Central Vietnam turned out to be one of our favorite places that we’ve visited so far. Geographically, it encompasses the long skinny part of the country that connects the south (Ho Chi Minh City and Mekong Delta) and the north (Hanoi and Northern Highlands). Central Vietnam features major cities such as Da Nang, Hoi An, Hue, and Phong Nha.
This region has a lot of history and natural beauty. Hue was the former Imperial Capital of the Nguyễn dynasty and, later, became a focal point of the Vietnamese-American War with many of its historical buildings being destroyed in the conflict. The demilitarized zone (DMZ) that formerly separated North and South Vietnam is located approximately 60 miles from Hue. Hoi An is an atmospheric old town with many preserved buildings from its heyday as a trading port during the 15th-18th centuries. Phong Nha, located in the central highlands, is home to some of Vietnam’s most beautiful scenery, with emerald green rice paddies planted among impressive karst mountains. Phong Nha is also home to several famous cave complexes.
Da Nang is the largest city in central Vietnam and the hub for travel throughout the region. We only stopped there briefly as we were passing through. Some highlights of Da Nang include the Marble Mountains, the Dragon Bridge (which spits fire), and Non Nuoc Beach. One Vietnamese person we met told us that Da Nang is considered to be the “happiest” city in Vietnam due to good living conditions.
Hoi An is a charming city that is very popular with tourists and locals alike. The old town has been well preserved and many historic buildings have been restored. Colored lanterns are strung between the narrow streets and alleyways and at night the old town comes alive.
We stayed at a great place on the edge of town called Cheerful Hostel run by the lovely Hien, or as some guests call her, “Vietnamese Mom”. She takes care of her guests as if they were her children and she is a fount of knowledge on the local area, having been born and raised in Hoi An. She showed us around town and took us on a food tour to try the local specialties.
Unfortunately, around this time Chiara got a badly infected wound on her leg. We consulted with Sophie and Adam over WhatsApp for a few days as it worsened, and they recommended that Chiara start a course of antibiotics and visit a local doctor to have the wound cleaned and drained. After a visit to a medical clinic, a few days of antibiotics, and Tarick changing bandages twice a day, she was finally on the mend. Hien even took us out to eat noodles to make her feel better!
After leaving Hoi An, we rented a motorbike one-way to Hue over the scenic Hai Van Pass, a popular route along the coast featured on the British TV show Top Gear.
Our bags were taken to Hue by courier and were meant to meet us at the rental shop when we returned the bike. We had planned everything out so that we would collect our bags an hour before our sleeper bus left Hue for Phong Nha. However, the bags did not arrive on-time, and due to confusion between ourselves, the courier, the motorbike rental company, and the bus company, we were unsure if our bags were coming at all. We ended up getting dropped off at a gas station somewhere while we watched our bus drive away without us. A bus company employee told us “don’t worry” and “wait here”, then promptly left never to be seen again. We nervously waited for a couple hours before a random guy on a motorbike pulled in carrying both our bags! Relieved, we waited around until another bus arrived and let us get on to Phong Nha.
We arrived late to Phong Nha and promptly went to bed. Our hotel was next door to the Easy Tiger, by far the most popular hostel in town. While they do blare obnoxious live karaoke until 11pm, they are still the best resource for foreign travelers looking to explore the area.
Phong Nha is known for its spectacular cave complexes and beautiful countryside. We visited two caves during our trip, Paradise Cave and Phong Nha Cave, although there are many more we didn’t have time to visit. Paradise cave is so massive that you almost feel like you are outside. Phong Nha Cave was equally beautiful in our opinion, and is only accessible via boat.
The countryside surrounding Phong Nha is beautifully scenic. Riding the virtually empty roads between the rice paddies, mountains, and farms, and getting to see the Vietnamese rural life was a highlight of our trip.
The evening of the first day we went out to the “Pub with cold beer”, a popular watering hole at the end of a muddy farm road overlooking the idyllic Bong Lai Valley. The road through the valley is rugged and quite uncomfortable to ride on a scooter, so Chiara decided to walk while Tarick drove the scooter onward. On her journey, Chiara had a terrifying standoff with a bull blocking the road. This resulted in Chiara having to a climb a nail-covered fence to get past the bull while two equally-terrified tourists going the other direction made sure she survived. On the plus side, it made the beer afterwards taste all the sweeter.
We returned to Hue for one night before taking the overnight train to Hanoi. We managed to pack a lot into a relatively short time including a visit to the Imperial Palace and the Tet Flower Market as well as sampling the local fare.
Our visit to Vietnam coincides with the Lunar New Year, known in Vietnam as “Tet”. The celebration lasts for roughly 10 days centered on the Lunar New Year, which is February 5th this year. Tet is a really big deal in Vietnam, many businesses close and people return home to spend the new year with their families. Around this time, people purchase flowers and citrus trees to decorate their homes, similar to how we purchase Christmas Trees in December. Flower markets are very popular during Tet and they sell all the auspicious New Year Plants such as peach blossoms, apricot blossoms, kumquat trees, and yellow chrysanthemum. Often times you will see yellow flowers decorated with red ribbon (red and yellow are lucky colors in Vietnam).
On to Hanoi!
We left Hue for Hanoi on the sleeper train which turned out to be a relatively comfortable experience. After a meandering route through Vietnam from south-to-north, we are in Hanoi for Tet and set to spend the next couple weeks exploring the north.