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Central Vietnam: Hue and Hoi An

I'm a lawyer and mother of two from New Zealand. I have a passion for the written word and am interested in lots of topics (esp. Travel)!

Travelling down the coast of Central Vietnam is one of most satisfying experiences one can have on a trip to South-East Asia. This part of the country has a rich cultural heritage stemming from the ancient Cham (Hindu) dynasty that ruled Vietnam from 192 AD until the 13th century, and which left a legacy of beautiful, decaying temples and pagodas.

This part of the country is home to no fewer than three UNESCO world heritage sites, as well as the Marble Mountains outside Da Nang, and the Bach Ma National Park—a paradise for nature trails and birdwatching.

There are fantastic beaches here too, especially Nha Trang, which is a 'must-see' place on the South-Central trail. This article looks at two of the most interesting cities in Central Vietnam—Hue, and Hoi An—in-depth.

Hue: Ancient Capital

Hue rose to prominence as the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty, which ruled much of Southern Vietnam from the 17th to the 19th centuries. In 1802 the Emperor Gia Long established feudal control over the whole of Vietnam, based from Hue, and built his citadel and tombs there. Huế was the national capital until 1945, when Emperor Bao Dai abdicated and a communist government was established in Hanoi in the North.

The weather's not great in Hue at any time of year, but it's a fascinating place. The Perfume river winds through the city, and adding an air of mystique and romanticism as you explore the ancient ruins dotted throughout the city. As you walk the banks of the river you'll see rows of curious looking stone sculptures (see photos) -I've never seen this anywhere else before.

Hue: Imperial tombs and a Word About Emperor Bao Dai

You can hop on an air-conditioned bus to do a tour of the three main imperial tomb sites dotted through the surrounding countryside of Hue. You drive through some pretty, lush green countryside, peppered with low thatched houses, and banana palms.

The first tomb we visited was that of Emperor Tu Duc (1848-83). This is a beautifully designed complex of buildings including tombs and temples, and sits in a lush pine forest. Tu Duc had over 100 wives and concubines, but due to having contracted smallpox in childhood, he was unable to have any offspring, or an heir. This was a source of continual disappointment to him apparently (and maybe his love of architecture helped to fill the void)! The huge irony of all of this is that Tu Duc was apparently buried not at his tomb complex, but rather a secret location somewhere in Hue!

Delving into Hue's feudal history, you read about a series of egotistical and megalomaniacal emperors with many eunuchs and concubines supporting the court and upholding the imperial way of life. The final ‘puppet’ Nguyen emperor – Bao Dai (see photo), was a darling of polite French social circles. He married a French woman and spent his last years living in France, where he was buried.

Hue: Minh Mang Tomb

The third tomb – the Minh Mang Tomb, is situated 12 km outside the city, on Cam Ke Hill, on the west bank of the Perfume River. Emperor Minh Mang (1820 – 1841) was the second son of Emperor Gia Long, who founded the last Vietnamese dynasty, the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945). The Minh Mang Tomb is renowned for its architecture, which fits harmoniously into the surrounding landscape.

Hue: Royal Citadel

The royal citadel (built by a later Emperor, Gia Long), is a World Heritage Site, and is probably the most significant historic complex in Hue, and encloses the grounds of the Imperial City. It includes a moat, and the water in the moat is routed from the Perfume River through a series of sluice gates. The perimeter wall is absolutely massive, some 2.5 kilometers in length, and the whole complex covers 520 ha in area.

Gia Long consulted with geomancers to decide which was the best place for a new palace and citadel to be built. After the geomancers had decided on a suitable site in Huế, building began in 1804.

Hoi An: Place of a Thousand Lanterns

The idyllic seaside town of Hoi An is a quaint, picturesque place, beloved of tourists visiting Vietnam, and you can immediately see why. Unlike many Vietnamese towns and cities, Hoi An is relatively clean and unspoilt. It’s naturally beautiful -with both beaches and a river running through it, and the town has taken pride in preserving its unique cultural heritage for the benefit of both residents and visitors. In short, it’s a wee slice of paradise; an oasis of calm and beauty in a country that’s rapidly succumbing to pollution and over-population.

The one thing you absolutely can't miss about Hoi An is that it's full of lanterns, in all shapes and sizes, some for sale, and others merely for decoration. They’re strung across streets between posts, they adorn restaurant and shop frontages, and temples – they are quite simply EVERYWHERE!

Hoi An's Old Town by Bike

Many tourist capitals of the world like to advertise an ‘old town’, and I’ve seen a fair few in my time, but seldom have I visited such a thoroughly enchanting old town as Hoi An’s. Hopping on a bicycle is by far the best way to explore the Old Town, and you can hire them cheaply from lots of places. I ended up with a rusty old one hired from a clothing store!

Covering about 2 square km near the Thu Bon River, the old town is an eclectic mixture of historic buildings which formerly housed Japanese and Chinese merchants, temples and pagodas (mostly Buddhist, but influenced by the Hindu inspired Cham ethnic group, which is predominant around the Hoi An area), and art and craft centres. There are also a number of ‘assembly halls’ that were gathering places for various ethnic groups inhabiting the town up until the 20th century. Admission of 100,000vnd is charged by the town authorities, and for this ticket you can visit 5 of the 22 historic buildings in the old town.

Hoi An: A Day Trip to My Son

From Hoi An, I booked to go on a group tour by bus to the ancient ‘Cham’ sanctuary of My Son (pronounced ‘Mee-Son’) - literally translated in Vietnamese as “beautiful mountain” (as it is located close to a high mountain). The sanctuary is a drive of around an hour and a quarter from the town of Hoi An (40km), and (as of 1999) is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the most important Cham Hindu sites in South-East Asia.

My Son was a large temple complex built by the Cham people of Vietnam – one of the minority ethnic groups who arrived in Vietnam and neighbouring Cambodia (probably from Borneo) around 2nd century AD. At the height of the Cham dynasty, these people controlled the lands between Hue and the Mekong Delta in the South. They traded in sandalwood and slaves, and observe a Hindu-style religion originating from parts of India. Thus the Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva feature prominently in Cham temple architecture, and can be seen in stone relief in the ruined temple sanctuary at My Son. Fertility symbolism (such as stone linga) were also important to the Cham religion.

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From the 4th to the 14th century AD, the valley at My Son was a site of religious ceremony for kings of the ruling dynasties of Champa, as well as a burial place for Cham royalty and national heroes. The Cham empire was eventually driven out of the Hue/Hoi An area by other ethnic groups, and the Cham people of Vietnam are now concentrated solely in the Mekong Delta area. You can see evidence of the Chams throughout Central and South-Central Vietnam (I also went to a Cham temple in Nha Trang -my next city destination).

Apparently the complex was buried deeply under grass and jungle, and forgotten about, for many centuries after the Cham fled to Southern Vietnam. Nobody (even locals living nearby) knew the complex was there, until a French archaeologist rediscovered it in the late 19th century, and had the ruins excavated and researched. My Son’s recent history is quite sad. For some strange reason the French cut the heads off many of the stone statues at My Son (ostensibly for ‘research’ purposes), and took them to France. Then the sanctuary was heavily carpet-bombed by American air forces in a single week during the Vietnam war in the 1960s (and many buildings were largely destroyed), apparently because the Viet Cong (Viet communists) were using My Son to harbour some of their lieutenants.

There is considerable mystery surrounding the building techniques used for the temples at My Son. Most are built from red brick or sandstone, but they do not use mortar or any other kind of jointing compound (a bit like the structures at Macchu Picchu, city of the Inca, that are also simply joined together without compound). It’s also not clear whether the rich decorative engravings were done before or after the brick slabs were erected for the buildings.

The sanctuary is divided into alphabetically numbered ‘areas’, and to reach any of the ruins, you walk for about 20 mins into the jungle. The walk into the sanctuary, through lush vegetation, had a real ‘Indiana Jones’ feel about it, and sure enough as we rounded a corner on the cobblestone path, the first (and most impressive) set of temple ruins appeared magically before us.

Fairly soon the predicted rains arrived, and it began to rain heavily as we looked around the various sites -making for a wet and slippery journey. I had no parka, so retreated back to the tour bus after seeing two of the three main sets of ruins.

My Son was a fascinating place, and I’m very pleased I went. There was no glitz, or gimmickery, about this place -just some majestic, and beautiful ruined temples, that bear witness to a once proud civilisation.

Hoi An: You Don't Need to Be Pooh Bear to Mess Around in Boats!

One thing you can't miss about Hoi An if you spend any time wandering round the Old Town is boats - lots of 'em, of all different shapes, sizes and types. As an amateur photographer I'm always fascinated by boats, just as I am by old sheds, rusty machinery, and other 'photographers' catnip'!

I'll let the boats speak for themselves here. Some are fishing boats -others simply intended to ferry tourists across the river.

Typhoon Nari Hits Hoi An

Typhoon Nari is (or was) my one and only significant natural disaster experience -it affected much of South-East Asia and the Philippines, and made landfall on the East coast of Vietnam in mid-October 2013.

The day before I'd been to My Son -an old ruined Cham city in the countryside (well worth a visit if you're in Hoi An for more than a few days). Our visit to My Son had been marred by rain -the first of my trip to Vietnam. Our guide to My Son had informed us of an impending typhoon, and the winds and rain began picking up overnight the night of 12th October, and when I woke -early morning at 6.30am, it was to the sound of high winds, and rain lashing the walls of the Vinh Hung 3 Hotel.

I felt lucky to be in an inland location – apparently, many hotel guests have been evacuated from the beach and riverside hotels because of flooding risk.

The power in this hotel went out (briefly) about 4 times overnight, and the hotel staff worked quickly and ably restore it for us. I was holed up in my room for a whole day - unable to go outside, but at least am safe and warm. I could hear the sound of the hurricane force wind screeching through trees and bringing them down, and whipping power lines around. I was truly amazed at how hardworking and resilient the Vietnamese people really are when the chips are down, and I suspect this is a trait developed over centuries of war, invasions, and natural disasters. Great to see!

The day after the hurricane I changed hotels - moving to the much nicer Essence Hoi An, as I planned to spend another 3 days in Hoi An. In the afternoon I ventured out on a hotel bicycle, but had to dodge piles of rubble and trees on the street as I biked to the Old Town.

I've included some photos of the post-Nari scene, to show the devastation that was caused in the streets of Hoi An.

Cyclone Nari Devastation Scenes


Post script: Some Miscellaneous Scenes

As I explored Hoi An in my last three days, staying at the lovely Essence Hotel in the Thanh Ha district (built only 2 months before I stayed there), I took some lovely photos of temples and pagodas outside the Old Town, closer to where I was staying (about 2 km north of the town). I've included a selection here.

Central Vietnam (especially the coast where I travelled) is a wonderfully interesting part of the country -go there if you get a chance, you won't regret it!

A note on travelling in Vietnam: A lot of my internal travel was done via domestic flights on Vietnam Airlines, and I used their online booking site extensively. You can also travel by bus or train within Vietnam, but bear in mind it's a very long, skinny country, so the distances North-South or vice versa are vast. It'll take you roughly 23 hours to get from Hanoi in the North to Nha Trang (Central -South). You may well conclude (as I did) that your limited time in Vietnam is better spent in the places you want to see, rather than bumping along in a train carriage or sleeper bus!


Sang on October 07, 2019:

I totally agree with you that Hue and Hoi An are two of the most interesting cities in Central Vietnam. Last year I had chance to visit Hue and Hoi An in July. Different from other bustled cities like Ho Chi Minh, Hue and Hoi An treated me with romantic towns , ancient attractions and peaceful travel time. Essence Hotel and Vinh Hung Hotel which were mentioned in the article seem great. In terms of my trip, look on as the advice from Tripadvisor. The resort's price was reasonable to my budget with high quality of service.

becki91 on February 24, 2015:

Great article, Sue!

I totally agree with you that Hue and Hoi An are two of the most interesting cities in Central Vietnam. Last year I had chance to visit Hue and Hoi An in July. Different from other bustled cities like Ho Chi Minh, Hue and Hoi An treated me with romantic towns , ancient attractions and peaceful travel time. Essence Hotel and Vinh Hung Hotel which were mentioned in the article seem great. In terms of my trip, I booked Phu Thinh Boutique Resort on as the advice from Tripadvisor. The resort's price was reasonable to my budget with high quality of service.