Vietnam's South Central Coast and Central Highlands have long seduced travelers with contrasting attractions. The allure of coastal towns, with their long beaches and clear warm waters, is a world away from the region’s cool misty highlands, with their pine forests, flower farms, and ethnic minority villages. Traveling by road or rail through this region takes you through stunning scenery: long white beaches; vibrant emerald rice paddies; Dr. Seuss–like dragonfruit farms; eerie salt farms; vivid green rice paddies; rolling hills; beautiful valleys; and many exotic temples.
The fishing village of Phan Thiet and the resort town of Mui Ne are the first major coastal centers when heading north from Ho Chi Minh City. Although near-neighbors, the two towns are vastly different: Phan Thiet is a hive of local activity, with a picturesque fishing fleet and some cheap-and-cheerful seafood joints, while Mui Ne is a strip of resorts fronting a narrow and often windy beach, popular with kitesurfers. Further north is Nha Trang, with its stunning crescent beach, islands, and established tourist infrastructure, including many luxurious five-star resorts, an enticing mix of eateries, and a picturesque new island golf course.
High in the mountains, where the air is crisp and cool, is Dalat, “Le Petite Paris,” founded by the French in the early 1900s as an escape from the hot and steamy lowlands of Vietnam. The Central Highlands' biggest city still draws visitors from all over Vietnam—and the rest of the world. They come to enjoy the mountain air, the views, the cool-climate produce, and the French colonial feel the city still retains.
For those seeking adventure and insights into Vietnam's fascinating ethnic minorities, Dalat can be the starting point for a deeper exploration of the Central Highlands, including the scenic Lak Lake, home to Vietnam's elephant hunters (now retired), the coffee capital Buon Ma Thuot, the tiny town of Pleiku where fierce fighting raged during the last war, and the pretty riverside town of Kon Tum, a great base for treks to hill tribe villages.
Between Ho Chi Minh City and Dalat, at the base of the Central Highlands, is the Cat Tien National Park, home to gibbons, sun bears, and many other rare animals and birds. North of Nha Trang, on the coast, lies sleepy Quy Nhon, a destination for those seeking an off-the-beaten-path beach break.
Just outside the coastal town of Quang Ngai lies a sobering reminder of the savage toll war often exacts on the innocent: the Son My Memorial, erected in memory of the victims of the My Lai massacre.