Once known as the Kingdom of Annam, Central Vietnam was long the epicentre of political power, intellectual life and spiritual worship in the country. The region includes some of the most impressive historical sights in Vietnam, including the former imperial capital of Hue and the charming riverside port of Hoi An. The area also includes the bustling port city of Danang, third largest in Vietnam and an international gateway to the region. The area has a wealth of beaches including famous China Beach, stretching from Danang southwards to Hoi An and home to a number of stunning resorts and international standard golf courses. Other attractions include historic vestiges of the Cham Kingdom and some old hill stations from the French time in Vietnam, including Ba Na, near Danang, and Bach Ma National Park, near Hue. A destination in itself, plan a week in this area.
Rich in culture and heritage, Hue was the capital of Vietnam under the Nguyen Emperors from 1802 to 1945 and a centre for both religion and education. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the principal cities of interest in Vietnam for visitors. The Perfume River flows through the centre of the city and several attractions are found nearby, including the Citadel and Forbidden Purple City, modelled on Beijing’s Forbidden City, and the Thien Mu Pagoda, a symbol of Hue. Further out of town are the elegant tombs of the Nguyen Emperors who ruled over Hue in its heyday. Cruising down the Perfume River in a dragon boat is a timeless way to visit these historic sites.
Emperor Gia Long began construction of the massive, moated Imperial Citadel in 1804 and even after the devastation of the Vietnam war, there is much to see today in the Imperial Enclosure, the centre of the original citadel. Inside the complex are a number of lively displays regarding imperial life in Vietnam, but sadly little remains of the Forbidden City. Just beyond the walls of the Imperial Enclosure are several museums, including the excellent Imperial Museum, housed in a stunning Vietnamese building from the 19th century
Thien Mu Pagoda
Famous throughout Vietnam, the Thien Mu Pagoda is a classic seven-storey structure dating from 1844, although originally a pagoda was first built here in 1601. A boat trip down the Perfume River to this elegant structure is a quintessential experience while in Vietnam.
Tombs of the Royal Emperors
Probably the most graceful of the tombs around Hue is of Ming Mang, an exquisite blend of architecture and nature. Ming Mang ruled from 1820 to 1840 and this is certainly the most important of the tombs to visit when in Hue. The tomb of Tu Duc is a beautiful and serene place, set amid scented pines and flowering trees. Interesting features here include a number of diminutive statues of mandarins (they had to be shorter than the very short king), and a huge stone tablet weighing 20 tons. On it is written the history of Tu Duc’s reign, the good and the bad, all drafted by the Emperor himself before he died. Other tombs in the area include those of Dong Khanh, Thieu Tri, Khai Dinh and Gia Long.
Danang is one of Vietnam’s most dynamic cities and the economic hub of central Vietnam. Hue to the north and Hoi An to the south tend to overshadow Danang as far as tourists are concerned, but with new international flights to destinations such as Siem Reap-Angkor, it looks set to emerge as the undisputed gateway to this popular part of Vietnam. The most important attraction in the city itself is the Cham Museum, housing the most important collection of Cham sculpture and stelae found anywhere in the world. A visit here is a fantastic introduction to the legacy of the Cham civilisation as many of their temples dot the region, including the most impressive of all My Son, which can be visited as a day trip from Hoi An.
China Beach is justly famous as one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in Vietnam. Popular with US soldiers during the American war in Vietnam, today it welcomes huge numbers of sunseekers and surfers. The beach stretches southwards all the way to Hoi An and has developed rapidly in the past few years, with ultra-exclusive resorts and international standard golf courses.
Hoi An is Vietnam’s most enchanting town, an ancient trading port of narrow streets, historic buildings, fine food and abundant shops. The influence of many countries can be seen as you wander the streets at leisure, including the Chinese, Japanese, French, Portuguese and, of course, the Vietnamese. Great efforts are being made to preserve the town for future generations and cars have been banned from the most popular streets, a pleasant shock for those on foot. There are many important sights in compact Hoi An and all can be explored on foot. The most popular destinations include the Japanese Covered bridge, dating from 1593, a number of historic Chinese merchant houses preserved in their original 19th century state, such as Tan Ky House and 77 Tran Phu, and several important congregation halls originally established by Chinese immigrants to the port of Faifo as it was then known. However, while its sights are wonderful and its charm undeniable, for many the real highlights of Hoi An are its tastes and its bargains. There are many regional specialities from Central Vietnam that can be sampled cheaply in Hoi An, including fresh seafood dishes at lively riverside restaurants. But shopping tops most people’s lists and items for sale include original paintings, ‘antiques’ and painted lacquerware. Even more popular than these items are tailor-made clothes, sewn up with skill by the huge number of tailors that operate in the town. Most have extensive catalogues of leading fashion designers and can prepare an Armani suit or Gucci two-piece in less than 24 hours.
Cua Dai Beach
This endless tropical beach stretches from the coast at Hoi An northwards to Danang and is the perfect place to relax after a long day shopping or sightseeing. It can be reached easily by bicycle from Hoi An, or for those who prefer life near the water, there are now lots of international resorts here to help you unwind.
Marble Mountains, a cluster of limestone hills north of Hoi An, are said to represent the five elements of water, wood, earth, metal and fire. There are many legends associated with these mountains and they have become a holy place of pilgrimage for Vietnamese. There are several large caves in the largest mountain of Thuy Son, each containing Buddhist shrines and sanctuaries where once before they contained Hindu idols from Cham devotees. This area has become a centre for marble production in Vietnam and marble carvings of every shape and size can be purchased in nearby villages.
Set under the shadow of Cat’s Tooth Mountain are the remains of the ancient Cham temples of My Son, dating from the 4th to 13th centuries. There are several important sanctuaries here labelled rather unexcitingly as A, B, C and so on. There is, however, a certain magic to the site with the rolling mountains all around and the small streams flowing between these fine buildings. This city is considered the Cham counterpart to Angkor in Cambodia and Bagan in Burma.
Other interesting destinations around central Vietnam that make great excursions from either Hue or Hoi An, include include the redeveloped hill stations of Bach Ma near Hue and Ba Na near Danang. Both offer fresh air, crumbling buildings and fine views. For those with a keen interest in the American War in Vietnam, there are several interesting places in the old Demilitarised Zone to the north-west of Hue, including former US base Khe Sanh, the so-called Hamburger Hill and the Ho Chi Minh Trail.