The neighbouring cities of Hoi An and Da Nang were the focus of our time in Central Vietnam. While the two cities are 35km apart, the difference between them is huge. Da Nang is a modern, young, and vibrant big city with construction cranes dotting the skyline and a great surfing beach along the coast. Hoi An is a quaint and picturesque, but incredibly touristy, smaller town. While many Western tourists love Hoi An, to us its Ancient Town seemed more like a caricature of old Vietnam than a genuine cultural experience. But despite that, it’s still worth a visit.
Here are our 4 top observations on our time in Central Vietnam. And don’t forget to check out all our pictures from Vietnam here.
Da Nang is Underrated
All most tourists see of Da Nang is the airport or train station before they transfer on to Hoi An. This is really unfortunate, as Da Nang is an interesting city in its own right. The downtown is vibrant, busy, and energetic. At night, the city’s streets and bridges (including the famous Dragon Bridge) are all lit up with colourful lights. It’s a very international city with a large Japanese influence, which means we were able to get our first decent sushi in a LONG time. That’ll make us like a city all by itself!
Son Tra Peninsula
Across the Han River from the downtown core, Da Nang becomes a beach town. The beautiful beach stretches from the Son Tra peninsula all the way south towards Hoi An. When we visited, there was hardly anyone on the beach, despite it being sunny and over 30C.
We rented a scooter to drive the steep roads up to the Monkey Mountain lookout. The great view back over the city below us was a fantastic reward!
The only downside (for us) is all the construction. Everywhere you look, a new hotel, resort, or building is going up. While clearly good for the city and local economy, it meant that the jackhammering next to our hotel started just after 7am each morning.
This Could Be The Next SE Asian Beach Destination
There is already a beautiful beach in Da Nang, complete with all the needed facilities (toilets, showers, restaurants). Along the coast towards Hoi An, there are a few large beach resorts. That looks like it’ll change from “a few” to “a lot” over the next few years. Construction seems to be going on everywhere.
When we were there, the waves were quite rough. We weren’t sure whether that is typical, making the beach better for surfing and body-boarding, than swimming.
Tourists LOVE Hoi An
For many people we spoke to, Hoi An was their favourite part of Vietnam. Many travel bloggers we have read gush about this town in their posts and recommend visitors spend more time here than big cities, such as Hanoi and Saigon.
The Ancient Town of Hoi An is beautiful to walk around. Old architecture, lanterns strung across the streets, and a nice riverfront. At night, as people return from their full-day excursions or the beach, the streets and restaurants fill up and the glow of the lanterns gives the town an interesting atmosphere. Unfortunately, walking around the Ancient Town, we saw many more Westerners than locals. This is definitely a great place to come if you want a mixture of comforts from back home, but in a beautiful Vietnamese setting. It felt a bit like a fantasy-land rather than anything approaching genuine Vietnam.
Isn’t That How a Tailor Measures Pants?
One of the biggest attractions here are the tailors. There are tailor shops lining almost every street in the Ancient Town, offering high quality, custom-made clothes at affordable prices. Although, with so many tailors to choose from, it’s best to get a recommendation from someone.
And Most Importantly, The Food
One of the highlights of Hoi An, for us, was the food. Hoi An has several dishes it is known for and that aren’t on the menus anywhere else in the country. Cao Lao, a noodle dish made with pork and greens, was Trevor’s favourite. The broth at the bottom of the bowl was as close to a religious experience as he has had on this trip. The story is that this dish can’t be reproduced anywhere except Hoi An, because the flavour is dependent on using water from a specific well in the Ancient Town. Well, that sounds like a challenge! As soon as we have our own kitchen again back in Canada, Trevor is going to try making a chicken version of this dish.
Not as crazy busy as Hanoi or even Da Nang, and with very affordable accommodations and food options outside of the Ancient Town, Hoi An was a great place to relax for a few days before we moved on to Saigon.
Free Student Tours Are Fantastic!
This was probably the other highlight of our time in Hoi An (along with the food), and honestly was a highlight for us in Hanoi and Saigon as well. We’ve never seen it anywhere else, but in Vietnam it is possible to arrange tours with local university students. The tours are often free (tips are usually not allowed, although occasionally a donation to fund a charity is appreciated but not expected). The only thing you, as a tourist, pay for is any entrance fees or transportation for yourselves and the guide. The students are involved because they want to practice their English and teach foreigners about their country, so there is a win-win about the whole thing.
In Hoi An, we took a bike tour to Kim Bong carpentry village with Hoi An Free Tour. The tour itself was free, except we paid for our own ferry crossing to the island, and made a financial contribution to local villagers wherever we stopped (typically VND10,000 / US$0.50) per person, per stop). We biked around the island, and stopped for demonstrations on local boat building, carpet making, and rice noodle making, as well as a stop at a local family temple.
Most of the student tours we took in Vietnam were private tours. This one was a total group of 6, making it much better value and much more enjoyable than the “free” (but not really free) walking tours that are commonplace in Europe these days and can have groups of 30+.
The Irony of Souvenirs at Marble Mountain
One of the other things to see around Da Nang/Hoi An is Marble Mountain. Really more like 5 hills, it is famous for everything from small marble carvings to large marble carvings. There are a few temples, pagodas and caves that can be explored, but we probably only spent an hour here.
Luckily, the locals realized they can’t keep chipping away the marble from the “mountains” themselves without eventually doing away with the tourist attraction entirely. So now all the marble for the souvenirs and statues being sold at the dozens of marble shops around the base of the main hill is imported from China. Then they are sold back to the busloads of Chinese tourists at a premium. Ironic?