Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Vietnam attractions: Da Nang


Da Nang, Vietnam doesn't have the history of Hue, nor the charm of Hoi An. What it does have are pristine beaches, cool mountain hideaways and the relaxation that comes with being away from most other tourists - and most of the people whose job it is to bug the other tourists - as well as beachside restaurants.

Bamboo fishing boats in Danang beach


One clam is never enough. Two, not even close. They make their way to the table in a steaming bowl, the scent of lemon grass and sea salt summonsing the drool of any diner within a 10-metre radius. They're plonked in front of you, swimming in a pool of cloudy liquid, the steam quickly whipped away by Da Nang's ocean breeze.

"You have one first," says Ngo, reaching into the bowl and picking up three of the open shells, shoving them in front of me. There's a pause as I eye my prey.

"Like this," Ngo sighs, using a small fork to tear the plump flesh from its bi-fold shell, dipping the meat in a small saucer of salt, pepper and lime juice, and shoving it hungrily into his mouth, closing his eyes in pure joy as he chews.

I copy him. The clam explodes in my mouth, rich flavours of salt, lemon grass, chilli, lime and the juicy flesh drowning my tongue. It's incredible. It tastes of both the country it was cooked in and the ocean it came from. One clam is never enough.

Never mind that this is just the entree at our bustling beachside restaurant. Never mind that a typical Vietnamese lunch seems to involve eating as much as is humanly possible, then getting ready for the main course. The fight over the clams is intense.

It soon degenerates into a table war of flying elbows and small forks. You take no prisoners in this battle - only clams. Once they're finished, however, little fried fish served with a clay pot of rice arrive, and grilled cuttlefish, and marinated prawns, and mussels, and fish stew ...

You can forget that old wives' tale about not going swimming for half an hour after eating - we'll be doing well if we can make it off our chairs before dinner is served.

Of all the attractions in Da Nang, surely nothing can match its culinary delights, especially the seafood - it's cheap, it's tasty and it's everywhere.

And until recently, the port city didn't have much competition.

See, Da Nang never used to be a tourist destination. It was merely a beachside speed bump between two of Vietnam's big hitters: the ancient capital of Hue, to the north, and the quaint, heritage-listed Hoi An to the south.

Da Nang was like the middle child between two over-achieving siblings, who was largely left to do its own thing.

Vietnamese tourists have known about it for a while, drawn in droves to the city's white-sand beaches and slower pace of life.

(That's slower by Vietnamese standards, of course. The roads still appear insanely dangerous to the average Westerner, although Da Nang's boulevards are far removed from the chaos of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.)

Of the mountains, Ba Na is the furthest away and also the furthest from reality. Once a French holiday resort during colonial occupation, it's still a holiday resort, although things have changed.

Where once there were 200 villas dotting the mountaintop, the Vietnamese knocked them down for fear that the French might want to return. The villas have recently been replaced with a few, ironically, French-inspired hotels and a cable car to whip visitors up 1487 metres to the mountain-top.

Those not wishing to stay the night at Ba Na can still catch the cable car to the top and bask in the cool air for a day. While it's always stinking hot at sea level, Da Nang residents like to say Ba Na has four seasons in every day: winter at night, spring in the morning, summer at noon and autumn in the afternoon.

Spring - or, morning - is the best time to take in the views from Ba Na to the ocean and to visit the various Buddhist pagodas while avoiding resident monkeys.

You can still spot the remnants of villas. As it stands, though, one of the few relics of the colonial era tourists can still visit is a concrete tunnel designed to be used as a wine cellar. Plans are afoot to turn it into a bar, an idea the original inhabitants would surely approve of.

Justify FullDanang Resort, Vietnam

Back at sea level, Da Nang's main attraction is its beach. Nha Trang might be Vietnam's famous coastal resort town but Da Nang's beaches are a lot more attractive to those not looking for parasailing rides or jet-ski hire. People are queuing for a piece of the beachside action, too - that much is clear from the mass of waterfront construction going on. Within a few years, those sites will be towering five-star hotels. Furama Resort has been here for the long haul, though, so stays will be blissfully free of bulldozers or cranes; it's five-star rooms and access to that beach, in all its white-sand, calm-ocean glory.

Da Nang has two mountains close to the city; both have been conveniently named to avoid confusion about what you'll find there: Monkey Mountain and Marble Mountain.

Monkey Mountain has, yes, monkeys, plenty of them.

It was also the site of a US military stronghold during the Vietnam War and has only recently been reopened to the general public. There's precious little infrastructure - just a small restaurant, a couple of disused radars at the peak and a gigantic statue of Buddha at the base.

Marble Mountain, at the other end of the beach, is actually a series of mountains that erupt from the earth, not unlike the islands in Halong Bay, in the north of Vietnam.

They're so named because, yes, they're full of marble, and yes, you can buy marble carvings from the shops at the base.

Finally, there's Da Nang's river, which is not really there for tourists to enjoy - it's a working river; fishing boats and cargo barges plow up and down the murky waters as they go about their business.

Fortunately, however, the river is lined with plenty of cafes in which to enjoy one of the true delights of a stay in Da Nang: a thick, strong coffee. It's a nice palate-cleanser before you head off in search of those clams.

TRIP NOTES

Furama Resort Da Nang has 198 guest rooms and suites overlooking the ocean on one side and a freshwater swimming lagoon and gardens on the other.

There are plenty of metered taxis in Da Nang or, for the brave, unmetered motorbike taxis. To get to Ba Na Hill, it's best to arrange transport through the hotel or a local travel agent.

Take a day trip to Hoi An. The heritage-listed city is a short drive away, its streets meant for wandering in, or having some clothes made by a tailor.

Spend a day in the Cham Islands, a small group just off the coast. Ferries leave from Hoi An and there's plenty of time to explore the main island of Hon Lao and go scuba diving or snorkelling before returning to the mainland.

Relax on the beach. It's easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of trying to fit in all the attractions before you go home, so set aside some serious chill-out time. You may have the beach pretty much to yourself during the day.

There's plenty for children to do as most outdoor attractions are suitable for kids. Most of the larger hotels, including Furama, also offer daycare facilities.

Source: stuff

Recommendations for tour in Danang, Vietnam:
Danang City guide
Hoi An tours

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