Da Nang: The Covert Hamlet of Vietnam

Home to the country’s third largest populace, Da Nang is the temperate town that boasts sumptuous cuisine, and stunning beaches coalesced with verdant mountains, without all the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh!

It is quite difficult, and onerous for some travellers too, to envisage a vacation in Vietnam without dealing with the chaotic traffic of Hanoi or the brimming streets of Ho Chi Minh. These two cities and their suburbs, ultimately, have come to showcase to the world what Vietnam is. However, it is what they say after all – sometimes, the obvious choice is not always the best one! Long considered to be the sleepy fishing destination lying about in the centre of Vietnam, and home to the country’s third largest populace, Da Nang is the temperate town that boasts sumptuous cuisine, and stunning beaches coalesced with verdant mountains, without all the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh!

It has been several years since I visited this quiet nonchalant sea-side town in Southeast Asia, but I still tend to relive the sublime sight of the hazed city from the Son Tra mountain, the euphoria that clutched me in the cultural town of Hoi An; I still relish the taste of the exquisite Bánh khọt – a crunchy cake-like cuisine, made of rice flour and coconut milk, topped with flash-fried seafood, such as medium-size shrimp, and served with fresh vegetables and sweet fish sauce. In my mind, I still savour the ‘Ca phe sua da’ – the traditional Vietnamese coffee, while sitting on the windy beach with background of some of the greenest mountains I had ever seen! 

Yes, this was all in one city, a city that is often overlooked by most people travelling to Vietnam!

If Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi are cities to be seen, Da Nang is the one to be experienced!

Da Nang, a former French colony, is now an up and coming metropolitan city, with modern bridges, skyscrapers, surreal mountain scenery, home to fine beaches, and some impressive cultural highlights and historical relics. But apart from the various attractions that the city has to offer, perhaps, the highlight for me was the aura of individuality that this city carries about, the distinction – about how different this city was than rest of Vietnam. If Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi are cities to be seen, Da Nang is the one to be experienced!

Where the Mountains Meet the Seas

There are a number of outstanding beaches and resorts within easy reach of Da Nang. Perhaps, my favourite, and coincidentally the closest from the city is ‘My Khe Beach’, a popular surfing spot too, one that has moved upmarket in recent years. I remember My Khe as the most nonpareil beach I had ever seen until then – pitch perfect in every sense that I would imagine a beach to be. As I now recall my travels to a multitude of beaches in the years following, I think that thought still holds true. Blue sky, smooth white sand, gentle slope, clear and warm water, amidst tall and old coconut trees, taking a stroll on this beach easily clarifies why Forbes Magazine rated My Khe as ‘one of the most attractive beaches on the planet’!  

My Khe has a poetic feel to it- something that is more so metaphysical. The fact that this place is not known by many, is what makes it so perfect.

But as I sat on the pliable sand, just watching the sunset, without much crowd around to rattle the stillness in the air, it is easy to realise that corporeal prosperity that raw nature brings to My khe is not what actually makes it unique. My Khe has a poetic feel – something that is more so metaphysical. The fact that this place is not known by many, is what makes it so perfect. It is the fact that even though My Khe is within Da Nang’s suburbs and yet, feels so far away, is what makes it baronial, yet basal at the same time. 

My next destination had to be the place that overshadows the beaches of Da Nang – the Son Tra Mountain. If Da Nang wasn’t home to its relucent and desolated beaches, it might have been lauded for the mountains that lie within its city limits. What Table Mountain is to Cape Town, Son Tra Mountain is to Da Nang. This northern mountain overlooks the Da Nang Bay and is home to the popular white female buddha statue that one can see in the far distance from anywhere on the beach. 

Son Tra Mountain lies within the city-limits of Da Nang.

Mountains and seas both carry a unique charm about themselves. But real opulence of nature lies in the conjunction of these two, and Son Tra is a precedent of that!

Man Thai fishing Village was my first stop on the way to Son Tra. Located just before the road goes uphill, the village has preserved the local methods of fishing and provides a sneak peak into the traditions and the simple lifestyle that once prevailed in Da Nang. After passing Man Thai, one reaches Linh Ung Pagoda, where 67 metre tall Lady Buddha looks down on the city of Da Nang. Legend says the statue was built to protect inhabitants of the peninsula from strong winds and storms that ravage the coastal city from time to time. Up ahead from Linh Ung Pagoda, as the road inclines, the right side the cliff, on which the road is built, drops dramatically down into blue ocean waves. On the left, the road runs around the lush green hills, draped by the murky mist of the sea. This is a view that truly cannot be put in words – in my opinion, mountains and seas both carry a unique charm about themselves. But real opulence of nature lies in the conjunction of these two, and Son Tra is a precedent of that!

The Lady Buddha at Linh Ung Pagoda. 

My next stop was Ban Co Peak. From here, one can enjoy panoramic views of the Da Nang city, if only the day is clear enough. Mostly though, being a humid sea-side destination, this isn’t the case.

Son Tra Peninsula is home to many other treasures, such as Black Stone Beach, Spanish and French War Graves, and Tien Sa Harbour. However, it is impossible to see it all in one day and I had to turn back, as slowly, I could see the Sun fading on the horizon.

View of Da Nang from the Son Tra Mountain 

Where Culture Meets Conurbation 

Da Nang is not just home to a myriad of natural wonders. It contributes equally well to Vietnam’s cultural and traditional affluence. The ancient town of Hoi An, located at 45 kilometre from Da Nang is a beguiling place to spend some time, with its lazy Thu Bon river lined with mustard-yellow merchants’ houses. Hoi An owes its wonderfully well-preserved state to the silting-up of the Thu Bon river in the 19th century, which put an end to its importance as a trading post, but most importantly, helped it escape modern development and US bombings in the Vietnamese war. Unlike most places in Da Nang, Hoi An is surprisingly spry, and can absorb a lot of visitors without losing its pensive atmosphere. 

So what is it that separates Hoi An from the rest? 

Well, here it is. Cars and even motorbikes are banned from the centre of Hoi An, so the pushbike is king. Most home-stays offer bicycles to guests, and joining the many cyclists on road provides an instant immersion into the local life. To explore further afield, many professionally guided cycling tours offer an assortment of trips into the countryside, and nook and corners of Hoi An. One can choose from an easy 9km cycling tour along the quiet boulevards or a more demanding 50km adventure (I did the 9km tour, of course!). As they put it: Hoi An is what entire Vietnam used to be decades ago, and Hoi An shall be the way it is for decades to come. For rest of the world, modernisation might be the key to allure tourism; Hoi An, as usual, saw it the other way.

The town of Hoi An.

This peaceful town was a major trading port between the 15th and 19th centuries. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with French colonial homes, surreal temples, and home to some of the best tailors in Vietnam. Hoi An is one of the few places in the world that showcases a unique amalgamation of a multitude of cultures – Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese – in architecture, food and lifestyle. The nightlife in Hoi An too, mostly consists of trendy cafes, bistros and bars overlooking the Thu Bon river (told you, exactly opposite of the quietness and placidity of the rest of Da Nang). As all cafes and bars are within walking distance of each other and stay open until as late as 3am, Hoi An is ideal destination if you’re a fan of bar-hopping. The city is also popular for its night market. The streets are lit with hundreds of colourful lanterns and candles floating down Thu Bon river, and one can enjoy the traditional dances and music performances in the evening. If you spend an evening in Hoi An, take my word for it, you will be tempted to spend a few more!

What makes Da Nang special is the chastity in its culture and geographic diversity that is just so innate, yet so credulous!

From outside, Da Nang looks like any other growing modern city. The Golden bridge, the Dragon bridge, among many other urban attractions do bring the city to life. But once you look past the superficial facet, you’ll find a warren of back-streets bursting with tantalising street-food stalls. That is the reason why Da Nang should be on every foodie’s bucket list. Here, street vendors peddling delicious, inexpensive meals rule the roads, each specialising in a couple signature dishes. Unsurprisingly, this also means that Da Nang is quite a cheap city to eat out in – most on-the-go food is under a dollar, so there’s nothing to stop you from trying it all. The city’s most delicious, and perhaps the most popular dish is ‘Mi Quang’. It is a classic Vietnamese noodle soup with a twist – the base is made from bone broth and fish sauce, to which turmeric is added, along with fresh vegetables and shallots. Sprinkled on the top, you’ll usually find shrimps, boiled eggs and pork. And to wrap the sumptuous meal is always a shot of the delectable Vietnamese coffee!

Da Nang’s most popular dish: Mi Quang
Another delicacy savoured in Da Nang: Banh Khot

Da Nang is a city where magical realism exists. The city is home to fascinating mountains, beaches and cultural destinations. It is a borough that exhibits some of the finest street food and friendliest people. But what makes Da Nang stand out is its simplicity, the rawness in the air. What makes it special is the chastity in its culture and the geographic diversity that is just so innate, yet so credulous!

Da Nang: The Covert Hamlet of Vietnam; An Article by Ankur Deo

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