Soaring above the bank of the Han River is an iconic glass tower, the new Administration Center for Danang, the tallest building in Vietnam’s central region. Dramatic as it is, the real star of the new Danang, though, is Vietnam’s longest bridge spanning the river: the Dragon Bridge with yellow steel arches snake up and down, jagged and scaly, culminating in a fierce dragon’s head. At night, Dragon Bridge becomes truly spectacular, glittering with thousands of LED lights that keep changing colour. With a great roar, the dragon’s head spits fearsome plumes of fire, followed by hissing clouds of water vapour.
This is the new Danang, the gateway to Vietnam’s central region. Located exactly halfway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the metropolises of northern and southern Vietnam, with a brandnew international terminal at its airport opening on April 30, Danang is the ideal place to begin a discovery of Vietnam – because this urban dynamo lies amid the best of traditional and natural Vietnam.
Just a decade ago, Danang was dozing beside the South China Sea. Today, the central region’s hub city is booming, and changing fast. Danang’s number-one sight depends on your taste. The Dragon Bridge by night is a glitzy show-off, but on the other hand, by day you have a superb archaeological museum of the ancient Cham civilization.
You can take a cruise on the Han River in a dragon-prowed boat, passing under all three of the new bridges and admiring the modern riversides, or just hang out in one of the many new bars and restaurants on the river banks. The GI favourites back in wartime situated on the city’s eastern seaside, now madly popular with the locals.
Stepping out from Danang, just down the coast is the sacred site called the Marble Mountains, a cluster of five marble and limestone outcrops jutting out from the flat landscape. Several Buddhist and Hindu sanctuaries lie in grottos within the mountains with religious scenes carved out of the marble. The summit of Thuy Son, the only crag accessible to visitors, affords a panoramic view of the surroundings and the other mountains.
Just 15 km further down the coast, you come to the most exquisite old town in Vietnam, Hoi An, a once-wealthy port which silted up and has now found a way to get rich again, via tourism. Its fine old buildings collapsing into ruin in the 20th century, Hoi An has been renovated to its former beauty. With narrow streets lined with chic restaurants and pretty guest houses, art dealers and tailor’s shops, and highlighted with ornate temples and clan houses.
Hoi An retains a distinct Chinese atmosphere with low, tile-roofed houses and narrow streets; the original structure of some of these streets remains almost intact. Duong Tran Phu is the main street, hosting a string of vividly ornate temples and clan houses built by the various Chinese communities. Each one has distinct features, with the Chauzhou hall boasting fine carved and lacquered wood, the Fujianese revelling in ceramic tableaux of mythical beasts, the Cantonese possessing an imposing covered gateway.
There are several fascinating houses to visit, some still family homes or old trading houses, others turned into museums or hotels. Famously representative, the Tan Ky House is preserved in its early 19th century form, all dark wood with a central courtyard and surrounding gallery.
Just 30 km inland from Hoi An stands Vietnam’s top archaeological site, the My Son Sanctuary, remains from the era of the Cham civilisation which once dominated Vietnam. In a forested valley overlooked by Cat’s Tooth Mountain, about 20 brickbuilt structures, some complete, all damaged by time and war, stand in silent witness to a once-great culture.
The Cham kings built at least 68 structures here, mostly temples dedicated to themselves and Hindu gods. The French took all the important sculptures to Danang for preservation in the Museum– fortunately, before heavily bombed in the American War. You can still see bomb craters around the site.
Next we head north for the climax of the trip to reach the serene city of Hue. Crossing this spur of the Truong Son Mountains that juts into the sea by the old road is a thrilling experience, switchbacking high above the ocean with great views.
The old royal capital set beside the Perfume River, endowed with an imperial citadel and the emperors’ grand mausoleums, Hue (pronounced ‘Hway’) is the historical soul of Vietnam, standing unique in the land for its wealth of historical monuments. It presents the richest insight into Vietnam’s courtly past via the world of the Nguyen emperors, heavily influenced by Chinese custom. They created a complex governmental fortress and a Forbidden Purple City for the emperor, his wives, concubines and eunuchs, within a walled and moated Yellow Imperial City dedicated to ceremonial uses.
The Nguyen emperors also wanted to make sure of an afterlife that suited their tastes; accordingly, they had grand mausoleums designed with an expression of the occupant’s personality. To see them by river, you should hire a dragon-prowed boat and dock at each mausoleum’s jetty, which, from all thirteen charming mausoleums, two of them stand out. That of Lang Tu Duc, designed by himself, is the most exquisite mausoleums. Palaces, pavilions and pagodas stand amidst fragrant pines and lotus-graced waters. The emperor made full use of this pleasure dome in his earthly life.
The other one is Emperor Minh Mang’s. He was a strict Confucian and his mausoleum (Hieu Lang, Tomb of Filiality) follows a formal Chinese pattern. You can climb up steps to pass through a Chinese structure glistening in red and gold, then step down into formal gardens. At last, emerging from into a stone garden, you see a huge grassy mound which appears to rise out of a lake.
Uniquely impressive and redolent of Vietnamese culture, the imperial tombs make a worthy climax to a tour of central Vietnam – which is really best to give yourself rather longer, with the leisure to soak up a wonderful variety of experiences.