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.
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.
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.
Clustered around 13 miles (21 kilometers) from Hoi An’s Cua Dai harbor, Vietnam's eight Cham Islands are known as Cham Island or Cù Lao Chàm. They offer white-sand beaches, granite cliffs, and coral reefs ideal for diving and snorkeling. The islands’ rich marine life and ecosystems have earned them UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in Central Vietnam
Set amid the tropical greenery of Hon Tre Island, Vinpearl Land Nha Trang (sometimes called Vinpearl Amusement Park) transforms the beach resort of Nha Trang into a destination perfect for families and thrill seekers. The excitement begins before you even reach the entrance of the park, as you ride a record-breaking 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) cable car suspended above the South China Sea.
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.
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.
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.
Winding over a mountainous stretch of highway just north of Da Nang, the Hai Van Pass (Đèo Hải Vân—literally “Sea Cloud Pass”) is one of Vietnam’s most scenic coast roads. It twists and turns over a spur of the Truong Son mountain range, delivering epic sea views from as high as 1,627 feet (495 meters).
Unlike the famed Cu Chi tunnels—which served as supply caches and strategic combat routes for Viet Cong soldiers and today are swarming with tourists—the Vinh Moc tunnels served a different war time purpose and receive far fewer visitors. Stretching almost two from the coastal town of Vinh Moc to a beach overlooking the South China Sea, the Vinh Moc Tunnels were dug in the late 1960s to serve as a live-in bomb shelter for more than 60 families. The families lived their lives underground, some for up to six years, and one frequently-cited figure says as many as 17 children were born in these underground tunnels their occupation.
Today, visitors can enter the dark and earthen tunnel complex, via a rock-wall rimmed stairway, and, unlike at Cu Chi, walk upright through them. Nooks notched into the sides of the main tunnel served as family quarters or meeting rooms and are today populated by strategically-placed human-sized dummies that show how cramped the villagers must have been. Two deeper layers, up to 70 feet below the ground’s surface, served as storage for weapons and supplies and as a deeper subterranean hiding space from direct bombing attacks. There are more than 10 separate gated entrances to the tunnels that visitors can see along the route. A small on-site museum has photographs and memorabilia that help to paint a picture of life in the tunnels and a map depicting the extent of the Vinh Moc tunnel system.
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.
Hailed as the epitome of antique grandeur, the 200-year-old Tan Ky Old House pays homage to Hoi An’s rich architectural heritage. The beautifully preserved 18th-century house contains Chinese and Japanese artworks, dark-wood furniture, and watermarked walls that attest to the building’s ability to withstand Hoi An’s seasonal floods.
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.
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.
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.
Famous for its giant statue of Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Linh Ung Pagoda occupies 30 acres (12 hectares) on a hill on the Son Tra Peninsula. Opened in 2010, the relatively new pagoda complex features a mix of modern and traditional Vietnamese temple architecture, including a typical three-entrance gate.
According to local legend, a smaller pagoda was built on the same site during the nineteenth century, when a local villager living on the peninsula found a statue of the Buddha drifting near the beach.
As visitors pass through the main gate of the pagoda, they are met by 18 stone statues of the 18 Arhats, believed to be the original followers of the Buddha, whose expressions run the gamut from joy and love to anger and sadness. Towering above the grounds is the 220-foot (67-meter) Guanyin statue. Within the giant monument, visitors can ascend 17 floors, each displaying Buddha statues depicting his various aspects.
The Da Nang city outpost of the popular Vietnamese theme-park group, Sun World Danang Wonders sprawls along the Han River. The theme park features rides such as roller coasters, carousels, drop towers, and a giant fairground wheel, while the cultural park highlights Asian architecture through scale models of famous buildings.
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