Things to Do in Central Vietnam
Renowned throughout Southeast Asia for its antique charm, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hoi An Ancient Town is a must-see for first-time visitors to Vietnam. The pedestrianized streets provide a calming break from chaotic traffic, while the colorful facades of lantern-clad houses harbor history that dates back more than 2,000 years.
One of Da Nang’s top attractions, the five outcrops that make up central Vietnam’s Marble Mountains (Ngũ Hành Sơn) each are named after a different element: fire, wood, metal, water and earth. Visit the mountains to take in views of the landscape, to explore caves, Buddhist and Hindu grottoes, pagodas, and shrines, and even to shop.
One of a cluster of islands that stud Nha Trang Bay, Hon Mun island is the epicenter of the Hon Mun Marine Protected Area. Spanning 30,000 acres (12,000 hectares) of protected ocean, the zone is home to colorful coral and marine life. Visit to snorkel one of Vietnam’s favorite underwater spots.
The renowned Hue Citadel (Da Noi) in Hue attracts history buffs from around the globe. The sprawling fortress, which was constructed in 1804 for the Gia Long Emperor, is surrounded by a 68-foot (21-meter) defensive barrier and is home to the tallest flagpole in Vietnam.
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 7-story Thien Mu Pagoda towers over the banks of the Perfume River (Song Huong River). The pagoda, which sits among the buildings of a Buddhist monastery, became known as a site for anticommunist protests after Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist clergy member, self-immolated and brought attention to the plight of his people.
Visit the ruins of ancient towers and temples on the emerald hills of central Vietnam at the My Son Sanctuary (Mỹ Sơn), a complex of brick and stone temples built by Hindu Cham kings between the fourth and 13th centuries. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Site makes an easy day trip from Hoi An or Da Nang.
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.
Constructed between the 8th and 12th centuries, the Po Nagar Cham Towers sit at the mouth of the Cai River in central Vietnam, on the outskirts of the beach town of Nha Trang. The towers were built to honor the region’s Cham rulers and incorporate Buddhist temples and shrines to the Hindu gods Shiva and Ganesh.
Millions of travelers flock to the Japanese Covered Bridge (Chùa Cầu) in Hoi An every year. Built in the 18th century, the bridge features intricate carvings and statues of dogs and monkeys and provides great views of the Thu Bon River. Put aside extra time to cross the frequently crowded bridge—it’s the most popular spot in the Old Town.
More Things to Do in Central Vietnam
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the caves of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park nestle beneath some of Asia's most spectacular karst rock formations. While some of the caves—such as Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest cave—are only available on expensive multi-day tours, others, such as Phong Nha, are easy to visit on a day trip.
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 (Cầu Rồng) 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.
Used as an observation base in the American-Vietnam war, Son Tra Mountain (Monkey Mountain) overlooks Son Tra Peninsula near the city of Da Nang. Midway up the 2,790-foot (850-meter) peak, you find Linh Ung Pagoda, home to the Lady Buddha statue. Expect to encounter troops of monkeys dwelling in its jungle-covered cliffs.
A former fishing village, the seaside town of Mui Ne has evolved into a boutique beach resort that provides a convenient escape from the metropolitan madness of Ho Chi Minh City. In addition to a golden-sand beach, Mui Ne boasts vivid red and white sand dunes and the otherworldly Fairy Stream.
The Royal Antiquities Museum displays a huge collection of ornaments, furniture, jewelry, clothing, and other items relating to royal life during the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945). It is housed in the former Long An Palace, which is widely considered to be one of Vietnam’s most beautiful palaces. The striking building has seven compartments at its front, with eight beams covered in sculptures of dragons. The wooden parts of the palace feature elaborate carvings depicting various scenes, along with poems and essays written in Chinese script.
Having been relocated from the An Dinh residence to its original setting on Le Truc Street, the Royal Antiquities Museum sits just outside Hue’s Citadel (Imperial City). The building was used as a place of worship and a library before being established as a museum by King Khai Dinh and presented to his son, the last reigning emperor. The purpose of the museum was said to be “to revive generations of artisans who had built up the glorified Hue royal court.”
Home to a colonial-era hill station, the monsoon forests of Bach Ma National Park center on Bach Ma, or White Horse Mountain, which rises 4,757 feet (1,450 meters). Waterfalls, crumbling villas, hiking trails, and a wealth of wildlife, including pheasants, langur monkeys, and muntjac deer, make a magnetic spot to spend a day—or longer.
Founded in the 19th century, the Long Son Pagoda (Chùa Long Sơn) 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.
Minh Mang Tomb
Contributing to Hue's imperial heritage is the Minh Mang Tomb, a 19th-century mausoleum set amid the lush landscapes of central Vietnam. The tomb, located 7 miles (12 kilometers) outside of Hue on the west bank of the Perfume River (Song Huong River), attracts visitors with more than 20 structures and its flower-lined walkways.
The towering spire of Stone Church—a cathedral that’s known by many names to locals—can be seen from almost anywhere in Nha Trang. Despite how it’s humbly known, this stunning stone structure is one of the most striking architectural wonders in this Vietnamese city and a nod to European influence in this land that’s otherwise filled with Hindu and Buddhist temples.
The church’s clock tower sits high above a beautiful archway with a circular window inlaid with stained glass. And while the exterior of this church is undeniably beautiful, it’s the towering interior that’s worth marveling at. Two separate paths lead visitors to the entrances of Stone Church and names of the dead are carved along the way in a call for prayers.
The Perfume River (Song Huong River)—so-called due to the aroma released by blooming flowers in autumn—provides visitors with a wealth of activities. The river affords spectacular photo opportunities at sunrise and sunset, and it is flanked by cycle and walking paths that offer a cooling escape from the humidity of Hue.
Khai Dinh Tomb is in Chau Chu village, south of Hue. It took 11 years to build—longer than Khai Dinh himself reigned. An elaborate, Gothic structure, with blackened concrete exteriors and flamboyantly gaudy interiors, it fuses French, Vietnamese, and Chinese architectural styles.
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 (Chợ Đầm) 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.
On the north bank of the Huong River is Hue’s lively Dong Ba Market (Chợ Đông Ba), 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.
It took nearly three years to build some 50 structures that make up the Tomb of Tu Duc (Lăng Tự Đức), located 8 kilometers outside of Hue amid an expansive pine forest. The grounds are divided into two main parts—tomb and temple areas. Near the entrance visitors can wander the pavilion where the emperor once perched to compose poems and admire the flowers. This leads to his work station, and ultimately to his resting place. The impressive tomb, located just beyond the Honor Courtyard, houses a massive stone engraved with a narrative written by the Emperor himself.
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