Often overlooked for its more famous neighbours in the North (Hanoi) and South (Hoi Chi Minh City), new direct flights with Dragon Air mean that Hong Kongers are finally realising that the real heart and soul of Vietnam is found in its belly; the central region. A fantastic fusion of phenomenal food, inspiring culture, astounding scenery and faultless weather, it simply outshines the rest of the country. To help inspire you to book that trip, we’ve put together Sassy’s Guide to Central Vietnam.
Dragon Air fly daily to Da Nang. Book in advance and this 90 minute flight is delightfully good value. Once there, taxis are cheap to take you to different sites, as are internal flights through Vietnam Airlines.
Before you go:
Most people need a visa before arriving in Vietnam. These can be easily obtained from their embassy in Wan Chai for $500 for a single entry 30 day visa, or pay a small premium for an agency to arrange this for you.
When to go:
Funnily enough, ‘peak season’ in the area is between Christmas and Easter, but at this time storms and cooler weather are likely. For blazing sunshine, uninterrupted blue skies, deserted beaches and hotels offering low season rates, head there between May and October.
The Vietnamese currency is the Dong, but it’s hard to get hold of in Hong Kong. Luckily, most places accept US Dollars at a fair exchange rate and will give you change in Dong, so go armed with enough USD for your stay.
Historic Hoi An
A mere 40-minute drive from Da Nang airport lies the incredibly evocative and beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site of Hoi An. A quaint maze of streets lying on the Thu Bon River and barely affected by modernity. The area is famed for its tailors and its heritage and these, combined with the food and sights, make it a must visit for any tourist.
What to do:
Allow yourselves at least 2 days to soak up all the area has to offer. Spend a morning just ambling around the streets, making sure to take in the aromatic market and the pedestrianised Old Town. Rent some bikes and explore a bit further afield in the surrounding villages for an insight into how the locals live.
Stroll around the Old Town at night to be wowed by the famous handmade lanterns illuminating the dusty streets with an evocative glow. Take a sunset river cruise to appreciate the surrounding natural scenery or book onto one of the wonderful tours through the area such as the Heaven and Earth Cycle Tours.
Go with empty space in your case if you’re after tailor made shoes and clothes, check out this handy article for some hints on where to go.
Where to stay:
There are numerous accommodation options dotted around the river, but none are more in keeping with their surroundings and as conveniently located than the Anantara. Lantern lit trees serenely light up the beautiful gardens that wind their way between the colonial buildings. The cooling pool and delicious restaurant sit aside the river giving peaceful views. But hop on a complimentary hotel bike and you will find yourself in the Market and Old Town in less than 2 minutes. This unbeatable location allows you to enjoy every side of Hoi An and schedule some much needed down time by their pool and spa.
The rooms are spacious and luxurious without trying too hard. Their cooking class is a must for any foodie. You get to wander round the market with your chef before whipping up incredibly delicious and amazingly simple local dishes. All the staff are simply delightful and what’s more, the price of this hotel, for everything you get, is the absolute deal clincher. Sassy Tip: River facing rooms offer the best view and privacy.
Anantara, Hoi An, www.hoi-an.anantara.com, Rooms from $1,200 per night.
For real food enthusiasts; you won’t be disappointed. The streets of the Old Town and banks of the river are dotted with atmospheric establishments serving up drool worthy Vietnamese food. Our top picks are Morning Glory, for its wide selection of street food favourites, Mango Mango for its riverside setting and fragrant flavours, and Son for its innovative slow food approach to Vietnamese staples. To get a taste of some of the best street food, book onto The Original Taste of Hoi An for a guided tour of all things local and edible.
For those looking for even more culture, schedule some excursions. The most popular ones are a trip up the Marble Mountains – a small hike, beautiful views and a glimpse into the area’s links with the Vietnam War. Also, a trip to the My Son Temples, where you’ll find hauntingly beautiful ruins of the Champa Kingdom.
Dalliances with Da Nang
Da Nang as a city has very little to offer and isn’t worth hanging around in. What’s more exciting, for those looking for an easily accessible beach break within a short flight from HK, are the unspoilt white sand beaches that lie less than 20 minutes away from the airport. There is a plethora to choose from but in our opinion one of the top spots is the Intercontinental. Unlike the other hotels, stretched out shoulder to shoulder on the same stretch of coast, The Intercon is nestled on a secluded spot of a beautiful peninsula.
Hugging the hillside, this resort has everything you would need for a perfect weekend away. The beach is private, ginormous and the soft white sand leads you down to impossibly clear waters. The rooms are indulgent with an unbeatable view (Sassy Tip: splash out for one with a terrace to fully enjoy it) and the architecture mimics the modern take on traditional Vietnamese present throughout this sprawling resort. Dine in breath-taking style outside at the delicious Vietnamese Citron restaurant or sample Michel Roux’s signature French food at La Maison 1888. There are umpteen more entertainment options with a nightclub, beachside bar and seafood restaurant, on-site market of shops and a fully equipped water sports centre. The star of the resort is the funicular railway gracefully assisting you around the resort’s many levels. Closer than Phuket and with perfect weather, easy access and a beautiful yet fun hotel; Da Nang makes for ideal mini break inspiration.
Intercontinental Da Nang, www.danang.intercontinental.com, Rooms from $1,900 per night.
Currently Nha Trang is only accessible via domestic flights from either Hanoi, HCMC or Da Nang; but these are cheap, frequent and quick. Whilst I implore you to visit now, rumours suggesting a possible direct flight from Hong Kong will make it unmissable. Whilst Nha Trang isn’t a destination in itself, lying to the South is the unspoilt Vinh Hy National Park. Undulating hills of verdant greenery swoop down towards winding roads that meander along tranquil bays, sleepy fishing villages and untouched beaches. This part of Vietnam is pure, unadulterated heaven, and with fantastic weather over the summer and its proximity, it has usurped all other beach destinations to jump to the very top of this Sassy wanderer’s travel list.
Anyone who has had the privilege to glimpse into an Aman hotel before (check out our Amanpuri review here) will know that they are unequivocally unrivalled in quality, luxury and location – but Amanoi may have trumped even other Aman’s.
With their reputation preceding them, Aman hotels never surprise as their well-heeled guests come to expect only the very best. That said, they never cease to amaze, and Amanoi has guests astounded at every turn. Built conscientiously in the National Park itself, Amanoi is an 80-minute drive South of Nha Trang’s airport. As you ascend the sweeping stairs up to the Central Pavilion, your life will, from that moment, be transformed. The hotel’s main buildings and rooms are spaciously scattered amongst the hillside, with every turn offering up a view seemingly more awe inspiring than the last. A mixed vista of impressive hillside, boldly balanced volcanic rocks and turquoise waters dotted with picturesque fishing boats astounds at every turn.
Despite all the space, there are only 31 guest pavilions in total, meaning that you rarely find yourself amongst company, heightening the sense of romance. Golf buggies will graciously whip you down from the Central Pavilion, with its divine restaurant and jaw-dropping Cliff Pool to your private villa. It’s hard to tear yourself away from these understated but truly incredible rooms; the ultimate in luxury by any standards. Linger on your terrace or lap your private pool, but don’t wait too long before donning your complimentary beach hat and checking out the Beach Club itself.
In a secluded bay, the Mediterranean-feeling restaurant looks over the infinity pool and private beach beyond. If lethargy doesn’t take complete control, attend a complimentary morning yoga class in the spa by the beautiful lagoon or indulge in a pampering massage. For the more active traveller there is the gym, but who needs it when the hotel is surrounded by treks and the sea is ideal for paddle boarding and snorkelling.
As always, the service, location, food and utterly unique nature of this hotel make it worth every penny. Direct flights or not, it is the ultimate in romantic retreats but the only downside is that it will spoil you for any other hotel, ever. No doubt with direct flights more hotels will open in the area, but it’s unlikely any will ever rival Amanoi for the most memorable, exquisite destination that’s worth blowing the bank for as a real treat.
Amanoi, www.amanresorts.com/amanoi/home.aspx, Rooms from $900 US per night.
There’s even more to Central Vietnam than I have space to write about. But if you have the time also worth checking out are the following:
This ancient town is packed full of palaces, pagodas, temples and it is steeped in history and Imperial majesty. Come here for delicious food and jam-packed but drizzly days of sightseeing. Stay at La Residence in colonial grandeur and get here by flying to the local airport from HCMC or Hanoi, or simply take the two hour drive from Da Nang.
The Central Highlands:
Towering waterfalls, misty mountains, tribal minorities and barely a tourist in site. For the more adventurous, a journey through Vietnam’s Central Highlands is a must. Start in Da Lat, pass Lak Lake, Buon Ma Thuot and other remote towns. Go with a guide and during wet season (May-October) for the most mystical atmosphere.