The less-popular area has its own distinctive treasures, writes Ronan O'Connell.
Pristine beaches, flourishing cities, myriad foreign influences and stunning old towns — Vietnam’s central coast has many attributes. Yet so many tourists fly right over it on their way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, or vice versa. What makes this part of Vietnam particularly appealing as a tourist destination is the fact that it has two significant yet very different cities close together. Danang and Hoi An hug the coast, just 25km apart. The latter is a somewhat peculiar, modern city while Hoi An is all about the history.
As the light drains from the sky and traditional Chinese lanterns come into effect all along the pretty cobblestone streets of Hoi An, it is hard to believe there is any town more attractive and charming in South-East Asia. Hoi An is the kind of place which leaves even seasoned travellers in a trance. A historic former sea port on the edge of the Thu Bon River, it has a curious yet attractive mix of architecture blending Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and European styles.
So significant and so well maintained is its old town area that this whole neighbourhood has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This heritage protection has helped maintain the architectural authenticity of Hoi An, which dates back to the 1400s. Embellishing the narrow streets of the old town are more than 1000 timber-frame buildings — homes and shophouses — from the 1700s and 1800s. While most of them now house businesses aimed at tourists, from coffee shops to art galleries, the appearance of this town barely has been altered in the past 200 years, giving it a wonderfully traditional feel.
Hoi An is not a dynamic place like Ho Chi Minh City, nor does it boast the huge range of attractions of Hanoi. Rather it is a place of simpler pleasures. Wander the old town and admire its architectural heritage. Hire a row boat and cruise along the river. Haggle with local vendors in the quaint covered market. Learn to make Chinese hand fans at an art workshop. Whatever you do, make sure that once the sun begins to set you have secured yourself a comfortable vantage by the river’s edge as the paper lanterns begin to illuminate this majestic town.
Danang is an odd city. It does not feel nearly as intrinsically Vietnamese as cities such as Hue and Hanoi. On many of its streets were I to look around it would be hard to spot any indicators I am in Vietnam, apart from the language on signs. Danang has a history dating back almost 2000 years yet, for the most part, the only evidence of this heritage is its smattering of old temples.
Yet I still really like Danang, due to the fact that it is has its own character. Whereas nearby Hoi An and Hue trade on their historic architecture, Danang’s icons are its modern constructions. This city is home to two of the most unusual pieces of recent architecture in South-East Asia — the unmistakable Dragon Bridge, and the whimsical Golden Bridge.
The latter of these, just beyond Danang’s eastern outskirts, has quickly become one of the most photographed locations in Vietnam due to its extraordinary valley views and the two gigantic stone hands which hold up the bridge. The Dragon Bridge, meanwhile, stops visitors to downtown Danang in their tracks, particularly at night time when the massive dragon head lights up on this 666m-long bridge spanning the Han River. Don’t come to Danang expecting to see traditional Vietnamese culture. Instead, arrive with an open mind. Oh, and Danang has some of the nicest beaches, the finest surfing, and the best fishing in all of Vietnam.