Danang, Hoi An and Hué

Danang, Hoi An and Hue are conveniently close together in the centre of Vietnam, although Hué is just too far from the others for an easy day trip (despite new road tunnels). Danang (or Da Nang) is the country’s third largest city, with a population of about a million, but it is far less crowded and hectic than Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi; it also has long sandy beaches, one reason why it’s becoming a tourist resort and is drawing considerable numbers of expats to live here. The new developments are on a peninsula across the Han river to the east of the city – during the Vietnam War, when Danang’s airport was the Americans’ main logistical base in the country, this was where the GIs lived, mainly in tents, as the area could only be reached be ferry and thus could easily be secured from attack. Now there’s a row of bridges in different funky styles (the Dragon Bridge, by the Cham Museum, lights up and spouts water from 9pm on Saturdays and Sundays), and a tunnel is to be built to speed tourists directly from the airport to the beach area. In fact new luxury resorts and hotels are sprouting all along the beach from Danang south to Hoi An, although I’m puzzled who the clients will be, as the major new market is the Chinese, who aren’t interested in beaches.

Our main discovery in Danang (apart from great food – see below) was the new Fine Arts Museum, opened in December 2016 at 78 Le Duan. It’s really quite impressive, its spacious new building housing over 400 works of art, with useful information panels. There’s a good range of paintings by artists from central Vietnam (including some in lacquer) as well as sculpture, ceramics, folk and applied art and ethnic costumes; there’s also a decent café. They haven’t yet put up a website, although they promised to do so soon, so I don’t know what the opening hours are, but it did seem to be free.

Around the back is the swastika-topped temple of the home-grown Cao Dai religion, which is distinctly odd – there’s a giant eyeball inside. The Cham Museum is well established and busy, and displays nothing but the stunning sculptures of the Champa civilisation, which was a precursor of the Khmer Empire that built the Angkor temples (see this post).


Hoi An, about 30km (or 45 minutes) south of Danang (yellow buses run hourly along Le Duan, just south of Danang station and through the centre; or take a taxi), is rightly famed for its blend of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and European influences and architectural styles, and is well worth a day’s visit. It is in fact something of a tourist trap, and very crowded at peak times, but once you get away from the main shopping streets you should be fine. There are beaches, and luxury hotels, just to the east of town, and you’ll see lots of tourists wobbling along on bikes provided by the hotels.

The centre (a World Heritage Site since 1999) is traffic-free and there’s a fee of D120,000 to visit, which gives access to any five of the tourist sights on one day (previously you could visit one museum, one assembly hall, one merchant’s house etc, but now you can see five assembly halls and nothing else if you choose – though that would be silly, even given their riotous over-the-top decoration). If you’re just going shopping, you can probably decline to pay. Guide books have full details of the sights, of course – the assembly halls were community centres for Chinese settlers from various places of origin, and the Hai Nan Assembly Hall (10 Tran Phu) has fairly recently been added to the ticket scheme. Supposedly there’s free wifi in the pedestrian area too.

Hué was the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945, although the French took effective control in 1885. It remains a quiet and cultured place, largely unaffected by the economic boom that’s sweeping aside the historic buildings and the peace and quiet of Ho Chi Minh Ciry and Hanoi. We were not using the latest edition of the Rough Guide to Vietnam, so some of these updates may have a bit of a dated feel…

The Fine Arts Museum is now more accurately named the Museum of Royal Antiquities, although an annexe to the main palace (built in 1845 inside the Imperial City then moved here to become a university library) also houses a good informative display of Champa sculpture from the surrounding region. It’s covered by the same ticket as the Imperial City (D150,000) and is now open from 7am to 5pm daily. However, in December 2016, plans were released to make Le Loi Street, along the south bank of the Perfume River, the city’s main cultural axis, with up to six museums in the long term. There are already two there, the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the Le Ba Dang Art Centre, and two city buildings are to become sculpture and embroidery museums. Then the provincial government will move out and the building will become a new Museum of Fine Arts.

The Imperial City still feels a bit empty and windswept in places, but far more has been restored and re-opened than we expected – it was largely burnt down in 1947, and was again heavily damaged when the Viet Cong captured the city in 1968 and held it for 25 days, and it then took ten days of heavy fighting for the South Vietnamese government forces to recapture it. Since then the rebuilding process has been slow and painstaking.

Some practicalities

In Danang there’s now a tourist information centre at 108 Bach Dang (by the river at the east end of Hung Vuong; tel: 0236 3898196), which isn’t shown in our ancient edition of the Rough Guide; you can rent bikes here. There are some good restaurants in the An Thuong expat area east of the river (inland from the Holiday Beach Hotel), notably a Mexican joint (really!) called Taco Ngon and a more upmarket place called Lam Vien. We enjoyed meeting Shaun of Danang Food Tour, who will gladly take you on a crawl around cafés and restaurants that gives both physical and mental sustenance and is just a lot of fun too. In the city centre, Bach Dang, between the Dragon Bridge and the Han Bridge, is lively at night, with some attractive riverside cafés.

In Hoi An, we loved Bazar, at 36 Tran Phu
 St – it’s owned by a friend of a friend, a fascinating Italian archeologist who works across the region but especially on the Cham ruins of My Son, and his wife Thanh. The front of the restaurant is relatively recent, but the rear was probably built in the 17th century, while pottery shards found in the back garden have been dated to the 14th century, when Fujianese settlers first came from China. They serve fine traditional Hoi An food and a few European dishes too for those who need a change. There are lots of other good places to eat (it seems to be a local rule that all the waitresses have to wear pointy straw hats, for some reason) – one that’s been recommended is Morning Glory, which does great local food (including soups, noodles, steamed shrimp dumplings and desserts) as well as Vietnamese-style baguettes – like many Vietnamese restaurants, they also offer cookery classes.

Hué does feel as if it’s divided in two by the Huong River (aka the Perfume River), with just a few long bridges across it – the citadel and palace are to the north, and most hotels, cafés and restaurants are to the south. Some perfectly nice hotels are located down some very rough alleys, but don’t worry! This is a lively area, and there are lots of ciclos and taxis (although there seem to be lots of scooters without lights here too). You may need taxis more often than expected as things are quite far apart and map scales can be deceptive, but they only cost a few dollars.

The city is known for its excellent vegetarian food, due to the number of Buddhist temples and monks here, but apparently they avoid garlic and onion due to their warming effects. We had a great lunch at Lien Hoa, at a temple at 3 Le Quy Don, south of the stadium; dishes (costing D20,000-50,000 each) included bamboo flowers, jackfruit, mushrooms, aubergine and bitter melon, as well as soya, of course. Very filling, very affordable.

PS (July 2017) Quite a few of the tall hotel blocks near the beach in Danang have rooftop bars, and our friends there have been researching the best. The Top View Bar at the Vanda Hotel is one of their favourites, right at the foot of the Dragon Bridge with views over the city. They also love the deck at the Top Bar at A La Carte Hotel, which is great at sunset, and the Tourane Bar on the 26th floor of the Muang Thanh Grand Hotel, which has spectacular views of the Han River, Da Nang Bay and the ocean; because it’s a bit off the beaten track, the prices are less than half those of the other bars.

Hectic times in Ho Chi Minh City

We found Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) a hectic noisy place without a great deal to see or do. Yes, it has a high energy level, reminiscent of Bangkok and mostly felt through the swarms of scooters buzzing around which make every road crossing perilous, and it does have some nice colonial buildings, although the only one of real interest is the General Post Office (1891), with its roof supplied in prefab form by the Eiffel company.

I found it particularly interesting to find a Public Letter Writer working there! Duong Van Ngo was born in 1930 and started work at the Post Office at the age of eighteen, reputedly without ever taking a day off. He writes by hand using a fountain pen. Not sure how much writing he does these days as he seemed to be more of a tourist attraction, but am told he is up for a conversation about his experience if you have time!

Other colonial piles now house museums – we found the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, in the former palace of the governor of Cochinchina (1886), not very good and poorly presented (although the displays upstairs on ‘the American war’ are better), while the History Museum had a good collection of sculpture, including some of the oldest wooden Buddhas in Southeast Asia (from the 7th and 8th centuries). The Fine Arts Museum was definitely better than expected; it’s housed in the very grand mansion of a Chinese businessman (1934) and two adjacent buildings of much the same period (the main building still has its original little lift, the oldest on Southeast Asia and still in working order), and displays a varied and interesting range of work.

Lacquer painting

The paintings in lacquer on wood were particularly effective, and not something we’d seen in adjoining countries. Nor is there a lot of cheap revolutionary cliché, although military scenes are certainly well represented. The third building also displays Champa sculpture from the 7th century on, the precursor of the wonderful Khmer sculpture of the Angkor temples and very fine in its own right.

The city’s busiest, and best presented, museum is the War Remnants Museum, which does display plenty of weapons, from bullets up to tanks and a Chinook helicopter, but is more an indictment of the crimes of the imperialist invaders (start on the top floor with the French, then the rest of the museum is of course concerned with the Americans) and their South Vietnamese proxies. The photos of the effects of Agent Orange (a defoliant containing lethal amounts of dioxin) are particularly appalling, but there’s also balancing coverage of worldwide protests against the war and support for the Vietnamese. There’s also a gallery of striking photos by war correspondents, including the last photos taken by the great Robert Capa before he stepped on a landmine in 1954. Alongside the museum is a display on the island prisons of the South Vietnamese regime, which shows disturbing similarities with Phnom Penh’s Genocide Museum. The lunchtime closure is a bit annoying, although there’s still access to the café (with wifi and power sockets).

Some practicalities

The visa on arrival system works far less well than in Laos and Cambodia – having paid US$17 online and received pre-approval for my visa, I still had to wait an hour at Ho Chi Minh City airport, with scores of others milling around, and paid another US$25, to actually receive the precious stamp (full-page, of course) in my passport. Typically communist bureaucracy. It’s only available arriving by air, which does give some confidence that you probably won’t be turned back. You only need one photo, not two as stated online, and they’ll take one if you don’t have any.

When I changed money I instantly became a millionaire, due to the three excess zeroes on the currency. On the other hand there are no coins, as in Laos and Cambodia, and banknotes are now made of polymer.

A metro is under construction, and due to open in 2019, with luck; there’s also a decent bus network (not much used by tourists, it seems, although it does serve the railway station and the airport). Taxis are everywhere and can easily be flagged down; they use meters and you shouldn’t pay much more than 160,000 Dong (£6) to get from the airport to the centre (District 1) or 60,000 Dong to cross the centre. The most reliable companies are Mailinh (green) and Vinasun (white). I do believe that no driver elsewhere in the world knows the width of his vehicle as accurately as a Ho Chi Minh City taxi driver, weaving through the traffic with pinpoint accuracy. However most locals get around on scooters, and it’s astonishing how much space is given over to storing them, both public (on sidewalks etc) and private (in the front rooms of houses, for instance).

Trains can now be booked online at www.baolau.com – you’ll have to show the booking on your phone or other digital device at the information counter and a boarding pass will be printed out. Even the four-berth soft sleeper carriages are old and communist in feel (and Katy spotted a cockroach), although they have been upgraded with air-conditioning and electric sockets, and the track is still pretty rough; it’s a long two-night haul from HCMC to Hanoi, but the shorter runs from HCMC up to Danang (17 hours) or from Hué to Hanoi (13 hours) are worth considering for their views of Vietnamese life, both on the train and in the countryside outside.


We happened across two excellent places to eat. The Hoa Khai vegetarian restaurant at 124 Nguyen Cu Trinh was reassuringly busy, with lots of locals coming and going; there’s no fancy décor but the atmosphere is totally authentic. There’s lots of ‘pork’ and ‘chicken’ on the menu, but it’s all fake (made with synthetic protein); there are plenty of mushroom dishes too and it’s all tasty.

It’s well worth making the effort to find the Secret Garden at 158 Pasteur. Walk into the alley – on the left is a doorway to a dilapidated apartment building above which is a small restaurant sign. Go up the stairs and five grotty/smelly flights later (keep going – it’s worth it!) you’ll emerge onto a charming leafy roof terrace which would be particularly lovely at sunset. We ate a delicious traditional Vietnamese lunch alongside fellow locals and a handful of other tourists and benefitted from the cooling fans overhead.  The veggie options were good and the décor was lovely too!


We use AirB&B fairly frequently and I like to research quirky and cheap places to stay. We discovered a gem! Tucked away behind a small alley, but conveniently located, is a bookshop previously called Kafka. They have three rooms upstairs. Ours was ensuite and simple, clean and quiet with air con and a fan. We paid £10 each for the night. You can relax in  the common lounge and drink Vietnamese coffee whilst using their wifi. Tim prefers tea and they gave us access to the kitchen to make his own. The very helpful James looked after us and provided us with a rudimentary map. (Access help pictures below!)

The entrance from the street
Walk thru’ the alley/turn right at end!