Things to Do in Central Vietnam
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 the longest bridges in Vietnam, the 2,185-foot (666-meter Dragon Bridge (Cau Rong carries six lanes of traffic across the back of an undulating dragon. After sunset, the bridge is illuminated with hundreds of LED lights while on the weekend, fire and water spurt from the dragon’s mouth.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in Central Vietnam
Perched on the side of Son Tra Mountain (Monkey Mountain, the 220-foot (67-meter Lady Buddha statue is visible from anywhere in the city of Da Nang. Inside the statue—which sits beside the Linh Ung Pagoda—a flight of stairs leads up to 17 floors, each of which represent a different aspect of the Buddha.
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.
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.
Nowhere sums up Nha Trang’s coastal allure like Nha Trang Beach, a golden stretch home to swaying palm trees and turquoise waters. Depending on the vibe you’re after, the beach offers lively bars or uninterrupted swathes of sand; its also backed by a promenade that comes to life at night.
Topped with a vast white Buddha seated on a lotus leaf, Long Son Pagoda (Chùa Long Sơn is one of Nha Trang’s signature sights. Stairs lead up the leafy hill past temples, a prayer hall, a Chinese-influenced mosaic dragon screen, and a reclining Buddha. It’s not unusual to hear monks and nuns chanting.
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.
Around a half-hour boat ride from Cau Da Port in Nha Trang lies little Hon Mieu Island (Hòn Miễu in Vietnamese). Much of the island won’t be of particular interest to the average tourist, although there are a few pleasant beaches plus a sprinkling of seafood restaurants close to where the ferries come in.
The main attraction on Hon Mieu however is the Tri Nguyen Aquarium, a unique boat-shaped building that, along with its surrounding waters, houses a large variety of fish and other marine life, including giant shrimp, sharks, and turtles. Visitors can even climb to the ‘top deck’ to check out the views.
Central Vietnam’s My Khe Beach, near the city of Da Nang, is often considered one of Vietnam’s most beautiful beaches. With a wide sweep of white sand, calm and clear waters, coconut palms, and warm weather throughout much of the year, My Khe Beach is an ideal place to take a break from urban Vietnam.
While the grand Linh Ung Pagoda complex might look traditional at first glance, it in fact opened in 2010. The sprawling grounds atop a hill near Da Nang and Hoi An contain a dazzling white, 219-foot (67-meter high Lady Buddha, other white stone statues, a large main hall with a Sakyamuni Buddha statue, and other features.
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.
Thanh Toan Bridge spans a canal in the countryside village of Thuy Thanh, around seven kilometers east of Hue. It’s a small, covered bridge – the sister to Hoi An’s famous Japanese Covered Bridge (although some argue Hue’s is more distinct in many ways). The structure is both Japanese and Chinese in style and has a square-timber arch decorated with ancient ceramics, along with inscriptions in traditional Chinese script.
There is a story behind the origins of Thanh Toan Bridge: It is said to have been built during Emperor Le Hien Tong’s reign in the mid-18th century, with construction initiated by Tran Thi Dao, the wife of a high-ranking mandarin in the Emperor's court. Tran Thi Dao established the bridge to create smooth transportation and communication around the village, which was divided in two by the canal. Emperor Le Hien Tong recognized Thi Dao’s initiative and charity by exempting the village from imperial taxations.
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.
It took nearly three years to build the 50 structures that make up the Tomb of Tu Duc (Lăng Tự Đức, devoted to the fourth emperor of Vietnam’s Nguyen Dynasty. The pavilion—where the emperor once perched to compose poems and admire flowers—leads to the impressive tomb, on which a narrative written by the emperor himself is engraved.
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.
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