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DA NANG, VIETNAM: OUR HEAVEN ON EARTH | JUNE 25, 2016

If you were asked to consider the word “paradise,” what would come to mind? Some would say a secluded island with white-sand beaches, palm trees, and calm, clear ocean waters.  Others might find their paradise in the middle of a modern city close to friends, restaurants, and cultural destinations.  Still others might dream of a peaceful mountain hike that culminates in a stunning vista. We would have said any number of these, and so when we arrived to Da Nang and found it all, we knew we’d reached our home away from home.

We visited Da Nang for just one short day at the conclusion of our initial travels through Vietnam and it took less than a day to convince us it was where we wanted to drop anchor. Pretty remarkable, given that we nearly didn’t visit at all.  It wasn’t until just prior to our departure from America that we even considered Da Nang as a potential location to live. We owe our thanks to the suggestion of one of the natively-Vietnamese staff members of the Beehive Hair Salon where Robin used to get her hair cut for encouraging us to look into it further, and then to the Chases and their wonderfully informative blog which chronicled their family’s year in Da Nang.

Da Nang is divided into two sections by the Han River: the “beach side” to the east and the “city side” to the west which are connected by five bridges, all architecturally distinct and all which are beautifully illuminated at night.  The newest and most dramatic is the “Dragon Bridge” which is literally in the shape of a dragon and whose mouth breathes fire and water in a public show every Saturday and Sunday night (you can check out our video of the show below).  Da Nang is one of Vietnam’s most modern cities and is enclosed by striking mountains to its north and west, gorgeous beaches  with turquoise ocean waters are just 2.5 miles east of the city center (such as My Khe beach, AKA “China Beach” made famous by the late 1980s TV series of the same name), the UNESCO World Heritage site and Vietnam’s most popular tourist destination Hoi An is a 45 minute drive south, and the historic imperial city of Hue is 2 hours north with famously stunning views over the Hai Van Pass along the way. Sites within Da Nang include the Marble Mountains, high-end amusement park Asia Park, the fantastical Ba Na Hills mountaintop resort, and the rain forest covered Son Tra Peninsula, home to the 220’ tall Lady Buddha statue, rare red shanked douc monkeys and breathtaking views of the city and the surrounding ocean. Every summer Da Nang is host to an international fireworks festival, and there’s a year-round professional soccer team too!

The year-round temperature ranges between 70 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity in the spring and summer and a rainy season in the fall. Thanks to its location along the ocean, seafood is abundant at the local Quans (restaurants), and as is the case throughout Vietnam, a tasty noodle or rice-based meal can be had for a mere 20,000 VND or less, which is a little less than $1.00 US dollar.  While cars are becoming (annoyingly) ever-more prevalent in Da Nang, the primary mode of transportation is still ruled by motorbikes. An international airport is in the heart of the city with affordable direct flights to destinations throughout Asia. It’s a bustling city but not in the least overcrowded. Comparable in size to Philadelphia at 1+ million inhabitants, it’s blissfully cleaner and calmer and with far less air pollution than Hanoi and Saigon who each have more than 8x as many residents (and therefore 8x as many motorbikes).

For our 1-night stay in Da Nang, we selected a homestay through Airbnb run by an entrepreneurial high school aged girl named Sandy who with her parent’s support, rents comfortable private rooms with a shared bathroom on the 5th floor of their home in Da Nang’s city center for just $11 USD per night.  Sandy (who speaks excellent English) and her parents kindly welcomed us into their home with a plate of freshly cut tropical fruit and glasses of iced jasmine tea.  Learning we were interested in renting motorbikes to ensure we could fully explore Da Nang, Sandy’s father arranged rentals to be brought directly to the home, which cost us $5/pp/day (we later learned that the price can go down to $1.50/day or less if you’re renting for an extended period of time).

Prior to leaving America, in anticipation of needing to use motorbikes to get around Vietnam, we’d both gone through training programs to obtain our motorcycle licenses (Mark took a paid course in NJ and Robin, as a PA resident, qualified for a FREE program in Philadelphia!). While these courses did an outstanding job of readying us to correctly and safely operate large manual motorcycles in the US, they in no way prepared us (nor could they have) to navigate traffic in Vietnam. Thus was why we waited until we were in the less densely populated area of Da Nang to brave it.  We learned many key lessons that day, such as while motorbike rentals are available in all manner of sizes, speeds, colors, and transmission types, all of them will be given you to with no more than a whisper of gas remaining in the tank. Also, that even when there is light traffic on the roads, driving feels INSANE. When there are lanes, no one stays in them. Families cram up to five people on a single motorbike. There are no left-turn traffic lights. You have to suppress all survival instinct and turn into the ceaseless flow of oncoming traffic and trust that the other drivers will shift out of your way (which sometimes they do…sometimes they don’t). When people turn off side streets onto main roads, they don’t wait for an opening in traffic to merge, they just plow in at full speed, assuming others will make room for them.  It’s totally rattling to constantly have people zooming out from your blind spots to cut you off.  Oh, and there is an immutable hierarchy in traffic. Motorbikes have the right of way over pedestrians (good luck surviving on foot!). Automobiles have the right of way over motorbikes (and will deafen your eardrums with their honking if anyone gets in their way), and buses and trucks will run every other vehicle the (*bleep*) off the road. Here is a common Vietnam traffic scene well illustrated by a fellow YouTuber:

We’ll admit without shame that we both felt fear while piloting our easy-to-drive, automatic transmission, light-weight scooters around Da Nang on that first day. Mark’s came first, as we sought to cross a multi-lane highway to reach the critically-needed gas station across the street. His rational mind told him not to drive across four lanes of traffic, and therefore he became stuck in place, left turn signal futilely blinking. Robin experienced her first ever panic attack when needing to turn left across a major 6-lane intersection later that day at rush hour.  Mark made it through bravely, only to have to painfully watch from afar, unable to help as Robin froze in the congested traffic and began hyperventilating as passersby honked at her vigorously and drove dangerously close on all sides.

But as truly insane as Vietnam traffic can be, it can also be a true joy. It’s exhilarating to feel the wind surround you as you pick up speed and to change the trajectory of your vehicle with the subtlest shift of your hips. And immersing in the crowds of riders, all making countless and continual minute adjustments, is like traveling as a flock of birds or a school of fish.  It’s beautiful and fascinating to witness.

We spent our daylight hours on motorbike exploring the various neighborhoods of Da Nang and gawking at the fantastic building architecture, gorgeous palm tree-lined beaches, and cloud-topped mountains in the distance. Everywhere we drove, we marveled at how much more peaceful, beautiful, clean, and friendly Da Nang was compared to the other wonderful places in Vietnam we’d been thus far.  The uncrowded beach-side streets were blissfully easy to drive on, and people regularly smiled and waved as we, the two grinning foreigners, buzzed by.

A highlight of our brief first visit to Da Nang was visiting the Vision English Café and meeting its wonderful owners, Daniel Anh and his wife Esther. While still in America, we’d read about Daniel and the Vision English Café through the Chase family’s blog where they had been regular volunteers during their year in Da Nang, helping local Vietnamese students and community members to improve their English-speaking skills.  Natively from Korea, and having lived in America for a period of time, Daniel and Esther moved to Da Nang, Vietnam several years ago with the aim to create a fun, engaging space where students of English as a Second Language could better their conversational speaking through interactions with Western volunteers and with one another. After having read so much about Daniel and the Vision English Café through the Chases blog, when we arrived in person it felt like visiting a set and characters from a favorite TV show!  Daniel and Esther were incredibly warm and welcoming and sat with us for nearly an hour answering our questions about the café, their lives, and their experiences in Da Nang. Daniel, a profoundly kind and generous man, offered to drive us to anywhere we might need to go during our stay, and to help us to find work in Da Nang if we should be able to return.  We were very humbled by the investment this near-stranger was ready to make in us. We enthusiastically agreed to stay in touch, and to volunteer at the café when we could someday return after the upcoming month-long CELTA training program we were about to embark on in Hanoi.

Distracted by our exploring, lunchtime came and went without our realizing, and we were suddenly famished at an hour of the day when most restaurants have shut down for the afternoon. We were both wilting from the heat and Robin was becoming more irrationally cranky by the minute, which was of course making everything more difficult. Thankfully, we eventually spotted a thatched roof open-air eatery that appeared to be open for business. We were seated upon tiny wooden stools at an equally short wooden table and presented with menus that were completely unreadable to us. We’d thought we’d mastered an understanding the basics of food menus in Vietnam by knowing the words for beef, chicken, pork, noodles, rice, etc., but there was absolutely nothing recognizable to us on this extensive list. Taking in the restaurant’s dingy surroundings and feeling defeated by the indiscernible menu, we nearly gave up and left, but the restaurant owners went out of their way to help us by insisting we follow them to the far corner of the restaurant. Baffled, but hungry and curious enough to be game for anything, we followed them to a collection of about ten water-filled shallow plastic tubs, many with bubbling air hoses stuck inside.  As we drew closer, the menu options suddenly became clearer: clams, mussels, shrimp, oysters, scallops, conch, crabs, and so much more were being kept alive in aerated tubs. Through the international language of mime, we were instructed to point at a few things we’d like to try. Worried about the potential price of fresh seafood and with no idea how the shellfish would be prepared, we conservatively chose one order of mussels and one order of shrimp and kept our expectations low.  We’re sure we wore looks of astonishment when plates of the most succulent, beautifully prepared mussels we’ve ever seen and equally delectable shrimp were presented to us a short while later. At the end of the meal when we received our bill and it was less than $5 USD, our suspicion that Da Nang was our Heaven on Earth was further cemented.

Fueled on fresh seafood and our love for Da Nang, we awkwardly struggled through the city-side’s tire-to-tire rush hour traffic back to our homestay where we settled our nerves and showered away the day’s sweat bath.  That evening we headed out on foot to explore more of the city and to check out the Dragon Bridge’s fire and water show.  It was awesome! Our thanks to fellow Vietnam traveler and friend Rich Furlong who’d been there a few weeks prior to us and warned that it’s quite possible to get soaked down to your underwear if you stand in the path of the Dragon’s water spray.  We found a spot with a good view, away from the spray and enjoyed the approximately 30-minute show alongside hundreds of other onlookers, many who requested photos with us due to our novelty as foreigners. Robin was suspicious of the attention at first, however Mark was aglow with his newfound celebrity! You can watch a video montage we created of the show here:

 

And you can see the small assortment of photos we took on our first day in Da Nang by clicking here.
Having enjoyed such a magical day in Da Nang, we were sad to have to leave the following morning, but we had a flight to catch back to Hanoi where we’d soon begin the month-long CELTA training course to become certified to teach English as a second language. As the plane carried us through the skies, we began making plans for how we could viably put down roots in Da Nang. It would come down to whether we could obtain employment, which would be tricky because there are far fewer ESL schools in Da Nang than other larger cities in Vietnam. One school in particular stood out as our dream destination: Fisher’s SuperKids English Center, located in Da Nang and renowned as the leading ESL school in the entirety of the Central Region of Vietnam.  Our sights were set!

 

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