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This was the Vietnam I dreamed of

Two-wheeling has an art and an etiquette.

Determined to neither exceed nor ease from the posted 70-km-per-hour speed limit along Vietnam's National Route 1A, my driver, Dai, pulsed the gas pedal with his foot as we traveled north on the two-lane highway to the imperial city of Hue.

The road climbed gently from the outskirts of Da Nang toward mountains that serve as a kind of waistband for the lanky country that stretches more than 1,000 miles north to south but is barely 35 miles east to west at its midsection.

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At one time, the Truong Son Mountains were a natural bulwark dividing Vietnam. The two halves were brought together under French rule in the mid-19th century, then split into rival states in 1954. You probably know what happened next.

In 2005, the four-mile-long Hai Van Tunnel was opened, cutting through the mountains, a celebrated engineering feat for a country that was just beginning to sow its economic oats.

"Hai Van Pass or tunnel?" Dai asked, adding that the scenic route snaking over the old mountain pass would add $15 and an extra 30 minutes to the drive.

Rain was spotting the windshield, so I skipped the scenic surcharge, and a few minutes later we emerged from the tunnel into a landscape of rice paddies, flanked by the mountains on the left and the South China Sea on the right.

It was the Vietnam I dreamed of.

Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) are the usual points of entry for travelers to Vietnam; they were for me on my first visit eight years ago.

But those who overlook central Vietnam will miss some of the country's most iconic sights, its best beaches and a more relaxed pace.

Another world, another era

My journey through central Vietnam began in November in Hue (pronounced hway), a city of about 300,000 that, beginning in 1802, was the last dynastic capital of Vietnam.

Hue, close to the Demilitarized Zone that divided the north and south during the Vietnam War, suffered heavy damage, particularly during the Tet Offensive in 1968 when most of the city and its citadel were leveled.

La Residence in Hue, built in 1930, was made to be as the home of Vietnam's French colonial governor. In 2005 it was redeveloped into a deluxe hotel
La Residence in Hue, built in 1930, was made to be as the home of Vietnam's French colonial governor. In 2005 it was redeveloped into a deluxe hotel (David Swanson/special to The Times)

A historic mansion, on the banks of the Perfume River facing the Citadel, managed to escape destruction. It was also my destination for the night.

The house, built in 1930 at the peak of the Art Deco movement, had been the residence of the French colonial governor. It played varying roles following World War II and throughout the 1970s, eventually becoming a bit player in the city's nascent post-war tourism efforts.

In 2005, the structure was redeveloped into a deluxe hotel, La Résidence, with new four-story wings extending from the original house.

I've seen too many botched adaptations of historic buildings to anticipate that the additions at La Résidence would be anything more than perfunctory, but the attention to design was remarkable. The original mansion still oozed Art Deco swank, with terrazzo floors, red velvet curtains and teak armchairs in the fan-shaped Gouverneur Bar.

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The new wings were flush with details such as parquet flooring, silver-plated wall sconces and period tiles in the bathrooms.

The Citadel of Hue, Vietnam was built when the Nguyen Dynasty was established in 1802. Inside, the restored Thai Hoa Palace (Palace of Supreme Harmony), is where the emperor would greet official visitors.
The Citadel of Hue, Vietnam was built when the Nguyen Dynasty was established in 1802. Inside, the restored Thai Hoa Palace (Palace of Supreme Harmony), is where the emperor would greet official visitors. (David Swanson / special to The Times)

Most rooms overlooked the river and an enormous, frangipani-wrapped swimming pool. I was tempted to dive in but spied the hotel's spa and instead splurged on a 60-minute scalp and shoulder massage, my travel-weary mane and muscles manipulated with coconut oil. Expensive by Vietnam standards, $42 was never so well spent.

I booked a private half-day tour of Hue's major sights for the next morning, boarding a dragon boat with guide Van Anh for a three-mile cruise up the Perfume River. Our first stop was Chua Thien Mu, the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, a delicate, octagonal tower rising seven stories from a hill next to the river.

"The temple is around 400 years old," Anh explained as we climbed the steps. "It's based on the legend of an old woman who sat on this hill and predicted one day a king would come here and order a pagoda to be built. It was a prediction from the heavens."

Dragon boats ply the Perfume River in Hue, Vietnam. The boats offer transfers from the city to the Thien Mu Pagoda and some of the Royal Tombs.
Dragon boats ply the Perfume River in Hue, Vietnam. The boats offer transfers from the city to the Thien Mu Pagoda and some of the Royal Tombs. (David Swanson / special to The Times)

In 1601, a high-ranking Mandarin from the north came to Hue to cultivate the south and establish the Nguyen Dynasty, building the temple in tribute to the fable. When the north and south were unified in 1801, Hue became Vietnam's capital, and in 1844, the pagoda was rebuilt with the structure visible today.

The Nguyen Dynasty was not as long-lived.

"French colonization of Vietnam started in 1858," Anh said. "From then, the emperor had no power; he was a puppet."

During World War II, the Japanese took control of the country, and Vietnam's last emperor abdicated in 1945. A new communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, sought independence from the colonial powers and relocated the capital to Hanoi.

Although the complex is a popular tourist attraction, it is peaceful as befits a Buddhist sanctuary. The courtyards are open to the public, with shy monks ranging from toddlers to teens scurrying about in robes.

Anh's itinerary included a visit to the tomb of the second of the Nguyen emperors, Minh Mang, who reigned from 1820 to 1840, one of seven mausoleums dotting the countryside.

The serene 44-acre site is a series of terraces and lakes that lead through temples, courtyards and across bridges to a final staircase climbing a hill. At its end, a locked gate, the burial chamber hidden beneath the pine trees.

The centerpiece of Hue's UNESCO World Heritage designation is the Imperial City, surrounded by the Citadel, six miles of six-foot-thick brick walls and a moat. More than 50,000 people labored here in its heyday; today, much of the enormous feudal capital is unrecognizable, its elegant stone dragon banisters collecting moss.

Some of the Citadel's buildings were destroyed by fire in 1947, while others crumbled during the Tet Offensive, but the Hall of Supreme Harmony is one of several that has been gloriously restored.

I returned that night to the walled Citadel for a meal at Les Jardins de la Carambole, a restaurant in a French colonial residence wrapped by terraces and balconies. Beautifully garnished plates of food — grilled chicken with lemongrass and chili, shrimp and pork steamed in a banana leaf — emerged from the kitchen.

Under circling fans and with a pianist playing unobtrusively, I became cloaked by the Indochine era, transporting me again to another time and world.

A time capsule
The mysterious ruins of My Son are brick Hindu temples from the Champa Kingdom, a distant relative to the much more famous (and expansive) Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
The mysterious ruins of My Son are brick Hindu temples from the Champa Kingdom, a distant relative to the much more famous (and expansive) Angkor Wat in Cambodia. (David Swanson / special to The Times)

Just past dawn, in the jungle-cloaked mountains west of Hoi An, fog slunk along the hillsides and beams of sunlight struggled to pierce the uninhabited valley.

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When light finally began to fill the scene, a curtain lifted on the ancient Cham ruins of My Son, with nary another visitor in sight.

The tidy collection of brick Hindu temples is a distant relative of the more famous (and expansive) Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia.

My Son, occupied for almost 1,000 years starting in the late 4th century, may be the longest inhabited religious center in Southeast Asia.

Although a week of carpet bombing by U.S. forces destroyed most of the temples — signs warn of undetonated ordnance nearby — a rebuilding program has been underway since UNESCO designation in 1999.

I wasn't quite alone at My Son — there were six others led by a guide, Tin. The wake-up call to meet a 4:20 a.m. bus pick-up had been painful. But the reward was arriving at the site's empty parking lot just before the ticket office opened at 6 a.m., then encountering the temples at daybreak.

Some of the structures were originally adorned with gold, Tin explained, and like the best historical sites, mysteries remain. "The bricks and construction methods of the Cham people are still not understood," Tin said.

He pointed to temples that were relatively intact, with their brickwork firm, the mortar sealed and free of vegetation. But the temples that have been partly reconstructed using modern materials and techniques showed wear — the 20th century bricks eroding from absorbed moisture, plants emerging from the mortar.

Joyful and atmospheric
Hoi An, an 18th century Southeast Asian trading port, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, recognized for its quaint merchant homes and streetscapes.
Hoi An, an 18th century Southeast Asian trading port, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, recognized for its quaint merchant homes and streetscapes. (David Swanson / special to The Times)

If My Son was spooky and mysterious, nearby Hoi An was joyful and atmospheric. It was originally a Champa seaport but shed most of that history in favor of its 18th century incarnation as a vital Southeast Asian trading center, with ships calling from as far as Britain and America.

Its quaint merchant homes and streetscapes have been virtually unchanged for more than 200 years, but it's cleaned up, and colorful lanterns bob overhead. Although Hoi An has been discovered, it's a time capsule that retains its delicate Japanese, Portuguese and Dutch influences. Plus, the fine beach is just three miles down the road.

Another thing that makes Hoi An appealing: The historic part of town is car-free, a tribute to Hoi An's World Heritage status. Motorbikes are present, of course, but the streets are pedestrian-friendly, and the wharf is home to informal outdoor cafés with names such as Mr. Rin and Mr. Soi.

The historic trading port Hoi An, Vietnam is nicknamed "Lantern Town," and there are plentiful silk-lantern shops selling the colorful goods.
The historic trading port Hoi An, Vietnam is nicknamed "Lantern Town," and there are plentiful silk-lantern shops selling the colorful goods. (David Swanson / special to The Times)

The houses now are used for restaurants, tailors and silk-lantern shops. On street corners old women peddled cigarettes, lollipops and bananas, their teeth stained red from chewing betel leaf and areca nut.

My favorite place was the open-air market, where the bounty of Vietnam's farms is displayed. Dozens of vendors sold fresh fruits and vegetables, crates of eggs, caged chickens, baskets of nuts.

As I walked through, I discovered an impromptu karaoke bar set up in the meat section: Men and women poured their souls into a microphone while standing next to fresh cuts of meat and — yes — the head of a pig, neatly sliced off just behind the ears.

Food is celebrated everywhere in Vietnam but especially in Hoi An. The town offers a conga line of dining options, from enticing street food sold by vendors on almost every corner, to full-on gourmet meals served in lovingly maintained historic buildings, to cooking schools that dish cultural insights alongside hands-on preparations.

Hoi An's best-known chef is Trinh Diem Vy, whose business empire includes multiple restaurants, a cooking school and new hotel. Her restaurant, Morning Glory, is named for the deliciously bitter vine.

"It's the only dish you can order anywhere in Vietnam, from the north to the south, stir fried with garlic," Vy told me. "Otherwise, the food of the north has more Chinese influence, and in the south, dishes are made with coconut cream."

But at Morning Glory, Vy dished the street food of her childhood — crispy pancakes made from a batter of mung beans and rice, banana flower salad, caramelized pork with peas and mushrooms — all delicious.

The beating heart
Fishermen use woven, round basket boats known as thung-chai to ply the broad bay fronting Da Nang, Vietnam. In the 1960s, the deserted shoreline was nicknamed China Beach.
Fishermen use woven, round basket boats known as thung-chai to ply the broad bay fronting Da Nang, Vietnam. In the 1960s, the deserted shoreline was nicknamed China Beach. (David Swanson / special to The Times)

I was lured to central Vietnam after a friend grabbed a business opportunity in Da Nang last year. Ben and his girlfriend, Allison, had invited me to visit, and with Asian airfares plummeting, I booked a flight.

As I was packing, I texted Ben to ask if there was anything he desired from the States.

"In-N-Out probably wouldn't survive the trip, would it?"

Perhaps a little homesickness had crept in, but a scroll through Ben's Instagram posts assured me that they were eating beautifully. When I met them for dinner at Bep Hen, a small restaurant in Da Nang, I knew cheeseburgers weren't much on his mind.

"The food in Vietnam is so good, and it's all so cheap," Ben said.

Bep Hen restaurant in Da Nang offers an invitingly retro environment, and the Vietnamese menu offers dishes that are wildly flavorful and inexpensive.
Bep Hen restaurant in Da Nang offers an invitingly retro environment, and the Vietnamese menu offers dishes that are wildly flavorful and inexpensive. (David Swanson / special to The Times)

Bep Hen offered an invitingly retro environment that looked like a beloved uncle's attic, with old TVs and furniture and French pop music from the 1960s.

Ben and Allison ordered plate after plate of wildly flavorful food — fried tofu with minced pork, fried chicken in fish sauce, braised pork belly with duck egg and Huda beer served with an ice cube. The meal came to $15 for the three of us.

When we met for breakfast the next morning, they took me to what I'd call a hole in the wall, a simple café tucked away on a side street a few blocks from the beach.

Here, we slurped steaming bowls of mi quang, a staple of central Vietnam with noodles, meat, herbs, a tiny boiled egg and a ladle of broth, and barely a dollar a bowl. The dish was a hearty way to begin the day, especially served with a cold bottle of refreshing corn milk, another local specialty.

Although I passed through Da Nang on my Vietnam trip eight years ago, the city I saw today bore no resemblance to its former self except for the curious round basket boats known as thung-chai that fishermen used to ply the bay each morning.

In the 1960s, Da Nang's shoreline was nicknamed China Beach — a moniker I was assured is not well received locally. Today, Da Nang is the country's third-largest city, with a population of about 750,000, and the sandy beach is lined with high-rises and luxe resorts. A white 220-foot female Buddha stands guard at the north end of the bay.

On the surface, Da Nang didn't appear to offer visitors much beyond tropical resorts and a coolly efficient airport.

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But as the city reinvents itself as the modern tech hub of Vietnam, it offers a friendly, easy-going base for day trips to most of central Vietnam's prime attractions — Hue, Hoi An and My Son are all less than 90 minutes away.

And although Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are traffic-clogged and frenetic, Da Nang hums at a gentler pace. The city is popular with Koreans but has yet to be discovered by Western tourists, allowing for a kind of authentic Asian vacation.

"Da Nang is the beating heart of central Vietnam," Ben said. "The beaches are attached to a real city, which means you have more amenities, things to do and places to eat. It's easier to become immersed in the everyday Vietnamese lifestyle, and the overall cost of a Da Nang vacation is a lot lower than in places like Phuket."

I stayed at Fusion Suites, a modern hotel that included a daily 45-minute foot massage in its rates. From the open-air rooftop bar at sunset, I marveled at the view of the beach while painful wails of karaoke echoed from a bar below.

I settled into a lounger for my appointment with Duc at the spa.

"How firm?" Duc asked, eyeing my feet.

Firm is good, I replied. And with that Duc started in on the soles, searching for pressure points to manipulate, bringing acute pain, then easing back to caress.

Push-pull, sharp-soft, yin-yang, fast-slow. Vietnam was aiming to reach its sweet spot.

If you go

THE BEST WAY TO DA NANG, VIETNAM

From LAX, American, United, Delta, Korean, Asiana, Cathay Pacific, Air China and Singapore offer connecting service (change of planes) to Da Nang. Restricted round-trip airfares from $797, including taxes and fees. There is also an airport in Hue served by Vietnam Airlines from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Entry requirements

A visa is required for most visitors to Vietnam, including U.S. citizens. An online e-visa, valid for 30 days, is available through lat.ms/vietnamvisa (beware of scam websites not affiliated with the government.) The cost is about $26, and processing takes a few business days.

TELEPHONES

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 84 (the country code for Vietnam) and the local number.

GETTING AROUND

In a country with idiosyncratic rules of the road, renting a car isn't particularly recommended for the uninitiated. Hue is 61 miles northwest of Da Nang airport. It is easiest to arrange a transfer with your hotel on either end; mine with Dai was $50.

Hoi An is 18 miles south of the Da Nang airport. A one-way transfer should be less than $15. It's about 3 miles from the town center to the beach, and most hotels have bikes for loan or rent.

In Da Nang, the easiest way to get around is through a ride-hailing outfit; Uber is available as well as Grab, a similar Singapore-based company. Taxis are also available, and motorbikes can be rented for as little as $5 a day.

WHEN TO GO

May to August is hot and sticky, and beaches are lively. September through December is the rainy season; Hoi An is particularly susceptible to flooding. Late winter through spring is ideal, with rainfall at a minimum and temperatures comfortable.

WHERE TO STAY

La Résidence, 5 Le Loi St., Hue; 234-3837-475, la-residence-hue.com. Centrally located with a fine-dining venue for meals. Doubles from $219 a night, including breakfast.

Pilgrimage Village, 130 Minh Mang Road, Hue; 234-3885-461, pilgrimagevillage.com. This rural resort, four miles from the citadel, offers appealing brick cabins overlooking a huge swimming pool lined with black granite. From $192 a night.

Maison Vy, 544 Cua Dai St., Hoi An; 235-3862-231, maisonvy.com. Contemporary 35-room hotel with tasteful colonial accents, owned by Trinh Diem Vy. From $120 a night, including breakfast.

Vinh Hung Heritage Hotel, 143 Tran Phu St., Hoi An; 235-3861-621, vinhhungheritagehotel.com. Book early for six antique-filled rooms in a timber Chinese merchant's house in the heart of town; street-facing suites can be noisy. From $100 a night, including breakfast and 20-minute foot or shoulder treatment.

Fusion Suites, Vo Nguyen Giap St., Da Nang; 236-3919-777, fusionsuitesdanangbeach.com. In a 20-story tower across the street from the sand, this hotel has oversized rooms with kitchenettes and a beachfront pool — good for families. From $200 a night, including foot reflexology daily.

InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort, Bai Bac, Son Tra Peninsula, Da Nang; 236-3938-888, danang.intercontinental.com. This beach resort is isolated on a peninsula jutting from the bay but lays on the creature comforts, including Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire's restaurant, La Maison 1888. From $613 a night.

WHERE TO EAT

Les Jardins de la Carambole, 32 Dang Tran Con, Hue; www.lesjardinsdelacarambole.com. Three- and four-course French and Vietnamese dinners $14-$20.

Morning Glory, 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Hoi An; 510-224-1555, tastevietnam.asia. Trinh Diem Vy gives polish to street food in a bustling, well-run environment. Entrées less than $10.

Mango Rooms, 111 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Hoi An; 510-3910-839, mangorooms.com. Smart, colorful little venue run by chef Duc Tran who cooked his way through Texas, Latin America and New Zealand before opening his own establishment, which combines Latin and Vietnamese traditions such as green papaya salad and spring rolls. Entrées $13-$21.

Bep Hen, 47 Le Hong Phong, Da Nang; 935-3377-05. Traditional Vietnamese dishes in a retro setting, hidden behind potted plants. Most items less than $5.

Nen, Lo 20, My Da Tay 2, Da Nang; 905-7430-70, restaurantnen.com. New restaurant by Da Nang food blogger, Summer Le, serving refined cuisine in a swank setting. Eight-course meals $32-$34. Le also runs Funtastic Da Nang Food Tours at summerle.com/foodtour.

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