Arts & Culture

A woman in a white ao dai walking the corridors of the Imperial Citadel in Hue by Aaron Joel Santos Take me there

Those hoping to delve into Vietnam’s ancient and contemporary cultural heritage won’t be disappointed. This nation’s proud history extends back thousands of years, as visitors can witness the dramatic ruins of UNESCO World Heritage Site My Sơn Sanctuary. Sometimes compared to Angkor Wat and the other temples around Siem Reap, these remnants of the Champa Kingdom provide an awe-inspiring look into the past. Weathered carvings depicting Hindu deities can be seen in the russet-hued stone. Not far away, travellers can also journey back in time in Hué, once the centre of power of the mighty Nguyễn Dynasty, where the imposing feudal citadel still stands. The city itself is cradled by the curves of the poetically named Perfume River, or Sông Hương, and shaded by leafy trees.

Up the coastline, the ageing heart of Hội An still harbours its centuries-old architecture from its days as a trading port. Days here are best spent prowling through the small museums or leaning back for a scenic cruise on one of the many wooden boats that coast along the muddy waters of the Thu Bon River. As the sun slips below the horizon, hundreds of paper lanterns glow, the alleys spring to life, and street food vendors line the riverbanks selling cao lầu (noodles with pork and crispy wontons), gỏi cuốn (spring rolls) and gà nướng (lemongrass-marinated grilled chicken).

As richly textured as Vietnam’s history is, it never overshadows the country’s present as one of Asia’s most compelling cultural hubs. Peruse the art galleries in Ho Chi Minh City or follow local hipsters in search of live music and pulsing nightlife. In Hanoi, you’ll find cafés serving cà phê sữa đá, the addictive combination of strong filter coffee tempered with the rounded sweetness of condensed milk, and couteur by creative local designers. To fully explore Vietnamese culture would take a lifetime, but even a brief foray reveals all sorts of unexpected discoveries.

Arts & Culture