The next time you’re asked to recommend places to go and things to do in central Vietnam, here’s a list of absolute must-do’s in Hue and Hoi An
1. Hue – cruise down the Perfume River to Thien Mu Pagoda.
The emperors really made their mark in Hue, with temples and palaces dotting the Perfume River – so called because of the flowers thrown in it by said emperors’ subjects as they floated past in their royal barges.
We float past in a rather ornate dragon-headed tourist barge; passing tiny working barges so full of sand it’s hard to fathom how they can possibly stay afloat.
On our way to Thien Mu Pagoda (the pagoda of the heavenly lady) we also pass young lovers smooching on the riverbanks and a few water buffalo having a swim.
2. Hue – cycle to the Citadel.
Hue was Vietnam’s capital city throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Citadel, its epi-centre.
Here, the Americans made their mark – most of the buildings in this vast complex, modeled on the Forbidden City in China, were obliterated during the Tet Offensive in 1967.
The best way to explore Hue is by peddle-power – either on a pushbike, or one of the many cyclos lined up outside the citadel.
3. Hue – Lunch at Lac Thien’s.
Lac Thien’s is a rather special little café, run by deaf mutes, where, for a miniscule investment you are served a fantastic selection of fresh seafood, fragrant greens and rice paper to roll them in.
If you’re really lucky the owner will fashion you a bottle opener and treat you to a little flamboyant display of how to use it.
4. Stop for some Banh Nam on the road to Hoi An.
The drive to Hoi An takes you south along a scenic coastal route, past fishing villages, rice fields and oyster farms, driving around the rice grains being raked on the highway to dry and the odd goat.
Be sure to enjoy the views north and south at Hai Van Pass, and be sure to avoid the many hawkers trying to sell you maps.
Before you head up the hill to the Hai Van Pass, stop to pick up some Banh nam – ground pork and shrimp pushed into a sticky rice paste, wrapped in banana leaf and steamed.
5. Visit the Marble Mountains in Da Nang.
The mountains are home to several Buddhist grottos, one of which hid a Viet Cong hospital during the war – literally within earshot of the nearby American air field at China Beach.
6. Go window-shopping and café-hopping in beautiful Hoi An.
The pretty streets, cafes and gift shops of Hoi An’s old town are enough reason in themselves to visit. It could take weeks to sample all the cafes and restaurants – all of which look wonderful (and many of which hold cooking classes).
We recommend Café Bazar, which made it on to News Week’s 101 World’s Best Places to Eat, and Streets, a café run by Streets International, who operate sustainable programs for street kids and disadvantaged youth in SE Asia.
7. Go snorkeling or diving on Cham Island.
Blue Coral Diving will pick you up from your hotel and deliver you to a dive boat that would look more at home in Pirates of the Caribbean, for a morning of snorkeling and diving followed by lunch on the beach.
The water is about 30 degrees – really not much need for a wetsuit except to cushion my back from the dive gear – and the visibility is pretty darn good, with lots of little fishies, the odd barracuda and big coral bommies.
8. Learn how to fish with Hoi An Eco Tours.
This is a cracker – possibly the highlight of our entire trip. Our Hoi An Eco Tours guides intend to teach us how to fish (good luck).
We start our trip in a little round basket boat, and after transferring into a sort of punt, we’re shown how to throw (or cast) a weighted net so that it creates a perfect circle mid-air. Our coach (who is ancient) does it perfectly first time and brings in a little haul of sardines. We don’t.
Our guide tells us war stories as he makes wonderful little creations for us out of bamboo leaves – crickets, crowns, earrings and bangles before we’re served an awesome lunch at the Restaurant at the End of the World (the boat).
We travelled with Indochina Odyssey Tours who tailor-made our trip according to our interests and the age of the kids travelling with us. It proved to be a really enjoyable itinerary – we packed in loads of activities without feeling too busy or stretched beyond our energy levels.