Pronounced ‘hway’, this deeply evocative capital of the Nguyen emperors still resonates with the glories of imperial Vietnam, even though many of its finest buildings were destroyed during the American War. Hue owes its charm partly to its location on the Perfume River – picturesque on a clear day, atmospheric even in less flattering weather.
Ninh Binh Province
South of Hanoi, Ninh Binh province is blessed with natural beauty, cultural sights and the Cuc Phuong National Park. However, Ninh Binh is very popular with domestic travellers, and many attractions are heavily commercialised. Expect hawkers and a degree of hassle at the main sights.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 2003, the remarkable Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park contains the oldest karst mountains in Asia, formed approximately 400 million years ago. Riddled with hundreds of cave systems – many of extraordinary scale and length – and spectacular underground rivers, Phong Nha is a speleologists’ heaven on earth.
Dong Hoi is a pleasantly untouristed, port and seaside town. It enjoys an attractive location, clinging to the banks of the Nhat Le River, and has beaches to the north and south. As the main staging area for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), Dong Hoi suffered more than most during the American War.
Dong Ha is an important transport hub that sits at the intersection of Hwys 1 and 9. Its dusty, traffic-plagued main drag looks pretty dismal – this is because the town was completely flattened during the American War. However, the town does have its attractive aspects, with a string of riverside seafood restaurants.
Most of the bases and bunkers have long vanished, but this 5km strip of land on either side of the Ben Hai River is still known by its American War moniker: the DMZ. From 1954 to 1975 it acted as a buffer between the North and the South. Ironically, the DMZ became one of the most militarised areas in the world, forming what Time magazine called ‘a running sore’.
An Bang Beach
Just 3km north of Cua Dai, An Bang is one of Vietnam’s most happening and enjoyable beaches. Not being as impacted by the serious erosion evident at Cua Dai, at present there's a wonderful stretch of fine sand and an enormous horizon, with only the distant Cham Islands interrupting the seaside symmetry.
The site of Vietnam’s most extensive Cham remains, My Son enjoys an enchanting setting in a lush jungle valley, overlooked by Cat’s Tooth Mountain (Hon Quap). The temples are in poor shape – only about 20 structures survive where at least 68 once stood – but the intimate nature of the site, surrounded by gurgling streams, is still enthralling.