One of the things I enjoy about travel is the chance to be surprised. Each time I visit Da Nang, a coastal city in Central Vietnam, I’m accosted by a rapidly changing city. No more do I use the city as a transit stop, en route to the ancient town of Hoi An or the imperial city of Hue. Instead, I press pause on any Vietnam itinerary in Da Nang itself.
A smattering of French colonial buildings, ancient pagodas, and tranquil beaches are features that have always given the place its laidback vibe. Adding zing to this old-world charm, are a growing knot of resorts, theme parks and a dynamic food scene. Another example of the city’s rapid transformation is the Han riverfront. Once bucolic at best, it’s now punctuated with hotels, nightclubs, and bridges of all permutations.
Of the myriad bridges that punctuate the Han riverfront, the Dragon Bridge wins the most views. Not without merit, for every weekend at 9 pm, the golden fire-breathing Dragon Bridge breathes fire and spouts water. These pyrotechnic displays are best observed from the bars and cafes on the riverbanks. I clamber aboard Happy Yacht, a mega yacht, restaurant, and bar, floating on the Han River. From its sky bar, the Dragon Bridge illuminated by LED lights looks resplendent.
Other bridges to appreciate along the Han are the Thuan Phuoc Bridge, a very long suspension bridge; the Tran Thi Ly Bridge, which resembles an elegant sail; and the Han, a cable-stayed swing bridge. An evening or night cruise along the river is a chance to see a city illuminated and pulsing with change.
As enticing as the city’s newly minted glitz, there is a more introspective side, for those prepared to seek it out. The big cultural draw is the Museum of Cham Sculpture. This museum, founded in 1915, is studded with the world’s largest collection of artefacts from the Champa kingdom.
Champa was an ancient Indo-Chinese kingdom, that ran from the 2nd to the 17th century. Hindu influences are evident in the artefacts on display — from Temple Guardians and Apsaras to images of Shiva — all made from sandstone, terracotta, and copper. The influence that ancient India had on the Cham civilization, from archaeology to beliefs, is clear. However, the sculptures retain a strong indigenous element, which created a unique style of Cham art.
If you yearn to learn more about the Champa civilization, drive one hour out of Da Nang to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of My Son — the sacred and political capital of the Champa Kingdom. Today, it is home to extensive, if somewhat ruined, remains of the kingdom, in a lush jungle setting, overseen by the Cat’s Tooth mountain. Hire a guide to interpret the fascinating imagery and inscriptions on the structures you see.
Beach and dining ahoy
The beaches of Da Nang look photoshopped into existence. My Khe beach, a pristine stretch of white, silky sand is a perfect case in point. The most strenuous activity you engage in here could be passing the sunscreen, but it could as well be surfing, parasailing, jet skiing or paragliding — key activities here.
That Da Nang lives by the water implies that the quality of seafood served in the restaurants that pepper the city is remarkable. The restaurant Brilliant Seafood offers an abundance of fried shrimp spring rolls, grilled scallops with green onion, and platters of crab, lobster, and mackerel – all fresh from the waters.
Available as ubiquitously as the seafood, is the sweet soup dessert made from base ingredients like water chestnut, mung bean and lotus seed. Noodle soup and barbecued pork are also popular dishes in Central Vietnam. Consider booking a food tour if you want to learn more about complex and delectable Vietnamese cuisine.
Ba Na Hills
A 35-km drive out of the city takes you to Sun World’s Ba Na Hills. A good way to experience this ecosystem of hills, that look out of a movie set, is to take one of the world’s most impressive, non-stop cable car rides. As you ascend to 1,487 meters above sea level, you’ll drift past jungle, muddy rivers, and large rock formations.
There’s something for everyone in the large resort and recreational complex at the top. For most travellers, the Golden Bridge is an immediate draw. Spanning 150 meters in length, and at 1,414 meters above sea level, this gilded bridge offers superlative views. The giant ‘stone’ hands that appear to hold the bridge are built of fibreglass and wire mesh.
Other Ba Na Hills attractions are a replica French town, that calls to mind the fact that these hills were a favourite spot of the French at the time of colonization, and an abundance of eateries that all vie with each other for attention.
You could trek to the statue of the enormous 24-meter-high white seated Buddha or visit the Linh Ung Pagoda. Or just marvel at the floral displays and sculptural installations that pepper Le Jardin D’ Amour. There’s also a Fantasy Park. The temperature drops by several degrees as you ascend, and you’d do well to have a jacket and sturdy walking shoes handy.
If you have time to factor in just one more excursion for when you’re based in Da Nang city, let it be a visit to the Marble Mountains. These five limestone outcrops, located just 11 km from downtown Danang, are named after five elements — metal, wood, water, fire, and earth.
Punctuating the mountains are trails to walk along, caves to peep into, and 17th-century Buddhist sanctuaries and pagodas to appreciate. Visit and you’ll see local faith in action, as the residents gather to pray and have their fortunes predicted. Views from the summit of the marble mountains are as moving.
Getting to Da Nang: VietJet offers direct flights connecting cities like Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru, with Da Nang. www.vietjetair.com
Staying in Da Nang: The Roasmia Hotel has much going for it. It is centrally located, comfortable, does a sumptuous breakfast buffet and faces the popular My Khe Beach.