Central Vietnam is new action central

In the ancient port city of Hoi An, travellers can take in the sights of the pedestrian streets (left) as well as the Japanese bridge (above), which dates from the 16th century. Da Nang boasts long strips of white sand beaches overlooking the South C
In the ancient port city of Hoi An, travellers can take in the sights of the pedestrian streets (left) as well as the Japanese bridge (above), which dates from the 16th century. Da Nang boasts long strips of white sand beaches overlooking the South China Sea (above). The seven-storey Linh Mu Pagoda (left) in the former imperial capital of Hue is said to be the tallest religious building in Vietnam. A 1930s colonial Art-Deco mansion in Hue was transformed into the La Residence Hotel & Spa (below left) in 2005.PHOTOS: INTERCONTINENTAL HOTEL GROUP, VIETJET, THE NAM HAI, HUONG LAN FOR BALCONY MEDIA, THE APPLE T
In the ancient port city of Hoi An, travellers can take in the sights of the pedestrian streets (left) as well as the Japanese bridge (above), which dates from the 16th century. Da Nang boasts long strips of white sand beaches overlooking the South C
In the ancient port city of Hoi An, travellers can take in the sights of the pedestrian streets (left) as well as the Japanese bridge (above), which dates from the 16th century. Da Nang boasts long strips of white sand beaches overlooking the South China Sea (above). The seven-storey Linh Mu Pagoda (left) in the former imperial capital of Hue is said to be the tallest religious building in Vietnam. A 1930s colonial Art-Deco mansion in Hue was transformed into the La Residence Hotel & Spa (below left) in 2005.PHOTOS: INTERCONTINENTAL HOTEL GROUP, VIETJET, THE NAM HAI, HUONG LAN FOR BALCONY MEDIA, THE APPLE T
In the ancient port city of Hoi An, travellers can take in the sights of the pedestrian streets (left) as well as the Japanese bridge (above), which dates from the 16th century. Da Nang boasts long strips of white sand beaches overlooking the South C
In the ancient port city of Hoi An, travellers can take in the sights of the pedestrian streets (left) as well as the Japanese bridge (above), which dates from the 16th century. Da Nang boasts long strips of white sand beaches overlooking the South China Sea (above). The seven-storey Linh Mu Pagoda (left) in the former imperial capital of Hue is said to be the tallest religious building in Vietnam. A 1930s colonial Art-Deco mansion in Hue was transformed into the La Residence Hotel & Spa (below left) in 2005.PHOTOS: INTERCONTINENTAL HOTEL GROUP, VIETJET, THE NAM HAI, HUONG LAN FOR BALCONY MEDIA, THE APPLE T
In the ancient port city of Hoi An, travellers can take in the sights of the pedestrian streets (left) as well as the Japanese bridge (above), which dates from the 16th century. Da Nang boasts long strips of white sand beaches overlooking the South C
In the ancient port city of Hoi An, travellers can take in the sights of the pedestrian streets (left) as well as the Japanese bridge (above), which dates from the 16th century. Da Nang boasts long strips of white sand beaches overlooking the South China Sea (above). The seven-storey Linh Mu Pagoda (left) in the former imperial capital of Hue is said to be the tallest religious building in Vietnam. A 1930s colonial Art-Deco mansion in Hue was transformed into the La Residence Hotel & Spa (below left) in 2005.PHOTOS: INTERCONTINENTAL HOTEL GROUP, VIETJET, THE NAM HAI, HUONG LAN FOR BALCONY MEDIA, THE APPLE T
In the ancient port city of Hoi An, travellers can take in the sights of the pedestrian streets (left) as well as the Japanese bridge (above), which dates from the 16th century. Da Nang boasts long strips of white sand beaches overlooking the South C
In the ancient port city of Hoi An, travellers can take in the sights of the pedestrian streets (left) as well as the Japanese bridge (above), which dates from the 16th century. Da Nang boasts long strips of white sand beaches overlooking the South China Sea (above). The seven-storey Linh Mu Pagoda (left) in the former imperial capital of Hue is said to be the tallest religious building in Vietnam. A 1930s colonial Art-Deco mansion in Hue was transformed into the La Residence Hotel & Spa (below left) in 2005.PHOTOS: INTERCONTINENTAL HOTEL GROUP, VIETJET, THE NAM HAI, HUONG LAN FOR BALCONY MEDIA, THE APPLE T

Soak up the sun, sand and history in Central Vietnamese destinations such as Da Nang, Hue and Hoi An

For years, tourists planning holidays to Vietnam have focused on Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, in the country's north and south. Now Central Vietnamese destinations, notably port city Da Nang, are rising out of their shadow.

Da Nang was voted the world's No. 1 Destination On The Rise For 2015 by TripAdvisor travellers and No. 43 on the New York Times' list of 52 Places To Go In 2015 last month.

Travellers say its markets, friendly locals and pristine beaches make it a destination in its own right, but Da Nang also stands out as a gateway to a trio of Unesco World Heritage sites.

The former Nguyen dynasty's imperial capital Hue is 100km to the north, the lantern-lit old town of Hoi An is 30km to the south and the ancient temple ruins of My Son are 70km to the south-west.

Da Nang also enjoys close proximity to the cliffs and rocky outcrops of the Marble Mountains as well as long strips of white sand beaches overlooking the South China Sea.

And some of Vietnam's best golf courses - such as Montgomerie Links, designed by award-winning golfer Colin Montgomerie, and the Danang Golf Club, designed by Australian golfer Greg Norman - are right outside the city.

While TripAdvisor says Vietnam has experienced an overall increase in traveller interest in the last few years - Hanoi was ranked eighth on its Destinations On The Rise in 2013 - this is the first time Da Nang has placed on the list. Ms Cindy Tan, vice-president of display advertising for TripAdvisor in the Asia Pacific, says the accolade is deserved, noting that the website received 34 per cent more interest in Da Nang from Singaporean travellers alone, compared with 2013.

"It has seen the greatest increase in positive feedback and interest from the TripAdvisor community globally, year on year," she adds.

Visitor numbers have increased too.

Mr Phuoc Dang, director of sales and marketing at La Residence Hotel & Spa in Hue, citing official sources, says there were 21,000 arrivals from Singapore to Da Nang last year, up from 18,000 arrivals in 2013.

This growth is due, in part, to accessibility. Ms Tan says: "With the airport expansion in 2011, it drew more investment to Da Nang, with many new accommodation options being developed along the coast."

Regional airlines have also contributed to Da Nang's popularity. SilkAir started operating the only direct flights from Singapore to Da Nang in January 2005 with thrice-weekly services. Since then, the flight frequency has increased to meet growing demand and SilkAir has been offering daily service to Da Nang since October 2013.

Jetstar and VietJet also offer operate multiple daily flights to Da Nang via Ho Chi Minh City.

Jetstar has four daily flights from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City and four daily flights from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang.

VietJet launched its service between Singapore and Da Nang in May last year. Though it has only one daily flight from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City, there are eight daily flights from there to Da Nang.

The number of flights has encouraged travel to the area, says Ms Su Mon Oo, business development manager of Wilderness Associates travel agency.

The agency started selling itineraries to destinations in central Vietnam, including Da Nang and Hoi An, in 2011. Bookings had a slow increase, from two to eight bookings a year between 2011 and 2013, but more than doubled to over 20 bookings last year.

"VietJet had promotional fares last year, which raised interest. Most people don't mind spending a night to explore Ho Chi Minh City before going to the beach in Da Nang or cultural sites in Hoi An," she says.

The imperial city of Hue, said to be the soul of Vietnam, is enjoying some attention as well. TripAdvisor registered a 143-per-cent rise in interest in Hue from Singaporean travellers last year.

But this has yet to translate into visits. Mr Phuoc says about 20 per cent of travellers to Central Vietnam venture to Hue. Despite award-winning hotels such as La Residence and attractive colonial architecture as well as historic temples, the majority of holiday- makers stay in the Da Nang-Hoi An region.

Ms Oo says this is because Hoi An has a busier nightlife, with more restaurants, bars and a full moon festival every month.

Also, the travellers' time in the area is limited. She estimates that Singaporeans spend an average of two to three nights in Central Vietnam, typically in Hoi An as well as a day on the beach in Da Nang.

But to explore all the sites in the region would take five days or more, if travellers are venturing to less-trodden sites.

These include taking a dip in Suoi Voi, the crystalline streams and swimming holes in the forest 15km north of Lang Co Beach, or a day tour of Bach Ma National Park, home to dozens of mammals, more than 800 bird species and a French-era hill station at 1,450m up Bach Ma mountain.

There is also Ba Na Hill Station, a colonial hideaway founded in 1919. It is now a modern mountain resort (www.banahills.com.vn/en) with hotels, restaurants, a wine cellar, expansive gardens and a Jules Verne-themed amusement park. Tourists can also visit religious landmarks on the mountainside, such as the Linh Ung Pagoda, which is home to a 24m-tall white Buddha, and the Ba Chua Thuong Ngan Temple, which is nearly 1,500m above sea level and is said to be where the earth meets the sky.

But getting to these less-explored destinations takes precious time. "Because of the distance between sites and Singaporeans' limited number of vacation days, they tend to focus their trip on one or two sites," says Ms Oo.

One such traveller is Ms Koh Sok Wah, a risk manager in her 40s, who chose to spend three days exploring the pedestrian lanes and riverside of Hoi An rather than venturing to surrounding sites. "I was there for just a short time. I wanted to take my time to explore the Old Town," she says.

Having been to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, she says the appeal of Central Vietnam is in its bucolic charm. She says: "Hanoi was a bit too crowded and polluted and I didn't really enjoy it, but Hoi An is so scenic and its more relaxed pace attracted me."

vlydia@sph.com.sg