After living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for more than a year, I decided to finally explore more of this country.
Along with my Vietnamese girlfriend, we booked a 5 days tour from Viet Travel, one of the biggest travel agencies in Vietnam.

During the short span of 5 days we discovered the beauty of the imperial city in Hue, the charm of Hoi an and the modern city of Da Nang.

This was the itinerary:

As you can see we had the chance to visit most of the famous tourist attractions of Central Vietnam. I would have loved to be able to visit the My Son complex, another famous UNESCO site, but it was not included in our tour.

Disclaimer

The tour we booked is targeted towards Vietnamese, I was the only foreigner, and the guide did not speak English. If you have a Vietnamese friend or girlfriend (like me) you can consider booking this type of tour as it will probably be cheaper than a tour with English guides, but bear in mind that most likely none of the people journeying with you will speak English so you will be pretty much left with no-one to talk to, save from your partner.

Ok, now the that I presented you the itinerary, let’s dive in more detail and let me show you why you MUST visit central Vietnam.

All the picture you will see are taken by me during this trip.

 

Day 1: Depart from HCM and discover Hue

We live in Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest city of Vietnam, located in the southern region of the country therefore we had to take a flight to Hue to start our tour.

The flight is very short, roughly 1 hour and everything went smoothly.
The first thing you will notice one you set food in Hue is the weather. We traveled in July and the first day the temperature reached a peak of 39 degrees so remember to drink a lot of water, put sun cream and bring a hat or an umbrella with you.

Hue is a medium-sized city, counting around 350,000 people, situated in the central region of Vietnam, popular for its imperial citadel, where the Nguyen Dynasty had its seat from 1802 to 1945.

 

Tomb of Tu Duc

The first place that we had the chance to visit was the Tomb of Tu Duc, the longest reigning emperor, ruling from 1848 to 1883.
The admittance fee is 100,000 Dong, around 4 USD.

This complex is not very big, and it’s divided in two areas, a temple area and a tomb.

The first thing you will notice upon entering the complex, is the beautiful lake where the emperor once used to rest. In the middle of the lake there is a small island where rare species of animals used to live, but now it seemed to be uninhabited.

tu duc tomb lake

View of the small lake inside the Tu Duc Tomb complex

After the lake you will reach a small but pretty temple.

stair leading to the temple

Staircase leading to the temple

Details inside the temple

Details inside the temple

Continuing to follow the path you will reach the tomb area, where you will find a colorful pavillion with a stele inside.
The emperor had no son, so he had to write his own epitaph, which you can see here written on the huge stele.

stair leading to the temple

The colorful pavilion

On the columns of the pavillion you can admire beautiful drawings.

Details of the pavilion

A beautiful detail of the pavilion

Details of the pavilion

A detail of a column of the pavilion

Behind the pavilion you can find the tomb of the emperor, which is actually not the real tomb, as he is buried in location that is still secret to this day.

This concludes the visit of the Tomb of Tu Duc, remember to bring a cap or an umbrella as most of the complex is under the sun.

Opening hours: every day 7:30 am – 5:30 pm
Entrance: 100,000 VND

 

Hue Imperial City

After a quick lunch break we headed towards the main attraction of the city, the imperial citadel.

The admittance fee is 150,000 Dong, around 7 USD.

The first thing you will notice are the huge outer walls that seems to extend forever.

Once inside the first ring of walls you will find the High Noon Gate, where you will see 3 entrances. The one in the middle, with a green roof was for the emperor while the others where for everybody else.

High Noon Gate

High Noon Gate

Once inside, look inside the lake and you will see plenty of Koi fishes, some of them were pretty big.

koi fishes feeding

koi fishes feeding

This complex is HUGE, it will take you several hours to visit it all, but as we were on a tour we only stopped in two temples.

Remember that there is a dress code to follow when entering temples here, so leave your tank tops at the hotel and wear something suitable. Long skirts and t-shirts are perfectly fine.

The Vietnam war caused heavy damages to this area, and unfortunately most of the buildings were destroyed during the conflicts, but what remains is being restored and is still very much worth a visit.

The main spot we visited was the Thế Miếu, a temple to worship the emperors where you can find the urns of the first 9 emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty.

the mieu

the mieu from the outside

Outside the Thế Miếu you can see the tallest building of the complex. It is said that no other building was allowed to exceed the height of this one.

The tallest building of the complex

The tallest building of the complex

Walking and exploring this complex can be very tiring but luckily there are plenty of vendors where you can buy water, drinks or snacks and plenty of trees where you can cover from the hot sun of Hue.

Opening hours: every day 7 am – 5:30 pm
Entrance fee: 150,000 VND per person

 

Thien Mu pagoda

Around 5PM we headed towards the last spot of the day, the Thien Mu pagoda, the pagoda of the celestial lady, built in 1601.

Thien Mu Pagoda

Thien Mu Pagoda

The 7 story pagoda is a symbol of the city and this spot offers a beautiful view of the Perfume river.

View of the Perfume river

View of the Perfume river

Walking around the complex we had the chance of seeing a group of monks playing football and relaxing in their spare time. It is important to remember that these place is not only a tourist attraction but a buddhist temple, where monks live their daily lives. Be respectful of their home when you are here.

After one hour here, we headed back to our hotel, situated in the center of the city.

Opening hours: every day from 7:30 am – 5:30 pm
Entrance: free

 

We stayed at the Cherish hotel, A 4 star hotel situated in the center of the city. We stayed here for one night and I have no major complaints about this place, despite it not having the quality I would expect from a 4 star hotel.

The room was quite small but the beds were comfortable and the bathroom was clean and had a bathtub.

The buffet breakfast is served at the 11th floor and had a wide variety of food, ranging from the typical vietnamese breakfast to more western foods like sausages and bacon.

The view from the restaurant is beautiful and let’s you see the whole center of Hue.

View of Hue

View of Hue


Day 2: Visit Phong Nha Cave and Paradise Cave

The trip from Hue to the Quang Binh Province took us roughly 4 hours but the road was not so bad and we did not encounter much traffic.

Our first stop was the Phong Nha Cave, situated in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We took a tour via boat and after around 15 minutes we reached the cave where the sailor woman had to turn off the engine and start paddling alongside her 14 years old daughter.

Remember, it is a good thing to tip them at the end of the journey, 100,000 is enough.

The cave extends for more than 7 km but tourists are only allowed in the first 1,5 km.

The boat trip inside the cave lasted for about 15 minutes and after that we walked our way out before jumping on the boat again, heading towards to dock where we came from.

The scenery in this area is beautiful, with tall rock formations surrounding the river leading to the entrance of the cave.

view from the boat

view from the boat

Don’t be fooled by the entrance, which may seem small because once inside you will be blown away by how big it is.

Phong nha cave entrance

Phong nha cave entrance

Once you drop off the boat and start walking you will be amazed by the structures you can find inside this cave and by how tall is the ceiling.

inside of the phong nha cave

inside of the phong nha cave

Wait until you see what the Paradise Cave (Thiên Đường Cave) has to offer.

After driving for about 15 minutes we reached a plateau where our bus stopped. Here you can either take a golf car or walk your way to the beginning of the path that leads to the entrance of the cave. We talked to the girl driving the golf car and she told us her salary is 100,000 Dong per day, just 4 USD.

Once we dropped off the car we started hiking for around 20 minutes up a path which can be pretty tough if you are not in good shape, but don’t worry, you will be rewarded with a beautiful view.

view from the top

view from the top

Rest here for a few minutes before heading down to the Paradise Cave.

If you thought that the Phong Nha Cave was huge, you will be blown away once you see how tall this cave is, topping at 72 meters.

Only the first kilometer is accessible to tourists so it will take you roughly one hour to visit the whole cave.

The limestone formations here are amazing, even more than in the previous cave.

Please be respectful and don’t litter. Despite the many rubbish bins I could still find plenty of water bottles laying around the cave.

Remember to bring a light jacket with you, as the temperature inside the cave drops to around 18-20 degrees and you will be pretty sweaty after the hike to reach the entrance. If you are susceptible to temperature changes you could get sick.

Inside the cave

Inside the cave

After leaving the cave our next stop was our hotel in Dong Hoi, the capital of the Quang Binh Province, a small city near the beach.

We stayed at another 4 star hotel, the Mường Thanh Quảng Bình Hotel which I DO NOT recommend. The room was small, the bathroom was smelly and the bathroom door was so noisy that if you tried to close it at night you would wake up everybody else sleeping in that room.

In front of the hotel there is a nice beach but we did not have a chance to really spend time here as the next day we were already on the road towards Da Nang.

 

Day 3: On the road to Da Nang

The goal of the third day was to reach Da Nang, around 6 hours of travel from our location.

On our way we stopped to the Quang Tri citadel, a military bastion built in 1824, to commemorate the death of soldiers during the Vietnam war.

quang tri citadel

quang tri citadel

Our next stop was the pilgrimage center of La Vang, a small complex housing an ancient church and a new one still under construction.

under construction

under construction

Both stops were quite short and there wasn’t much interesting to see.

On this day we had the infamous shopping stop, a common thing when taking this kind of tours, at a sketchy jewelry shop in Hue where we had to sit through a 15 minutes of explanation about their pearls and how good they are.

Be careful!! This places are tourist traps, the products sold here are fake.
All these kind of shops look the same, they have no windows, they look more like warehouses than real jewelry shops and from the outside there are no indications that this is actually a shop, so that only tour buses stop here.

Don’t buy anything, if you really want to support the guide and the driver you can tip them personally.

After this stop we continued our journey towards Da Nang, which we reached in the late afternoon but we could not roam around as we got welcomed by a heavy storm.

 

Day 4: Ba Na Hills and Hoi An

Da Nang is the 4th biggest city of Vietnam and arguably one of the prettiest as it is surrounded by mountains and has beautiful sand beaches.

The roads here are far less crowded than in Saigon and driving around is quite easy.

 

Ba Na Hills

Our first stop of the day was Ba Na Hills, a resort located around 40 km from Da Nang.

In 1901 a french soldier was tasked with finding a place where soldiers could rest from the heat of Da Nang and he discovered this mountain. By the next year the french settled a garrison here but everything went into ruins after the war.

Now this area is owned by Sun Group which turned it into a big french-medieval themed resort, accessible through a cable car, the longest in the world, spanning for almost 6 km.

The road that leads here is modern and well kept and the cable car station resembles the Imperial City of Hue.

Entrance to Sun World

Entrance to Sun World

The ticket cost for the cable car is 700,000 Dong for a return ticket, around 30 USD.

The first stop of the cable car leads to an area with beautiful gardens and a big buddha statue, which can be seen from kilometers away.

view of the garden

view of the garden

Buddha statue

Buddha statue

This area is not very big and once you finished visiting it you can take another short cable car to reach the main area of the resort.

Here you are greeted by what resembles an old medieval town, full with castles and beautiful buildings.

View of the theme park

View of the theme park

A house covered in ivy

A house covered in ivy

View of the medieval town

View of the medieval town

The weather up here is amazing, around 20 degrees and the air feels very fresh.

I have to say that as an european myself, I found this place a bit weird, a mix of everything, from renaissance to medieval times. but it is worth a visit nonetheless, even just for the cable car trip and for the view from the 1400 meters of the summit.

view from the top

view from the top

This resort also includes a buddhist temple, secluded from the rest of the attractions, where we did not find many tourists and where you can find peace from the noise of the amusement park.

Ba Na Hills attracts many tourist, most of them locals and Koreans, I struggled to find other westerners, except the performers so be ready to draw the look of many people while walking here.

At 10:30 AM there was a parade in the center of the amusement park which was kinda fun and had everything from brazilian dancers to greek and egyptian gods all dancing to modern tunes.

dancers

You can easily spend the whole day here, roaming around and playing at the amusement park but we only got to spend a couple of hours which was enough only to visit the medieval town area but we did not have time to try out any of the games availables at the park.

2 more attractions are being built and will be completed by 2019, one of which looks like a huge castle.

 

Hoi An

After a quick stop at the hotel, we headed towards the ancient town of Hoi An, an UNESCO site, situated only 30 minutes away from Da Nang.

Hoi An is a medium town (120,000 people) famous for its historic district where you can walk around beautiful old houses dating back a few centuries.

Hoi an ancient town

Hoi an ancient town

Prominent is the Japanese Bridge, dating back to the 16th / 17th century.

Japanese bridge

Japanese bridge

The city has its charm but it is so crowded that walking can be a trouble more than a pleasure. There are so many tourists that despite the beauty of the place, I did not really enjoy it.

After a couple of hours here we headed back to the hotel in Da Nang.

 

We stayed at the [Dylan Hotel[(https://goo.gl/maps/Z4ihnDLRrbp), a 3 star hotel located near the beautiful My Khe beach.

The room, again, was small but felt cleaner than in the previous 2 hotels. The bathroom was also clean but the door was noisy, just like in the previous hotel.

This hotel is much smaller than the previous two so it is no surprise that the buffet breakfast was lacking in terms of options, I suggest you to walk around and try some delicious Mi Quang, specialty of Da Nang.

 

Day 5: Linh Ung Pagoda, Water mountain

Before flying back to Saigon, we visited two more spots in Da Nang, the first being the Linh Ung Pagoda where we had the chance to admire the 67m tall Lady Buddha statue.

The complex was finished in 2010 and is situated up a hill not far from the center of Da Nang, of which you can have a beautiful view from here.

view of Da Nang from the top

view of Da Nang from the top

Many people come here to admire the statue and to pray at the temple. Remember to respect the dress code and to wear long pants, else you will be given a robe to wear and cover your legs before entering the sacred place.

lady buddha statue

lady buddha statue

We spent only 30-40 minutes here before moving on to the last stop: the water mountain, part of the complex of 5 limestone hills called Marble Mountains.

The complex is located south of Da Nang, just 15 minutes away from the center.

To reach the summit we had to walk more than 100 stairs, most of them very high and steep so keep that in mind before coming here.

We did not have a chance to visit the whole complex, instead we headed towards the main cave where you can see a beautiful buddha carved into the stone of the cave and a series of temples inside a pretty big cave.

statue carved into the stone

A temple inside the cave

A temple inside the cave

This was the last place we visited before heading to the airport to fly back to Saigon.

 

Final Consideration

If you live in Vietnam or in a neighboring country, you have no excuses to not come and visit Central Vietnam as there is so much to see.

In just 5 days we went from visiting the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty to being inside one of the biggest cave in the world, from visiting a medieval-themed resort built up a mountain to walking the streets of Hoi An.

In total we visited 3 out of the 8 UNESCO Heritage Sites of Vietnam:

Do yourself a favor and come visit these amazing places as I’m sure you will not regret it.

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