While the central coast of Vietnam certainly has its share of beautiful beaches and luxurious resorts, it is also a haven of magnificent cultural experiences centred on the ancient cities of Hue and Hoi An.
Before falling into the shadow of Hanoi, Hue, as home to the Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty, had been the capital of Vietnam for nearly 150 years, before being dislodged from its pre-eminent position by French Colonial ambitions. Despite this loss in influence however, it still carries with it a rich cultural heritage left over from its days as a seat of emperors.
The lasting legacy of the Nguyen Emperors is on full display in Hue.
The Imperial palace is the clear highlight for trips and tours of any kind to Hue. This grand complex was sadly damaged during the turbulence of the mid to late 20th century, but extensive restoration projects have since been undertaken (and in some cases are still on-going) aiming to preserve and recreate the former glory of the palace.
The enormous complex is contained by ancient stone walls, in a square of 2 kilometres by 2 kilometres. A whole day can easily be spent wandering the courtyards and gardens in between the halls and temples, and if you’re lucky enough to avoid the crowds of peak season, it can be a surprisingly peaceful scene. The city is also the most Buddhist city in Vietnam, featuring the largest number of temples out of any province in the country, both within the Imperial City (like Thế Miếu, dedicated to worshipping past emperors) and outside of it, with the most notable being The pagoda of the Celestial Lady, considered by many as the unofficial symbol of Hue.
The spectacular tomb of Khai Dinh.
Cuisine in Hue is also special when compared to other Vietnamese food. Here they have a propensity for vegetarian food, part of their Buddhist heritage, and many dishes can be very spicy, a notable change from the milder food in the North or South.
Further south along the coast, near the city of Da Nang, is Hoi An, a medieval trading town, designated as Vietnam’s third UNESCO World heritage Site in 1999. Constructed from the 15th to 19th centuries, the town is amazingly well preserved, featuring more than a thousand original wooden structures. Walking around the town is sure to give any guest a feeling of deep inner peace and contentment, especially as the evening arrives, when cars and motorcycles are banished from most of the city and the streets are lit in the many-coloured light of lanterns. The Japanese Covered Bridge is an especially amazing sight, again especially in the evening when it is lit up.
Hoi An’s charming waterfront.
The city also hosts two excellent museums with the Museum of history and Culture tracing the history of the city from its earliest settlers all the way through the Colonial Period, and the Hoi An Folklore Museum displaying hundreds of cultural artefacts from the various ethnic groups that have inhabited the area through the ages.
No trip to Vietnam, especially ones focused on culture and history, can be complete without a visit to these two cities.