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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in Central Vietnam
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Though the name sounds old, XQ Historical Village was actually founded in the early 1990s by artists Vo Van Quan and Hoang Le Xuan as a way to showcase needlework and painting to travelers from overseas. More than 2,000 women work to create the intricate masterpieces that are put on display in this and other villages like it through Vietnam.
Quan and Xuan utilized age-old needlework traditions that hale from China and were once used to tell stories of the Orient, to instead tell the tales of Vietnam through brightly colored, handmade items. Visitors to this historically inspired village can witness craftswomen working in pairs over silk-draped tables creating some of the most colorful and intricate designs around. Travelers can purchase lavish wall hanging for their home or decorated scarves and greeting cards from the local shop. The picturesque tea garden offers the perfect place to check out more of the handmade works and relax in the natural beauty of XQ’s picturesque surroundings.
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).
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.
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.