Da Nang and Hoi An: Travel’s Version of Beauty and the Beast

DragonBridgeAfter reading plenty of gushing online articles about how Da Nang in Vietnam was an upcoming tourist destination well worth checking out, my travel companion and I decided to start our trip around Vietnam  from there. It pains me to admit that, in my opinion, the articles about Da Nang being a city full of things for visitors to do are very wide of the mark.

Da Nang

I arrived at Funtastic Da Nang Hostel (now permanently closed) late at night after sharing a taxi with an English speaking local who helpfully told the driver where it was situated. It was not an easy place to find located in the winding backstreets, so I felt fortunate that the person I rode with knew where it was and was able to explain this to my driver in his native tongue. Arriving during the day might have alleviated the hassle of finding the hostel, but the streets of Da Nang are not the easiest to navigate as a new arrival to the city, especially in the unwelcoming dark.

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One of the infrequent breaks in the Da Nang traffic

The city is frenetic and busy, a non-stop cacophony of noise. Da Nang is less touristy than some of the other areas of Vietnam we stopped off in (Hanoi, Sapa, etc) so you can at least get a better idea of how Vietnamese people live their everyday lives away from the influx of the foreign masses. The people here are rather friendly and you shouldn’t be surprised to hear people calling friendly hellos if you strain your ears over the chaotic orchestra of bike engines and sounding horns. The city itself doesn’t offer a great deal of action and its streets are a muddle of pharmacies, convenience stores, and ugly half-finished concrete structures. To find any food and drink action requires you to walk to the area nearest the Dragon Bridge where there is a small stretch of bars and restaurants to enjoy.

The Dragon Bridge, if I’m being brutally honest, is the only interesting landmark that Da Nang has to offer. Lit up colourfully at night, and with weekend fire and water shows, it is quite impressive in the dark of the evenings. However, the shows are short and stop-start, so if you have come all the way to the city for the bridge alone, you may well leave feeling shortchanged.

 

A few days into our visit, wanting to get away from the never ending bustle and noise of the city, we made our way on foot to Thanh Binh beach which was an experience in itself. The distance from our hostel to the beach wasn’t very far, but the congestion on Da Nang’s roads drastically extends any journey made by foot. While roads absolutely rammed with mopeds and motorbikes is to be expected in Vietnam, Da Nang had by far the heaviest traffic of all the spots we visited. Crossing the road here is like playing Russian Roullette in that it seems absolutely random whether you will make it to the other side in one piece or not. There really never seems to be a break in the traffic and I would recommend exercising extreme caution when crossing the street as some of the bike riders drive like lunatics seemingly without a second to spare.

Once we made it to Thanh Binh safely we slumped into a deckchair (which was free!) with much relief and ordered a beer from a nearby vendor. The beach was unspectacular compared to others we encountered on our South East Asia trip, but it was calm, quiet, and, bar ourselves, was frequented solely by locals. We were able to relax and watch an unhindered sunset far removed from the hectic madness of Da Nang proper.

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Thanh Binh beach was a pleasant haven away from the madness of Da Nang proper

I would say be wary of what you read about Da Nang online. It might well have a burgeoning tourist scene, but it seemed to me to be focused around high-end visitors who congregate in the five star hotels along the coast’s sandy beaches without straying too far from their fancy accommodation. As budget travellers, my companion and I really found little in Da Nang that we could recommend to other backpackers bar its proximity to Hoi An. If you are passing the city on your way somewhere else, by all means pop in for a day to see the bridge. I wouldn’t, however, say it is a place worth going out of your way for.

Marble Mountains

One of the ‘must see’ places while in Da Nang are the Marble Mountains. I must profess to never being more disappointed with a recommendation I found online than I was with this site.

The mountains are rundown, scruffy, and absolutely littered with rubbish. Wild dogs run around unhindered often looking rabid and threatening. The highest point on the mountains (the path leading to which is pretty difficult to find) provides a view of the distant beaches which were nice enough, but the nearer surroundings of scorched fields and dumped waste were far less attractive, making your trip up the many steps in the searing heat feel like a little bit of a wasted journey.

 

As well as this viewpoint, there are a number of unspectacular caves to clamber into, but the majority of them reveal nothing but guano spattered rocks for you to admire once you have reached their innermost chambers.

 

There is one grotto, however, called Huyen Khong that houses a statue and allows a blazing column of light to shine through its ceiling which was quite awe-inspiring, reminding me very much of something that Indiana Jones might have stumbled upon during one of his adventures. There are a number of gardens and sculptures dotted around the mountain but the majority are in very poor condition or terrible states of disrepair respectively.

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Huyen Khong Grotto is easily the most impressive thing about the Marble Mountains

Unsurprisingly, there are many, many steps on the mountain so people with low levels of fitness might struggle to get about, especially when factoring in the heat of the day. My companion was carrying a little extra timber and didn’t make it to the top, instead choosing to chug numerous colas in the shade of a parasol while his dangerous heart rate slowed back to normal.

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The steep steps seriously intimidated Shayne and defeated him fairly quickly

After a hugely underwhelming visit, we made our way back to the entrance to hail a taxi. At the base of the mountain there are a number of shops selling marble sculptures. The people who own these stores can be very persistent and hands on and will try and flog their wares in a very intense manner. Try and stand your ground when approached and don’t give an inch otherwise you can end up spending a million dong on some tiny statuettes you didn’t even want like my gullible travel buddy did. How I laughed at him on the taxi ride back to the hostel.

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The front of the marble shop that emptied Shayne’s wallet of a million dong

Overall, I thought this to be a very poor day out. I wouldn’t recommend the Marble Mountains unless you have a peculiar penchant for litter and filth or find yourself stuck in Da Nang and are absolutely desperate to kill some time before you leave.

Hoi An

Our hostel, which unfortunately is no longer open, provided a free mini bus each day that would take people to Hoi An completely free of charge. The bus alone would have been a good enough reason to recommend Funtastic Da Nang if it was still open as long as you didn’t mind listening to the truly dreadful Modern Talking (a German 80s synth pop band who are massive in Vietnam) on eternal loop. For better or worse, Brother Louie became the unofficial anthem to our trip. Keep your ears open for them while you are in Vietnam.

We set off to Hoi An early one morning with a handful of other travellers seeking an escape from the choking fumes and manic traffic of Da Nang. Although we were less than impressed with Da Nang itself, Hoi An went some way towards making the trip there worthwhile.

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One of the shady market streets in Hoi An

Hoi An, although far more touristic, is a much more pleasant place to visit. With plenty of markets, stalls, coffee shops, and restaurants, it offers everything that the part of Da Nang we stayed in can’t – the place was much cleaner and more scenic than where we were based. There are far more photographic opportunities in Hoi An, too, from the picturesque Japanese bridge to the pretty maze-like winding backstreets to the leafy streets near the market. There is plenty to do in Hoi An to fill a day from walking along the beautiful riverside to admiring the many Vietnamese sculptures and displays located across the main bridge and throughout the winding streets.

 

Eating and drinking here is a much more appealing prospect than in Da Nang. There are a plethora of restaurants and eateries to choose from and, owing to the heavier tourist footfall, most places offer English menus. One of the best things about Vietnam for me is the coffee. It is strong and sweet owing to the fact it is mixed with thick condensed milk instead of the usual cow’s milk and Hoi An is the perfect place to give it a try. There are many coffee shops here that provide enjoyable views and good coffee at inexpensive prices. Personally, I was quite taken by Vietnamese coffee and still drink it at home today in the UK.

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Vietnamese curry we had for dinner

Be warned, however, that with the increase in foreign visitors comes an increase in aggressive peddlers trying to flog you their tat. When you sit down for a coffee or a bite to eat in a restaurant it is almost guaranteed that you will be hassled by someone. It is not uncommon to face three or four onslaughts before you manage to finish your thimble-sized  Vietnamese coffee. This kind of behaviour is to be expected in poor countries and touristy places, but the frequency of the approaches in Hoi An can quickly grate.

One place my friend and I particularly liked here was a little cafe called Cocobox. It is a charming little place that sells unusually flavoured ice creams, smoothies, coffees, sweets, and snacks. It specialises in organic ingredients which will especially appeal to the health- and eco-conscious amongst you. I would definitely recommend taking a break from the melting sun here and sampling a refreshing kumquat ice cream which was quite bitter but strangely refreshing. They also sell nice little foodie gifts which are very unique in comparison to the replicated knick knacks that fill the shelves of all the other surrounding stalls and would make nice souvenirs for friends and loved ones.

 

People might demand payment from you to cross the Japanese bridge. You can pay to cross if you like, but if you don’t want to spend any cash for such an insignificant crossing, you can avoid the toll by walking a little further up the road where the pathways on either side of the water eventually meet. It seemed a lot of people weren’t aware of this fact and grew disgruntled once they discovered the free method of crossing the waterway.

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Inside the Japanese bridge. Remember, it is not necessary to pay the crossing fee!

If you are here long-term and fancy hitting the beach, there are a few nearby that are only a short taxi ride away. They provide motorboats for rental and other water-based activities to enjoy.

If you can’t hop on a free bus to Hoi An from Da Nang like we did, there are other options available to you. A taxi ride will set you back a relatively small 350,000 dong or, if that is too pricey for your tastes, a bus can be taken for 110,000 dong instead.

If you are adamant about visiting the region surrounding Da Nang and Hoi An then I would highly recommend staying in Hoi An over Da Nang. It is far cleaner, more pleasant, and has much more choice when it comes to food, drink, and activities.

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