Ha Noi
TP. Ho Chi Minh
Da Nang
Son la
Viet tri
Nha trang
The Northcentral of Vietnam
Most tourists’ only experience of north-central Vietnam is a torturous 16-hour bus trip from Hanoi to Hue. While it’s true that you’ll find more English-speakers and Western-style hotels in the south, this region offers something perhaps more tourist-friendly – the opportunity to potter about, largely left to your own devices. After the clamour of Hanoi and Hue this makes for a nice change.
While the stunning karst-ridden countryside around Ninh Binh can be seen from a tourist bus on a day trip from Hanoi, it doesn’t rate with the experience of cycling around the idyllic rice paddies by yourself or on the back of a motorbike, as children leading water buffalo stop to wave and shout hello. Architecture and Graham Greene fans alike won’t want to miss Phat Diem, the fascinating cathedral unchanged from its vivid description in The Quiet American (albeit without the bodies floating in the canals).
South of Ninh Binh it’s likely you won’t see another foreigner or meet many English-speakers. While some might find that daunting, for the more intrepid this presents another side of Vietnam – even if at times it can be a grim place in the still-recovering war-devastated cities of the north. The excellent Reunification Express train services make it easy to break the journey into comfortable legs, with Vinh and Dong Hoi interesting spots for an overnight stay.
If you’re anxious to hit the beaches, you’re better off saving it for the south. The popular coastal communes of the north, with their ever-present concrete and litter, don’t hold much appeal for foreign travellers.
This region contains much more historical importance than it might appear at first glance. One of Vietnam’s earliest capitals was at Hoa Lu, where magnificent temples are strategically set amid a dramatic landscape of towering limestone cliffs and serene rice paddies.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, Tran dynasty kings ruled from the capital of Thang Long (present-day Hanoi). This was the only period in Vietnamese history when the heirs to the throne partially succeeded their fathers, taking the official role of king, while the older generation shared power in a second unofficial capital in Tuc Mac, about 5km from Nam Dinh. This prevented the succession disputes which had previously been the norm, making the Tran dynasty one of the most politically stable and prosperous periods in Vietnamese history.
During the American War, north-central Vietnam suffered tremendous damage from US bombing. Further south, Vinh marked the start of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, as supplies passed through the docks on the way inland to the Truong Son Mountains.
Getting there & away
The major north–south rail route cuts a swathe directly through the region, as does Hwy 1A. The only airport is situated at Vinh, and it has only limited flights to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).