At a non-descript cafe on the side of a non-descript street in Da Nang, I sipped a cà phê sữa đá and thought of a recent conversation I had with my mother before leaving for Southeast Asia. I was having a coffee then as well, and I had mentioned that caffeine tends to keep me up at night if I have it too late in the day. My mother made an incredulous face and said, “That’s because you don’t work hard enough. If you work hard like your father and I do, you can fall asleep right away.” To me, that was a strange thing to say because my mother doesn’t work (and has never really worked), unless you call unnecessary clothes shopping a form of employment.*
So there we were in Da Nang, proving her point. We were getting tired of constantly bouncing from one place to another and the Southeast Asian heat followed us around, quietly beating us into submission. A friend in Saigon suggested Da Nang as a quiet place to hang our hats for a while so we trusted her. The city itself doesn’t look like anything special, and is as unassuming as they come. But look a little closer, and there is an empty, beautiful beach lining its eastern coast, a lush peninsula to the north and some damn good food.
We did the required touristy stuff like checking out the Bodhisattva of Mercy on Son Tra peninsula (we called her “The Lady”) and spending the day exploring the Marble Mountains. While both of these places were pretty interesting in their own ways, what we enjoyed doing the most was chilling by ourselves during the day and getting the more local experience with our new friends at night.
Beaching was very much on our list of priorities so we made a beeline for a private beach on My Khe. Well, not really a beeline, because we skirted around the main entrance to the hotel and entered through the side entrance to the beach like a couple of sketchy mofos… I guess we kind of are. Don’t get me started on privatizing beaches in these developing countries. We had lunch at an overpriced but decent restaurant next to the beach, soaked up the cleanliness of it all and pretended for a moment that we were guests of this overpriced resort.
The next day, we loaded up on lychees and dragonfruit at the local market and made our way to the public beach area. We pretty much had the area to ourselves, save for a couple of young European girls sunning and a couple of pale Korean girls who were hiding from the sun under the beach umbrellas. We swam in the warm water, caught little crabs, played with dead ones and did the stupid kind of stuff people who haven’t been to a beach in years do. I came home with a ridiculous, patchy sunburn like a total amateur.
And the next day we did it again, but this time with more fruit, a delicious take-away lunch from a noodle place, and more slatherings of sunblock. In addition to the beach chairs which we rented for $1.50 each, we rented inner tubes which added a whole lot more to the entertainment factor. Late in the afternoon, a small group of fishermen started hauling in their net and N helped for about one minute before letting them do their thing. It took them a good two hours of slowly pulling in their catch by letting the strength of their backs and legs do the work. Two hours of work yielded a surprisingly small catch of baby squid, cuttlefish and small fish, but we were told later that the morning haul brings in a bounty of big fish and squid.
However, the city really came alive after the sun went down, when the locals came out of the woodwork to hang out in the slightly cooler temperatures. The otherwise empty beach totally transformed at night into a social hub. It would start filling up with locals around 4pm when we were getting ready to leave. The ladies renting chairs and umbrellas would wake up from their daytime naps to set up chairs closer to the water, and a woman selling or renting colorful kites set up her stand in the sand nearby.
At 8pm every night, locals gathered in droves to watch the Dragon Bridge (which looks like something from an amusement park) spew jets of mist from its mouth. Middle-aged women from a dance class danced with the most unenthusiastic expressions on their faces to tango music, led by their flamboyant young dance teacher. Young women and men sat outside cafés on small stools to people watch. Parents watched their children run around and climb on the random marble sculptures by the river.
To fully immerse ourselves in the nightlife of this quaint little city, we hung out with a Couchsurfing local Nha and her buddy Hai. During the week and a half we spent in Da Nang, these two put us on the backs of their bikes and zoomed around from one place to another. Nha is a purchaser at the Intercontinental in Da Nang (I think it’s the most expensive hotel resort there, and starts at around $500/night), which sounds like a pretty sweet job. Hai is fluent in Japanese, and works for a company that sells airline industry products to Japan.
This was the first time we spent so much time with young Vietnamese people, and they taught us about their city over local delicacies. We pigged out on what they call “junk food” — delicious savory snacks that young people like to eat — and Nha laughed and shook her head when I told her this is what we would call “bar food”. People don’t eat junk food with beer, she explained (I still think they’re missing out on this potential combo). They both tried to keep it together while N busted out her rusty pre-Unification Vietnamese and gave them examples of phased-out words she had been using with her family her entire life. On the backs of their bikes, we talked about Vietnamese customs versus our own. It really says a lot about a place when young professionals like Nha and Hai say that they want to live in Da Nang for the rest of their lives because they love it so much.
Nha and Hai showed us how this small, modest-looking city — most often only seen as a way-point to a more desirable holiday destination like Hoi An and Nha Trang — was definitely the best city we’ve spent time in since we landed in Saigon. Food was varied and delicious (this area is great if you like seafood), it wasn’t as congested as Saigon which made it easier to walk around, the vendors were still friendly without being annoyingly pushy, there were fun albeit kitschy sights to see, tourist-packed and pricier Hoi An was close enough for a day trip (40 minutes by car or bus) and we just couldn’t resist having an empty beach so close by.
About halfway through my lazy days in Da Nang, my mother emailed me to tell me that it looked like I was having fun and that she wished she too was on the beach. When I responded and told her to join us somewhere so we can hang out, she responded, “I would but I’m very busy.” And I imagined her primping before happily heading out to hit up a sale with her sisters. She was so missing out.
* I’m kidding about my mother not working. She works very hard to keep us fed and taken care of, and for our house to be in tip-top working condition. AND she moonlights as a professional lacquerware artist.
For more photos of our adventures in Da Nang, check out our Flickr album.