[UPDATED JUNE 2014]
The jump off point to many natural, historical and cultural attractions in Central Vietnam, Da Nang has been a well-kept secret amongst visitors – until now.
Words: Joey Gan Photography: Chua Siew Ching
When the offer to visit Da Nang first came about, my initial reaction was joy swiftly followed by bewilderment. I knew almost nothing about this place except that it had once been the host city of a beauty pageant. I asked my friends about it and they gladly yapped away about Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City instead. Da Nang? They had never heard of it and tried steering the conversation back to the other two cities.
From their experiences in Vietnam, I began to draw a picture of a gazillion motorbikes on the streets – a melee of honking bikes, chaotic traffic and pedestrians dashing across streets for dear life. This bedlam was ingrained in my mind and I braced for the impending chaos in Da Nang as well.
Discovering Da Nang
When I arrived in Da Nang city, there were hardly any vehicles whizzing by, let alone a gazillion motorbikes. There were a few around with the occasional honking, but on the whole, the riders were well-behaved and cruised at moderate speeds. This was nothing like I had imagined Da Nang to be.
The largest city in Central Vietnam, Da Nang is well connected by air, sea and road. During the Vietnam War, Da Nang served as an airbase for both Vietnamese and US air forces. Scars from the past still remain but that hasn’t stopped Da Nang from becoming a commercial and education hub in Central Vietnam. It is also fast becoming a holiday destination.
Additionally, due to its strategic location, Da Nang connects visitors to the country’s three UNESCO Heritage Sites: My Son Sanctuary, Hoi An Ancient Town, and the Complex of Hue Monuments. Within Da Nang, the Marble Mountains, China Beach and Non Nuoc stone-carving village are popular attractions that link Da Nang’s past to its present.
My first stop in Da Nang was Marble Mountains, located in Ngu Hanh Son ward, south of Da Nang city. This cluster of marble and limestone hills has five peaks, each named after one of the five elements of the universe according to Oriental philosophy: Thuy Son (Water Peak), Moc Son (Metal Peak), Tho Son (Earth Peak), Moc Son (Wood Peak), and Hoa Son (Fire Peak).
I decided on Thuy Son, it being the main attraction near Non Nuoc village. The only way to the peak is via 156 stone steps, located in different parts of the hill that lead to a few pagodas, a cave temple and watchtowers.
The cave temple, Huyen Khong Cave, stood out as the most interesting attraction. My guide, who incidentally was also named Huyen, explained the caves chequered past that extends all the way to the Vietnam War. According to Huyen, the cave was used as a hospital to treat wounded soldiers. I looked down from the cave entrance and imagined all the injured bodies lying on the damp floor. I surveyed the chilly surrounding with a heavy heart, my eyes fixed on the damp wall surface, the only remaining witness of the painful past.
The cave is now a Buddhist temple. After paying my respects, I moved on to Vong Hai Dai Watchtower at the top of Thuy Son to take in the serene landscape, with the South China Sea in the distance. I rounded up my visit in Thuy Son with a stroll to Non Nouc village, a settlement at the foothill that thrives on stone carving, a profession that’s been practiced for the past 300 years. Here, sculptures as tall as a seven-foot Guan Yin (Goddess of Mercy) statue, or as small as a marble chess set are on sale.
Admission to Thuy Son is USD1/VND15,000, or VND30,000 with use of lift. Admission to Am Phu Cave is VND15,000.
The other big attraction in Da Nang is the beach, and Non Nuoc Beach is a great place to start your seaside vacation. Gentle waves coupled with all-year round sunny weather had the most soothing effect on my mind and body. Non Nuoc Beach is very popular and a few beach and spa resorts are currently under construction here.
During the Vietnam War, US soldiers who used to come here for their R&R named the place China Beach. Now, the 30-km stretch has been separated into a few sections and each is named after a nearby village.
On the shore here, you’re bound to spot round bamboo boats. Called thuyen thung (pronounced ‘twin tung’), this boat is said to have been invented in 1925 by villagers in an attempt to evade exorbitant land taxes. Now, this humble boat has become an iconic symbol of Da Nang and is still used to catch squids after dark and, to shuttle fishermen to and from larger fishing vessels anchored in deeper waters.
The Champa Ruins
Da Nang is also the main jump-off point to Central Vietnam’s major historical and cultural attractions. My first destination was My Son (pronounced ‘mei sheng’, which means beautiful mountain) Sanctuary. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the area is near Duy Phú village and consists of a wooded area housing clusters of Hindu temple ruins built by the Champa between the 4th and 14th century AD.
My Son is a monumental relic of the Champa, just like what Angkor Wat is to the Khmers. At the height of Champa’s reign, there was a total of 70 towers here, built by kings to perform rituals at their coronation. After the carpet-bombing during the Vietnam War, only 20 towers survived. Archeologists have discovered that the Champa didn’t use mortar at all to glue bricks together. In fact, their building secrets remain a mystery till today.
At present, the abandoned religious relics stand solemnly against the encroaching undergrowth, while crumbling towers and stupa slowly lose their battle with the forest. I stood transfixed, remembering a long-lost empire being wiped out by a greater force: Nature.
Admission to the ruins is USD5 or VND100,000.
Ancient Town of Hoi An
Hoi An (pronounced ‘ho yarn’), is a quiet place with an idyllic air, befitting its status as an ancient town. Here, I travelled back in time. One of the most striking features of Hoi An is the over 300-year-old buildings, all of which still maintain their original architecture.
Previously occupied by the Japanese and the Chinese, the town embodies a strong oriental charm. The Japanese Covered Bridge, a landmark in Hoi An, connects two sides of the town, and is fully covered with artistically-carved Japanese motifs. Chinese ornamental carvings, on the other hand, feature bold motives such as the dragon and phoenix. These can be seen in the communal houses in Hoi An such as at Cam Pho, Minh Huong and Quan Cong Temple.
Hoi An is also renowned for its silk lanterns and when dusk falls, hundreds of balloon-shaped lanterns are strung up in front of homes and shops. Lanterns here are entirely handmade and the craft is one of the oldest surviving traditions. Besides lanterns, Hoi An also produces silk embroidery.
Late in the evening, Hoi An fills up with food vendors along the river. Family and friends gather at stalls, enjoying simple meals of rice noodles and grilled dishes under the stars. I joined a small family who was more than happy to explain Vietnamese food to me. I didn’t need much convincing as the mi guang here was absolutely delicious.
Hoi An received the UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1999. Admission is USD6 or VND120,000.
History buffs will be totally bowled over when visiting Hue in the north of Central Vietnam. The main attraction here is the Complex of Hue Monuments, also called the Imperial City of Hue built by the Nguyen Dynasty. This historical site received the UNESCO World Heritage site status in 1993.
Built in the 19th century, the area is made up of a main entrance called Ngo Mon Gate, The Palace of Harmony and The Forbidden City (private quarters of the emperor), similar to that in Beijing. Through the main gate, I entered the administrative areas (Palace of Supreme Harmony or The Throne Palace) where coronations and other important meetings were held in the past. Here, most of the original contents including furniture, four red lacquer columns and the throne have been carefully preserved.
In the private quarters or The Forbidden City, there was some structural damage dating back to the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, the magnificence of the palace reminded me of period dramas set during the Qing Dynasty. The opulence and attention to detail were astounding. Given the size of the building, it took me some time to fully appreciate its grandeur.
I began my trip not knowing a thing about Da Nang, and by the end, I was raring to explore every inch of this lesser-known Vietnamese city. Sometimes, the best experiences are had when you travel off-the-beaten-path.
Admission to the Citadel and Hue Royal Antiquities Museum is USD5 or VND105,000.
Da Nang Delights
You may be tempted to regard Da Nang as just another Vietnamese destination, but this city has many unusual features that are unique, namely its food.
In Da Nang, the popular local noodle dish is mi guang, while pho is famous in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. This dish is served dry with a special sauce, lemon, vegetables, chicken, beef or shrimps.
The Vietnamese black coffee here actually tastes salty here because the beans are roasted with a dash of fish sauce!
Bánh tráng thit heo is a fresh spring roll made with rice paper and filled with pork or beef. The rolls are dipped into a fish sauce before being eaten.
Bánh bèo are steamed rice cakes topped with shredded dried prawns and served with fish sauce. The rice cake itself is plain but benefits greatly from the fish sauce.
Hoi An Attractions
This scenic town is not only an idyllic escapade, it also offers a variety of fun activities for visitors.
- Learn to prepare Vietnamese cuisine at Dao Tien Restaurant and Cooking Class. 21, Phan Boi Chau St. www.daotienhoian.net
- Make your own silk embroidery at Papillon Noir. 30, Tran Hung Dao, +84 0510 3917 941.
- Make your own lanterns at Long Vy Lanterns. 6, Phan Chuy Trinh St www.hoianlantern.com.vn
- Join Pascal, a French expat and Thu, a native of Hoi An, on a bicycle ride in the countryside. www.vietnam-bicycle.com
- Join Etienne Bossot, a French photographer and Rudi Karpati from Melbourne for a photo tour and workshop.www.hoianphototour.com
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies 4X weekly to Da Nang from Kuala Lumpur beginning 29th August 2014. For flight info and lowest fares, visit www.airasia.com.