Da Nang and the Friendly Dragon

46 comments
Asia, Southeast, Vietnam

Reaching for Heaven

A Vietnamese restaurant located in a once-lively mall in a gentrified neighborhood of Jakarta has for years become my choice whenever I crave food from the Southeast Asian country. It was where my parents tried their first pho several years ago (which my father, unsurprisingly, didn’t like), also where I met the previous tenant of my current apartment, and now it’s where James usually tags along whenever we’re in the mood to have mi bo kho (Vietnamese-style beef stew with noodles), bun bo nuong xa (rice noodle salad served with lemongrass-infused skewered beef), or just goi cuon (Vietnamese spring rolls). Last year, we were looking very intently at every single photo inside the restaurant – images of Vietnam’s most beautiful landscapes, temples, and French colonial buildings. Each of them seemed to call us to return to the country – both of us had been to southern Vietnam, James in 2013 and I two years earlier. Serendipitous circumstances early this year – including a canceled trip to Jordan – and the constant thought of going back to Vietnam eventually secured our second visit to the country back in April.

Home to three of eight UNESCO World Heritage sites in the country, central Vietnam unsurprisingly came on top of our list. James, always interested in seeing old trading ports in the region, eyed the historic town of Hoi An. Meanwhile, as a person who is always fascinated by ancient temples, My Son compound – a vestige of a once-powerful kingdom called Champa – had intrigued me for many years. Da Nang (also spelled Danang) – Vietnam’s third biggest city – is conveniently located within 100 km from the three UNESCO-listed sites: Hoi An, My Son, and the former capital of Imperial Vietnam in Hue. Thanks to the city’s relatively easy accessibility from Jakarta (with connecting flights via Singapore or Kuala Lumpur), a few weeks after the decision was made we were already on our way to Da Nang, at a time which coincided with the Vietnamese summer.

En route to Vietnam, we made a brief stopover in Singapore, from which a number of families boarded the flight for it was the beginning of the Easter holidays. In recent years, Da Nang has been developing a reputation as a family holiday destination, and this couldn’t have been more evident at the city’s main beach where family-friendly international hotels and resort chains operate. The availability of world-class accommodation as well as Da Nang’s contribution to Vietnam’s economic growth were a few reasons for the government to host this year’s APEC summit – a prestigious annual gathering of 21 heads of economies in the Pacific Rim – in the city.

At the airport in Da Nang, the immigration lines moved at a snail’s pace, and it took even longer for James to get a visa on arrival. After a good several minutes in the line, I finally arrived at the immigration counter, manned by a guy – probably around my age – who was definitely not among the friendliest immigration officers I had ever encountered. He flipped through all of my passport pages, but no questions were asked. And for some mysterious reason, he decided to stamp on the penultimate page of my passport, leaving the previous two dozens pages empty. Fortunately getting a taxi was a faster, easier, and more straightforward experience, and a few minutes after we left the airport we were already in downtown Da Nang.

As our taxi made the final turn to the street where our hotel was, colorful lights flickered all over the city, from bridges to street arches. To our right, a wide promenade was buzzing with activities as locals and foreigners seemed to enjoy the city’s festive nighttime ambiance. From the window of our room, a gleaming yellow dragon straddled the Han River, bridging Da Nang’s western neighborhoods and the eastern part of the city, as if suggesting the shift from the West to the East in the global economy.

Da Nang’s Neo-Gothic Cathedral

The Pink Cathedral on A Sunny Day

Bananas, Anyone?

The Dragon Bridge, Straddling the Han River

The Dragon with Its Loving Glance

Da Nang’s Rapidly Changing Skyline

The “Merdragon”, Long-Lost Cousin of Singapore’s Merlion

Walking along Love Pier in the Intense Heat

Underneath the Mythical Creature

The following morning, after a very satisfying breakfast with a sweeping view of the Han River, we began a full day’s exploration of Da Nang. Less than five minutes walk from our hotel was the charming Da Nang Cathedral, built in the early 20th century when Vietnam was still controlled by the French. Not only did the neo-Gothic structure’s brilliant pink facade catch our attention, but it also drew big groups of Chinese tourists who came a few minutes after we started taking photos of the cathedral. However, as expected they didn’t linger for too long. Several selfies and group photos later, and after a brief explanation by a tour guide of what they were seeing, off they went to the next stop on what was likely a long list of places to visit by day’s end.

It was not even 10, but the heat was already quite intense. We walked toward the same yellow dragon that we had seen the night before from the hotel, an impressive 666-meter-long tied-arch bridge whose three arches were designed to look like the body of a dragon – with a head and a tail added at its ends. Opened in 2013, the bridge has now become one of Da Nang’s most iconic landmarks. As we reached the eastern bank of the river, another dragon emerged. This time, however, with the body of a mermaid. It was not hard to see where the sculptor’s inspiration came from; since its inception in the early 1970s, Singapore’s Merlion has been featured in the city’s tourism campaigns which resulted in its popularity among tourists. The “Merdragon”, the nickname which James and I quickly gave to this new landmark of Da Nang, spewed water from its mouth in the same fashion as the Merlion. Next to it was Love Pier, festooned with heart-shaped lanterns and where old love songs drifted through the air.

We walked back to the western bank of the Han River to visit the Museum of Cham Sculpture. Not only was it the place I was looking forward to visiting the most in Da Nang (blame my penchant for ancient temples, statues and sculptures!), but it also provided a much-needed respite from the scorching Vietnamese sun. The early 20th-century museum housed a vast collection of Cham artifacts, as well as fragments of temples which were salvaged from the war*. On the way out, beautiful images of Vietnam were on display along the exit path. We sat on a bench under some leafy trees as a gentle breeze slowly wiped away the sweat from our faces. However, as it was already past lunch time, off we went to a local no-frills restaurant called Ba Vi where we had a local noodles dish called mi Quang. Mine came with prawns, crushed peanuts and chopped scallions, served with spring rolls, fresh vegetables, and a crispy rice cracker. Nothing beats the bold flavors of dishes served in such local joints.

At midday, the city’s wide and clean riverfront promenade was conspicuously empty, for obvious reasons. But after sunset, it became a sort of extended living room, where the locals performed group dances and aerobic sessions as curious foreigners passed by and watched in amusement. On weekend nights at 9pm, the yellow dragon comes to life, exactly the reason for James and I to return to the far end of the bridge despite the relatively long walk from our hotel. Ten minutes before nine o’clock, more and more people surrounded the beast’s head whose heart-shaped eyes glowed brightly. Five minutes later, policemen closed the road to traffic, and even more people now flocked to the eastern end of the bridge. At nine sharp, the dragon came to life and spewed bursts of fire into the air with such force that we felt the heat on our faces. Then the dragon’s head turned blue as it gushed out a jet of water, leaving a thin, mist-like curtain of droplets blowing in our direction. Whether the dragon really symbolized the West-East metaphor or not, that night it became the friendly face of Da Nang and showed visitors that refreshing moments will always follow intense heat, just like the city itself.

*More on the museum and its history on an upcoming post

Da Nang’s Wide and Clean Riverside Promenade

Quang Noodles at Ba Vi, A No-Nonsense Restaurant in Da Nang

Pretty at Night

When the Dragon Illuminates the River

Behold the Dragon’s Fiery Breath

A Tamer Side of the Dragon

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

46 thoughts on “Da Nang and the Friendly Dragon”

  1. Mas Bama,
    Duh post ini mengingatkan saya trip ke Da Nang. Saya beruntung bisa bobo di hotel deket dragon bridge itu jadi sepanjang malam bisa foto2. Sayang gak sempet liat nyembur api hahaha, gara2 telat dari Hue. Padahal pengen banget liat…
    Mas Bama, pas saya kesana malah adem lho. Jadi gak kepanasan wakyu jalan2 ke museum champa (bego deh karena sy pikir banyak pintu masuk sy harus muter 1 blok spy balik ke depan!) Dan katedral juga (waktu itu lagi ada misa sampai luber keluar jadi ga enak buat foto2nya)… tapi overall saya suka Da Nang.
    BTW, immigration lane waktu itu cuma 1 itupun ga ada yang jaga… hehe..

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    • Pemandangan jembatan itu (sama jembatan lainnya di sepanjang Sungai Han) memang cantik banget ya mbak di waktu malam. Lampunya pas, gak bikin sakit mata, hehe..

      Saya pas ke Vietnam ternyata memang lagi puncak musim panas mbak, jadi matahari berasa ada tujuh di atas ubun-ubun. Jalan-jalan di Da Nang waktu adem, pake angin semilir gitu kayaknya enak banget, soalnya trotoar di sana kan memang rata-rata cukup ramah pejalan kaki. Waktu saya ke sana pas menjelang Paskah sih, tapi di katedralnya belum ada tanda-tanda aktivitas terkait Paskah (kecuali ada beberapa daun palem yang saya sempat lihat).

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    • Thanks Edwin. You should go! You can easily visit Hoi An (as well as Hue and My Son) from Da Nang. And when you’re in the city, you’d probably want to watch that fire and water show. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Stamatiou! I will make sure to try what you recommended the next time I take photos at night. For practicality reason I never really bring my tripod anywhere, so your suggestion is highly appreciated!

      Liked by 1 person

      • You are welcome Bama, the photos i done at Galway i did them with that “tactic”. I just had my camera and some lenses but not my tripod, so i put the camera on the ground 🙂 😉 Have a nice day and a nice week.

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      • Hopefully I can find an even ground, or pedestal, or anything to put my camera on whenever such circumstance arises. Thanks again for the tips! Have a nice week ahead!

        Liked by 1 person

    • Much appreciated, Marcella (or is it Claire?)! I was impressed by Da Nang and didn’t regret at all wandering around the city with my rather bulky camera on such a hot day. Hope you’ll make it there too!

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      • A few weeks ago I read a blog post about a road trip across Central Vietnam — a scenic road through mountains, ancient temples, and an old capital. You might want to consider doing that. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The Dragon Bridge was ingeniously designed. Lights, fire and water. Wow, what a show!
    I wonder if the rooster atop the Cathedral’s cross had some meaning? Or was that the only weather vane available? Interesting combo.

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    • It really was! I was impressed by the amount of details they put into the bridge — heart-shaped eyes and all! As for the rooster, I’m guessing that it has something to do with the French since it is often depicted as a symbol of the French people. I could be wrong, though.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Peter! I’m glad I call Southeast Asia home. 🙂 So many fascinating corners in this part of the world that keep me coming back for more.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great pictures of Da Nang, Bama! It great to see how the city has grown in the last 10-15 years. There was neither a dragon bridge nor a Merdragon at that time. And the only beach resort was the Furama. Hoi An was no different, a ghost town.
    By the way, the immigration officers are rude to everyone, so don’t take it personally. They always make serious face to frighten those who might have something to hide. And their computers are slow so it might take them minutes to scan through your passport. It occurs quite often to me, so I speak from experience 🙂

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    • Much appreciated, Len! I can imagine how different Da Nang must have looked like a decade ago! I understand this because the same can be said to many cities in Indonesia, although none has such an impressive skyline as Da Nang, I must admit. As for Hoi An, I really loved the lively ambiance when I was there. I can’t believe years ago it was more like a ghost town! Looking at how the old city is being managed, I think the local government is moving to the right direction.

      I actually was wondering whether that immigration officer had to look like that just because. I didn’t take it personally though, but maybe a smile not only would enlighten a visitor’s day, but also the officer’s own. 🙂

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    • Thanks Alison! The dragon bridge was such a fun attraction. It drew curious eyes to take a closer look at its cute head, and get splashed by the water curtain. And the best thing is it’s free!

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  4. Oh you have made me oh so homesick with your photos but particularly with your descriptions of the food…..!!! We lived in Hoi An for 5 months before traveling the country and mi quang was one of our favorite dishes, especially for breakfast. It is a local specialty of the region. I do hope you got to spend time eating in Hoi An it is absolutely blissful for street food. We wrote many many posts on the food ( and our lives) in Hoi An. We used to scooter into Danang occasionally just for the fun of a “big” city haha, an occasional dim sum and to see the various bridges all lit up at night. Thanks for the great memories and lovely pics.

    Peta

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    • I had mi Quang in Da Nang and Hoi An, and both were very satisfyingly good! I don’t remember ever trying disappointing Vietnamese food when I was there earlier this year. The fresh vegetables and herbs, the rich broth, the noodles, oh everything was unbelievably delicious. Glad this post brings back some fond memories of Vietnam to you, Peta. It’s definitely a country I can see myself returning so many times. Thanks for reading and sharing your own experience!

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    • Hi Agness. How many days one should spend in Da Nang really depends on his/her interests. I only stayed for two nights in the city, although one of two more days would have been perfect.

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  5. I thought it was in Singapore or Hong Kong hehe, what a great photos and story Mas Bama. So Vietnam still have some of western art left after 1960-1970’s war 😀

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    • Maybe in 10 or 20 years Da Nang would dramatically change with towering skyscrapers dominating its skyline, like those in Hong Kong and Singapore. Thanks for dropping by, Nandra!

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    • They spent the money well, didn’t they? The dragon bridge not only has become a symbol of Da Nang’s progress, but it also provides free entertainment for locals and visitors alike. Thanks for reading, Kelly!

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  6. That’s the part of Vietnam I think I’d like to start with. Your photos today were so appealing (they always are, but these really roped me in), and I especially liked the various bridges. It’s funny – my son was in Da Nang a few years ago and his review was not so positive. Your summary, though, makes it look absolutely great! About that passport stamp: in Mongolia, I started to panic that they had forgotten to stamp my passport as I left the airport, but our guide told us that Mongolia always wants to stamp the very last page. I flipped to the back and there it was, all by itself at the end!

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    • You’re too kind, Lex. But thanks! I wonder what your son actually said about Da Nang, because honestly our perception of the city would have been richer and deeper if we had more time exploring all of its corners. We might have been lucky that everything we saw, felt and tasted in Da Nang was all good in that very limited time we had.

      About the stamp, skipping a few pages I can understand. But I do wonder the rationale behind stamping the last pages of a passport while there are still a lot of empty pages in the middle. Anyway, thanks for the heads up about the Mongolian stamp, so when I go there one day I know which page to check after clearing the immigration counter.

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  7. I was stationed in Phu Bai when I arrived for my third tour. My brother, a Marine, was stationed outside of a huge airport and I would driver over to see him when I could steal a Jeep. We drove right by a huge mountain that was used to make headstones. It was all marble and , in fact, was called Marble Mountain. It was right outside the fence of the Marine contingent. After the fall it was found to be hollow and in fact again was used to marshall up to a battalion. I always worried about that mountain. I wonder if it is still there.

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  8. I forgot to say my brother was stationed in Da Nang. Everytime I meet someone that has migrated from Viet Nam I ask if they have ever heard of some of the villages i visited when I was there. They always look at me puzzled until I remember that they weren’t born when I was there.

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    • Actually when my friend and I were at the museum, a guy offered to take us to Marble Mountains, among other places. But given the very limited time we had in the city, when we had to choose between spending hours marveling at centuries-old sculptures right at the heart of Da Nang and going out of town to see decades-old Bodhisattva statues, obviously we opted for the former. However, should I return one day, I’ll make sure to pay a visit to the marble and limestone hills. Thanks for reading and sharing your story!

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  9. Bama, I absolutely love the dragon bridge! I’ve never seen anything like it and both your day and night photos are great. I’m always pleased to see city officials take a creative approach to bridges, because they’re such a visual part of the cityscape, why not give them some character? And given construction costs, why not make them a tourist attraction? Vietnam is on our list, and we wanted to make it on our last trip to SEA, but couldn’t work it out. It’s nice to hear good reports on Da Nang, so we can put it on the itinerary. ~James

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    • Thanks James & Terri! I’ve seen photos of beautiful bridges across the globe and I absolutely agree with you that unique-looking bridges not only make daily commute for the locals more pleasant, but also give a city a very distinct character and identity. Fingers crossed you’ll get the chance to visit Vietnam soon! It’s a really beautiful country with amazing food and astonishing cultural heritage.

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  10. Bama like James the dragon bridge is like nothing I have ever scene! That is so creative and absolutely fascinating. The fact that it breathes fire makes me want to hug the architect. Absolutely brilliant.

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    • Maybe in Canada someone should make a beaver or moose bridge, with ice blowing from their mouths? 🙂 I agree with you and James about Da Nang’s dragon bridge. It’s beautiful, entertaining, and magnificent at the same time.

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  11. I’ve been to Da Nang, and I absolutely loved it!
    It was actually my favourite place in Vietnam as I prefer the mountains and waterside cities. Not only that, but the Imperial City of Hue, Hoi An, and My Son were rather wonderful to see too!

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    • Hot temperature aside, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Da Nang. As you said, the fact that it’s relatively close to some of Vietnam’s most important historical sites makes it even more appealing. I can see myself returning to Da Nang one day, maybe to visit more ancient temples to its south.

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  12. Pingback: The Custodian of Champa’s Treasures | What an Amazing World!

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