Until recently, Danang was largely overlooked by travellers who flew into its gateway airport en route to its UNESCO-listed sister cities of Hoi An and Hue. Now those tourists are stopping to take a look and stay a while. Nowhere in Vietnam is changing as fast, a change that began with the opening of a revamped Danang International Airport in 2012. Trip Advisor this year ranked it the world’s top destination on the rise for 2015.
A city on Vietnam’s Central Coast beside the South China Sea, Danang (Da Nang) was a French colonial port, then a US airbase during the Vietnam War. In recent years, Danang has shaken off its military past, becoming a vibrant, brash, modern city that is not only the fastest-growing but was also recently voted the most liveable in Vietnam.
1. Best day tour
Ba Na Hills is a French colonial resort town in the cool hills above Danang, where the temperature can drop to 20 degrees or lower. With a temple, fantasyland castle, hotel, train station (Gare Morin) and alpine rollercoaster, it sits at the top of the world’s longest and highest non-stop cable car ride. The five-kilometre trip to 1,500 metres above sea level takes about 20 minutes and costs US$25 (about A$34).
2. Best museum
Central Vietnam was once the centre of the Cham Kingdom, which included Cambodia and parts of Laos. The tiny Da Nang Museum of Cham Sculpture is the only museum in the world dedicated to Champa culture. It houses the largest collection of Cham art in the world – more than 2,000 sculptures, including artifacts from My Son. Entry is only VND40,000 (less than A$2.50).
3. Best views
The hills of Nui Son Tra (dubbed Monkey Mountain by US soldiers) with its Lady Buddha, a 27m-high statue that towers over Danang, provides a great view over the coast. A former strategic military area, Son Tra Peninsula was once called “God’s eye of Indochina” because the American military used it during the Vietnam War.
Other great views include: from the Ba Na Hills cable car over jungle rainforest; the Marble Mountains, five limestone outcrops that are home to pagodas and caves containing Buddhist shrines.
4. Best beach
Many new hotels and resorts are springing up on the sparkling white-sand beaches along Danang’s coastline. The entire China Beach (Non Nuoc) strip to the southwest of the city is now one big resort strip. My Khe is also very popular.
5. Best place to stay
The new Naman Retreat has some eye-catching style with a giant central “drum” (a bamboo building shaped like a Vietnamese drum), bamboo architecture and its wave villas (grass-covered, corrugated concrete bunkers) on the beachfront. It’s the work of Vietnamese architect Vo Trong Nghia, known for his sustainable green designs. The beach and pool villas are only 500 metres from Montgomerie Golf Links.
6. Best sight
Several spectacular bridges spanning the Han river are illuminated at night with ever-changing colourful displays. The most spectacular is the new Rong (“Dragon”) Bridge, a 666 metre-long, six-lane bridge that breathes out fire and water. The best view is from the water on a river cruise that also affords spectacular views of other illuminated buildings along the foreshore. Along with the giant Sun Wheel, one of the largest in the world, it is now the most striking landmark of the new Danang.
7. Best local dish
Danang is famous for seafood, spring rolls and cao lau (the traditional food of the area) which differs from typical Vietnamese noodle dishes because it has no soup, like the better-known pho. 4U Restaurant on My Khe beach is famous for its seafood dishes. Or try Danang local specialties at one of three Tran restaurants in the city (dacsandanangtran.com.vn). Red Bridge Cooking School runs half- or full-day cooking courses at its restaurant by the river on the outskirts of Hoi An.
8. Best resort on the outskirts of Danang
The sophisticated Nam Hai offers 60 one-bedroom and 40 pool villas over 35 hectares on Ha My Beach between Danang and Hoi An. It really put the Central Coast on the radar of luxury travellers when it opened in 2006. Its architecture is inspired by feng shui and the resort boasts three swimming pools, a luxury spa and a calming lotus pond.
9. Best restaurants
A great place to try a modern twist on Vietnamese is the Australian-owned Waterfront on Bach Dang Street alongside the river. So, too, is Memory Lounge Bar & Restaurant, which floats on the Han River. Also recommended: Hay Hay, the restaurant at the Naman, and Ca Chuon Co seafood restaurant on the beach at Accor’s new Premier Village.
10. Best coffee
Vietnam grows very good coffee. Try it at Danang Souvenirs & Café, 34 Bach Dang Street, or at Rafew Cafe at 58 Hoang Van Thu Street, Hai Chau.