“I’m thinking of going to Danang for the break,” I tell him.
“Danang? Why on earth would you want to go there?”
The boss’s reaction was fairly typical. Most tourists tend to overlook Danang, regarding it as a transit point rather than a holiday venue. That was exactly the way I had looked at it before my first visit. Getting off the northbound Reunification Express there, I intended to spend the least possible amount of time in Central Vietnam’s largest city before boarding a bus for nearby Hoi An.
The next bus wasn’t for another hour, so to fill in time I got in a taxi and said to the driver “Take me somewhere interesting”. His first stop was China Beach, and it was there and then that I decided to postpone my bus ride to Hoi An, and spend the next few days getting to know Danang instead. I’m a sucker for beaches.
Exciting and Unexciting Danang
China Beach is a 30km stretch of spotless white sand, clear blue water, and waves big enough to set any surfer’s heart racing. It was at this beach where the war-happy air force captain in Apocalypse Now coaxed a couple of his men into going surfing. China Beach was where US soldiers were sent for their R&R. This drew a legion of ladies of the night to the area, intent on relieving the GIs of as many of their dollars as possible. The soldiers nicknamed the beach ‘The five and dime’. The GIs are long gone, but the pro trade remains to this day.
But, of course, times change, and nowhere do they change so fast as in Vietnam. The ramshackle buildings and plywood bars of China Beach’s war days have now been replaced by swish hotels, mega malls, ultra-modern condominiums and trendy restaurants.
China Beach isn’t the only attraction Danang has up its sleeve. The Marble Mountains, 10km to the southeast, are a range of five rocky limestone outcrops jutting out to sea. The mountains are honeycombed with caves that have housed Buddhist sanctuaries for hundreds of years (many now pock-marked by bullet holes). The most popular cave is Quan Am, with stalactites and stalagmites that some say resemble figures of Buddha or mythical creatures. Another, deservedly less popular cave is Hell Cave. Entering this is like entering one of those ghost houses you get in second-rate fairgrounds back home. Flickering lights and skeletons with winking red eyes are intended to scare the pants off you, but fail miserably.
At the foot of Marble Mountains are scores of impressive carved marble figures from Buddhist folklore. There are also some more modern sculptures, including garden gnomes, fountains, and one of Michelangelo’s David. You will of course have the obligatory photo taken of yourself standing beside David, and subsequently tell everyone you show it to “I’m the one on the right, by the way”. (Ah, the childish pleasures some people indulge in.)
Some travellers have labelled Marble Mountains ‘Vietnam’s most unexciting attraction’. You can’t please everybody.
Another of Danang’s attractions is the military museum, strewn with the detritus of war. You can join groups of school children on guided tours and see the dramatic collection of captured American tanks, fighter jets and helicopters.
And another item of interest; Dragon Bridge. Spanning the Han River, the three giant loops of the dragon’s tail constantly change colour, from yellow to blue to green to turquoise. On Saturday and Sunday nights the dragon’s mouth breathes fire and water. It’s well worth a visit.
So, the next time the subject of Danang comes up, don’t dismiss it out of hand as an also-ran, not worth the time or money. It’s far more than that.
Born in New Zealand, Don Wills doesn’t live in Danang, but he does live in Southeast Asia. He’s been writing his way round the region for decades