57. Vietnam’s Central Coast

There’s a lot to consider when planning an overland trip from Nha Trang to Ninh Binh: beaches, history, scenery, the world’s biggest cave … and beaches!

Tourists take an evening stroll in Hoi An’s Ancient Tơwn. (Depositphotos image by Halen Hoie)

Look at a map of Vietnam and you’ll see nearly 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) of coastline between Ninh Binh and Nha Trang. Your first thoughts might be of golden sands puncuated by modern resort hotels, of rolling surf and water sports, of colorful fishing boats and unforgettable seafood restaurants. 

You wouldn’t be wrong. The beaches are there by the dozens. But there’s so much more to this nation’s central coast.

For one, there’s the pure scenic splendor of the region. Craggy capes conceal hidden coves and sheltered islands. Forested hills descend to small fishing villages washed by waves, whose demeanor changes from peaceful to angry during early autumn typhoons.  

Layered atop that beauty is Vietnam’s rich history. Hue was the imperial capital, at the peak of its power in the 19th Century. Hội An thrived as an Asian trade port between the 14th and 17th centuries. Bleak reminders of the American (Vietnam) War persist in places like China Beach, Sơn La (Mỹ Lai) and the old Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The city of Da Nang is the hub of the central coastal region and Vietnam’s third largest population center.

And then there are the Phong Nha caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A honeycomb of remarkable caverns laced with underground rivers, the network has only been seriously explored in the past three decades. The Sơn Đoòng cave, largest in the world, just opened for tours in 2013 — and then only with guides on a multi-day trek through a jungle habitat of elephants and tigers.

With so much to see and do, there only remains the question: Shall I travel the coastal route from north to south, or from south to north? Because I currently live in the Central Highlands, I will find it more practical to begin in Nha Trang and work my way north. But there’s no right or wrong way.

Surf breaks just offshore near Nha Trang. (Depositphotos image by Phuong Photos.)

Russian to the beaches

Nha Trang (in Vietnamese, it sounds like Nya Chang) has a greater Russian influence than anywhere else in this country. With direct charter flights from such frigid cities as Vladivostok, Irkutsk and Novosibirsk, more than 200,000 Russians visited Nha Trang in the halcyon pre-COVID year of 2019. They’re expected to rush back in 2022. Many top-end tourist hotels are Russian or Chinese owned, and the script at restaurants and travel agencies may be Cyrillic or Sinitic rather than Vietnamese or English.

But package tourists tend to stay in their own clusters, meaning there’s plenty for visitors to see and do that doesn’t involve buses, boats and fancy hotels. The crescent beach, 6 km (3.8 miles) long, offers every marine pursuit imaginable, from surfing to sailing to diving, and it’s flanked by a handsome promenade that doubles as a sculpture garden. Many of the town’s favorite restaurants and bars overlook this broad walkway. Yet few vacationers have an interest in the Po Nagar Cham Towers, a Buddhist temple complex over 1,000 years old on a bluff north of downtown.

Boat tours to isolated beaches and waterfalls, and to 71 offshore islands (some home to exclusive resorts), are popular diversions. More upscale accommodations dot the shoreline past Bãi Đài beach en route to the international airport at Cam Ranh Bay, 28 km (17.5 miles) south of Nha Trang, and north up a beguiling coastline road.

The sedate beach town of Quy Nhon, six hours by bus from Nha Trang, is gateway to the twin coves of remote Bãi Xép beach. Another 3½ hours north,  Quảng Ngãi is the nearest town to Sơn Mỹ, site of the infamous Mỹ Lai massacre. A poignant memorial recalls how more than 500 villagers, many of them children or elderly, were ruthlessly slain here by American troops in March 1968.

Lantern-bedecked boats float on the Thu Bon River in Hoi An. (Photo by JGA)

Historic Hội An

No other place in Southeast Asia is quite like Hội An. Its entire Ancient Town neighborhood, including more than 800 wood-frame buildings, has been preserved since 1999 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, appearing much as it might have in the centuries it served as a window on trade with other Asian and European nations.

My brief visit in May 2020 only whetted my appetite for a longer stay. In the early days of the COVID pandemic in Vietnam, many of its historic temples, museums, Chinese community houses, handicraft shops and excellent restaurants were closed. I want to wander the public market and cruise the Thu Bon River on small boats lit only by colorful lanterns.

And I want to take a day trip to Mỹ Sơn, another UNESCO-acclaimed site that, between the 4th and 13th centuries, was considered the spiritual and intellectual hub of the ancient kingdom of Champa. Although severely damaged by bombing during the American War, the site preserves about 20 Hindu temples (out of an original 68) dedicated to the worship of the god Shiva.

Da Nang’s Dragon Bridge towers over motorbikes by day. (Photo by JGA)

Da Nang and Hue

Da Nang, now a city of more than 1 million, is as well-known for its bridges and street food as for its beaches. In particular, the so-called Dragon Bridge (one of several that cross the Han River just above its confluence with the East Sea) puts on a show every Friday and Saturday night, when the arched double sculpture, nearly half a mile long, changes colors and spouts fire and water. In the hills to the west, the new Golden Bridge (opened in 2018) features two giant hands framing an overlook between a resort garden and cablecar station.

U.S. Marines made their first landing in Vietnam at Da Nang in March 1965. An R&R resort was soon established at Mỹ Khe beach, dubbed “China Beach.” Today the strand remains popular among visitors; it is somewhat sheltered by the Son Tra peninsula, known to tróops as Monkey Mountain when it was a radar and communication base. Look for the giant “Lady Buddha” statue on the hillside.

For a history lover, I can’t imagine a better destination in Vietnam than Hue (pronounced hway), three hours’ drive north of Da Nang.

This city, which spans the Perfume River on a coastal plain 15 km (9.5 miles) from the beach, preserves the legacy of Vietnam’s last imperial dynasty, the Nguyễns, who ruled the country from 1802 to 1884, then nominally under the French until the end of the colonial era.

Hue’s historical centerpiece is íts Citadel and Imperial Enclosure, now protected by UNESCO after suffering severe wartime damage. Mostly completed by 1833, the stronghold has thick walls surrounded by a broad moat, with minimal entry points. Within the citadel itself are palaces and residences, gardens, a grand theater and the To Mieu temple complex. Outside are impressive pagodas and museums.

Beyond the central city, numerous flamboyant royal mausoleums stand in what was once countryside. The hillside tomb of emperor Tự Đức (died 1883), only 5 feet tall, is especially impressive. It’s not far from the seven-story Thiên Mụ Pagoda, an octagonal Vietnamese icon built in 1844.

The Citadel of the Imperial Royal Palace in Hue. (Depositphotos image by Curioso)

Going underground

Hue is just south of the DMZ, the old Demilitarized Zone of the American War era. If I pause to visit a friend in the gateway town of Đông Hà, I will plan on a motorbike tour of wartime sites, including the notorious Hamburger Hill and the elaborate Vĩnh Mốc tunnel system.

More likely, I will continue through to Phong Nha – Kẻ Bàng National Park. Located at Vietnam’s narrowest point (only about 55 km, or 34 miles, from the East Sea to the border of Laos), the park embraces the limestone mountains of the Annamite Range, their evergreen jungles descending to savannah-like plains. The peaks are laced with a network of cathedral-like caverns, many miles in depth, spiked with stalagmites and stalactites. It is one of the world’s longest subterranean networks.

I cannot afford the thousands of dollars that would enable me to join a four-day trek to explore the Sơn Đoòng cave, considered to have the world’s largest natural opening. But I would hope there might be another, smaller grotto that could find a place for me.

Trekkers’ tents nestle inside the entrance to the world’s biggest cave, Hang Son Doong. (iStock image by Geng Zu.)
Stalagmites and stalactites highlight the Paradise Cave at Phong Nha. (iStock photo by Gilitukha.)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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