Da Nang, Vietnam: the Most Underrated City in Southeast Asia

You know Bangkok, and Hong Kong, and Singapore, and Hanoi…but what about little Da Nang?  While it may be just a paragraph in most travel guides, Da Nang, Vietnam is worth an entire chapter.  This city of under one million – teeny, tiny by Asian standards – is not just a stopover; it’s a travel destination in its own right.  Here’s why.

Beach, Beach, Beach

In Da Nang you are spoiled rotten by gorgeous beaches.  There’s the seemingly never-ending China Beach that frames one whole side of the city in post card white sand and turquoise sea.  This stunner is ten miles long and virtually empty all day long.  In a classic win-win situation, most Vietnamese people avoid the beach during the day (tans are not popular here), giving visitors and unique chance to enjoy a city side beach all on their own.  My Khe beach is just as splendid – and just as free of anyone but you.  And, if you’re really in the mood for cliché tropical paradise, Lang Co Beach is a quick scoot away.

Cheap Food, Cheap Stays, Cheap Tailors

Southeast Asia is comparatively cheap for travel.  Vietnam is comparatively cheap within Southeast Asia.  Da Nang is comparatively cheap within Vietnam.  Your money goes far here, and can be spent on incredible fresh seafood that you choose directly from fishermen or immaculately hand sewn suits from local tailors.  For such a small place, Da Nang has a surprisingly wide variety of restaurants, bars and activities.  Splurge on champagne brunch at the Intercontinental in the morning.  Go out diving in the afternoon.  Visit the ornate temples that are scattered all around the city.  Then wind down with live music and a beer along the riverfront (that’s right, Da Nang has a beach front and a river front).  When you’re ready to turn in, take your pick from eleven bagillion hotels with rooms that will cost you a whopping ten dollars.

Culture without the Throngs of Tourists


When you’re finished wining and dining yourself, you might remember that Da Nang is a hub of Vietnamese culture – without the crowds and hassles of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh.  Of course there’s the Cham Museum that pops up in most tour guides, but there’s more to Da Nang than just one museum.  There’s the gorgeous (and enormous) Buddah statue that overlooks the city from her perch on the town’s mountain.  This green jungle in the middle of the city, called Son Tra, is a protected area with just a few small restaurants grandfathered in – and plenty of monkeys for your picture-taking pleasure!  There are temples and churches all around to remind of you of Vietnamese beliefs.  And, of course, there are the people themselves, who are all the more apt to sit and chat with you in this smaller, less congested Vietnamese city.

Lovely People

Da Nang is not a city; it’s just a big beach town.  Maybe that explains the laid-back attitude of the people here.  From the moment you arrive you will find people willing to help you, willing to walk you to where you need to go, and willing to try and understand your terrible, mispronounced Vietnamese.  And, no, they aren’t looking to charge you for it.  While other cities are full of scammers, Da Nang is quite sincere in its hospitality.   It’s new on the tourist scene and the people here want you to have a good time.  Within 24 hours of arriving here I’d had people offer to carry my suitcase, offer to help me get a cell phone and scoot me across town to the beach – and all refuse any sort of money.  People here are just plain nice.

Da Nang may not be the flashiest Asian city, but it’s one of the most authentic – and most enjoyable.  Happy travels to this lovely town!

Tomb of Tu Doc, a man with 100 women

The Tomb of Tu Doc, a 19th century Vietnamese emperor,  is pretty indicative of his “living the good life” lifestyle.  His tomb, outside of the city of Hue, is elaborate – with expansive hunting grounds, a fishing pond and even a spot for his concubines to relax over the lake.  That’s right- according to history, Emperor Tu Doc had nearly 100 wives and concubines. Tu Doc was certainly living the “good life”.

Interestingly enough, the tomb of Tu Doc doesn’t actually hold his remains – instead it is used as a temple to worship the Emperor.  At one time it was probably filled with art and treasure, now lost. Like all good royals, the Emperor left a mystery- the location of the Emperor’s remains are unknown because the servants involved in his burial and death ceremonies were beheaded to keep his final resting place a secret.  Likely, he’s somewhere on the tomb’s grounds… maybe near the concubine’s hang out.

This is actually a picture of the Stele pavilion at entrance to the tomb.  A stele is used to tell a story.  Tu Doc’s stele is enormous and chronicles his reign.  Perhaps most unusual about the stele is that it documents his illnesses and mistakes.  A shockingly honest ruler for a man that beheaded his servants.

Behind the stele are the remains of scaled down horses, elephants and soldiers to remain with him in the afterlife.


IF YOU GO: Vietnam makes a great choice for tailor made holidays as there’s a lot to see and unless you have unlimited time, not enough hours in the day to get it all in.  Until 1945, Hue was the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty.  Outside of Hue there are several royal tombs that are often combined into one day. We went to the tomb of Tu Doc, Minh Mang, Kali Dinh and the Thien Mu Pagoda, but there are plenty of smaller tombs and sites along the river if you feel the need to explore.  The tombs are a decent distance from the city, so unless you’re up for a long day of biking, skip the DIY bike rental.  If you’re looking for inexpensive souvenirs, there’s a small tourist market near the Thien Mu Pagoda that is worth a look if you’re up for bargaining.

rtw adventure travel

The scenic route to Cambodia

IMGP9825From Southern Vietnam there are two ways to get to Phnom Penh – the easy way and the scenic way. Gluttons for punishment or a sense of adventure, depending on how you see it, we decided to go the scenic way. Three days by boat through the Mekong Delta.

For me the Mekong is one of those mythical big rivers. Like the Nile or the Amazon, the Mekong is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia. Running from its head waters in Tibet 2,703 miles to the South China Sea, the Mekong Delta is the center of Southern Vietnam’s economy. From lively and extensive floating markets, to small villages and Buddhist temples hidden in caves, the area is rich in activity.

Our Mekong Delta tour was pretty much as expected, a tour that shuttled us through tons of places in very little time stopping at everyone’s souvenir shop along the way. Typical on these kinds of tours, we sampled tropical fruits while listening to traditional music (CD: $10), coconut candies (one package: $1), and a rice noodle factory (1 kilo of noodle: $2). And then there was the Burmese Python, which thankfully was free to touch. As you can tell by the pictures, I was slightly freaked out by the whole thing. Slightly is an understatement.IMGP6264

Although the area is undergoing dramatic economic development, most of the population still lives by the river’s waters. That’s the real draw to the area, and although we spent most of our time on uncomfortable wooden boats, it was interesting to see life along the river.

Besides being the local “highway”, the river also supports several floating markets, floating residences and a huge variety of floating businesses from fish farming to restaurants and even the border post. That’s right, Vietnamese Immigration is a floating building on the Mekong. We’ve crossed numerous border, a few have been over water, but I’m pretty sure this was our first floating border post. Thankfully the Cambodian officials chose to build their post on land and at least for a little while we were able to get off the boat.

IMGP9837In a van for the last 40km to Phnom Penh, our driver turned on his favorite music- 1998 pop music. Song after song from artists that should never be heard from again (Jamaraquai, Aqua…) we laughed in disbelief as song after song blared through the speakers. Finally we surrendered and by the time we arrived in Phnom Penh the entire van was singing along to such favorites as “Barbie Girl” and “Spice up your life.” Welcome to Cambodia.

If You Go: Two and three day tours are easy and affordable and easy to book in Ho Chi Minh City. You can get around the region independently but it is time consuming. Be prepared for an onslaught of souvenir shops. If you do cross the border into Cambodia, you will have no choice but to pay a $1 stamping fee(bribe)to the immigration officials. Visas for Cambodia can be arranged at the border,but if you do the tour in reverse,you’ll need your Vietnamese visa in advance.

Underground with the Viet Cong.

Ah, Yes. The Vietnam War. That’s the one where the US goes in, a lot of people are confused as to the reasons why, there is a war, and then the US comes home. Everyone thinks there are Soviets but no one seems to be able to find one. There is long hiking trail called Ho Chi Minh where guns and ammunition just seem to grow and then there are tunnels that require the use of some kind of orange toxin to kill the plant life in order to find.
Wait, did you say tunnels?

Yes. The Cu Chi tunnels, located less than 50 miles outside of Saigon, are now one of the most popular tourist attractions of the new Vietnam. For less than ten dollars you can purchase round trip transportation with a tour guide and enter the the region that served as the southern terminus of the Ho Chi Min Trail. If you want to shoot the M-16 or AK-47 you’ll have to pay extra to purchase a clip of rounds.

The tour starts with a video loaded with, understandably, anti-US propaganda but then rather ironically finishes with a ‘California, USA’ logo, courtesy of the TV’s manufacture.
IMGP6215 Following this, we were shown to a series of fox holes, like the one Saddam Hussein was found inside. The gist of all that we saw was just how small it was, built by and for ‘little people’ without the use of machines. The entrance to the rabbit hole was about 12 inches by 6 inches and covered with plant life.

The tunnel system itself extended all the way to the border along the Saigon river and in the Cu Chi area alone there are rumored to have been over 200km of tunnels, all dug by hand, initially to be used against the French in the 1940s. It was explained to us that there were multiple levels, allowing for cooking and for the care of wounded, as well as the dismantling of unexploded munitions to be used as land mines for protection from enemy tanks.

Termite mounts hid bamboo poles used as air vents and to keep dogs from sniffing them out, US Army uniforms were places just below the surface. The soles of shoes were put on backwards to make the tracks appear to be leading in the wrong direction. Different types of bamboo booby traps that were historically used to catch monkeys and tigers.

As US and S. Vietnamese forces grew increasingly aware of the tunnels and their role in waging the war in the south, IMGP6218the area increasingly began a target for US bomb attacks; according to our guide, the region was hit with 2 bombs per square meter over a several year period. The one bomb crater we saw easily had a diameter of 10 meters. Water was poured into entrance holes by helicopters but this did little to hurt the Viet Cong as the network was designed so that the water drained into the river below. There was no ‘sewer’ system inside the tunnel, however, and all excrement needed to be carried out in buckets… gross.

IF YOU GO: Book a tour from Saigon for about $5 per person. At the entrance gate you’ll need to pay an additional 80,000 VND ($4) to the site directly. Take extra money if you want any souvenirs or to shoot a gun. Tours leave Saigon around 0800 and return before 1400.

Foodie Friday: Pho

F-O. F-Uh. F-uoh. It took a while to get down the actual Vietnamese pronunciation of Pho, but thankfully I did because I want to order it from every street vendor I see. Unfortunately, actually pronouncing Pho isn’t so easy and we spent one evening at the reception desk of our hotel repeating the name of the dish over and over again providing an absolute endless amount of laughter for the staff.

Vietnam wasn’t my first introduction to Pho. Back in DC, a coworker convinced us to go to a ‘hole-in-the-wall’ Vietnamese restaurant one day for lunch. Hesitant, but willing to try something new, I dove right into my rice noodle and meat soup and from that day forward I was hooked. Fortunately my chop stick skills have greatly improved since then and I can now eat Pho with chopsticks without splashing it all over myself in the process. Eating noodle soup with chopsticks, now that’s a serious life skill.

Noodles in Asia are served slightly differently than in the West, they’re usually served in broth. Pho is a bowl of rice noodles in broth that’s usually served with meat, bean sprouts, chilies, basil, and sometimes peanuts. Until we got to Vietnam I had actually never seen it prepared, so when the Pho vendor placed thinly pounded raw beef on the bed of noodles I had to cringe. Seconds late the beef cooked before my eyes as he poured in boiling hot broth.

Without realizing I was sitting next to a novice, I dug right into my Pho. Following my lead, Danny started in on his bowl and after a few bites pronounced it delicious. A few days later, midway through another bowl of Pho, Danny randomly decided that he actually liked using chopsticks for noodles…the next thing I knew we were shopping for a set of chopsticks. Maybe they’ll never be used to eat some Pho, but there’s always hoping!