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.