Our overnight train train arrived in Da Nang around 7am but, despite our lack of hope for a supremely early check in, the staff at Tango Hostel offered a room up kindly, and our first day in Da Nang kicked off in earnest after a shower.
Central Vietnam was the most packed part of our adventure, and we had a solid plan for Da Nang day one, which started with a taxi ride to the home of the “Lady Buddha” that dominates the Da Nang coastline.
Linh Ung Pagoda
The weather was still a little on the damp side as we arrived at Ling Unh pagoda, but it did little to impact on the beauty of the place – the pagoda is stunning. and we were in absolute awe of the building and the gardens. The triple gate is amazing, and the building itself is one of the most ornate you’ll see.
Despite the plethora of attraction, the main draw to the pagoda for visitors is Vietnam’s tallest Buddha statue, the so-called “Lady Buddha“. She stands at a staggering 67m tall, and can been seen from pretty much anywhere in Da Nang. Crowds gather to take photos of the statue, and you’ll often find macaques doing their thing and trying to nab the odd camera away from tourists trying to catch them mid-mischief.
There’s also a brilliant reclining Buddha temple just away from the pagoda, which are worth the trip up to the peninsula themselves. We were lucky enough to visit Ling Unh on a fairly quiet day, but I can imagine it gets very busy during high season, so it’s worth leaving yourself at least an hour to see everything.
Our Grab taxi driver was insistent in sticking around to take us on to our next stop, which was a bit of a drive down to the South of the city. Grab’s great for meeting drivers who are up for bartering on further fares, and no one really seems to think twice about waiting around for a bit – which was super helpful on a day where we had a bit of back and forth across the city to do.
The Marble Mountains were the second stop of the day, and another of Da Nang’s most popular spots. The site houses multiple pagodas and caves, with many statues and gardens to see and explore between and in the hills.
There are a few recommended routes about Marble Mountains. Traditionally you would need to climb the stairs, but an ambitious lift has made the mountains themselves accessible to all (for a small fee, of course), and you can easily follow the numbered route for as long as you’d like.
There’s a fantastic view of the city waiting at the higher points of Marble Mountain, but the biggest attraction of all is Huyen Khong cave, waiting for you at the end of your trek around.
Huyen Khong cave is a truly spectacular place, but you’ll be very lucky to get it to yourself as it’s where most people head towards and congregate. That said, you’ll be rewarded well for a little patience, and we did manage to get a few serene moments to soak it all in before another tour group broke the serenity.
One piece of advice that we did ignore at our peril in Marble Mountains was to take our own water with us. It was insanely humid (even though we went at the cooler part of the year), and you will end up paying 4x the usual price. You’ll also get pressured into donating some money here and there to “tour guides”, but it’s totally up to you if you’d like to get involved and certainly not something mandated by anyone in charge of the mountains.
Ling Ung pagoda and Marble Mountains was an amazing day out, and doing the two together is pretty straightforward by any means of transport – it’s easy and cheap enough by taxi to avoid doing group tours.
We did a bit of research into food spots, and wound up having dinner at ‘Vegan Restaurant’ (329 Dương Đình Nghệ) – which we figured probably was a vegan restaurant. It’s a great spot for dinner if you’re inclined away from meat/dairy, and one I’d definitely recommend if you’re in town.
No trip to Da Nang is complete without a visit to see The Dragon Bridge, and the riverside around it has some great places to sit and watch the world go by for a bit. Tango Hostel has a cool rooftop area that you can see the bridge from as well, which we enjoyed as a perfect end to a long, but brilliant first day in Da Nang.
Ba Na Hills
Vietnam has a penchant for loopy theme parks, and Ba Na Hills might just be the most famous due to the French Village they’ve created in the mountains near Da Nang. We’d arranged to meet up with Miz and Jayne again for the day to go and see it together (it’s definitely best as a group day out).
You’ll need to get a Grab or public transport west of the city to get to Ba Na Hills cable car station, and it’s a lengthly ride up to the top.
Once you’ve scaled the mountains, you’re presented with a load of different routes around the park, which requires another 4 cable car rides to get around the whole place.
Ba Na Hills’ latest attraction greets you early on. The Golden Bridge has been all over social media recently, drawing travellers as well as locals in huge numbers. For that reason, you’re unlikely to get the “serene” aerial shots you’ve seen all over the internet, but it’s cool nonetheless and an absolute testament to the bonkers-ness of Ba Na Hills in general.
Ba Na Hills is pretty much set up for people to have photos with random objects (guilty), and does a fine job of being one of the oddest places on the planet.The over-the-top renditions of European gardens, mazes and architecture are kitsch, but nothing compared to the original, main attraction at the top of the park – the French Village.
Here you’ll find hotels, restaurants, a fully functioning Gothic-style Christian church, and some “alpine rides” that are kinda crap but also brilliant – a metaphor for the whole place, to be completely honest. The French Village has made appearances on various TV shows since it “launched”, and it’s truly one of the most surreal places you can go in Vietnam – although the entrance fee for Ba Na Hills is a bit eyewatering when you consider how cheap the rest of Vietnam is.
There’s also a Bavarian style German beer festival plaza (sadly not open while we were there) if you fancy a break from French-style living, but the true greatness of the place (which has nothing to do with France at all), is to be found in the underground games complex.
Stretching over 5 massive floors, you’ll find bumper cars, 4D “rides”, Star Wars battle pods with surround screens and pretty much any sort of arcade game you could imagine – all included in the park entry price.
I didn’t really thing too much about the technicalities of this place, but it’s pretty staggering that they’ve managed to get this madness built into the top of a mountain, and even the really quite bad Jurassic Park rip off experience couldn’t dampen our spirits.
We lost track of time fairly swiftly in here, and before we knew it we had to dart back down the cable cars and get back into the city and say our goodbyes to Miz and Jayne. We wouldn’t be seeing them again on this trip but it was awesome to see them for such a great day.
Our evening was capped off with another visit to the Dragon Bridge – this time to see the weekend fire show. This consists of the Dragon Bridge spitting fire and holding up traffic for 15 minutes while thousands of people watch – which is absolutely fine – and I’d heartily recommend doing it if you happen to be in Da Nang on a Friday or Saturday night at 9pm.
The next day, we were sad to be moving on from Da Nang. We’d been to see sights near the city so much that we hadn’t really managed to spend much time checking out the city itself. It’s definitely somewhere I’d like to go back to and see more.
Our plan for the next couple days was to visit Mỹ Sơn temples and stay in Hoi An, before coming back through Da Nang on the way up to Hue. It’s a bit of a triangle on a map, and it turned out the easiest way to do it was taxi the first part and get a group transport from Hoi An all the way to Hue. Our taxi driver from the day before, so we spent a little more than you would on a group trip to see Mỹ Sơn privately.
Although it’s nowhere near as famous as Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia, Mỹ Sơn is one of Vietnam’s key heritage sites. It’s a bit of a mission from Da Nang, and it’ll take most of a day if you want to go up and back.
Despite the significant damage from the recent war, Mỹ Sơn is a beautiful place, and it’s well worth taking some time out in central Vietnam to go and see the Cham temples.
There’s plenty of group options from any of the nearby cities to go and see it, but we were really glad we did opt for visiting the templates on our own. We could take our time between the morning and afternoon groups that visit, and were more than happy getting some snaps by ourselves without a guide. It’s probably not the best thing to attempt when it’s really hot though as it gets sweltering around lunch.
Once we’d gotten our fill of the amazing Cham architecture, we reconvened with our Grab driver, and headed back towards the seaside.
Hoi An is one of Vietnam’s most popular places. It’s set up for tourists in a way matched only in Ha Long Bay and the big cities, and it’s kept almost pristine to keep the flow of people coming in. It’s an absolutely gorgeous place, with beautiful traditional houses watching boats gliding down the river, and there’s no end of places to get custom clothes, try Vietnamese food and enjoy a sunny afternoon.
Our accommodation for the night was Hoi An Dat Cam Homestay, which is a short walk from the main area of Hoi An and one of the best places we stayed on the whole trip. If you go to Hoi An, I’d definitely recommend staying there. The family that runs it are really friendly and the room was cheap, clean and comfy.
We found a great spot for food by the river for lunch (we were comparing tofu and spring rolls in different cities by this point), and took a chance to explore a few of the markets and walk past some of the old houses (that you can pay to get into if you please). We weren’t really in a shopping mood and I have no real use for a custom suit, so we settled for saying no thank you a lot and found a spot charging 12p a beer off the beaten track (more on the Vietnamese homebrew later).
Hoi An is so beautiful in the evening, and it’s really difficult not to find the place endearing with all the lanterns and riverside spots to lose an evening in. Our evening adventure around Hoi An involved some bar hopping, – including a stop in an Irish bar (sorry) for some music and a fairly rowdy late night stop in Tiger Tiger Bar.
All in all, it was a great success, even though we didn’t manage to make it to the Mr Bean bar in the end. I’m sure it’s great. Probably.
We had to move on from Hoi An the next day, but had half a day there to do some exploring. We hired some bicycles and shaked off the cobwebs with a trip to a nearby beach.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned it raining in central Vietnam at all yet, and it was the perfect weather to sit on a sunbed and relax. The beach was really quiet, and it was at this point we cursed being on schedule. We could have stayed on the beach for a few days (and I certainly would if I went back), but had to head back to Hoi An to get on our way.
Fortunately, we were on the way to even more amazing places, so we dropped off our bikes and tracked down our transport north onto the next part of our trip.
A former capital of Vietnam, Hue is around 4 hours north of Hoi An, and we arrived fairly late on in the day to our home for the next two nights – Shark Homestay. I have a friend in Hue that we were due to meet up with the following night, and he’d recommend that we go to San May – a vegetarian restaurant fairly close to our hotel.
San May – put simply – was amazing. The place has a great low-key atmosphere, and I wish I could have eaten everything on the menu. If you love food, it’s a must-do in Hue, and the owner is absolutely lovely.
The rest of our evening involved a few drinks near our hostel – and meeting a great dog – and soaking in the vibrant nightlife of Hue. There’s plenty going on across the city, and it’s not difficult to find some reasonably priced beers if you’re so inclined.
The Imperial City
Hue’s biggest draw is the massive Imperial City. It’s the heart of the old capital and, although it also received a massive shelling by the US during the recent war, it’s a must-see in the city to get a feel for the importance of the place.
We headed down in the morning, and took our time meandering around at our own pace. If you fancy a deep-dive, there’s plenty of options for guided tours. Inside, you’ll find stately residences, theatres and gardens, and you can learn about Hue’s history in depth. You’ll need a good few hours to explore everything, and it’d be easy enough to spend a day there if you’re not a fast walker and fancy checking out one of the traditional performances at the theatre.
The Imperial Tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh
After our exploration of The Imperial City, we headed about 20 minutes South by taxi to The Imperial Tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh.
I’m not really one for treating a tomb like a place to take selfies (unlike a fair few of the people wandering around), but I will say that it’s an amazing building, and the interior is so spectacular that it’s hard to resist taking photos (even though I did).
I’ve really never seen such an ornate memorial place, and the sheer size and architecture alone is a real a testament to Khai Dinh’s legacy and stature in Vietnam. It’s totally worth a visit from the city centre, and makes a great pairing with The Imperial City for a day out.
After our day of history and culture, we got ready for an evening out with an old friend of mine. Luke runs Hue Grit Tour, and has been settled in Vietnam for over 8 years now.
He treated us to an evening of Huda, clubs with video walls and street drinking at various spots around the city. It was another evening of great hospitality and hangouts, and the picture below accurately describes how we felt the next day…
I absolutely loved Hue, and I’d love to get more stuck into the bar and alternative scene there. It’s going through some of the growing pains that the rest of the bigger cities in Vietnam are having with rapid modernisation, but it has a character all of its own and is an essential place to visit if you’re travelling through the country.
Our last stop in central Vietnam was a fairly long bus ride away beyond the old demilitarised zone between North and South Vietnam. War memorials and stark scars still remain here, and it was a heavy reminder to ground yourself in Vietnam’s recent history instead of taking it for granted.
Phong Nha – Ke Bang
Phong Nha had popped up as a place to visit regularly when we’d been looking into places to visit between Hue and the north. It’s so far inland that you’re nearly in Laos, and has become popular in recent years for its beautiful landscape, caves and national parks.
We were staying at the fantastic Coco House, set right on the river, where you can get some great food and watch the boats go by to your heart’s content.
Our first night in Phong Nha was a well earned early one, ready for some exploration in the morning, so we took a well earned evening off of going out and enjoyed relaxing. We’d been on the go a fair bit over the last few days, and it was worth recharging the batteries a little.
Our second day in Phong Nha was set to be a long one – we had a very late train that night and wanted to make the most of our short time in the beautiful surroundings, so we hired a bike for the day to drive up to Paradise Cave.
Both of us were terrified to try out bikes in the cities, but here it turned out to be an amazing idea. The scenery around Phong Nha is simply stunning and, if you handle a few potholes and the odd roaming bull, it’s a great place to hire a bike.
Paradise Cave is one of the more easily accessible caves around Phong Nha, reachable by bicycle if you’re really fit, but much easier to get to with a motorbike. The journey to the cave itself is amazing, taking you through Phong Nha’s national park on winding roads through the mountains.
Paradise Cave itself is an absolutely stunning piece of engineering and natural beauty. It’s tough to do it justice from pictures, but it’s a really quite something.
Thousands of years of stalactites and stalagmites stretch kilometres into the mountains, and it’s the kind of place where you’re constantly overloaded and on another world. It feels like you’re wandering around forever, and we’d barely even gone a fifth of the way into it.
The mad thing about Phong Nha is that Paradise Cave really is just a tiny bit of what you can see, and the list of place you could go if you’re into caving extends from the ‘sit on a boat and see it’ of Dark Cave right up to some of the world’s most expensive cave excursions.
We were absolutely gutted to be moving on again, especially from a place as amazing as Phong Nha. Coco House was such a lovely spot, and there’s so much more to do there than we had time for. Our three weeks was feeling very short at this point, and we were developing a long list of places we wanted to see more of.
We hopped on a public bus down to nearby Đồng Hới, where we had a fairly arduous wait for a train around 1am. A pro-tip for Đồng Hới – if you do have a long wait for a train – avoid the train station. There’s not too much around there, and we were a bit fed up by the time the train pulled up.
Our heads hit the pillow a lot faster on our second and final overnight train, and we settled in a for a long journey North to Ninh Binh.
Central Vietnam was absolutely amazing, and we could have spent three weeks there alone. We found so many places and memories we’ll enjoy revisiting throughout our lives, and it really hammered home what an amazing place Vietnam is.
Part Three of this series is available to read here.