Da Nang is situated on Vietnam’s central coast approximately halfway between Hanoi and Saigon, and is the country’s third-biggest city with nearly a million inhabitants. Its growth began in the early 19th century when nearby Hue became the country’s capital, as it provided a safe harbour for trade. During the American War it was the biggest US base in the country and many air raids were initiated from here.
Despite its size and importance, Da Nang attracts few tourists at present and there are few sights of interest in the city. Those visitors who get to see Da Nang are usually just passing through from the international airport to the nearby towns of Hoi An and Hue, both of which have many historic sites that are more appealing. The city does have one unmissable attraction in the form of the Cham Museum, but apart from that, visitors will need to head out of town to places like the Marble Mountains, the beaches, the former French hill station at Ba Na, and the ruins of the Cham city at My Son.
The Cham Museum at 1 Trung Na Vuong houses the best collection of Cham sculpture in Vietnam and makes a fascinating introduction to the culture that ruled central Vietnam for over a thousand years. The attractive, colonial-style building contains around 300 sculptures in bronze, sandstone and terracotta and the subjects are predominantly Hindu gods, elephants, lions and mythical creatures. The highlight is the Tra Kieu Dancer, a lithe dancer who resembles the apsaras at Angkor Wat, though there are many other striking images that leave visitors filled with a sense of admiration for this enigmatic culture.
One other sight worth visiting in the city centre is the Cao Dai temple, which is second only in importance to the Holy See at Tay Ninh near Saigon. As with all Cao Dai temples, it makes a striking sight with dragons writhing up columns and the Divine Eye peering out above the windows. The Cao Dai religion worships the leaders of all major religions and inside are paintings of Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Confucius, Jesus and Mohammed.
The beaches around Da Nang are some of Vietnam’s finest and some also have strong historic associations. Nam O beach, about 15kms northwest of the city, is where the first American troops landed in the country in 1965. Even better known (partly because of a TV series with the same name), China Beach is where many soldiers enjoyed a rest before heading back into battle. The Vietnamese refer to this beach by various names, the most developed of which is My Khe, which has now been virtually swallowed by the city’s expansion and features some massive developments that promise to make the region more popular among tourists.
To the south of China Beach stand the Marble Mountains, five rugged peaks of limestone and marble that are peppered with caves, pagodas and shrines. Visitors can clamber up paths and stairways to explore the area and enjoy great coastal views, even though the highest peak is only just over 100 metres high. You’ll need a torch if you want to explore deep inside the caves.
To the north of China Beach stands a promontory with a much taller mountain, generally referred to as Monkey Mountain because of its resident population of primates. This spot was of great strategic importance during the American War because of its commanding views of the area, and these days it’s possible to drive to the top and look down on Da Nang and north to the Hai Van Pass.
While occupying Vietnam, the French seemed to spend half their time looking for retreats in the hills where they could escape the fierce tropical heat on the coast – Sa Pa in the north and Da Lat to the south are two of the best known. About 50kms west of Da Nang, at 1,500 metres above sea level, Ba Na is yet another hill station that was abandoned after the French left the country, but has recently been partly renovated to attract tourists. Apart from the superb views and fresh climate, the attractions of this region are forest trails and crumbling colonial villas.
The ancient Cham settlement of My Son is just over an hour’s drive south of Da Nang, and makes a worthwhile day trip either from here or Hoi An. Though occasionally dubbed ‘Vietnam’s Angkor’, this comparison is inappropriate and will probably lead to disappointment for visitors expecting exotic carved heads overgrown with vines. However, it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and a wander through remains of the brick temples evokes a bygone world. Most of the statuary from the site has been removed to the Cham Museum in Da Nang, but a few relics, including Sanskrit stellae still remain on view. The site gets very crowded at times and the midday heat can be oppressive, so it makes sense to arrive early in the morning.
Where to stay in Da Nang
Saigon Tourane: Adopting the French name for the city (Tourane), this swish hotel offers some of Da Nang’s most comfortable lodgings, with all the facilities of a business hotel and an international restaurant. Rooms from US$39; 5 Dong Da Street, Han River, Da Nang… more details and booking
More on Da Nang hotels and guesthouses.
Where to eat in Da Nang
Apsara: This is the place to enjoy an up-market meal in a setting inspired by Cham design. The menu features a good range of seafood, including the delicious chao tom – ground and breaded shrimp wrapped around a stick of sugarcane. Musicians entertain in the evening. Open: 10:00-14:30, 17:00-22:00 (daily); 222 Tran Phu, tel: +84 511 651 409, fax: +84 511 562 001, website: www.apsaradanang.com.
Christie’s Cool Spot: Catering to local expats and the occasional tourist, this place turns out decent burgers and pizza and also comes with a well-stocked bar. Open: 20:00 to late; 112 Ð Tran Phu, tel: +84 511 382 4040; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Getting to Da Nang
Da Nang’s contemporary importance stems from its role as a major transport hub, and the city is well-connected with Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City by plane, train and bus. Most tourists arrive by plane to save time, but the journey from here up the coast to Hue is a real scenic treat.