10 Ways to Explore Central Vietnam Off the Beaten Track

Between the imperial glory of Hue and the heritage hotspot of Hoi An, Lola Méndez reveals the best off-the-beaten-path destinations travelers won’t want to miss in central Vietnam.

Shares

Photo © iStock/Gargolas

The heart of Vietnam is home to many of the nation’s cultural gems, pristine beaches, and unforgettable views of spectacular scenery. While the popular places to go in central Vietnam are worth visiting, there are several less well-known spots to explore: the largest saltwater lagoon in the country, the hauntingly beautiful ghost town of An Bang, and Vietnam’s first street art village. Travelers can skip hectic Nha Trang and instead find soothing mud baths and ancient Cham ruins near Hoi An.

Cycle Around Hoi An

The best launching point for exploring central Vietnam is the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hoi An, the enchanting town where lanterns dangle from buildings lining the Thu Bon River.

Hire a bike for the day and cycle out of town to the countryside, where you’ll pass rice paddies, massive water buffalo, and see the locals tending to their fragrant vegetable farms. When you get back to the Hoi An Ancient Town, take a stroll past the ornate Japanese bridge, the stunning Chinese Fukian assembly hall, where Chinese migrants met to socialize, and many French colonial buildings which are mostly painted in a golden-yellow color in to absorb the heat.

Shopping in Hoi An

Hoi An was once a major hub along the silk trade route and is still the best place in Vietnam to get bespoke clothes made. Shop local for customized clothing at talented tailor boutiques, such as the family-owned BeBe. Take along a photo of what you want made.

Explore the My Son Ruins

Hop in a taxi, join an organized tour or, if you’re feeling adventurous, hire a motorbike, and enjoy the hour-long ride through quaint villages en route to the My Son ruins. Arrive at sunrise to peacefully explore the Hindu monuments that were destroyed during ancient battles, and the bombings during the Vietnam war. The decaying temples of the Champa people aren’t as big as Angkor Wat or Bagan, but there’s something alluring about the resilience of these crumbling structures.

Exploring the My Son ruins. Photo credit: iStock/GundulaGruterich

Take a Cooking Class in Hoi An

Test your cooking skills at a local cooking class. A favorite among travelers is the Vegetarian Cooking Class at family-run Minh Hien Vegetarian Restaurant. The hands-on cooking class includes a bike ride to the Tra Que vegetable village to learn about local agriculture, and a visit to an open-air produce market to hand select vegetables for the course. Local delicacies include the chewy cao lu noodle dish with its secret ingredient of ash and the white rose, which doesn’t contain any flowers!

Da Nang & the Marble Mountains

Da Nang is Vietnam’s fastest-growing city, and has several religious sites as well as a few quirky places to visit, such as the Dragon Bridge, which breathes fire on weekends at 9pm.

Take a drive around the Son Tra Peninsula and stop by the gigantic Linh Ung Pagoda. The 219ft (67m) Bodhisattva of Mercy is the tallest Lady Buddha in Vietnam and protects the expansive bay from destruction by typhoons. Traditional bamboo basket boats full of sardines linger in the sea, as skyscrapers loom in the distance, making for an astonishing juxtaposition.

The best view of Da Nang is from the top of the Marble Mountains. On your way up, you’ll visit a stunning mosaic pagoda dedicated to a Vietnamese princess, Buddhist and Hindu shrines, and an underground cave depicting the levels of hell.

Da Nang beach. Photo credit: iStock/YaraPHam

Hai Van Pass

The most memorable adventure to have in central Vietnam is to drive along the Hai Van Pass. Hai Van means “the pass of rising sea” due to the daily phenomena of clouds filling a gap between the rolling hills. Hire a motorbike or hop in a taxi and take a full day to drive the scenic road from Hoi An to Hue. Alternatively, you could join an organized tour.

Along the Hai Van Pass, most travelers stop at the Elephant Springs to cool off, but there are numerous waterfalls to be discovered. Don’t miss Dam Cu Hai, the largest saltwater lagoon in Vietnam with its colorful fishing boats, or the Lp An Lagoon where the sea meets mountains and oysters grow in abundance.

The pristine Chan May Bay remains undiscovered. The entire beach is virtually empty, except for a few local food shacks and the occasional local floating on the crystal-clear waters on an old tire. 

An Bang Ghost Town

About a half hour before reaching the Nguyen Dynasty Imperial Citadel in Hue, stop off at An Bang, a sprawling cemetery with more than 4mi (7km) of incredibly adorned mausoleums have been erected. Each is an individual tomb, with mosaic artwork that would leave Gaudí speechless.

Endless mosaic tombs at An Bang ghost town. Photo credit: Lola Mendez

Ho Thuy Thien

The most famous dragon in Vietnam is near Hue at the Ho Thuy Thien abandoned waterpark. The massive dragon was once an aquarium and today serves as a canvas for graffiti artists. There are hollow water slides and other eerie rides to visit, but tread carefully as the structures are vulnerable.  It’s no longer possible to pay off the guard to enter, but if you take the footpath before the entrance and trek through the jungle (stay left), you’ll find yourself standing in front of the majestic dragon.

Vietnam's most famous dragon at Ho Thuy Thien. Photo credit: Lola Mendez

An Bang & the Beaches

An Bang is the most popular beach on the backpacker trail in Vietnam, but there are many nicer beaches to visit such as the aptly named Hidden Beach. Located just south of An Bang, (easily located using Google Maps) Hidden Beach boasts silky sand, turquoise waters and extremely cheap massages on the beach.

Take a day trip out to the Cham Islands with local NGO Karma Waters to go snorkeling or scuba diving.

Visit Tam Thanh, a fishing village that isn’t well-known to backpackers but will be soon due to its vibrant street art murals that depict daily life. Volunteers painted the town a few years ago to create Vietnam’s first mural village under the ethos of ‘art for better community.’

Explore the Central Highlands

After exploring the stunning coastline of central Vietnam, book a bus inland to the Central Highlands to learn about agriculture, see endless green vistas, and discover waterfalls off the beaten path. 

The pristine Hồ Lắk lake in Dak Lak is only accessible by boat. Travelers can explore the area by hiking the hills or kayaking to local villages to try their hand at the region's famous pottery at artisans homes.

Dak Lak, Vietnam. Photo credit: iStock/xuanhuongho

Related articles

2 Comments

  • Rune Olsen said

    Great article, been to several of these locations and i can highly recommend them. Kinda tempted to go there again:)

  • Kate Pham said

    A few destinations suggested first are actually quite popular with tourists. Hai Van Pass, Ghost Town, and Ho Thuy Tien are exceptionally not-so-packed locations. I would also recommend these truly unspoiled natural destinations: Pleiku, Ninh Van Bay, and Ly Son Island www.exoticvoyages.com/travel-blog/top-5-off-beaten-track-places-middle-vietnam/

Add a Comment