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.