What to do in Central Vietnam
Starting in the north, Hue is dominated by the old imperial citadel, where the royal family and its retainers lived for hundreds of years. No trip the region is complete without a day touring the complex, modeled after the Forbidden City of Beijing and sharing its Taoist and Confucian influence, but at the same time uniquely Vietnamese.
Outside Hue are many elaborately-constructed tombs of Vietnamese emperors, including those of Tự Đức, Khải Định and Gia Long. All are exquisite in their own way, with remarkable detail paid to the aesthetics and energy flow of feng shui. It is advisable to visit in the morning or late afternoon when the sun isn't directly overhead.
For those traveling in the region who are interested in learning about the American War, a day trip north of Hue to the DMZ, de-militarized zone, is an unforgettable experience. For over a decade, this was the most heavily armed and contested border in the world. The tunnels and war-ravaged terrain provide a grim reminder of how recent this peaceful area was engulfed in conflict.
Most visitors to Hue note the frequent rainfall. Although the weather is often wet, it adds a languid, meditative atmosphere lacking in urban Vietnam. Bring an umbrella and a poncho and don't be in a hurry. This is a place to relax and unwind.
If Hue is the region's spiritual and cultural center, Da Nang is its modern driving force. The city is home to many urban professionals and caters to the young population with abundant street food, brazen karaoke bars and an attractive riverside promenade. The Han River has several bridges knitting the city together, including the striking Dragon Bridge, which erupts fire in a pyrotechnic display every Friday and Saturday night at 9pm. We'd recommend heading to the rooftop of 7 Bridges Brewery and enjoying the show with a craft beer in hand.
Young travelers on a budget tend to congregate in the An Thượng neighborhood, between the river and the beach. Hostels and budget accommodations are sprouting like mushrooms alongside bars and restaurants catering to many tastes and budgets. This area tends to stay open later at night after the locals elsewhere have turned in.
West of the river in the city center the pace is frenetic, with plenty of cheap places to grab a drink or a bite to eat. Just navigating the city during the evening rush is a thrilling activity in itself. You may be tempted to make some new friends singing karaoke. Don't be intimidated: everyone seems to love singing here regardless of the level of talent!
Many who come to Vietnam would not call the trip complete without pulling up a tiny plastic chair in a loud, roadside stall and having a few cheap bia hơi (draft beer) with the locals.
Of all the places to be in Central Vietnam, people usually speak most highly of Hoi An. It is a place that certainly deserves a few days of your time. Whether you're here to shop for clothing, take a cooking class or just wander the picturesque streets with a camera at dusk, you'll have plenty to share with friends and family once you've returned home.
In recent years, more and more people have flocked here to have suits, dresses, bags or shoes made. The quality of work is top-notch, and the stiff competition keeps the prices reasonable. Are those $400 pair of boots at the mall out of your price range? They'll only cost a fraction of that once you've been fitted at the cobbler in Hoi An.
Want to expand your culinary expertise or impress someone with a recipe back home? Take a cooking class and gain insight into the local cuisine. Once you've learned how to balance five different flavors, you'll not only be a chef, you'll also be a culinary alchemist!
From day to night, there is a marked difference in Hoi An's ambiance. By day, motorcycles whiz through the narrow streets and keep pedestrians on their toes. But once the sun has gone down, there is no motor transport allowed within the old town. Colorful lanterns are lit above streets and alongside buildings as everyone comes outside for their evening stroll. A lasting memory of your visit may be a candle-lit dinner on a balcony overlooking this ancient town where time stands still.