THE CENTRAL COAST || DA NANG
The largest city in Central Vietnam, DA NANG is primarily used by travellers as a jumping-off point for Hoi An, a city that has no airport or train station of its own. However, stick around a while and you’ll find an unexpectedly amiable place, whose burgeoning middle class are seeing their cosmopolitan desires sated with a slew of trendy bars and cafés. The old French presence is also apparent in the leafy boulevards and colonial edifices along the riverfront promenade.
The elongated oval of Da Nang occupies a small headland protruding into the southern curve of Da Nang Bay. The city faces east, fronting onto Bach Dang and the Han River, across which the narrow Son Tra Peninsula shelters it from the South China Sea. The city itself harbours few specific sights of its own, beyond the wonderful Cham Museum with its unparallelled collection of sculpture from the period. However, there are a number of interesting sights in the area – just across the Son Tra Peninsula is China Beach, an increasingly developed stretch of sand from which you can see Monkey Mountain to the north and the Marble Mountains to the south.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, trading vessels waiting to unload at Fai Fo (Hoi An) often sheltered in nearby Da Nang Bay, until Hoi An’s harbour began silting up and Da Nang developed into a major port in its own right. After 1802, when Hué became capital of Vietnam, Da Nang naturally served as the principal point of arrival for foreign delegations to the royal court. However, the real spur to the city’s growth came in the American War when the neighbouring air base spawned the greatest concentration of US military personnel in South Vietnam.
The seaward side of the Son Tra Peninsula provides Da Nang with its nearest unpolluted beach – My Khe, the original China Beach, though its rival to the south, Non Nuoc Beach, also claims the same sobriquet. My Khe is a long, if not exactly glorious, stretch of sand less than 3km southeast of central Da Nang. This was where US servicemen were helicoptered in for R&R during the American War, though these days it’s far more popular with seafood-craving locals. A xe om ride here should cost 30,000đ (slightly more at night) for the ride from Da Nang.
Da Nang to Hué
Up the coast from Da Nang, Highway 1 zigzags over the Hai Van Pass, a wonderfully scenic ride by road or (especially) rail. These days, most buses cut out the pass via the Hai Van Tunnel, leaving a more peaceful journey for those that choose to take on the pass. From the top of the pass there are superb views, weather permitting, over the sweeping curve of Da Nang Bay, with glimpses of the rail lines looping and tunnelling along the cliff. The two routes converge again where the tunnel emerges, at the small beach town of Lang Co, whose beach boasts brilliant white sands – and is still, as yet, markedly undeveloped. To the west is Bach Ma National Park, a gorgeous place where the remains of another French-era hill station are swamped by some of the lushest vegetation in Vietnam.
Da Nang during the war
The city of Da Nang mushroomed after the arrival of the first American combat troops on March 8, 1965. An advance guard of two battalions of Marines waded ashore at Red Beach in Da Nang Bay, providing the press with a photo opportunity that included amphibious landing craft, helicopters and young Vietnamese women handing out garlands – not quite as the generals had envisaged. The Marines had come to defend Da Nang’s massive US Air Force base; as the troops flew in so the base sprawled. Eventually Da Nang became “a small American city”, as journalist John Pilger remembers it, “with its own generators, water purification plants, hospitals, cinemas, bowling alleys, ball parks, tennis courts, jogging tracks, supermarkets and bars, lots of bars”. For most US troops the approach to Da Nang airfield formed their first impression of Vietnam, and it was here they came to take a break from the war at the famous China Beach.
At the same time the city swelled with thousands of refugees, mostly villagers cleared from “free-fire zones” but also people in search of work – labourers, cooks, laundry staff, pimps, prostitutes and drug pushers, all inhabiting a shantytown called Dogpatch on the base perimeter. Da Nang’s population rose inexorably: twenty thousand in the 1940s, fifty thousand in 1955 and, some estimate, a peak of one million during the American years. North Vietnamese mortar shells periodically fell in and around the base, but the city’s most violent scenes occurred when two South Vietnamese generals engaged in a little power struggle. In March 1966 Vice Air Marshal Ky, then prime minister of South Vietnam, ousted a popular Hué overlord, General Thi, following his open support of Buddhist dissidents. Demonstrations spread from Hué to Da Nang where troops loyal to Thi seized the airfield in what amounted to a mini civil war. After much posturing Ky crushed the revolt two months later, killing hundreds of rebel troops and many civilians. In the preceding chaos, the beleaguered rebels held forty Western journalists hostage for a brief period in Da Nang’s largest pagoda, Chua Tinh Hoi, while streets around filled with Buddhist protesters.
When the North Vietnamese Army finally arrived to liberate Da Nang on March 29, 1975, they had less of a struggle. Communist units had already cut the road south, and panic-stricken South Vietnamese soldiers battled for space on any plane or boat leaving the city, firing on unarmed civilians. Many drowned in the struggle to reach fishing boats, while planes and tanks were abandoned to the enemy. Da Nang had been all but deserted by South Vietnamese forces, leaving the mighty base to, according to Pilger, be “taken by a dozen NLF cadres waving white handkerchiefs from the back of a truck”.
Pass of the Ocean Clouds
Thirty kilometres north of Da Nang, the first and most dramatic of three mountain spurs off the Truong Son range cuts across Vietnam’s pinched central waist, all the way to the sea. This thousand-metre-high barrier forms a climatic frontier blocking the southward penetration of cold, damp winter airstreams, which often bury the tops under thick cloud banks and earn it the title Hai Van, or “Pass of the Ocean Clouds”. These mountains once formed a national frontier between Dai Viet and Champa, and Hai Van’s continuing strategic importance is marked by a succession of forts, pillboxes and ridge-line defensive walls erected by Nguyen-dynasty Vietnamese, French, Japanese and American forces.