The Ben Hai River in Central Vietnam marks the 17th parallel, which once demarcated the border between North and South Vietnam. Though reunited in 1976, the north/south division of Vietnam remains obvious. When crossing the Ben Hai River from north to south, everything seems to improve, roads and food being the most apparent.
Central Vietnam is home to a wealth of attractions, from the ancient imperial capital of Hue to the busy shopping and beach destinations of Hoi An and Da Nang, home to famous China Beach.
Da Nang is Vietnam’s third largest city and it’s more than just the closest airport to Hoi An. There’s also a terrific Cham Museum, free beaches, some very good Central Coast cuisine and very scenic journeys at the doorstep, such as a train trip to Lang Co and the Hai Van Pass, now famous thanks to Top Gear.
You can take the Hai Van Pass or the nearly seven kilometre Hai Van Tunnel (the longest tunnel in Southeast Asia) to get to Hue. Straddling the truly beautiful Song Huong, also known as the Perfume River, the city was the political, cultural and religious centre under the Nguyen Dynasty, the last royal dynasty of Vietnam which lasted from 1802 to 1945. Allot at least a full day to see the UNESCO protected monuments that includes tombs, pagodas and the Citadel which held the Imperial City and Forbidden City. Don’t forget to grab a bowl of bun bo Hue, a noodle soup beloved by the entire country.
Less glamorously, the region is home to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), which was the scene of heavy fighting during the American War. This part of the country is dotted with all manner of war-period attractions, including the remains of Khe Sanh and other US bases along the DMZ. Unfortunately, little remains at most of these sites as time and scrap hunters have had their way.
The one exception is the Vinh Moc tunnels — a breathtaking testament of the tenacity of the Vietnamese people and a far more worthwhile attraction than the more touristic Cu Chi tunnels in the south.
Most travellers to Vietnam pencil in Hue and Hoi An as definite must sees but fail to allow enough time in each. This is particularly the case with Hoi An, where, while it can feel almost Disneylandesque at times, people are always running out of time. If you have allowed just a couple of days for Hoi An in your planning, be sure to double it. You’ll be pulled in every direction, torn between food tours, bicycle tours, boat tours, My Son tours and getting a suit made at one of the town’s million tailor shops. Phew! Don’t forget to have a few lazy days at An Bang Beach.