The 52 Places Traveler
Facing rain, the 52 Places Traveler skips Danang’s famous beaches in favor of street food and the buzz of a rapidly growing destination.
Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. His last dispatch was from Hampi, India, a stunningly beautiful and less-visited historic site.
There were still two hours until sunset and I was already about to have my fifth meal of the day. The low, thick clouds that hung over the city of Danang had been pouring buckets of rain on and off since morning, washing my plans for a day trip into the countryside down the gutter for the third consecutive day. Holding a limp umbrella that broke after the first of many storms, I dashed between the awnings that cover the city’s sidewalks. Bold, bright letters decorated with the diacritics that denote tones in the Vietnamese language advertised the dishes on sale.
Soaked through, I ducked into a restaurant for no other reason than that it was crowded. Out front, just out of range of the rain, a woman loaded bowls with gleaming white noodles and a clear, steaming broth. I sat at a communal table with my serving of bun cha ca, a noodle soup with dense fish cakes. Around me was the kind of constant buzz I crave, as though the city was an organism and I was looking at it under a microscope. Families laughed; couples took photos of their food and each other. The man sitting next to me, also alone, pushed a plate of freshly chopped chilies my way and motioned to my bowl. I finished a $1 can of beer and ordered another. I considered asking for a second bowl of the bun cha ca, but restrained myself. There was more to eat.
Danang, the largest city in Central Vietnam, is on this year’s list of 52 Places to Go largely because of its beaches. Cranes fill the sky along the 20-mile beachfront, and gleaming new resorts compete with seafood restaurants and bars for prime real estate. Crowds are relatively thin, though: Danang, a city of about 1 million, has long been more of a stopover for travelers heading to the lantern-filled streets of Hoi An or the old imperial capital of Hue, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The American military made landfall in Vietnam on Danang’s beaches in 1965. The city became a place for American soldiers to recuperate between missions, until it fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975.
I had but one afternoon on one of the city’s giant stretches of white sand, Non Nuoc, or China Beach as it was dubbed by American G.I.s. My beach plans were derailed by the rainy season and a pair of typhoons that hit elsewhere in the country while I was there. For a week, the sky mostly remained a dull gray. The ubiquitous motorcyclists wore colorful ponchos as they drove down the city’s wide avenues, sending sprays of water onto pedestrians like me. But the weather turned out to be an opportunity. The great thing about restaurants? They have roofs.
Though Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi deservedly get accolades when it comes to street food, Danang is no slouch. Walking down the alleyway that led to my apartment, I couldn’t go five paces without running into something to eat or drink.
There were the national classics, of course, and Danang’s geographic location means it gets a bit of everything. Pho spots make sure to include a hint to their provenance in their name — restaurants with “north” or “Hanoi” in their title specialize in a pared down variety where the broth is the main focus; the southern ones, with references to Ho Chi Minh City in their names, offer something slightly sweeter and in your face. I had a banh mi every day, the crispy baguettes holding a slew of different meats and fresh herbs, living proof that sometimes the colonized can take the tools of the colonizer and make them better. On average, each meal cost around 50,000 Vietnamese dong — or $2.
Filling the spaces between restaurants were cafes. At any time of day, crowds spilled onto the streets, crouching on kid-size plastic stools, smoking cigarettes and sipping turbocharged Vietnamese coffee sweetened with condensed milk, another legacy of history: coffee from the French, condensed milk because of the lack of fresh milk at the time.
Danang also has its own signature dishes, which beckoned me most enthusiastically. The pride and joy of the city is mi quang — rice noodles sitting in a lukewarm turmeric-tinged bone broth and topped with roast pork, chicken or bright red shrimp the size of quarters. I returned to My Quang Ba Mua twice — once in the morning and once again in the late afternoon to learn of the different varieties. The morning soup was thicker — the sustenance you need to face the day — and the afternoon’s less intense variety felt more like a snack. Or at least I treated it as such.
Danang’s main specialty is seafood. A seemingly never-ending chain of restaurants on the eastern side of the city, just across the Han River, serves octopus, crab, clams, squid, prawns and fish cooked in delicate sauces of garlic, tamarind, chiles and lemongrass. All meals come with a smorgasbord of optional additions. Vietnam is a land of condiments, but I found myself repeatedly drawn to the most simple: a tiny bowl of salt, pepper, cut-up chiles and squeeze-it-yourself lime juice.
If you go
Download Grab before you touch down in Vietnam. Affordable and safe, the ride-hailing service is everywhere in Vietnam’s cities and I never had to wait more than three minutes for a pickup. Opt for a Grab motorcycle ride for even cheaper fares and way more excitement.
While staying at one of the five-star beach resorts is a splurge-worthy treat, I’d recommend spending time in the city proper. There are a lot of uninteresting, middling hotels in Danang City, so instead go for a “homestay,” the term used for private apartments and homes that are put up for rent. I stayed at May Home, a basic but comfortable apartment down a narrow alley run by helpful, English-speaking hosts that made me feel like I was living in the city.
For an overview of Danang’s incredible food scene — from banh mi to egg coffee — book an outing with Danang Food Tour. My guide was knowledgeable and funny, but most importantly the food was excellent and had me plotting where I would return for seconds.
Sixteen years ago, Tran Tuan opened a food stall serving recipes he learned from his mother, regional classics that over time Mr. Tuan started riffing on. Today, Mr. Tuan is in charge of a growing empire, with four branches of his restaurant, Am Thuc Tran, in Danang and plans for an expansion into other Vietnamese cities. The main draw? A cut of pork he pioneered, wherein each paper-thin slice comes with two layers of shiny, white fat. Loaded up into a rice paper roll along with a forest of fresh herbs, it tastes like springtime.
“Call me tomorrow — I’ll take care of you,” Mr. Tuan told me after each of our meetings. On my penultimate night, I did, and I ended up at a birthday party he was throwing for a group of his staff members. Over three hours, a frat party’s worth of beer was consumed as we dug into plates of barbecued short ribs and tiny tortellini-shaped frog organs (I will never know which ones exactly — some things are better left to mystery).
In a rare moment of seriousness amid singalongs and a drinking game that involved counting in Vietnamese (guess who lost?), Mr. Tuan told me what made the food in Danang so special.
“It’s about good ingredients and what’s fresh,” he said. “People in Danang won’t eat a dish unless it is the most fresh it could be.”
When I asked people if Danang has changed over the years, the universal reaction was a wide-eyed, “you have no idea” type look. I was told that in the 1960s, only one bridge spanned the Han River, connecting one side of Danang with the other. Today, there are six, including one in the shape of a golden dragon that spits real fire and mist every Saturday and Sunday night.
In the early 2000s, Danang’s economy was growing far faster than the national average, at more than 11 percent a year, and even during the global recession its economic growth numbers still hovered in the double digits. A coordinated effort on the part of the communist government to turn the city into a regional hub — they were largely starting from scratch — has created a clean, organized city where the avenues are wide, the traffic moves and the air is breathable. After dark, the bars and bridges light up with Vegas-like abandon, turning the city from seaside haven to cyberpunk fantasy. As someone who spent his formative years in — and loves — Southeast Asia, “livable” is not the first word I typically use to describe many of the region’s cities. Danang feels like an exception.
While lacking some of the excitement of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, Danang makes up for it with mountains, rivers and the ocean, all a short trip away from the city center. The towering Marble Mountains and mist-covered Hai Van Pass are both popular day trips for tourists, but because of rain I had to forego both. Still, when the sun broke through for a single afternoon I knew I had to take advantage of it, and so I rented a motorbike. This was no easy feat for me. I’ve been afraid of motorized two-wheelers since getting hit by a motorcycle in Jakarta at the age of 13, leaving me with a fractured neck and skull. But travel has always pushed me beyond what I thought were my limits.
Once you understand the rules to survival on two wheels in Vietnam, everything becomes easier and even fun. Traffic flows with its own logic, a sea of motorbikes turning a road of two lanes into approximately 14. The key is going with the flow, and the biggest rule of all: don’t make any sudden movements. After just a few panicky minutes, I found myself grinning uncontrollably as I zipped through the city and toward its outskirts.
The resorts lining the beachfront eventually thinned out and gave way to a very different scene, one that hinted at what came before. On the beach, men and women talked in the lilting tones of spoken Vietnamese while repairing circular coracles, the basket-like boats that have been used here for centuries. Just offshore, yellow-starred Vietnamese flags fluttered off the bows of bright blue wooden ships, the detritus of life spent at sea strewn about the decks.
As I entered the mountainous Son Tra peninsula, the road snaked upward. Signs cautioned against attempting the climb with automatic scooters, but I saw others making their way up and so kept on. Soon I was going 30-minute stretches without passing any other tourists. I stopped at viewpoints along the way to look at the aquamarine sea stretching toward Danang’s rapidly growing skyline. I got hopelessly, blissfully lost. Occasionally one of the famously shy macaques of the peninsula would peek its head out from the surrounding thick canopy before getting spooked by the groan of my straining engine and vanishing into the brush.
I ended the day where, it turns out, all the tourists were. Gazing out to sea, a 220-foot female Buddha stands in the courtyard of the Linh Ung Pagoda. I overheard a guide telling a tour group that the “Lady Buddha” has “for ages” watched over the city, keeping it safe. “Lovely,” I thought. And then I learned it was built in 2010.
I returned to the Son Tra peninsula the following day. Hoping to learn about the other side of Danang’s tourism growth, I booked one night at the Intercontinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort. Spread over a private cove on the peninsula, the resort is a dream. The rooms take design cues from nearby Hoi An without playing into exoticizing tropes, and the hotel, built vertically up a lush cliff, gives virtually every room unobstructed views of the private beach. I took a long bath in a giant tub while looking out over the sea. I sat on my balcony in a bathrobe and watched the macaques leap between trees. I listened to the birds having a conversation across the resort.
Then I ate a $15 bowl of pho and drank a $20 cocktail — in Vietnam. I looked around at the other guests and I felt a bit of sadness that they had come all this way to stay in a perfect little paradise so far removed from the city’s life. I felt Danang calling me back. As rain started to fall for at least the twentieth time that week, I wanted to be out on the streets.