Beautiful double-decked boats awash with lights ply the river with couples enjoying a romantic dinner, a glass of wine and a dance. Along the broad, elegantly paved riverside promenade, lovers stroll hand-in-hand, smooth soothing jazz music from the loudspeakers in the background. Farther along, several couples glide to tango music in perfect unison.
An elderly man wearing a beret has a baguette under his arm, heading home for dinner. Across the wide tree-lined boulevard, people sit on café terraces sipping a drink and enjoying the scene.
You would be forgiven for thinking that you’re in Paris but you’re not even in Europe. All this takes place thousands of kilometres away in Southeast Asia—in Da Nang, Vietnam.
The fifth largest city and the third largest urban area in the country, Da Nang is in central Vietnam, on the coast of the South China Sea, almost equidistant from the nations’ capital Hanoi, to the north, and the business hub, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to the south.
The city lies on a beautiful natural bay with the Han River cutting through its centre, flanked by rolling hills and the sea, providing the perfect natural backdrop for a picturesque and lively city.
It’s almost impossible to find a better designed and implemented master plan for a city than Da Nang. Stroll the broad boulevards, bridges and promenades or relax on beautiful tree-lined beaches with manicured parks.
The water flows, the electricity is always on, the traffic is smooth, the air is fresh, and the Han River, beaches and ocean are spotless. And, the entire city is a free WiFi hot spot that actually works. Most businesses also provide free WiFi, including simple coffee shops and restaurants.
There are many breathtaking sights in and around the city. The most popular areas are the central Hai Chau District and Son Tra, which covers the area from the east bank of the Han River to the beach, including China Beach. China Beach is widely considered to be the most beautiful in Vietnam. Several beaches are strung along the coast for 30 kilometres with My Khe (China Beach) being the longest and most beautiful of them all. Just over 50 years ago, the first contingent of American troops to Vietnam landed right at China Beach. A stroll from China Beach to the Han River takes about 30 minutes.
To the south of the city, the Marble Mountains are five limestone hills riddled with tunnels and caves, some of them Buddhist sanctuaries. It is definitely worth a visit. Bana Hills is an immense mountain resort about 35 kilometres west of Da Nang. This gorgeous resort features the longest cable car in the world at almost six kilometres. My Son is a group of ancient Hindu temples located about 70 kilometres southwest of Da Nang and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The town of Hoi An is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is only an hour by bus from Da Nang. Historically a prominent international trading centre featuring the Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese and later the French, Hoi An is highly developed as a tourist destination. The highlight of Hoi An is its old town, with extremely well preserved Chinese-style shops, a Japanese covered bridge with an adjoining Buddhist temple, winding lanes and a network of canals and bridges, all beautifully lit up at night. It is the ideal place to combine the beach with the beauty of the city itself. Given the distance between the old town, city centre and the beaches, a bicycle or motorbike is the ideal mode of transportation in Hoi An.
In Da Nang, try to be near the Dragon Bridge on a Saturday or Sunday night at precisely 9 p.m. The large steel dragons at each end of the bridge breath fire in unison, then spew water for several minutes to cool themselves down. Don’t be late; it only lasts a couple of minutes. A kilometre north of the Dragon Bridge is the Han River Bridge, which features a spectacular display of constantly changing lights every evening.
Despite its growing popularity, the city remains affordable; in some areas, downright cheap. At the high end, there are dozens of luxury hotels and resorts with every feature and amenity, both in the city centre and on the beaches. It’s easy to find a five-star facility for $100 and upwards. However, the majority of the city’s hotels fall in the $15 to $40 range, in a comfortable, quality setting, with all amenities including air-conditioning, hot water, fridge, attentive service and usually breakfast. There are also basic guest houses and small hotels for $10 to $15.
The most popular areas for foreign tourists are the central Hai Chau District and Son Tra.
Hotels will rent at a discount by the week or month. Furnished studio apartments in both areas can be found for $300 to $400 per month including furniture, air conditioning, WiFi, fridge and some cooking facilities. These studios leased by the year cost about $250 to $350 per month. Larger apartments with a living room and one or two bedrooms cost from $450 to $600 per month and $400 to $550 if leased by the year. A fully furnished house costs about $800 to $1,000 on a monthly basis, and about $700 to $900 if leased by the year.
Shopping in Da Nang is a treat. It is best to start with the main city market, Cho Han, where you can find anything from shoes to silk, fresh meats and seafood, vegetables and fruit. Haggling is required in such a traditional market. If nothing else, a visit here gives a feel for the products and people. Lotte Mart is one-stop shopping at its’ best, and even has cinemas, bowling and roller skating.
The Vietnamese are an enthusiastic and energetic bunch, always eager to please. The locals make the extra effort to get things right and work quickly to take care of you.
GETTING TO DA NANG
Da Nang International Airport is the third largest in the country and has direct scheduled flights from several major Asian hubs including Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, and Tokyo. There is also a direct flight from Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Service from Bangkok on Bangkok Airways is planned to begin in the middle of 2016. Da Nang airport was recently expanded in 2011 with another expansion on the horizon.
Da Nang is simple to navigate because it’s split down the middle by the Han River, the streets are broad and laid out in a nice quadrant, the bridges provide ideal orientation points and walking is easy on the uncluttered streets. Walking from the beautiful cabled Tran Thi Ly Bridge in the south of Hai Chau to the Han River Bridge along Bach Dang takes about 30 minutes. A stroll to China Beach from the Han also takes about 30 minutes. Either of those trips of about three kilometres in a taxi cost about $3, with Vinisun and MaiLinh being the most reputable taxi companies.
EAT WELL IN VIETNAM
The national dish of Vietnam is pho, an aromatic and nutritious beef noodle soup. The broth is made from beef bones and oxtail simmered for hours together with roasted onions, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, garlic, anise and fish sauce. During preparation, thin slices of rare beef are added to the broth and cooked fresh alongside flat white rice noodles. Both are combined in a bowl, then green onions are sprinkled on top. Fresh lime, chili peppers, bean sprouts, mint leaves, coriander leaf and basil are served on the side along with onion vinegar and fish sauce, so you can season it just the way you like.
Interestingly, pho is traditionally considered a breakfast dish, but can be found any time of the day or evening. In simple cafés and food stalls this dish goes for $1.50 to $2; $3 in more elegant restaurants.
Bánh mì literally translates to bread, but in the Vietnamese context it’s the local version of a French baguette, prepared and served as a sandwich. This simple French-Vietnamese hybrid is buttered, then smeared with pâté, mayonnaise, pork roll, ham, salami slices, pickled onion, radish and coriander leaf. There are many variations, including fried egg, chicken, pork meatball and shredded pork. You may find meal portion sizes in Vietnam generally small for your appetite, so it’s handy to keep bánh mì in the back of your mind as a snack. You’ll find makeshift street-side stalls and small shops serving it at any time of the day or night for $1 or $1.50.
Da Nang’s specialty is mì quang, a delightful rice noodle dish based on a broth prepared with chicken or pork bones and turmeric. Juicy, slippery, thick rice noodles are placed on top of a small amount of broth, then boiled quail egg, peanuts, coriander and green onions are added, all topped off with a sesame rice cracker. Accompaniments include lime, lettuce, fish sauce, chili peppers, sliced banana flower and mint. The result is a smooth flavour that goes perfectly with the soft noodles. Mì quang is served from the morning onwards, and sells for $1.50 to $2 per serving.
The food options go on and on. Seafood pulled fresh from the ocean, soups, marinated and grilled beef, pork and chicken, breads and smooth, cold beer to wash it all down. Smooth and delicious domestic white and red wines from the highlands can be bought in a liquor shop or supermarket for $5 a bottle; $15 and up in a restaurant.
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