74. The Bridges of Da Nang

Even when other attractions are closed, the colorful bridges of the coastal metropolis of Da Nang make it worth a visitor’s time.

Dragon or carp? Da Nang’s signature sculpture spews water into the Han River. (JGA photo)

One of the most frustrating things about travel in the Time of COVID, as it may forever be known, is the number of sites that are supposed to be open, but are not. In Da Nang, the largest city on Vietnam’s central coast and a prominent gateway to the vast region that lies between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, that included many of the local destinations that I had on my list to visit.

The esteemed Museum of Cham Sculpture? Closed until tomorrow, and so it remained with each subsequent tomorrow. The Cao Dai Temple? For more than a year, the fellowship “hereby notifies … we will stop receiving tourist vísit,” said the sign. The impressive new Golden Bridge at the Bà Nà Hills Resort? I had been assured it would be open, but my taxi driver and I were turned away at the gate, 42 kilometers (26 miles) inland from Da Nang.

So it is in this city of over 1 million people, already announced as one of the first five to begin welcoming flights as Vietnam reopens this spring to international tourism.

That’s not to say my journey was without a silver lining. There’s a long, lovely beach here and several outstanding restaurants. In particular, Da Nang is famed for its set of picturesque bridges that span the northward-flowing Hàn River just before it empties into the East (South China) Sea.

Fishing boats rest serenely along the east bank of the Han River. (JGA photo)

River dance

For a river as broad (600 meters, about 2,000 feet) as the Hàn, it is remarkably placid and scenic. On its west side, the concrete towers of Da Nang’s financial center offer a distinctive backdrop. To the east rise several upscale hotels and shopping centers. A promenade extends from bridge to bridge along both embankments. On the west it embraces pavements where choreographed dance troupes practice amid a sculpture garden.

On the east, the path is more shaded and popular with families. It runs past a fishing fleet at anchor, a tour boat converted to a floating restaurant and lounge, a bridge to nowhere where lovers fasten lockets promising to be forever true. In particular, there is a dragon-carp fountain sculpture, reminiscent of Singapore’s Merlion, that spews a stream of water at intervals toward the Dragon Bridge.

Illuminated at night, the Dragon Bridge changes colors with frequency. (JGA photo)

Completed in 2013 after 3½ years of construction (at a cost of about US $88 million), the Dragon Bridge (Cầu Rồng) is already a Vietnam icon. Like an industrial monster from the Transformers, its body writhes in two long and one shorter arch, its head to the east, tail raised to the west. Three lanes of traffic move in each direction, providing a direct link between the city’s international airport and its beaches at Mỹ Khê and Non Nuoc.

Every Saturday and Sunday night at 9 o’clock, the dragon breathes fire. It’s quite a spectacle. On other nights it is lit with colors fluctuating from pink to green, from purple to gold. And up and down the Hàn, four other bridges, each with a distinguishing style of its own, light up as well.

Primitive one-man fishing boats are a common sight on the beach at Mỹ Khê, once known to American troops as “China Beach.” (JGA photo)

On the beach

North Americans of a certain age inevitably associate Da Nang with the Vietnam (“American”) War. Indeed, the first landing of 3,500 Marine troops occurred at Red Beach, 8 km (5 miles) northwest of the city, on March 8, 1965. Within a very few years, Da Nang’s airport became the busiest air strip in the world, with about 2,600 daily departures and arrivals. Mỹ Khê, fewer than 5 km (3 miles) east of the Hàn River, became known as “China Beach” (for its location on the South China Sea) as the No. 1 rest-and-recuperation (“R&R”) hub for American troops in Southeast Asia.

Prominent between Red and China beaches is the Sơn Trà Peninsula, also known as Monkey Mountain. A U.S. military communications facility during the war, it rises to an elevation of 670m (2,200 feet). Today it is a conservation site with some new resort development around its shore. To most visitors, Sơn Trà is best known for its Linh Ung Pagoda, the largest in central Vietnam: The pagoda’s 67m (220-foot) “Lady Buddha” statue (actually Quan Âm, the goddess of mercy), is the largest Buddhist image in all of Vietnam.

Linh Ung pagoda’s giant “Lady Buddha” statue dominates views from all over Da Nang. (JGA photo)

China Beach today has restored its original name, Mỹ Khê. Here are moderately priced resort hotels, beachside restaurants and surfing concessions. Extending many miles to the south, the white sands of Non Nuoc Beach are home to numerous high-end gated resorts, with more in the construction and planning processes — all the way to Hội An, 20-odd km (13 miles) to the south.

Two of my favorite Da Nang restaurants are on or near Mỹ Khê. Nhà hàng Phước Mỹ 2 opens to the sands themselves, its eternally popular seafood pizza served at sunken tables beside the breaking waves. Dirty Fingers has a lively bar scene featuring live music, along with Western-style comfort food such as barbecued ribs that are guaranteed to get your fingers dirty.

Dirty Fingers has a classier counterpart (with the same owners) on the east bank of the Han River, Olivia’s Prime Steakhouse. A couple of blocks north on Trần Hưng Đạo, Fatfish Restaurant serves a more casual and diverse menu of seafood and grilled-meat platters. And across the river, there may be no better restaurant in Da Nang than Le Comptoir Danang, a classic French restaurant with an international wine list.

Da Nang’s beachside hotels rise above the horizon in this panorama from the Sơn Trà Peninsula. (JGA photo)

Heading for the hills

While Da Nang itself is mostly flat, as befits a city on a river delta, some high points (besides Monkey Mountain) are worth noting.

Almost within walking distance to the south are the Marble Mountains, a cluster of steep limestone knobs rising inland from Non Nuoc Beach. Trails wind past ancient caves, inhabited a millennium ago by Cham seafarers, and colorful pagods built by the 19th-century Nguyen Dynasty. Along the Hội An highway at the mountains’ base, artisans’ shops exhibit a range of Buddhist sculpture and artwork for sale.

A modest drive southwest is the forementioned Sun World Bà Nà Hills Resort. Although I am not a fan of contrived amusement parks such as this one — with a recreated French medieval village, a wax museum and a Jurassic Park for children — the former colonial hill station offers a cool respite from the heat of the tropical coast.

The Golden Bridge at Ba Na HIlls Resort was opened to tourists only in 2018. (JGA photo)

Its highlight, the thing I had come to see, is a 5 km-long Doppelmayer cable-car system that carries guests to the Golden Bridge (Cầu Vàng), 1,487m (4,878 feet) above sea level. About 150m (490 ft) long, this pedestrian bridge, which opened in June 2018, connects the cable car with precipitous gardens and provides a scenic overlook that extends all the way to the sea at Da Nang. Two giant hands, made of fiberglass and wire mesh, appear to hold the bridge as it loops back upon itself.

But I was unable to see it. So you’ll have to settle for a photo of a painting that was on the wall of my hotel room.

It’s a bridge I’ll have to cross on my next visit to Da Nang.

The Dragon Bridge crosses the Han River between Da Nang’s airport and its South China Sea beaches. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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