Central Vietnam See And Do
10 Tran Phu Street
Tel: 84 5 882 9540
There isn't a Frenchman more revered in Vietnam than Alexandre Yersin (18631943), the bacteriologist who discovered the cause of bubonic plague. Yersin founded the Pasteur Institute in Nha Trang, led scientific expeditions into the Central Highlands, and recommended the French establish the hill station of Dalat. The remarkable life of this Swiss-born polymath, including his lifesaving research, laboratory instruments, and scientific library, is on display at the Alexandre Yersin Museum, on the grounds of the seaside clinic.
Open Mondays through Fridays 7:30 to 11 am and 2 to 4:30 pm.
Vietnam's coastline exceeds 2,000 miles, but its finest beaches are almost all found in the 400-mile stretch from Hue to Nha Trang. Alongside a lagoon ten miles northeast of Hue, undeveloped Thuan An Beach attracts Vietnamese from May through August, when the water's generally calm enough for swimming. Forty miles south of Hue, white-sand Lang Co Beach unfolds for six miles between a lagoon and the South China Sea. Its undeniable beauty and stunning views of Bach Ma Mountain National Park have finally seduced developers: Banyan Tree has announced plans for a massive, $270 million luxury resort that will include four hotels, an 18-hole golf course, and residential villas. Da Nang's famed China Beach, once an R and R spot for American soldiers, now attracts a swelling civilian following. The busy northernmost section is characterized by gated developments. More welcoming is Non Nuoc, a section near the Marble Mountains six miles south of Da Nang, where the coastal dunes still hold stands of casuarina trees and family tombs. Fifty yards wide and gently graded, the quiet beach is excellent for swimming. Six miles farther south, fishermen launch circular thung chai, or "basket boats,'' from Cua Dai Beach with the Cham Islands as a beautiful backdrop. But deeper water and rip currents present problems for swimmers. Hoi Anbased Cham Island Diving makes half-day excursions to the archipelago's marine park from February through September, when seas are calm and water visibility approaches 100 feet. Long and tan My Khe Beach is a good place to reflect after a visit to My Lai, just one mile to the west. Beach-hoppers will have a field day farther south, especially at Dai Lanh and six-mile-long Doc Let, where white-sand dunes are tufted with pine trees. Three-mile-long Nha Trang Beach is Vietnam's best urban sandbox, with clean parks and promenades, waterfront bars, and boutique hotels. Water-sports outfitter Mana Mana Beach Club operates from La Louisiane Brewhouse and rents wake- and windsurfing boards, water skis, and sea kayaks. Vietnam's most experienced dive shop, Rainbow Divers, runs half-day trips to an offshore archipelago, where a marine park holds healthy corals and 350 species of fish.
Resorts such as Hue's La Residence offer instruction in Vietnamese cooking, but the most hands-on fun may be Hoi An's Red Bridge Cooking School. Classes gather at Hai Scout Café. After a tour of the waterfront market complete with shopping tips (a fresh squid should have clear eyes and hard, white flesh), students board a wooden boat for a 20-minute trip down the Hoi An River to Red Bridge Cooking School. With the wit and timing of stand-up comedians, instructors initiate neophyte chefs into the mysteries of carving vegetables for decorations, steaming fresh rice paper rolls, and making a Hoi An specialty, banh xeo, a crispy "pancake" topped with shrimp, spring onions, sprouts, and herbs. Best of all, students get to consume their handiwork. Book several days in advance, as the 8 am and 1:30 pm tutorialsan absolute bargain at $15often fill up early.
How exceptional is Hoi An? So special that by tacit agreement among all combatants, it wasn't attacked during the Vietnam War. That neutrality left the town, a trading port dating from the 15th century, in a state of preservation worthy enough to gain it UNESCO World Heritage status. The gracious buildings and streets show a variety of architectural influences, especially from China and Japan; the town prospered in the 17th and 18th centuries, when merchants from as far afield as India and Holland set up emporiums. But business literally dried up in the 19th century, when silting clogged the Thu Bon River. The port shifted to Da Nang, 20 miles up the coast, and Hoi An became a near-forgotten backwater. With a medieval cityscape untouched by Vietnam's go-go economy, it easily doubled for 1950s Cholon, Saigon's Chinese quarter, in the film adaptation of Graham Greene's classic novel, The Quiet American.
Also famed for its custom tailors, the tourist-oriented old quarter is laid-back and pedestrian-friendly, with a ban on cars, touts, and street peddlers. For many of the sites you'll need to buy a 70,000 Vietnamese dong entrance ticket (about $4.50), which entitles visitors to a selection of museums, historic houses like the Tran Family Chapel (built in 1802 and still privately owned), and pagodalike community halls erected by ancient expats from Fujian, Canton, and other Chinese provinces. Take time also to just wander the streets and admire the rows of "yin and yang" (concave and convex) roof tiles, fishermen along the colorful waterfront, and quirky local enterprises like the Hoi An Department of Managing and Gathering Swallow's Nests (53 Nguyen Thai Hoc St.), which heads to the Cham Islands twice a year to gather the main ingredient for bird's nest soup.
Still off the standard itinerary for many foreign visitors, Hue served as the capital of unified Vietnam from 1802 until 1945. In addition to being the seat of the Nguyen dynasty throne, the imperial city held sway over the nation's cultural and religious life, making it a natural for UNESCO World Heritage status. Even today, this medium-size town straddling the Perfume River remains a center of education.
Surrounded by a thick, six-mile-long wall, the massive Citadel on the north bank dominates the cityscape. Inside is the fortified and moated Imperial City, a city-within-a-city containing the ornate wooden Thai Hoa Palace, Halls of the Mandarins, a tranquil pond, and the "pleasure pavilion" of Dien Tho, the Queen Mother's residence. Everything in the innermost Forbidden Purple City, aside from the Emperor's Reading Room, was obliterated during the nightmarish urban combat of the 1968 Tet Offensive. The streets inside the fortress are laid out in a grid pattern and are perfect for exploring on a bicycle, which can be rented from Mandarin Café for $1 a day. It's impossible to get lost; just use the 120-foot-tall Flag Tower on the southern rampart as a beacon.
The wooded hills south of town are dotted with the mausoleums of the Nguyen kings, including the frangipani-scented Tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, who reigned 184383. Café on Thu Wheels offers a rollicking half-day tour by motorcycle of the tombs and countryside. The route also stops at riverside Thien Mu Pagoda, whose seven-story octagonal tower is a national icon. A more unusual talisman is the classic British-built Austin sedan housed beyond the main sanctuary. In 1963 a Buddhist monk from the temple, Thich Quang Duc, drove the car to Saigon, where he doused himself with gasoline and burned to death to protest religious discrimination by the Catholic-dominated South Vietnamese regime. The photograph of Thich's self-immolation, with the Austin in the background, is one of the Vietnam War's most enduring images.
3 Le Truc Street
The lost splendor of the Nguyen dynasty, which ruled Vietnam from 1802 until 1945, is displayed at the Hue Museum of Royal Fine Arts. Housed inside an all-wood palace built in 1845, the museum is notable for its atmospheric setting and sumptuous royal artifacts, including furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl, ceremonial weapons, and silk gowns.
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 7 am to 5:30 pm.
This central region, known as I Corps during the Vietnam War, suffered much of the conflict's heaviest fighting. In Hue, bullet holes from the 1968 Tet Offensive still scar the Citadel's brick walls, especially around east-side Dong Ba Gate. The bitter door-to-door fight lasted three weeks and left a bigger hole at the heart of the fortress, where much of the Forbidden Purple City was destroyed. The sites between Hue and the Ben Hai River, a natural boundary separating North and South Vietnam once known as the Demilitarized Zone (or DMZ), are a bloody roll call: The Rockpile, Khe Sanh, Camp Carroll. Several companies in Hue, including Mandarin Café, offer all-day "DMZ tours" that include transport, an English-speaking guide, and entrance fees.
Even more sobering is Son My Site, better known to Americans as My Lai, where U.S. Army soldiers massacred 504 civilians on March 16, 1968. Six miles east of the provincial capital of Quang Ngai and 60 miles south of Hoi An, this hamlet has been preserved as a war memorial, with manicured grounds, restored bunkers, and plaques listing the victims, who were mostly women, children, and the elderly. An on-site museum displays such haunting artifacts as children's toys and slippers, as well as searing pictures taken by an official U.S. Army photographer as the atrocity unfolded. Far from being one-sided propaganda, the exhibit notes the actions of several American soldiers who risked their own lives to protect Vietnamese peasants.
Son My Site open daily 7 am to 5 pm.
Corner of Bach Dang and Trung Nu Vuong Streets
The best reason to explore Da Nang is its Museum of Cham Sculpture, which is devoted to the Angkoresque sandstone carvings of the Cham, who dominated central Vietnam from the 4th to the 14th centuries. The delightful 1916 structure, which melds temple aesthetics with golden-age French colonial architecture, holds the world's preeminent collection of Cham art.
Open daily 7 am to 5 pm.
This UNESCO collection of ancient Cham tower-temples is a more mellow alternative to tourist favorites like Hue and Hoi An. Set in a valley a scenic 30-mile drive west of Hoi An, My Son was the hub of the Champa Kingdom for almost 1,000 yearsthe longest continuous occupation of any major monument in Southeast Asia. However, the Viet Cong hid out in the ruins during the Vietnam War, leading to American air strikes that badly damaged many of the brick and sandstone structures. Restoration is under way, albeit slowly, and it's a pleasant one-mile walk from the parking lot through second-growth forest to the crumbling temples beneath Hon Quap (Cat's Tooth Mountain). An excellent visitors center explains the history of the seafaring Cham people, whose culture was influenced by trade networks that extended as far as India and Java. While every hotel or travel agency in Hoi An offers a My Son coach tour, it's better to indulge in a private car and driver (about $20 to $25 from Hoi An) to beat the mobs. Go early, and you'll have the archeological park practically to yourself, just as sunrise burnishes the brickworks and the jungle comes alive with birdsong. Private English-speaking guides at the site can be hired for 70,000 Vietnamese dong (about $4.50).
Open daily 6:30 am to 5 pm.
Decades of conflict disrupted this French-built rail line, but the 1,070-mile link from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City was finally restored after the Vietnam War concluded in 1975. While Vietnam Railways will never be confused with France's lightning-quick TGV service, or even Amtrak, what its coaches lack in speed and style is largely mitigated by unforgettable scenery and unbeatable value. The most spectacular stretch of the line runs 60 miles south from Hue to Da Nang, skirting lagoons and electric-green rice paddies, threading tunnels through the wild coastal mountains and then climbing along the sheer edge of a sea cliff and through Hai Van Pass to make a sweeping final descent. A train buff's fantasy, the two-hour journey costs just 40,000 Vietnamese dong ($2.50). The 325-mile, nine-hour stretch from Da Nang to Nha Trang also passes through a classic Vietnamese landscape of rice paddies and lush mountains. Shoot for SE-class trains, which are a mix of air-conditioned coaches and "soft" (four bunks to a room) and "hard" (six to a room) class sleepers. Drinks trolleys rattle down the aisles with cold beer and hot coffee, while a dining car turns out com ga kho (chicken and ginger) for less than $1 a plate. Prerecorded commentary in English explains some of the major attractions along the way. Do keep a pack of tissues handy, as the Western-style bathrooms often lack toilet paper. Hotels and tour companies can arrange train bookings; tickets can also be purchased from English-speaking railway staff at stations in major cities.