Vietnam’s central coast packs together beaches and culture like no other place in Southeast Asia
Sitting on the coast of Vietnam, equidistant from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang doesn’t get the attention it deserves. This has partially been due to a lack of international air links with Da Nang International Airport, which means most regional visitors have had to fly in from the north or south rather than direct.
In this fashion I’ve travelled to Da Nang three times during the last decade. But my most recent trip was the easiest yet, thanks to Bangkok Airways’ new nonstop flight between Bangkok and Da Nang. The four-times-weekly, 95-minute flight means I no longer have to stop over in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, thus at least halving the time required to reach Vietnam’s third largest city.
Besides being close to three unique Unesco World Heritage sites—more on those later—the lengthy coastline stretching between Hue, an hour north of Da Nang, and Hoi An, an hour south, is studded with over 20 sandy bays, coves and beaches. And my temporary home for this three-day holiday is Lang Co Bay, one of the most beautiful, and thus far least discovered, beaches of the central coast.
After I clear immigration, a driver from Banyan Tree Lang Co picks me up and I enjoy riding through the center of Da Nang, which unlike its northern and southern rivals, boasts wide boulevards with light traffic. Soon we reach the long strand of urban beach that fronts the city, part of which is Non Nuoc, once known as “China Beach” to the tens of thousands of American soldiers who occupied the area during the Vietnam War.
Before long, Da Nang gives way to the scenery of the Marble Mountains and shortly thereafter we enter 6280m-long Hai Van Tunnel, which opened in 2005 so that motorists wouldn’t have to drive around the mountains and through legendary, sometimes treacherous, Hai Van Pass. This cuts another hour off the average road trip to and from Da Nang.
North of the pass, Hue province unfolds with a dramatic series of green mountains interspersed with huge, interconnected lagoons belonging to Tam Giang-Cau Hai, Asia’s largest lagoon ecosystem. Dotted with fishing villages and low-impact oyster farms (the mollusks are grown in discarded bike tires), Tam Giang-Cau Hai benefits from the oversight by the FAO’s Integrated Management of Lagoon Activities (IMOLA) project.
I arrive at the Banyan Tree and am assigned a personal host who checks me into a private beachfront villa. Besides the services of a host, the spacious villa boasts an interior enhanced by lacquerware, embroidered silk, and intricate lattice woodwork, plus a decent-sized private pool between villa and beach. The situation is so well engineered to cater to one’s every whim that it’s only with some effort that I drag myself past the pool and down a sandy pathway to have a look at beach and sea.
It’s three in the afternoon, but I’m the only person in sight along the wide, 3 km beach. The soft, ruddy sand fades into a swatch of blue sea which, after three days of swimming, I declare to be the cleanest, clearest shoreline water I’ve encountered anywhere in Southeast Asia over the last 10 years or more. Unlike the bathwater sea temperatures found in Thailand in May, the water at Lang Co is refreshingly cool. But there’s much more to the central coast than sun and sand.
On a previous trip to Da Nang, I’d immensely enjoyed the city’s Museum of Cham Sculpture, which houses a collection of exquisite stone art from the Cham civilization, a series of Hindu kingdoms which occupied much of central Vietnam from the first millennium AD through the 14th century. Besides Hindu deities such as Shiva, Vishnu, and Garuda, there’s a fanciful variety of animal figures and striking Hindu fertility icons, including a Shivalingam pedestal ringed by a row of perfectly sculpted breasts. The museum was built in 1915 as the Musée Henri Parmentier, and the art was collected by French archaeologists from Cham temple ruins in nearby My Son Sanctuary to protect them from looting. Any visit to My Son, should be paired with a visit to this museum to appreciate the full extent of Cham devotional art, which in some cases predates, and possibly inspires, sculpture and architecture found in Bali, Java, and Cambodia.
My Son Sanctuary itself, once the spiritual center and political capital of the Champa Kingdom, occupies a high wooded valley 68 km south of Hoi An. Hinduism among the Cham emphasized Shiva worship, and beginning in the 4th century AD and continuing over a thousand-year period, the Cham constructed a series of impressive brick-and-sandstone tower temples in the valley. I love wandering from site to site—there are 71 standing monuments, most dating from between the 10th and 13th centuries, clustered in eight groups—along well-groomed forest trails. Worship ceased in the late 15th century, when the site was abandoned and many Cham fled the area.
The site was added to Unesco’s World Heritage list in 1999. That same year, the ancient Vietnamese town of Hoi An was added to the coveted Unesco list. Ochre-hued courtyard homes draped in purple bougainvillea, narrow streets bathed in the glow of red silk lanterns, and fishermen hauling slippery baskets of fresh fish from their boats, combine to make Hoi An a postcard-perfect image of old Vietnam which draws hordes of tourists from all over the world.
Today practically every business in Hoi An, which for centuries was the largest and busiest port in Southeast Asia, is oriented towards the tourist market. I’m able to ignore that and get on with my business, which includes touring the well-preserved Chinese clan assembly houses, constructed of carved wood and tile, and the famous Japanese covered bridge. Built by Japanese merchant residents in the 1590s, the heavy brick edifice performs dual functions, not only spanning a stream but also offering a sacred shrine over the water for keeping South China Sea typhoons at bay. A cruise along the Thu Bon River offers a different perspective of Hoi An, and a look at the nearby villages of Thanh Ha, famed for its pottery, and Kim Bong, a carpentry village.
The historic city of Hue to the north presents an entirely different kind of history, that of political rather than economic power, revolving around northern Vietnam’s Nguyen Dynasty. The dynasty kicked off in 1802 and ended in 1945 when the Vietnamese communist movement installed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
I find time to visit three historic sites in town. The Citadel, begun in 1805 by the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, was once somewhat comparable to Beijing’s Forbidden City. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, however, it was mercilessly bombed, first by the North Vietnamese before they took the city, then by the Americans. Only the thick, heavily fortified walls survived, but they’re well worth a visit. Some of the palace structures inside have been rebuilt as well.
Hue’s Tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh survived the Vietnam Wat intact, and has been declared the most majestic imperial tomb in all of Vietnam. Built on a hillside over three different levels, the grand mausoleum was begun in 1920 and took 11 years to finish. Today considered to have been a puppet of the French colonial government, Emperor Khai Dinh died at age 40 of tuberculosis three years before its completion, and is interred in a striking sarcophagus inside an ultra-ornate palace at the uppermost level.
The third spot I visit in Hue is Thien Mu Pagoda, which overlooks the scenic Perfume River, and is to me the single most impressive historic monument in the city. Built in 1844 by Emperor Thieu Tri, the tiered brick tower offers an East Asian interpretation of the classic Buddhist stupas found in South and Southeast Asia. Behind the tower is a Buddhist monastery, famous for a monk named Thich Quang Duc, who in 1963 made headlines around the world after he traveled to Saigon, poured a canister of gas over his head, and lit himself on fire in protest of American military interference in South Vietnam. The remains of the Austin car in which he rode to Saigon are displayed in a garage in back of the monastery. I’m struck by how peaceful the Thien Mu grounds are. Unlike at the imperial tomb and the citadel, very few tourists turn up while I’m there.
For the remainder of my time, I enjoy the beach at Lang Co. An evening dinner at Saffron, Banyan Tree’s signature Thai restaurant, is a treat not only for the excellent cuisine, overseen by a Thai executive chef, but for its lofty perch overlooking the north end of Lang Co Bay. I also take some time to explore Angsana, Banyan Tree’s sister property next door. While the Banyan Tree emphasizes elegant design and laidback, private luxury, Angsana is decidedly more family oriented, with the added focus of watersport gear and a 300 m swimming pool that meanders throughout the resort and includes a diving section.
Guests at each resort have full access to facilities at both. Both resorts are part of the larger Laguna Lang Co, a 280-hectare integrated multi-use project linked to the original Laguna complex in Phuket. The development includes 18-hotel, par-71 Laguna Lang Co Golf Club, a championship course designed by Sir Nick Faldo, and considered to be one of Asia’s top beachside links.
Sunday evening I head to Soul Kitchen, a rustic beachside bar on An Bang Beach, close to Hoi An, where I borrow a guitar and join local and expat musicians for the weekly live jam session. Beaches, ancient architecture, and live music always means a great vacation for me, and I finish this one vowing to return soon.
Banyan Tree Lang Co
+84 54 3695 888
Angsana Lang Co
+84 54 3695 800
When to Go
Locals agree the best months to enjoy Lang Co are April to August. From late August till November, rains are frequent, and between December and March the air and water temperatures can be quite cool.