To round up our round-up of Southeast Asian World Heritage Sites last, but not by any means least, here’s a rundown on Vietnam World Heritage Sites as well as some of their would-be entries.
Vietnam weighs in with seven sites currently inscribed on the list and whilst you may think that’s not a huge return on it’s spectacular and varied landscapes and wealth of historic buildings there are another seven currently on review in the tentative list. Taken together they’d be split evenly between natural and cultural sites though the majority of those already listed are historical sites. So, in no particular order…
Thought to date originally to the 2nd century BCE, when it was already an important trading port, most of the buildings you can see today in remarkably well preserved Hoi An date from between the 15th and 19th centuries and comprise of a mixture of local, traditional-style plus Chinese, Japanese and French period architecture. The nearby city of Danang has seen all the recent development, (as well as war damage), leaving tiny Hoi An barely touched. Yes, it has been ‘touched’ by recent tourism but it is still a delightful spot to wander around and explore and the plus side of its popularity is plenty of great cafes coffee shops and restaurants too. Not to be missed!
Where Hoi An with its narrow windy streets and picturesque old houses covers the cute department Hue, as an ancient capital, goes in for the more spectacular. Built along the banks of the Perfume River Hue was the imperial capital for nearly 150 years and today’s ‘monument complex‘ covers the: Imperial City, Forbidden Purple City and the Inner City as well as the spectacular tombs of the Nguyen dynasty emperors. Hue was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the Vietnam war, particularly in the old Citadel itself, but today has been carefully restored and a tour of some of the sites would comprise of a boat trip up the Perfume River, alongside which most of the incredible royal tombs are situated, and a walking tour of the Inner City and Citadel. Also not to be missed!
Earlier history is preserved at My Son; a spectacular complex of ruined Hindu temples dating from the Cham period between the 4th and 13th centuries. The site lies conveniently just north of Hoi An in Quang Nam Province. A 4th cultural site is the old citadel of Hanoi itself; again badly damaged but now lovingly restored, however, due to Vietnam’s geography – basically very long and thin – it’s not practical to include all Vietnam World Heritage sites on one Vietnam tour so the final cultural site which we don’t include is the 14th century Ho Dynasty Citadel. Historically important though perhaps not as picturesque as other sites we’ve sacrificed it on our Vietnam itineraries to cut down on driving time though it is possible to include it as an optional day trip from Hanoi for those interested.
Ditto for the country’s natural sites; the remote Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park along the Lao border, inscribed in 2003, has dramatic limestone karst scenery but is time-consuming to access so we’ve opted for the more conveniently located and equally picturesque Trang An Scenic Landscape Region in Ninh Binh Province which is currently placed on the ‘tentative list’. The Trang An area has picture-postcard scenery – classic Vietnamese landscapes of waterways, paddy-fields and rugged limestone outcrops.
Another national park that makes the Vietnam World Heritage Sites tentative list is the superb Cat Tien and again whilst it’s somewhat remote to include in our regular Vietnam tour we can organize short trips there from Saigon for anyone interested in checking out one of the country’s best national parks.
Moving on, what is probably the jewel in Vietnam’s ‘natural’ crown, famous Halong Bay, needs no introduction! An overnight Halong boat cruise features in both our regular tour itineraries and as an extension from Hanoi. The Cat Ba Islands have been proposed too though in so far as they are part of Halong Bay we don’t really get that. Cat Ba Island itself – the largest in the archipelago – is very popular with local tourists so we’re not sure how all the karaoke bars and large hotels would fit into the UNESCO scheme of things and which is why we stopped doing overnight stays on the island. Day trips or overnight on a boat are probably the best way to go.
Finally in the jumble are two more tentative list sites worth a mention: Ba Be Lake – a scenic lake, home to numerous ethnic minority people lying to the north of Hanoi and the carved stones of Sapa. Thought we knew Sapa pretty well but confess to never having visited this site so although we can testify to the stunning scenery and fascinating and colourful ethnic mix of this far northern town we’ll have to check out the famous stones on our next trip!