Saturday, July 31, 2010

Da Nang By Day

Seen from the air, Da Nang (Đà Nẵng) is built on a stretch of coastline from which two small bites have been taken out: one by Da Nang Bay (Vịnh Đà Nẵng) to the north, and the other to the east by the South China Sea. The resulting land form is shaped like an apple core, with the Sơn Trà Penninsula at the top and the city itself at the foot. The Han River (Sông Hàn) winds its way through the core, and shreds at the bottom into a network of waterways that end in spindly nerve endings to the south and west.

One can easily see why the French, in 1940, chose to build an airstrip here. The heart of the city is flat, with clear visibility from all sides. Heading down from northern Vietnam, this is where, after passing over the Hai Van Pass (Đèo Hải Vân), Vietnam's coastal lowlands officially begin. Broken only by a mountainous area around Nha Trang, these lowlands run the length of Vietnam's coast for nearly 1000 km southward, all the way to the Mekong Delta.

The town itself is fairly ordinary at first blush. Definitely a small city and not a large town: the feeling is distinctly urban. Modern Kia dealerships beside plastic tarped eateries; Da Nang is, like all of Vietnam, developing at rocket speed, but has yet to reach the level of, let's say, Malaysia. It is also a major port city, Vietnam's third after Saigon and Hai Phong (Hải Phòng). One senses a fairly healthy local economy: there are few shanties to be seen, and everywhere there is construction.

Early morning, I rent a motorbike and head out to explore. Stopping for a quick coffee in town, I quickly realize the impenetrability of the local dialect. Recently, I've been getting cocky about my Vietnamese; I am, in fact, fairly conversant in most situations. But the people here speak a dialect that is not only more nasal and lodged further back in the throat than what I'm used to, many of the words are different altogether. So the northern word for "thousand" - nghìn - is here pronounced ngan, making prices particularly inscrutible. I engage in friendly chit-chat with a man in the cafe, and it's like speaking to a Glaswegian: he understands me perfectly, but I can barely make out what he's trying to say. This is going to take some getting used to.

I've seen enough of the town and decide to head toward the beach. You can see what attracted American GIs to this place: the sands are flat and pristine, the shimmering blue water, while famous for its undertow, has a light surf, and the gleaming sun makes it all seem quite the tropical paradise. The beaches are almost completely abandoned, with a few pockets of beach chairs and thatched umbrellas awaiting tourists that never come. Riding south along the coastline, however, there are a thousand condos, resorts, and casinos under development, and one can see it's just a matter of time before this place becomes Cancún.

I wheel back north, past the stretch of coast which was once dubbed China Beach. All signs of the former US presence have long been stripped away; there are only fishermen in curious little round boats pulling up their nets, some drydocked boats, and a few palm trees near the road under which people are beginning to take shelter from the late morning sun. Off to the north lies the Son Tra (Sơn Trà) Penninsula, a mountainous promontory with a large statue of Lady Buddha (Phật Bà Quán Thế Âm Bồ Tát) overlooking the sea. This is another area ripe for development, and I suspect that in a few years' time it too will be dramatically transformed.

I do not denigrate Vietnam's development aims. Western travelers often go in search of "traditional" cultures and "authentic" locales, and are disappointed when they find those locales have become "modernized" or "spoiled". The idea that Vietnam should remain in some kind of primitive pristine state is chauvanistic and demeaning; every culture undergoes change, and it is perfectly reasonable to desire development and economic progress.

But from the hillside, overlooking the coastline and the small city it frames, I feel this is the perfect time to be visiting this part of Vietnam – before all the damn development everyone so longs for brings its own mix of benefits and challenges.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Evening in Da Nang

With fewer than one million people, Da Nang (Đà Nẵng) is Vietnam's fourth largest city, after Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and Hai Phong (Hải Phòng).

To students of the US-Vietnam war, the city carries special significance. It was here that the first Marines arrived in 1965, and it was here that US ground combat operations ceased in 1972. While Da Nang has a history that dates back nearly 2,000 years, and was once Imperial Vietnam's major port, much of the city you see today was, in fact, built around the old US army bases. Several of the iconic names from the Vietnam conflict – China Beach, Danang Air Base – had their origins in this port city at the edge of the South China Sea.

Da Nang is one of the cities I visited on my inaugural trip to Vietnam, in 1991 (see The Road to Hanoi for background on this trip). At the time, like all of Vietnam, the city was still awakening from its post-war slumber. I remember a quiet, mid-sized city with hordes of teenagers cruising around on bicycles. Like so much of that trip, most of the memories have blurred, becoming a pastiche of images that register more on the emotional level than on the iconic.

The last few months in Hanoi have, like the memories of that adventure, also been a blur. The management job I was so happy to have gotten has turned out to be considerably more challenging than anticipated. Technical complications, organizational politics, and overwork have taken their toll. In light of these pressures, Hanoi has become an annoyance, a cacophany of street noises and too-fast drivers. I had to get away.

So it is to central Vietnam that I have fled. My good friends John, Jean, and Martin Bolivar (my ten-year old soul-mate with a mop of blond curls) have come to Vietnam on a family vacation, and I have decided to spend the next ten days or so with them, visiting Da Nang, Hoi An (Hội An), and Hue (Huế). It is the first time since 1991 that I have come down into the heart of this country, and I am anxious to see not only how it has changed, but what dormant memories may be jostled by returning to these places I visited nearly 20 years ago.

I arrive in Da Nang International Airport (Sân bay quốc tế Đà Nẵng), which sits on a flat stretch of what used to be farmland in the middle of town. At the height of the war, the city's airport was one of the world's busiest, reaching nearly 2,600 air traffic operations daily. Today, the airport is a quiet shadow of its former self; after deplaning I pass the airport's two baggage carousels and grab a taxi into town.

Nearly 10 PM and the streetlights are on. Da Nang's drivers are as mad and obsessed with honking as their northern counterparts, but there are fewer of them so the net effect is not quite as jarring. Old Vietnam hand that I am, I scarcely blink as my driver nearly crushes half a dozen motorbikes on our way to my hotel.

The hotel is at the edge of the Han River (Sông Hàn), just beside the Rong Bridge (Cầu Rồng). At night, the suspension bridge is lit up like a ferris wheel, and the vision of Han River Bridge (Cầu Sông Hàn) behind it brings to mind memories of my beloved Pittsburgh.

After checking in, I head outside in search of memories. More buildings than I remember, taller too. I'm not even sure where I stayed before. Beside the river, a small gathering of kids are whizzing around each other in electric cars, grazing each other, learning to be awful drivers. A middle-aged woman with her camera on a tripod is taking pictures of a young couple with the bridge behind them. I try to catch a whiff of the sea, but the air is still and odorless.

I cannot find the Da Nang of my past, and decide to surrender to the Da Nang of the present. I resolve to explore the town more tomorrow while I wait for the Bolivars to arrive. I have adventures in mind, and a list of foods I want to sample. But for now, I have come to Da Nang only to sleep.