Though not as entrenched on the tourist trail as Saigon in the south and Hanoi in the north, central Vietnam is nevertheless coming into its own. Photojournalist David Bowden pays a visit to Da Nang and discovers that this modest heritage city offers all of the charms of Vietnam with none of the big-city hassles.
In the 1960s, deep in the throes of an ongoing war, scores of United States pilots flew missions into North Vietnam from their base in Da Nang, Central Vietnam. American forces succeeded in dropping more munitions on the country than were used in the whole of World War II.
During this time, Da Nang routinely found itself in the news for all the wrong reasons and, at the height of the war, the Da Nang Airbase was the world’s busiest single-runway airport. The Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War) is now mostly a thing of the past and today, Da Nang International Airport receives visitors who come to admire the city’s attractions as well as those along China Beach and Hoi Ai to the south plus Lang Co and Hué to the north.
If you’re seeking not-yet-discovered beaches, culture, golf, and affordable food, then Central Vietnam should be in your holiday sights. There’s a lively night scene in the city with several fun bars and clubs in what is still considered a frontier destination.
Dynamic Da Nang
Da Nang is a city on the move and is rapidly becoming a hub for tourism. It’s a riverside city with nearby beaches and the historic remains of the Kingdom of Champa. While the Vietnamese are nominally Buddhist, the earliest kingdoms were Hindu and the Kingdom of Champa, centred on Da Nang, is home to several Cham ruins with the Cham Museum the first place to start to appreciate the culture.
Vietnamese food isn’t as spicy as most Asian cuisines but Da Nang cuisine is up there with the spiciest in the nation. A staple dish of noodle soup called phở (pronounced more like “fur” rather than “foh”) is found everywhere. Da Nang is also a city of cafés where excellent local coffee is served.
While rooftop bars have opened (Sky36 on top of the Novotel Hotel, for example), the riverfront is considered the liveliest place to gather after sunset. Da Nang’s hottest cocktails are served at Moon Bar overlooking the river and other bars like Golden Pine and Bamboo2 help make this, the city’s pub street venue.
Two bridges across the Han River are interesting with the Tran Thi Ly being as modern as tomorrow while the Dragon Bridge shoots fire from its mouth and water out its backside – you need to see it to believe it. Head to Hon Market for shoes, clothes, and Vietnamese lacquer-ware but don’t expect branded items. The Indochina Riverside (74 Bach Dang Street) is as close as you’ll get to designer labels.
Golfers can play four championship courses in the area with the Montgomerie Links well respected by serious golfers for its rolling sand dunes and expansive bunkers. Vietnam’s third largest city is undergoing rapid tourism and hotel development.
The Grand Mercure Da Nang is perfectly located for those who want to explore the city’s attractions. It features 276 contemporary-styled rooms, a pool, and the soothing Karma Spa. For those seeking more resort-styled accommodations, the 187-room Pullman Da Nang Beach Resort is located along historic China Beach (My Khe) and all rooms have balconies in what is the closest beach resort property to the city.
Historic Hoi An
Hoi An, just south of Da Nang, is brimming with heritage charm and designer chic. While it has well and truly been discovered by the masses, it’s well worth visiting and even staying there. Imagine Melaka without the heat and traffic hassles and you have Hoi An.
There are several cool and smart cafés serving global cuisines and the local Beer Larue. Its pedestrian-only historic streets make for a refreshing change from the traffic madness of other Vietnamese towns and cities. Laid back Lang Co and Imperial Hué north from Da Nang and through the tunnel or over the scenic Hai Van.
Pass to the beachfront resort town of Lang Co. Laguna Lang Co is Vietnam’s first integrated resort complex on a private bay and long stretch of sand that’s so expansive, you’ll think you have the place to yourself. Stay at Banyan Tree or the Angsana and enjoy all the recreational, dining, and spa facilities, including the Nick Faldo-designed championship golf course.
While access to Lang Co via the tunnel is fast, it offers darkness with the two better ways to arrive in Lang Co being across the top via the Hai Van Pass or for train buffs; the three-hour ride from Da Nang to Hué. It’s my recommendation that you do one journey via the pass and the return via the train. The train grips the dramatic seaside cliffs to make it one of the world’s best coastal rail journeys.
A little further north is the heritage city of Hué, once Vietnam’s imperial city situated beside the Perfume River. Within its UNESCO protected Citadel in the city centre is the Forbidden City that was once the exclusive domain of the Emperor and a retinue of concubines and trusted advisors. Scattered around Hué are the tombs of past Nguyen Emperors set in scenic locations and accessible by adventurous visitors on bicycles.
Hué’s imperial cuisine has been described as ‘elegant, noble, and light’ and it provides another enticing distraction. For perhaps the ultimate colonial experience, drop by the Art Deco La Residence Hotel by MGallery – which was once the residence of the French Resident Superieure – for an enjoyable French-Vietnamese gastronomic journey in the elegant riverside surroundings of Le Parfum Restaurant.
Da Nang Travel File
Getting there and about
Budget flights operate from Kuala Lumpur direct to Da Nang, about two hours to the north. The alternatives are to fly into either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City and then domestically to Da Nang or, catch a train from either of these two gateways to Da Nang.
The city of Da Nang is flat, so walking is easy and perfect for getting immersed in the lively street life (the downside is, it’s a big city). As an alternative, catch a metered taxi or hire a motorbike without the hassle you get in other tourist places.
Best time to travel
Most rain falls in Da Nang from November to January although the Hai Van Pass to the north of Da Nang is considered a barrier that prevents northern storms moving southwards.
Most nationalities require a visa and these can be completed via the internet before travel or at the Vietnamese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Internet visas are issued upon arrival.