Da Nang, Vietnam’s third largest city, is also the country’s fastest growing. Local authorities are already bracing for a major tourism boom in the near future, with construction cranes dotting the skyline and high-rise hotels popping up all along the coast. As it stands today though, most tourists merely pass through Da Nang on their way to Hoi An or Hue, with many guidebooks largely glossing the city over. Skipping Da Nang, though, would be a mistake. From the quirky Dragon Bridge to the stunning Linh Ung Pagoda, Da Nang has more than enough in store to deserve a day or two of your time.
Getting off the bus, it was immediately clear that Da Nang is not your typical Vietnamese city. The streets are wider, with the motorbikes having been replaced by cars and SUV’s. And traffic overall is much calmer and less chaotic. The sidewalks actually function as sidewalks, and not just as another lane for impatient scooter drivers.
I walked down the wide riverside promenade, which I had nearly all to myself, as I looked up at the tall skyscrapers towering above me. I wasn’t used to having so much space in Vietnam. Da Nang, though, is by no means a ghost town. It’s simply less dense, which made for a refreshing change of atmosphere.
Da Nang doesn’t just feel wider, but newer. While the area may have been occupied by the ancient Cham and used as a port by the French colonialists, many of the city’s major attractions have appeared within the last 20 years or so. While a few colonial-era buildings, like the 1923 Da Nang Cathedral, do exist, the city feels more like Hong Kong or Singapore than it does Hanoi or Saigon.
Da Nang also manages to be one of the Vietnam’s most beautiful cities, thanks to its tree-lined streets, white-sand beaches and misty mountains. It’s enjoyable to simply walk around in – definitely not something you can say about every big city in Southeast Asia!
While many of Da Nang’s attractions are indeed new, I decided to start my day with one of its oldest.
The Museum of Cham Sculpture
The Cham Sculpture Museum is one of Da Nang’s main attractions for good reason. Founded in 1915, the museum is home to the world’s largest collection of Cham artwork, providing the perfect accompaniment to a tour of the My Son ruins.
Most of the sculptures and lintels represent Hindu gods, goddesses and stories from the Indian epics. Hinduism, of course, was the main religion of the Chams before they mostly converted to Islam in the 17th century. There are, however, Mahayana Buddhist sculptures on display as well, showing how the two religions existed side by side for much of the civilization’s existence. This is similar to their longtime neighbors and rivals, the Khmer Empire.
While My Son is by far the most famous Cham archaeological site today, many of the works on display come from their other prominent cities like Tra Kieu or Dong Duong. There are, of course, plenty from My Son as well, revealing how lavishly decorated those ruins once were.
The museum also contains a small exhibit on the Oc Eo civilization, which even predates the Champa Kingdom. Located in the far south of the country, the Oc Eo were a Hindu civilization with cultural and political links to the Funan Kingdom, and they flourished from the 1st to 6th centuries AD.
The museum has sculptures, carvings and informational plaques spread out across two floors. If you enjoyed My Son, or even have yet to visit, the Museum of Cham Sculpture is one of the best places to learn more about this fascinating culture.
The Dragon Bridge
Da Nang may be nicknamed the ‘City of Bridges,’ but none captures people’s attention like the 666-meter long Dragon Bridge. A fairly recent addition to the city’s landscape, the bridge was only completed in 2013, costing over $88 million dollars to build. If you happen to be in Da Nang on a weekend, the dragon even spits out fire at 9pm on Saturdays and Sundays!
The bridge features a walking lane, with the tail end of the dragon being more or less across the street from the Cham Sculpture Museum. While it still won’t take you very close to the beach, it will at least get you across the river, while offering some superb views of the riverside cityscape,
Closer to the end of the bridge, I thought for a moment that I was in Singapore. There in the distance was a white Merlion statue spouting water into the river. But upon closer inspection, this was not a Merlion but a “Dragon Carp.”
The 7.5m high marble statue is based off of an old legend about a carp turning itself into a dragon. Only by swimming upstream against a hard current and making a tough leap over a waterfall, was the koi fish able to make its transition into the powerful, majestic creature.
Perhaps the statue itself is symbolic of Da Nang’s own transformation. While it still has a long way to go before becoming the next Singapore, or even Saigon, Da Nang is certainly on the list of Asia’s premier up-and-coming cities.
Da Nang is famous for its beaches, with My Khe and Non Nuoc among the most popular. In reality, though, it’s really is just a single long beach that stretches all the way across the peninsula (though there are plenty of others all over the province). I’d been looking forward to having a dip, but it was a surprisingly cold and windy day for Vietnam. Looking around, none of the other visitors dared enter the water either.
It wasn’t hard, at least, to imagine what the place would be like under more ideal circumstances. The sand is white and clean, with misty mountain tops clearly visible in the distance. And the beach is lined with restaurants and cafes, making it perfect for lounging on a sunny day.
While Westerners are still largely passing on Da Nang, the city has evidently grown popular with tourists from Korea and China. Apparently, authorities are preparing for an even bigger tourism boom in the near future, as new hotels are being built at a staggering pace. Things may be fairly quiet for now, but probably not for much longer.
I walked along a relatively secluded stretch of sand while looking out at the large Lady Buddha statue in the distance. There was no way I’d be getting in the water today, so I hired a Grab taxi to take me north toward the Son Tra peninsula.
Linh Ung Pagoda
The Linh Ung Pagoda is Da Nang’s largest temple, and arguably the most impressive attraction in the entire city. It was completed in 2010 after six years of construction. While no fault of the temple, sometimes visiting a brand new pagoda can feel a little off, especially after having been to so many ancient ones. To their credit, though, the designers did an excellent job at replicating the classical Vietnamese pagoda style.
The highlight of the pagoda is the massive 67-meter high statue of Guan Yin, also known as Avalokiteshvara or the Goddess of Mercy. Or, as she’s affectionately referred to by Da Nang locals, the ‘Lady Buddha.’ The statue was erected to protect local fishermen and the city from typhoons, a purpose shared by many other pagodas in the country over the last several hundred years.
Supposedly, the 30-story high Guan Yin can be climbed all the way to the top. During my visit, however, only the bottom floor was open, which housed a fairly standard Buddhist altar. Despite not being able to go all the way to the top, the Lady Buddha is still a marvel to look at from the outside, especially after having seen her all the way from the beach.
Standing at the edge, the complex offers spectacular views of the sea and Da Nang’s skyline off in the distance. Even without the pagoda, the site would be worth the trek up just for this view. Linh Un Pagoda is situated halfway up Son Tra mountain. The very top of the mountain, nicknamed ‘Monkey Mountain,’ is another popular attraction, though it wasn’t possible to fit into an already busy day trip.
Aside from the massive statue, Linh Ung Pagoda has a large main temple area, a tall tiered pagoda tower and a large triple gate. Around the courtyard, you can also find statues of eighteen arhats, representative of the Buddha’s 18 original followers who would eventually attain enlightenment themselves.
Cao Dai Temple
Taking a taxi back to the city center, I decided to check out Da Nang’s Cao Dai temple, the second-largest in the country. If you’re unfamiliar with the religion, it’s Vietnam’s own homegrown faith which is one of the most syncretic religions in the world. Combining Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism together with a touch of Catholicism and even Western occultism, the religion has managed to attract six million followers since its founding in the early 20th century. And the mixture has resulted in some pretty interesting looking temples, to say the least.
Its headquarters and main temple, the Cao Dai Holy See, is a couple of hours outside of Saigon in the town of Tay Ninh, and there’s no way that this one can compare. But if you can’t make it to Tay Ninh, a visit to the temple here in Da Nang is still the next best thing. Stepping inside, you’ll notice a large blue orb atop the main altar, with an ‘all seeing eye’ at its center.
The Divine Eye, as it’s called, represents the supreme deity Cao Dai himself. Looking closely, you’ll notice that the eye is a left eye (as opposed to a right eye on the US dollar bill) which symbolizes expansive male energy as well as the human heart.
I had hoped to stay in the city until evening, as supposedly all the bridges light up after dark. But it was a much colder day than anticipated, and I was already freezing. I decided to take a public bus back to my hotel in Hoi An, but should I end up returning to Da Nang some day, there are still plenty more things to see.
Here are some additional attractions to check out if you have more than a day in Da Nang:
- Marble Mountains: As detailed here, the marble mountain of Thuy Son makes from an excellent day trip from either Da Nang or Hoi An. In and around the mountain, you can find ancient cave temples and scenic viewing points.
- Ba Na Hills: A hilltop resort accessible by cable car. One of its main attractions is a French replica village, which probably appeals more to tourists coming from within Asia. There are also plenty of theme park rides, though the Ba Na Hills are probably better suited for families with children than couples or solo travelers.
- Monkey Mountain: The very top of the Son Tra peninsula is famous for its panoramic views as well as its abundance of primates. The rest of the peninsula is supposed to be ideal for nature lovers.
Da Nang is easily accessible by bus from either Hoi An (just about an hour) or from Hue (about 4 hours).
To/from Hoi An, you want to hop on the public yellow bus #1. The price is only 20,000 VND. However, bus staff can sometimes try to cheat foreigners by lying about the price.
Da Nang also has an airport which is conveniently located close to the city center. Regular flights from Hanoi, Saigon and some other Asian cities depart regularly.
The city also has a train station, which beats bus travel when it comes to traveling overland from the north or southern ends of the country.
Depending on what you want to do, your two main options are by the beach or within the city center.
The area west of the Han River is considered Da Nang’s city center. This is where you’ll find most of the city’s skyscrapers, restaurants and nightlife. It’s also the most convenient for transport, as it’s where the airport, bus station and public transit routes to Hoi An are located.
A lot of people also choose to stay near the beach or at least relatively close by on that side of the river. This is often the more affordable option, as the peninsula remains less developed than the rest of the city.
Walking from the beach area to the city center is technically possible, but it takes 30-40 minutes and isn’t something you’d want to do every day. Like other Vietnamese cities, Da Nang doesn’t have a whole lot of public transportation options, so you’ll need to rely on taxi, Grab or renting your own motorbike to get around.