Da Nang: The rise of Vietnam's "most liveable city"

Da Nang is considered to be Vietnam’s most liveable city and there are so many attractions that it is not a secret holiday destination for savvy tourists any more.

  • Karen Halabi
  • August 2018

A sign on the wall of Danang souvenirs and café reads: “Da Nang, No. 1 rising destination around the world”

A touch overblown? Who knows. What we do know is that this hipsterish café serves coffee good enough to give most caffeine-obsessed cities a run for their money (Melbourne, we’re looking at you) – backing up its other chalkboard boast, “Best coffee in Da Nang.”

During the Vietnam War, Da Nang was an airbase for US troops, but in recent years the city has shaken off its sombre military persona and “boring port city” to become a vibrant, modern hub. TripAdvisor recently named it Vietnam’s most liveable city, and it’s the fastest-growing city in the nation.

The city’s prewar identity as a charming French colonial port is still in evidence – stroll along the riverfront promenade and you’ll find locals sipping coffee as well as tucking into the local speciality, cao lau (noodles with smoked pork and crunchy greens). The stretch of picturesque beachfront nestled back into the mountains seals the deal.

The “new” Da Nang, however, leans decidedly towards luxury, offering gleaming new hotels of the likes of Naman Retreat and the Nam Hai. The entire Non Nuoc (China Beach) strip to the south-west of the city has been set aside to become one big resort area, with five-star hotel developments.

Sunset at Non Nuoc (China) Beach.

Da Nang is also very much a “bridge” city, with nine old and new bridges across the Han River – and the new 666m-long Dragon Bridge (Cau Rong) steals the limelight every time. The six-lane bridge took four years to build; like much of the rest of the city, it has a light show every night when the sun goes down. The structure is illuminated by 2,500 LED lights and the dragon changes colour every minute, keeping spectators transfixed. Each Saturday and Sunday at 9pm, the dragon comes alive – you can hear it “warm up” as it breathes, then puffs out fire, then sprays out a jet of water. You’ll get the perfect view from a river cruise, but the promenade also provides a good vantage point, or you can walk onto the bridge itself to get close (but not too close) to the action.

About 1km south of the Dragon Bridge is the Cau Song Han or Han River Bridge, the fifth bridge up the river. It only opened in 2013, but is now one of the most striking landmarks of the reinvented Da Nang (along with the giant Sun Wheel – one of the largest observation wheels in the world). With its suspension cables, the bridge forms an upside-down capital “Y” and offers a must-see photographic opportunity for night owls – at 1am and 4am each night it swings 180 degrees to allow shipping to pass through.

After a day and night sightseeing here, you’ll be looking for a place to rest your feet and fill your stomach. Da Nang’s main drag is Ang Co Ho Road, but all the action happens around the river, and that’s where most restaurants and cafes can be found. Drop into Danang Souvenirs & Café for coffee made by skilled baristas, or try Rafew Café, another good option. For drinks, head to Memory Lounge, a floating bar/restaurant on the Han River; it works better a bar, so we advise skipping the food menu. Food-wise, Da Nang is famous for fresh seafood, spring rolls and cao lau. Or try a modern twist on Vietnamese food at the Australian-owned Waterfront Restaurant & Bar, by the river.

If you’re somewhat of a chef yourself, Da Nang also has some excellent cooking schools. The Red Bridge Cooking School runs classes at its picturesque restaurant on the river, with half-day, full-day and evening options that include a boat ride and a visit to Hoi An’s central market for produce.

Da Nang is all action and before you leave this dream holiday spot, these are must-dos to tick off your list.

Old meets new in charming Hanoi opens in new window
Best things to do, see and eat in Hanoi opens in new window

Head to Ba Na Hills

Giant folly, tacky or fantastic? Ba Na Hills and its fantasy theme park is Vietnam’s answer to Disneyland – it’ll appeal to kids of all ages, and the cable-car ride alone is worth a visit. At the top of the mountain, this is a faux French town complete with a faux French cathedral – and a luge at the top of the world’s longest and highest nonstop cable-car ride. The 5km ride to 1,500m above sea level takes about 20 minutes and costs USD $25 (SGD $34.55). In this surreal wonderland, there’s also an alpine roller-coaster hanging off a cliff beneath one of the castle’s turrets.

Ba Na Hills resort is fun for the fearless families.

Hit the beaches

Da Nang has some of the best beaches in Vietnam – long, white and sandy. Try Non Nuoc Beach, My Khe Beach or But Beach. But means “Buddha” in Vietnamese – the beach is near the Lady Buddha statue, at a beautiful spot on the Son Tra Peninsula that’s heaven for nature-lovers, with corals in the water and rare plants and animals on land.

Take a Han River boat trip

An evening cruise on the Han River is the best way to see the Sun Wheel and da Nang at night. Eat beforehand, as cruises don’t include dinner – but you get a front-row seat for the nightly light show on the bridges and city buildings.

The Dragon Bridge changes colopur every minute.

Day-trip to Hoa Phu Phanh

A new eco-tourism destination 30km out of Da Nang on the Luong Dong River, Hoa Phu Thanh offers a chance to get out into the pristine mountains. Learn about the culture of the Co Tu people at a replica Tong Coi village, ride the river rapids, paddle float along streams and enjoy the fresh air. You can slide down a waterfall or plunge in inflatable rafts down specially built vertical metal ladders – just another Da Nang innovation.

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is a must-do.

Learn about Cham culture

Central Vietnam was once the centre of the Cham Kingdom, which included Cambodia and parts of Laos, and the Da Nang Museum of Cham Sculpture makes for an interesting touristy afternoon. It’s tiny, but the museum is the only one worldwide dedicated to Champa culture and houses the largest collection of Cham art in the world – more than 2,000 sculptures, including artifacts from the ruined My Son temples. It’s located close to the Dragon Bridge; entry is VND 40,000 (SGD $2.55).

The Lady Buddha at Da Nang in South Central Vietnam.

Five Unesco Sites To Visit In Da Nang

Da Nang lies conveniently at the centre of South-East Asia’s greatest concentration of UNESCO World Heritage Sites – it’s well worth taking day trips out of town to visit these five:

  1. DECLARED a heritage site in 2003, the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is home to the oldest karst mountains in Asia. Until recently, access was strictly controlled, but now you can wander at your leisure.
  2. A HALF-hour south of Da Nang, Hoi An Ancient Town is a remarkably well-preserved old trading town, with Chinese shophouses, silk tailors and colourful French and Chinese architecture. It’s easy to see on foot, or you can take a tour from the Pagoda Bridge on one of the colourful cyclos.
  3. TAKE a half-day at least to visit the My Son Sanctuary, Vietnam’s Angkor Wat – a cluster of ancient Hindu temples in various states of ruin from the vanished Cham Kingdom.
  4. THE Hue Monuments complex, on the Perfume River, is another stunning site: we highly recommend a half-day tour of this beautiful former feudal capital.
  5. VISIT the Royal Theatre, inside the walled fortress of Hue’s Imperial City, to catch a traditional performance of nha nhac or “elegant music” – Vietnamese court music.