As a city it doesn’t get much by the way of positive press but after spending a week hanging out with the locals Caitlin Worsham hearts Danang.
city of Danang gets a bad rap. It gets a bad rap in tour books, from
visitors and from travel agents. It’s called ugly. It’s called dull.
It’s called overdeveloped and industrial, and, perhaps understandably,
it is constantly shunted to the bottom of the list of must-see places
True, the city itself lacks a charming Old Quarter like Hanoi or the upscale polish of the swankier Ho Chi Minh City joints. It is not home to a famous cuisine like Hue or dubbed a cultural heritage site like Hoi An’s Old Town. The river port is rife with industry and the beaches are not nearly as well loved as Nha Trang’s.
I knew all of this before my recent work trip to Danang, and I’ll admit I was less than enthused about the prospect of spending five days there. But upon arrival, I realised that, in spite of all these things, Danang might be my favourite big city in Vietnam. One of the reasons for this is that I actually felt like I was in Vietnam, not some expat haven or tourist enclave.
I can probably count the number of westerners that I encountered while there – and that’s rare even in smaller stopovers, like Sapa or Dalat. Perhaps this is not a selling point for most, but because of it, I got to experience a side of the country I have never really seen before.
I got to sit on a beach full of locals and drink tepid beer and eat little boiled eggs and peanuts and dried squid with hot sauce while the women selling these items out of baskets eyed me curiously and kindly answered my questions, spoken in halting, awkward Vietnamese. But this is not so different, you might argue, from sitting at a bia hoi in Hanoi or the like. Well I’m here to tell you it is different.
Maybe it’s the fact that there are so many families, so many children that the atmosphere is friendlier. Or perhaps it’s that no one has had time yet to get jaded about the still very much developing tourist industry. Regardless of the reason, I got to talk with people without feeling harassed or pressured or judged or made fun of (well, maybe I was made fun of a little bit).
I got to walk along the river without fears that I would be run over by a vehicle speeding down the sidewalk. Delicious food sure didn’t hurt either. I ate the popular noodle dish mi quang, with it’s subtle turmeric flavour and succulent sweet shrimp and pork. It’s neither a soup like pho nor a dry dish like my xao. The noodles are fat and dense, but mixed with ample mint, basil, lettuce, sprouts and banana flower. It’s light and zesty (provided you add a little lime, hot sauce, or pickled chillies) and perfectly satiating.
You can also eat your weight in fresh, quality seafood, cheaper than you can in the capital, though perhaps not by as much as you’d like. I ate grilled dish and delicate clams, squid that melted in my mouth and a hot pot that made me dip for seconds, thirds, fourths…
I ate nowhere that didn’t involve a plastic stool, some beer and usually a bottle of local vodka. Everything was good and the conversation lively, despite my nearly nonexistent speaking ability. It’s amazing how much can be gleaned from context and how hard people are willing to work to be understood when drunk. In terms of activities, I toured the loop of Son Tra peninsula, a beautiful elevated natural preserve with the sea and bay spreading out beneath it, a dwarfed city below.
I visited the cave in Marble Mountain where soldiers slept and received medical aid during the American War and where places of worship constructed in the 1800’s still stand, decaying with the slow drip of time from the cavern’s moist ceiling. The Museum of Cham Sculpture is worth a stop for a brief (and free, if hard to always follow) description of religious history.
And if you don’t think the sculpture merits the visit, perhaps the gorgeous old open air building constructed by the French just might. And, of course, most importantly, there are the beaches, perfectly cool water, soft sands, endless resort options but also cheap divey digs for those not wanting to shell it out. Generally what recommends a place is its landscape or climate or even the activities it offers. But sometimes you can fall in love with a city for nothing more than its vibe. The friendly, laidback feeling it exudes. And Danang has, at least, one new convert.
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