After three days in Hanoi and two days in Cat Ba, Brianah and I boarded our flight to Hue. The choice to fly to Hue wasn’t pre-planned, it just turned out that it was cheaper flying into the former capital than nearby Da Nang. In any case, it didn’t hamper our travel plans as it gave us a chance to explore the historical Imperial City.
Hue is quaint, and far more of a rural town than I’d expected. Being so popular, it is fairly well-connected along main transport lines, served by a railway station and busses departing for various destinations.
We dropped our luggage at a gentleman called Mr Pho who charged us a meagre VN50,000 to hold our belongings while we spent time exploring the Imperial City.
The Imperial Citadel is basically a sprawling historical fortress with various buildings, ruins, and pagodas. It’s good for a day trip but I wouldn’t recommend staying here longer than you need to.
One of the highlights of my time in Hue was befriending a Grab driver by the name of Nguu. The kindness of the Viet people was a recurring theme throughout my travels, and this episode was no different. Most young folk are keen to practice their English with native speakers, and their interactions with tourists provide the perfect opportunity to do so. Nguu was kind enough to treat to a local roadside Hue delicacy – I forget the name but it was a sweet iced drink made with jelly, red beans and syrup. He was also a great help in getting Brian and I a bus to Da Nang after a day of trekking around the fort.
Ah, the bus. Remember, there is no formal ticket booking system in these Vietnamese towns, you simply show up to the bus and pay your money to someone who resembles a vendor. Cramped, noisy and probably unsafe is the best way to describe the ride. Eventually we made it to Da Nang, slightly worse for wear but looking forward to a good night’s rest. Our spot in the tourist district of An Thuong was adequate – an average room, but very well-located in proximity to surrounding restaurants.
Da Nang encompasses the best of both worlds when it comes to travelling Vietnam. There’s a relaxed, laidback atmosphere that you won’t find in the cities of Hanoi or Saigon, but on the other hand, this burgeoning beach-side city is undoubtedly the rising star of the country.
My itinerary for this leg of the trip was pretty simple. I wanted to use Da Nang as a base to explore the surrounding areas. So, one day in Hue (which we’d just done), one day in Hoi An and two days in Da Nang.
Day 2 – Bà Nà Hills Sunworld
The first order of business was getting mobile. Motorbikes can be found for a dime, usually around $5USD per day to rent from either your hotel or a dedicated rental outlet, found on almost every street. Once I’d sorted my bike, I took a drive to Ba Na Hills; the theme park with the world-famous Golden Hands Bridge. Before I headed to the theme park I went via Marble Mountains. This is a worthwhile sight if you have the time but I wasn’t really blown away when I got there. It seemed overrun and the queue to use the elevator to the peak snaked for a good few metres so I cut my losses and headed out.
The Bà Nà Hills were supposedly named by the French for the abundance of bananas in the area. Taking the cable car up to the summit, you ascend to 1,500 metres above sea level. On some days, the theme park is shrouded in cloud and mist, creating a magical, moody atmosphere. On clear occasions, the views stretch as far as the eye can see, with the blue skies a deep azure hue. Within the theme park itself are a number of photo-worthy sights, the most famous being the iconic Golden Bridge. It’s also worth mentioning that the drive to the theme park is a photographic treat in itself. If you choose this option you’ll be treated to endless rice paddies and lush forests — a true reflection of rural Vietnamese life.
Day 3 – Hoi An
For my trip to Hoi An, I set out on my bike at around 9am in the morning and took an easy 45-minute ride down to this town that I’d read so much about. It’s pretty much one straight road from Da Nang to Hoi An, so if you’re thinking about where to stay, I’d strongly suggest making Da Nang your base (as I did) and making the day trip down to Hoi An.
Once I got to the Old Town part of Hoi An, I parked my bike and set out on foot. Hoi An is one of those places that is just as awe-inspiring in the flesh as it is in pictures, or online. Would I call Hoi An a tourist trap? Sure, there definitely are aspects of it that cater to tourists. But that doesn’t detract from the experience of the location itself. It’s still a one-of-a-kind place that you won’t tire of easily. The gorgeous lanterns strung above the trees, the faded yellow facades of the historical buildings, Hoi An is just one of those special places.
Day 4 – Da Nang
Being the workaholic that I am, I had a few projects to get through while I was travelling. Working on a few articles and a short film, I posted up at 43factory, one of the most exquisite coffee shops I’ve ever frequented. Tall windows, recessed concrete seating areas, and greenery hanging from the ceiling – not even Korean aesthetics could top this. Their coconut coffee was the highlight of my time in Da Nang – a creamy, refreshing coconut shake topped with flakes and tempered with the heady notes of a prime Ethopian blend. 10/10 would recommend.
Day 5 – Da Nang to Nha Trang by train
On my final day I was scheduled to catch the train from Da Nang to Nha Trang; a 9-hour journey which departed at around 10am. Having travelled by train in India, I was curious to see what the Vietnamese experience would be like. In short, do not bother taking the train in Vietnam unless you have time. The tickets aren’t cheap (it’s far more cost-effective to fly) and if you don’t get the cabin class that you want, you’ll be stuck huddled in a compartment with 10 other people – as was my experience. It was far from the relaxed experience I had in India, in fact it was more like harrowing. I was stuck in seated position for close on 11 hours with no space to move or stretch my legs. At around 9pm I arrived in Nha Trang and made my way straight to my hotel where I would overnight before catching a flight to Ho Chi Minh City the next morning. After a decent night’s rest I was up at 4.30am the next day for the red-eye to Vietnam’s financial capital.
As for Da Nang: You’ll still find elements common to other Vietnamese cities, but there’s an undeniable repose to be enjoyed here. In short, it’s a tropical Vietnamese paradise, with a pristine coastline that stretches for eons – and perhaps my favourite Asian beach destination to date.