The central part of Vietnam where the cities of Hoi An, Hue and Da Nang are located, is considered to be one of the main touristic centers of the country. The region contains a diversity of attractions ranging from a UNESCO World Heritage town to archeological sites and even Vietnam’s former imperial capital. For outdoorsy types, the area also has plenty to offer in terms of beaches and you can find plenty of award-winning luxury resorts here. The world’s largest cave – Hang Son Doong – can also be found in the region.
If you are also visiting Hanoi during your trip to Vietnam, check out my suggested Hanoi itinerary here
If you are visiting Da Nang, Hoi An and Hue and thinking how to organize your itinerary and long you need to spend in the area, I would suggest you go for 5 days / 4 nights minimally. The three cities are accessible from each other to be day trip destinations but I would suggest spending at least a night per city to really appreciate the distinct vibe in each place.
Where you start really depends on your personal preference and where you are coming from. During my trip to Central Vietnam, I arrived via Da Nang International Airport and headed to Hue right away as it was the farthest of the three cities. From Da Nang, Hue is around a 2 hour drive.
Table of Contents
Day 1: Da Nang
Da Nang has developed rapidly over the last few years. I remember seeing a construction frenzy of hotels during my very first visit around a decade ago. When I returned recently, I found the coast lined with lodgings catering to all budgets – from local hotels to private full-service resorts. That being said, Da Nang is also one of Vietnam’s larger cities so those intending to come here to experience the country’s fast-paced commerce can also find a less congested version of that here.
Son Tra Peninsula
Da Nang itself does not have many tourist attractions. Most places worth including in your Da Nang itinerary are at the outskirts of town. I would personally suggest exploring those attractions located in the city on your first day here especially if you arrive some time during midday or the afternoon. You can easily get a cab (Grab) to the Son Tra Peninsula. Here, the Linh Ung Buddhist Temple comes with a large 67-meter tall statue of Guan Yin facing the sea, a pagoda as well as several vantage points from where one can view the ever-changing skyline of Da Nang. If these views aren’t enough, one can also hire a motorbike for a ride up the mountaintop view point of Ban Co.
Another popular religious site in Da Nang to include in your itinerary is Marble Mountain – a series of limestone rock formations with temples and shrines hidden inside caves. It is located on the opposite side of town, on the road going towards Hoi An. You can stop by for lunch somewhere in Da Nang after visiting Son Tra Peninsula and before heading to Marble Mountain. If you’d rather have someone arrange all the transport for you, you can check out this Da Nang day tour which covers Son Tra Peninsula, Marble Mountain and even a short sojourn to Hoi An.
Unwind at My Khe Beach
aerial view of my khe beachIt would be late afternoon by this time, just nice for a walk or to lounge by the beach. After returning to town, stop by My Khe Beach which is said to be one of the best beaches in Vietnam. Its curved shape does look impressive when seen from an elevated area, such as from the roof decks of one of the many beachside hotels, but don’t expect to find translucent waters or great snorkeling opportunities here.
Home-style Cooking at Bep Hen + Supper Idea in Da Nang
For dinner, I recommend going to Bep Hen for some hearty homecooked dishes. During my visit, I saw a number of local Vietnamese folks dining there which was a good sign. Recommended dishes include their Chicken with Chili and Lemongrass as well as Caramelized Pork Belly in Claypot. Alternatively, head to Banh Xeo Ba Duong, hidden deep within a narrow alley, for some authentic Vietnamese pancakes (Banh Xeo). For the latter, do note that there are multiple Banh Xeo places in that alley with similar sounding names. The one you should go for is the one at the end.
Day 2: Enjoy the Cool Climes of Ba Na Hills
Originally built by the French as a mountain retreat, Ba Na Hills is a hill station located west of Da Nang city center (around 45 minutes away). Sitting at an elevation of almost 1,500 meters, it is a popular resort among locals and foreigners alike – thanks to a plethora of insta-worthy sights.
Getting here usually involves a day tour. While you can purchase tickets and hire your own transport to get here, it is still more economical if you join one of those all-inclusive guided day tours that take you around the park. Another advantage of the guided day tour is that the guide can help you navigate through the crowds / tourist hordes that are present in Ba Na Hills almost everyday. A typical trip involves at least 3 cable car rides, ample time to explore the Golden Bridge, Linh Ung Pagoda (similarly named but different from the one in Son Tra), French Village as well as a buffet lunch. You can book this Ba Na Hills tour here or purchase standalone tickets to Sunworld Ba Na Hills separately.
Tip: As a rule of thumb, Ba Na Hills is 10 degrees celsius cooler than the city center of Da Nang. During summer, you can probably get by wearing light t-shirt and shorts when it’s 26 degrees celsius in Ba Na Hills (means it’s 36 degrees in Da Nang City) but do note that temperatures can fall to 20 degrees in Da Nang during winter which means 10 degrees in Ba Na Hills. Also, rain is fairly common in Ba Na Hills in the afternoon regardless of the season.
After heading back to Da Nang, get your luggage and head to Hue which you can easily do through a private car transfer. Do note that it’s generally cheaper to book private car transfers than getting a car from Grab.
Day 3: Hue – Vietnam’s Imperial Capital
At first glance, Hue seems just like one of your typical midsized Vietnamese cities but spend a little more time here and you’ll soon realize its cultural importance to the Vietnamese people. The city is divided into two sides by the Perfume River (it no way smells like perfume) with the imposing Imperial Citadel situated at the north side while the commercial area is situated to the south.
Visiting the Royal Tombs
Start your Hue itinerary by heading to the royal tombs first. There are 6 such tombs but the ones worth checking out are the Tomb of Minh Mang, Tomb of Tu Duc and the best one being the Tomb of Khai Dinh. For the latter, you’ll have to climb a number of steps with statues of soldiers and horses surrounding the pathway leading to the top. The tomb itself is quite grand with plenty of carvings and you can spot a distinct European influence as well.
Thien Mu Pagoda
Afterwards, head to Thien Mu Pagoda. One of the most iconic sights in Hue, the pagoda was built in 1844 during the reign of Emperor Thieu Tri. While the tower is undoubtedly the highlight, it’s also worth checking out the main temple within the inner courtyard. Thien Mu Pagoda is an excellent place to visit in the morning as most tour groups would be exploring the Imperial City at that time.
Imperial City of Hue & Purple Forbidden City
If you are arriving in the afternoon, make your way to the Imperial Enclosure as most of the tour groups would have already visited in the morning. Enter via the Ngo Mon Gate, the main entryway to the Imperial City. While inside the complex, check out the Thai Hoa Palace, the emperor’s coronation hall. The Truong San Residence or the Queen Mother’s Palace, The Mieu – the ancestral temple of the emperors, the Purple Forbidden City as well as the Pavilion of Splendor. The bulk of the Imperial City was destroyed during the Vietnam War and restoration is a painfully slow process.
Tip: For more of Hue, check out this dedicated guide
If you find yourself just in time for dinner after exploring the Imperial City, do check out Les Jardines de La Carambole (not to be confused with another restaurant called La Carambole in the other side of town) for fine French food at super affordable prices. The setting is in a colonial villa which adds to the charm. This is also a wonderful place to sample Hue favorites such as ban nam (rice cake wrapped in banana leaf) and ban khoai (crispy pancakes) in a hygienic setting.
Alternatively, have a taste of authentic Hue cuisine by checking out one of the local eateries in town. I highly recommend making the trip to the island of Con Hen for a bowl of Com Hen or Baby Clam Rice. The most popular place to have this is at Com Hen Hoa Dong which is located in a narrow alley in the middle of the island. Prices are extremely reasonable and instead of rice, you can also have the baby clams together with noodles or vermicelli. I chose to have mine with noodles. It was one of my favorite finds in Hue. Noodles were springy and the baby clams carried a most delightful briny flavor.
Day 4: Hoi An Old Town
Tip: This itinerary assumes a 2 day/1night stay for the Hue segment but if you have an extra day to spare, you can check out the UNESCO World Heritage Phong Nha Cave which has one of the longest underground rivers in the world. Going there and back requires one whole day. You can join a private tour to get there.
Leave Hue for Hoi An. If you are not in a hurry, drop by Hue’s less touristy Japanese Covered Bridge which is located at the town outskirts. The setting is much more charming than the one in Hoi An with a lily pond adding color to the relatively narrow stream that the bridge serves to connect.
On the way to Hoi An, you will pass by some stunning scenery such as the Hai Van Pass and Lang Co, the latter which now has a couple of upscale resorts such as the Banyan Tree Lang Co. You will reach Hoi An in approximately three hours if coming from Hue.
Hoi An is just the kind of town I’d imagine people would stay in when they want to take it slow. I personally returned to Hoi An a couple of years after my first visit to spend 3 days just exploring the nooks and crannies of this charming community. Compared to Vietnam’s other cities, Hoi An really centers itself in tourism and everywhere you go, you’ll find establishments catering to them.
Tip: You don’t have to pay a fee to enter the old town of Hoi An but if you are thinking of visiting the clan associations or some of the top temples, you will have to buy the ticket which allows you to visit up to 5 attractions. Hoi An’s entrance fee costs VND 120,000 for international visitors.
Hoi An is not the kind of place I imagine people would go to in order to see some iconic attraction. The attraction is the town itself and not some specific monument. However, there are plenty of “smaller” attractions to keep the traveler busy. Some of my picks include the clan associations such as the Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall, Hainan Assembly Hall, Trung Hoa Assembly Hall and the Cantonese Assembly Hall which are best explored by bike. The Japanese Covered Bridge is probably the most well-known place in Hoi An and the area is the waiting point for most tour groups making day trips in the town.
Food-wise, the culinary scene in Hoi An mostly caters to travelers but it’s pretty good. My top picks include Morning Glory (near the Japanese Covered Bridge), Miss Ly Cafe and Cao Lau Thanh for delicious Cao Lau or Vietnam’s version of roast pork noodles. If you don’t mind queuing, also check out Banh Mi Phuong – the famous banh mi eatery recommended by Anthony Bourdain and is hugely popular even among Vietnamese people.
Tip: While in Hoi An, you will find several people asking for your business for tailor-made suits / business shirts / dresses. Quality varies and as a general rule of thumb, those tailors with actual storefronts can churn out clothes with better quality. Those without an actual shop end up routing all the work to a centralized outsourced tailor at the second floor of the Hoi An Market. If you intend to have a suit or dress done, try to do it at the start of your Hoi An stay. While you may be promised a turnaround of 1 day, you’ll need to allocate an extra day or two for alterations, if needed.
Day 5: Day Trips From Hoi An
Hoi An offers a couple of decent day trip possibilities including ancient Khmer style ruins and some outlying islands. I love checking out ancient ruins so I decided to go to My Son, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is around an hour away from Hoi An. My Son is an ancient Hindu archeological complex, built by the Champa people who used the inhabit the region around Central Vietnam. There were originally over 70 temples around My Son as documented by the French during the 19th century but much of these were destroyed during the Vietnam War. Today, only around 18 structures remain. My Son is around 1 hour away by car from Hoi An. To get there, your best bet is to join an inexpensive day tour. These tours usually last half a day and include a modest lunch.
After returning to Hoi An, one of the fun activities to do is to go aboard one of Vietnam’s iconic round basket boats that wade through coconut palm tree-lined mangroves. The boat ride itself takes roughly an hour and passengers are given the opportunities to throw a fishing net and to paddle for part of the journey. An especially fun part of the ride is when the paddler spins rapidly in circles, with or without the passengers on the boat.
These boats are located in the eastern part of Hoi An. Trips can be booked via Grab or by including round trip transfers when you book the attraction.
Day 6: Da Nang
After having visited Da Nang’s attractions the previous day, you can head back to your place of origin / Da Nang Airport on the 6th day or spend more time chilling in one of Da Nang’s many resorts. The city is blessed with a nice shoreline facing the South China Sea and there are plenty of compelling resort options here such as the InterContinental Da Nang Sun Peninsula or the Banyan Tree Lang Co.
Where to Stay in Central Vietnam
As the three cities are quite far apart from each other, it is probably best to split your hotel between Hue and Hoi An. Stay in a Da Nang hotel if you would like to have a nice beach experience. Stay in a Hoi An hotel for at least a night if you wish to witness the contrasting scenes of the ancient town both in the day and at night.
Hoi An: I have visited Hoi An multiple times and have stayed in these hotels: Allegro Hoi An as it’s one of the few good boutique hotels to be within short walking distance to the old town. If convenience is your priority, then go for this hotel especially if you are in Hoi An only for 1 night. The overall feel was quite luxurious and the guestroom was huge despite room prices being reasonable. You could also use their bikes for free. The other hotel I stayed in was Lantana Riverside Boutique Hotel & Spa. This property is around 20 minute walk from town but hotel guests can rent a bike for $1 a day. What I loved about Lantana despite the distance is that the room price was especially cheap and even came with breakfast. You can also compare prices for more hotels in Hoi An here.
Hue: In Hue, I stayed in the Indochine Palace Hotel which is located in the newer and more commercial part of town. It is a large hotel with a nice imperial feel. Breakfast was one of the best I’ve had at the same price range. During my third visit to Hue, I stayed at Melia Vinpearl Hue which is also the tallest building in the city. Service was excellent and the hotel also has a shopping mall in the same building. You can also compare prices for more hotels in Hue here.
Da Nang: Most visitors who come to Da Nang opt to stay in one of the coastal hotels. The Sala Da Nang Beach Hotel is a popular hotel with sweeping views of the beach and the cape from the rooftop pool level. Further up the cape is Le Sands Oceanfront. If you need a hotel room with apartment-like facilities (i.e. separate living area, microwave), you can check out their 1-bedroom residence category. If you prefer to stay in a newer hotel you can check out Radisson Da Nang.
Getting Around Between Da Nang, Hoi An and Hue
Best way to get around is to hire your own car with driver although these days, it is also feasible to do a mix of Grab and joining local tours. The bulk of the places listed here (except for the more isolated My Son, Ba Na Hills and the imperial tombs in Hue) can be easily visited via ride sharing apps. For intercity transfers, it is cheaper to pre-book transport (i.e. to travel between Da Nang, Hoi An, Ba Na Hills and Hue). For transfers originating from Da Nang, you can check here. For transfers originating from Hoi An, you can check here.
Here is a rough guide for the travel time between Da Nang and the key cities in Central Vietnam:
How to travel from Da Nang Airport to Da Nang City Center (~15 minutes) – book here
How to travel from Da Nang to Hoi An (~45 minutes) – book here
How to travel from Da Nang to Hue (~2 hours) – book here
How to travel from Hoi An to Da Nang (~45 minutes) – book here
You can arrange your airport transfer HERE.
Travel Tips for Central Vietnam
- In this age of uncertainty, it may be advisable to have travel insurance with Covid-19 coverage. If you reside in Singapore, check out Starr Travelead, one of the cheapest travel insurance. They have a promotion running until 29th Feb that comes with FREE Apple AirTag (worth S$45) that may even be worth more than the cost of the insurance itself.
- Unless staying in one of Da Nang’s exclusive resorts is part of the plan, I would personally recommend basing yourself in either Hoi An or Hue as there’s simply much more to do in those two towns. However, if you intend to visit Ba Na Hills, a one-night stay in Da Nang may be warranted.
- It is still possible to pay for purchases in USD in several places including shops, restaurants and other establishments used to dealing with tourists. I ran out of Vietnamese Dong once and my cab driver even accepted USD. However, do note that small local eateries and grocers might accept only local currency. If you urgently need to change money and can’t find a bank that is still open, look out for jewelry stores. Their rates are often better than banks.
Alternatively, you can check out this great resource with easy-to-use itinerary planners to various destinations.