Fascinating sights in Vietnam

Fascinating sights in Vietnam

It is a grey, cloudy day and groups of tourists are making their way through ancient Hindu temple ruins in My Son, Central Vietnam.

After pointing out several badly damaged structures and craters in the ground - courtesy of aerial bombings during the Vietnam War - our guide, a diminutive local clearly passionate about his battle-scarred land, bristles: "The Americans bombed us and so many people died. For what?" We listen in uncomfortable silence, secretly hoping there are no American tourists within earshot.

Clearly, the scars of the Vietnam War - one of multiple conflicts the country has endured throughout its tumultuous history - are palpable and not limited to the physical landscape.

But while reminders of Vietnam's bloody past are an inescapable fact of touring in the country, there is also much by way of natural beauty and historical sites with which to fascinate you. In Central Vietnam alone, there are three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, each one offering a completely different experience from the other.

My Son

About 1.5 hours' drive southwest of Danang, My Son is the region's business and commercial heart. Built between the 4th and 14th century AD during the ancient Champa kingdom, My Son was the site for royal religious ceremonies.

Set amidst a lush, picturesque jungle valley between mountain ranges, the cluster of brick temples was dedicated to the worship of the Hindu god Shiva.

While some structures in this archaeological site - a scaled-down version of Cambodia's Angkor Wat - survived the war bombings, others were either severely damaged or completely destroyed.

The weather-worn, surviving temple buildings are often accompanied by large stone phallic symbols in the form of the male lingam and female yoni.

Amongst the ruins are large stone slabs with inscriptions, while two small buildings are now used to showcase stone sculptures and a couple of unexploded bombs.

Speaking of the latter, don't stray off the paths as there are still unexploded ordnances in the surrounding area.

Hoi An

Just a 45-minute drive southeast of Danang is Hoi An Ancient Town - another UNESCO World Heritage Site - famous for its historic architecture that combines Chinese, Japanese, French and Vietnamese influences.

With its immaculately conserved buildings and enchanting, old town feel, the former trading port is pretty and full of value-for-money spending opportunities.

Start by having your measurements taken at one of the numerous tailoring shops here, and your outfit will be ready within 24 hours.

Thereafter, browse the wares in the many colourful shops, filled with a mind-boggling selection of clothes, shoes, art, lanterns, lacquer ware and souvenirs - just remember to bargain.

Hoi An's bustling Central Market is also well worth a visit to check out the local produce and soak in the action. We found ourselves a homemade jar of preserved kumquats in a delicious honey and chili mix - a concoction so addictive we later kicked ourselves for not buying a whole carton of them. Finally, settle into one of its cafes for some coffee and cake.

Hue via Hai Van Pass

While Hoi An is picture perfect for snap happy tourists, Hue, the third UNESCO World Heritage Site in Central Vietnam, offers a lot more by way of history, culture and ancient relics.

Located 110 km northwest of Danang, the former imperial capital is best accessed via a scenic, albeit longer drive via the Hai Van Pass.

Taking this route (as opposed to the Hai Van Tunnel) takes up 3.5 hours of travel time, but is totally worth it. The dramatic, 21km pass takes you up and down steep and winding mountain roads and hair-pin curves along the coast - sometimes through the clouds - for some stunning views, including those of the South China Sea and Lang Co Bay, rated as one of the most beautiful bays in the world.

At the summit are old fortifications built by the French and too many aggressive souvenir and snack hawkers - one of whom responded to our disinterest in her candies by scolding us loudly. Be warned.

Leaving that behind and getting into Hue, you will also find a different climate from what lies south of the Hai Van Pass. The former seat of the Nguyen dynasty is quite often rainy but makes up for the bleak weather with a mini version of Beijing's Forbidden City, sprawling royal tombs and yes - delicious food.

If you don't have time for the tombs, which are scattered on both sides of the Perfume River, then a must-visit is the moat-ringed, square-shaped Citadel just north of the river. Enclosed by thick walls that total nearly 10 km in length, there are 10 entrances into this 500-hectare fortress. Within the Citadel lies another enclosure also protected by thick walls and a moat - the Imperial City.

Here, you will find palaces, temples and gardens, including the Palace of Supreme Harmony, which was the city's administrative heart and where the emperor held court. Within the Imperial City is yet another enclosure called the Forbidden Purple City.

Also surrounded by brick walls, this area was reserved for the emperor and his family. You will have to imagine what it was like though, because the dozens of buildings originally within the walls have almost all been destroyed during the 1968 Tet Offensive, leaving only their foundations and lots of grassy land.

Being a former royal city, Hue is famous for its food. Often, food sellers produce just one dish and have been doing so for generations. In the process, they have perfected their recipes to the extent that even local aunties who try to replicate them at home fail to achieve the same flavours and textures.

A must-try is the Banh Loc. It sounds simple enough - shrimp (usually with its shell on) and pork belly braised in a mix of fish sauce, sugar, pepper, shallots, garlic and annatto, then stuffed in tapioca paste, wrapped in banana leaf and steamed. This humble dish, however, packs a lot of flavour and its chewy texture is one reason why it's so well-loved.

We also managed to try the famous Banh Uot Thit Nuong or grilled pork wrapped in moist rice paper; and Bun Thit Nuong, rice noodles topped with grilled pork, fresh herbs, vegetables and peanuts and accompanied by a dipping sauce. For the best, go to Huyen Anh on Kim Long Street, which serves only these two dishes and sells out fast.

The highlight for us, however, was a late-night snack of Banh Mi - a baguette typical filled with sweet pork belly, pork liver pate, cold meats, eggs, vegetables and cheese and herbs. There are several "stalls" by the Perfume River - these are seriously down-to-earth, hawker-style set-ups extremely popular with locals young and old but perhaps not suited to the nervous foreigner.

You must be able to stomach the conditions - the floor is strewn with trash and you will encounter rats running around and have to dodge scampering cockroaches.

It adds to the atmosphere though, where everyone sits on tiny plastic chairs in a circle around the hawker, waits for her to stuff the bread with their choice of fillings and then scarf it all down.

If you have time, there is a humanitarian project at nearby Vo Thi Sau Street in the backpackers' area that is well worth supporting.

The Healing The Wounded Heart Shop sells very well-made, eco-friendly handicraft using recycled materials that are produced by disabled artisans. All proceeds go towards funding fair salaries and medical insurance for the artisans (who run the shop), as well as heart surgery for poor Vietnamese children.

Somehow, going home with an attractive gift from the shop adds a meaningful touch to visiting Hue, and is a reminder of the resilience of a people who stubbornly refuse to succumb to adversity. 

This website is best viewed using the latest versions of web browsers.