Hai Van Pass rises up to 1,600 feet high in places. But what’s in the name? Hai Van is Vietnamese for Ocean Cloud, referring to the great mists which often rise from the sea below.
Once a natural boundary between Vietnam and the kingdom of Champa, the top of the pass has a number of lookout points with panoramic views looking out to the mountains and sea beyond. Look out for cyclists celebrating their hard-won arrival at the summit while you’re here.
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