Danang, Hoi An and Hue are conveniently close together in the centre of Vietnam, although Hué is just too far from the others for an easy day trip (despite new road tunnels). Danang (or Da Nang) is the country’s third largest city, with a population of about a million, but it is far less crowded and hectic than Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi; it also has long sandy beaches, one reason why it’s becoming a tourist resort and is drawing considerable numbers of expats to live here. The new developments are on a peninsula across the Han river to the east of the city – during the Vietnam War, when Danang’s airport was the Americans’ main logistical base in the country, this was where the GIs lived, mainly in tents, as the area could only be reached be ferry and thus could easily be secured from attack. Now there’s a row of bridges in different funky styles (the Dragon Bridge, by the Cham Museum, lights up and spouts water from 9pm on Saturdays and Sundays), and a tunnel is to be built to speed tourists directly from the airport to the beach area. In fact new luxury resorts and hotels are sprouting all along the beach from Danang south to Hoi An, although I’m puzzled who the clients will be, as the major new market is the Chinese, who aren’t interested in beaches.
Our main discovery in Danang (apart from great food – see below) was the new Fine Arts Museum, opened in December 2016 at 78 Le Duan. It’s really quite impressive, its spacious new building housing over 400 works of art, with useful information panels. There’s a good range of paintings by artists from central Vietnam (including some in lacquer) as well as sculpture, ceramics, folk and applied art and ethnic costumes; there’s also a decent café. They haven’t yet put up a website, although they promised to do so soon, so I don’t know what the opening hours are, but it did seem to be free.
Around the back is the swastika-topped temple of the home-grown Cao Dai religion, which is distinctly odd – there’s a giant eyeball inside. The Cham Museum is well established and busy, and displays nothing but the stunning sculptures of the Champa civilisation, which was a precursor of the Khmer Empire that built the Angkor temples (see this post).
Hoi An, about 30km (or 45 minutes) south of Danang (yellow buses run hourly along Le Duan, just south of Danang station and through the centre; or take a taxi), is rightly famed for its blend of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and European influences and architectural styles, and is well worth a day’s visit. It is in fact something of a tourist trap, and very crowded at peak times, but once you get away from the main shopping streets you should be fine. There are beaches, and luxury hotels, just to the east of town, and you’ll see lots of tourists wobbling along on bikes provided by the hotels.
The centre (a World Heritage Site since 1999) is traffic-free and there’s a fee of D120,000 to visit, which gives access to any five of the tourist sights on one day (previously you could visit one museum, one assembly hall, one merchant’s house etc, but now you can see five assembly halls and nothing else if you choose – though that would be silly, even given their riotous over-the-top decoration). If you’re just going shopping, you can probably decline to pay. Guide books have full details of the sights, of course – the assembly halls were community centres for Chinese settlers from various places of origin, and the Hai Nan Assembly Hall (10 Tran Phu) has fairly recently been added to the ticket scheme. Supposedly there’s free wifi in the pedestrian area too.
Hué was the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945, although the French took effective control in 1885. It remains a quiet and cultured place, largely unaffected by the economic boom that’s sweeping aside the historic buildings and the peace and quiet of Ho Chi Minh Ciry and Hanoi. We were not using the latest edition of the Rough Guide to Vietnam, so some of these updates may have a bit of a dated feel…
The Fine Arts Museum is now more accurately named the Museum of Royal Antiquities, although an annexe to the main palace (built in 1845 inside the Imperial City then moved here to become a university library) also houses a good informative display of Champa sculpture from the surrounding region. It’s covered by the same ticket as the Imperial City (D150,000) and is now open from 7am to 5pm daily. However, in December 2016, plans were released to make Le Loi Street, along the south bank of the Perfume River, the city’s main cultural axis, with up to six museums in the long term. There are already two there, the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the Le Ba Dang Art Centre, and two city buildings are to become sculpture and embroidery museums. Then the provincial government will move out and the building will become a new Museum of Fine Arts.
The Imperial City still feels a bit empty and windswept in places, but far more has been restored and re-opened than we expected – it was largely burnt down in 1947, and was again heavily damaged when the Viet Cong captured the city in 1968 and held it for 25 days, and it then took ten days of heavy fighting for the South Vietnamese government forces to recapture it. Since then the rebuilding process has been slow and painstaking.
In Danang there’s now a tourist information centre at 108 Bach Dang (by the river at the east end of Hung Vuong; tel: 0236 3898196), which isn’t shown in our ancient edition of the Rough Guide; you can rent bikes here. There are some good restaurants in the An Thuong expat area east of the river (inland from the Holiday Beach Hotel), notably a Mexican joint (really!) called Taco Ngon and a more upmarket place called Lam Vien. We enjoyed meeting Shaun of Danang Food Tour, who will gladly take you on a crawl around cafés and restaurants that gives both physical and mental sustenance and is just a lot of fun too. In the city centre, Bach Dang, between the Dragon Bridge and the Han Bridge, is lively at night, with some attractive riverside cafés.
In Hoi An, we loved Bazar, at 36 Tran Phu St – it’s owned by a friend of a friend, a fascinating Italian archeologist who works across the region but especially on the Cham ruins of My Son, and his wife Thanh. The front of the restaurant is relatively recent, but the rear was probably built in the 17th century, while pottery shards found in the back garden have been dated to the 14th century, when Fujianese settlers first came from China. They serve fine traditional Hoi An food and a few European dishes too for those who need a change. There are lots of other good places to eat (it seems to be a local rule that all the waitresses have to wear pointy straw hats, for some reason) – one that’s been recommended is Morning Glory, which does great local food (including soups, noodles, steamed shrimp dumplings and desserts) as well as Vietnamese-style baguettes – like many Vietnamese restaurants, they also offer cookery classes.
Hué does feel as if it’s divided in two by the Huong River (aka the Perfume River), with just a few long bridges across it – the citadel and palace are to the north, and most hotels, cafés and restaurants are to the south. Some perfectly nice hotels are located down some very rough alleys, but don’t worry! This is a lively area, and there are lots of ciclos and taxis (although there seem to be lots of scooters without lights here too). You may need taxis more often than expected as things are quite far apart and map scales can be deceptive, but they only cost a few dollars.
The city is known for its excellent vegetarian food, due to the number of Buddhist temples and monks here, but apparently they avoid garlic and onion due to their warming effects. We had a great lunch at Lien Hoa, at a temple at 3 Le Quy Don, south of the stadium; dishes (costing D20,000-50,000 each) included bamboo flowers, jackfruit, mushrooms, aubergine and bitter melon, as well as soya, of course. Very filling, very affordable.
PS (July 2017) Quite a few of the tall hotel blocks near the beach in Danang have rooftop bars, and our friends there have been researching the best. The Top View Bar at the Vanda Hotel is one of their favourites, right at the foot of the Dragon Bridge with views over the city. They also love the deck at the Top Bar at A La Carte Hotel, which is great at sunset, and the Tourane Bar on the 26th floor of the Muang Thanh Grand Hotel, which has spectacular views of the Han River, Da Nang Bay and the ocean; because it’s a bit off the beaten track, the prices are less than half those of the other bars.