When I moved from the New York area to Hong Kong in May, my travel wish list shifted, too: far-flung Asian destinations like Bali and Siem Reap suddenly became the stuff of potential long weekends. One place that wasn’t on the short list, though? Da Nang, Vietnam. After it came up repeatedly with new in-the-know friends, who raved about the beach resorts, laid-back vibe, and cultural sites, I booked a Da Nang trip with my husband and our two young daughters in tow.
Dragons and mountains
The sweet spot for visiting Da Nang is April and May, when the weather is dry, but not as hot and humid as peak summer. Fall is the rainy season, but we decided to take our chances, landing on an overcast morning in early October after a two-hour flight from Hong Kong (a common layover point for flights from the United States). We quickly began to appreciate why Da Nang is often touted as Vietnam’s most liveable city among locals, expats, and media outlets alike, noted for its easy-to-navigate layout, good-quality roads, and relatively smooth-flowing traffic (compared to the standstill crawl in many other Asian cities). From the airport, it was a quick 20-minute drive across the Han River and through downtown to reach the Hyatt Regency Danang. We’d chosen it for the location—beachfront yet also central—and for the spacious suites.
We waited out the predictable drizzle at the Hyatt over a lunch of Vietnamese noodles and chicken with rice followed by complimentary crafts at the kids’ club (decorating conical non la hats; making paper lanterns). Then we set out for Da Nang’s flashiest attraction, Dragon Bridge; its curvaceous golden form stretches 2,185 feet across the Han River. It wows onlookers nightly with its illuminations and even breathes fire precisely at 9 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
Opened in 2013, Dragon Bridge symbolizes the newfound energy in Da Nang, a once-sleepy town that has made a push to attract investment and now has over a million residents. The bridge has also spurred development, especially on the east side, where Asian-meets-Mediterranean restaurant Fatfish debuted a few years ago. It faces the riverfront promenade, with a rooftop terrace and glass doors that let the outside in; after walking the bridge, we popped in for Vietnamese craft beer along with fresh seafood and wood-fired pizzas.
We awoke the next morning to sunny, breezy weather and took a five-minute taxi ride to the Marble Mountains, five outcrops named for the elements, and filled in with temples and caves featuring Buddhist statuary and carvings. Paths and steep, often uneven steps connect this network of sanctuaries. You can spend a few hours exploring or opt for an elevator ride up Thuy Son (“Water Mountain”) to admire its temple and sweeping city views.
Buddhas and beaches
Where to next? We asked a local taxi driver, and he took us past My Khe (aka China Beach, where the first American combat troops landed in 1965) and along the coast of the Son Tra Peninsula, which fans out to Da Nang’s northeast. Our destination was the Lady Buddha at Linh Ung Pagoda. Measuring about 230 feet from head to lotus leaf base, she is Vietnam’s tallest Buddha and easily visible from across Da Nang. As we wandered the gardens, our four-year-old delighted in picking out the 21 smaller Buddha statues sprinkled throughout, each with a vivid facial expression and astride a fantastical animal.
Further along the Son Tra Peninsula, there’s a turnoff for the secluded InterContinental Danang. Southeast Asia’s most prolific architect Bill Bensley designed the resort in tiers, from the beach up into the forest, complete with a cable car. It also features La Maison 1888, Vietnam’s first restaurant run by a chef with a Michelin-star pedigree. It’s a refined French dining experience within a replica of a colonial mansion. (There are private rooms geared to families, but our daughters didn’t meet the minimum age of eight requirement.)
As for Vietnamese food, we enjoyed the eclectic tasting menu at Nén, which champions local ingredients. Chef Summer Le is a Da Nang native, and the location in an upscale residential neighborhood, with a small garden in front, almost gives the impression of dining in someone’s home. We also appreciated the classic bánh xèo (savory fried pancakes) at no-frills Thiên Lý Danang-Style on the Han River’s western bank.
While crisscrossing Da Nang over five days, we often passed the famed white-sand beaches along its east coast. We spent a morning building castles and wading into the waves at the resort. The off-season wind made it choppy, and we counted only a handful of other beachgoers. Hong Kong friends later told us one of the pleasures of Da Nang beaches is that even in summer, they don’t get overcrowded.
We missed the Museum of Cham Sculpture, with its collection of altars, Ganeshes, and other Champa kingdom artifacts dating from the 5th to 15th centuries. It was our top rainy-day pick, but when we lucked out with clear skies, it was too tempting to hit the road.
Side trips from Da Nang
There’s a lot to see within two hours or so of Da Nang, too, and exploring feels easy thanks to well-maintained infrastructure and generally moderate traffic. You can explore by taxi, rental car, and, in some cases, bus or train. Here are four main highlights of Vietnam’s central coast:
It’s about 30 minutes south by car or 90 minutes by bus to reach this UNESCO-protected former trading port. (Along the way is Naman Retreat, a gorgeous hotel constructed primarily with bamboo that opened in 2015.) Hoi An’s Old Town swarms with tourists photographing hundreds of heritage buildings, canals with covered bridges, and colorful lanterns illuminated by night. The area isn’t open to cars, but there are rickshaws for hire. Consider dining at Streets, a casual Vietnamese restaurant that trains impoverished local youth in hospitality.
The capital of the Nguyen emperors (1802–1945) weathered significant damage during the Vietnam War, but Hue’s citadel still stands as a testament to the former lavish court lifestyle. Within its walls is the Imperial City, modelled after Beijing’s Forbidden City. The two-hour drive north from Da Nang includes scenic Hai Van Pass, a 13-mile stretch that winds around a mountain range revealing dramatic views of the East Sea below; a train connection between Da Nang and Hue is also available.
Drive an hour southwest from Da Nang to this cluster of temples constructed between the 4th and 14th centuries by the Champa kingdom, which developed its own strain of Hinduism in worship of Shiva. My Son’s red-brick structures are in various states of restoration and ruin; some pieces have been moved to the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Da Nang.
Bà Nà Hills
Seemingly held up by two giant hands, Golden Bridge (“Cau Vang” in Vietnamese) has become an Instagram sensation since it opened to pedestrians in June 2018. It’s part of Sun World Bà Nà Hills, a theme park and resort complex less than a two-hour drive inland from Da Nang, which includes a replica French village, a nod to the early 20th-century colonialists who retreated here for the cool breeze and views. Vietnamese servants carried them up the mountain in sedan chairs; nowadays, a cable car does the heavy lifting for tourists.