Apart from Da Nang’s basket boats and beaches and Hoi An’s mustard yellow houses and silk lanterns, the highlights of Vietnam’s central region are varied and plentiful.
For first-timers in Da Nang, a day trip or overnight in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Hoi An is a must. Not that it’s the only excursion in the area worth an extra day. There’s so much in Central Vietnam for every type of visitor, whether you’re into nature, culture or even a bit of adventure. And you can cover a site or two in as short as half a day.
IF YOU’VE GOT HALF A DAY
1. CHAM MUSEUM
The indigenous Cham people were strongly influenced by Indian culture. The only museum in the world dedicated to Cham sculpture opened in 1919 close to the riverside where the iconic Dragon Bridge currently stands. Most of the Hindu artefacts in terracotta and stone sculptures are at least several hundred years old and come from different Cham sites.
2. MARBLE MOUNTAINS
Take a few hours to explore the shrines and temples in these marble and limestone caves and hills only 15 minutes away from downtown Da Nang. Steps and tunnels lead to shrines and pagodas containing mainly Buddhist and some Hindu imagery. Carvings and sculptures are for sale in the surrounding village, though the stone probably comes from elsewhere.
3. SON TRA PENINSULA (MONKEY MOUNTAIN)
Just over 10km from the city centre, this nature reserve not only has views of the city and the sea but also gives the chance to observe the rare red-shanked douc langur clambering up the trees. Possible stops include a banyan tree believed to be over 1,000 years old, the Dong Dinh Museum, and the Linh Ung pagoda, best known for the 17-storey statue of Quan Am (Goddess of Mercy).
4. MY SON SANCTUARY
These ancient Hindu temples 40km from Da Nang were built during the Champa Kingdom spanning 1,000 years before falling into ruins. Discovered and documented by the French in the late 19th century, much of it was destroyed during the Vietnam War. Visit the museum to see how the complex looked like before the bombs fell.
5. HAI VAN PASS
A scenic 20km mountain pass often shrouded by mist rising from the sea, Hai Van Pass is a pilgrimage of sorts for motorcycle riders, as the winding roads were made famous by the UK TV show Top Gear. Though most traffic now takes the tunnel instead of the pass, it is still a difficult drive because of the elevation and hairpin turns—a dramatic panorama punctuated by gun turrets.
IF YOU’VE GOT AT LEAST A DAY
Ruled by the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945, the last imperial city in Vietnam lies on the banks of the Perfume River. Though heavily bombed in the Vietnam War, there are still several sites to explore. Aside from the imposing citadel, tombs and pagodas make this UNESCO World Heritage site a must-visit for history and culture buffs.
7. CHAM ISLAND
The mountainous Cham Island is actually one main island surrounded by seven smaller ones in the Cu Lao Cham Marine Park. Daytrippers come here for the beaches, with swimming and snorkelling being the main activities; island hopping or doing a circle road trip of the island is also possible.
8. BA NA HILLS
Hop on a cable car ride to Ba Na Hills, a French-themed resort in the highlands. The year-round cooler weather adds to the illusion of a European village. Lovely gardens, a pagoda, and various themed attractions are sure to fill your day with fun memories and Insta-worthy photos.
IF YOU’VE GOT MORE THAN A DAY
9. LY SON ISLAND
Popular amongst domestic tourists but largely unknown to foreigners, Ly Son is a place to unwind and enjoy great sea views. The island-grown garlic, as well as the fresh seafood, is well-known in Vietnam. A stone archway and a cave pagoda are among the top sights. Make sure to go to nearby An Binh island to swim in its crystal-clear waters.
10. VINH MOC AND THE VIETNAMESE DMZ
The DMZ (Demilitarised Zone) between North and South Vietnam saw some of the heaviest fighting during the Vietnam War. Located on either side of the Ben Hai River, sites include outposts, bases and the Vinh Moc Tunnels, where dozens of families lived on three underground levels to escape the incessant bombing of the US army.
11. PARADISE CAVE AND THE CAVES OF PHONG NHA-KE BANG NATIONAL PARK
At 400 million years old, the caves of Phong Nha number amongst the oldest in the world. The superlatives here are endless, including the world’s largest cave, Hang Son Doong, which is so huge it can fit the whole of New York City inside it. But if you aren’t up for a multi-day expedition in the dark, don’t worry. Paradise Cave, named for the beauty of its stalactite formations, is easily accessible because of its well-lit boardwalk.
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GETTING HERE AirAsia flies to Da Nang from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. For flight info and fares, visit airasia.com.