After a few days of wandering around in Ho Chi Minh City, my brother, Nick, and I flew to Da Nang. The flight costs about $50 per person and takes about an hour on one of several casually operated domestic airlines. We didn’t really have any plans in Da Nang, but we knew that the city sat on the north end of what resting American servicemen dubbed China Beach during the war, so we had booked an apartment in a near the beach using Airbnb. Our taxi driver seemed genuinely confused about where we were going as we circled around the sleepy beach-side neighborhood, until we eventually pulled up beside a lone, nondescript 30 story building and came to a stop. Yes… a nondescript skyscraper in a quiet neighborhood. Not a luxury hotel; not a hotel at all, just an unmarked apartment tower. The Airbnb host was waiting for us outside and led us up the elevator. The old building was rugged, with slow elevators that broke down most days, and stuffy, dimly lit hallways, but our apartment on the 27th floor with a view of the beach was nice enough.
Later in the trip, in the north, we had trouble finding open restaurants on a couple of occasions. That didn’t happen in Da Nang. The streets in the part of the city that we were in were lined with mostly empty restaurants, most of which advertised their regional specialty, seafood, by setting out tubs of live fish, crab, sea snails, shrimp, eels, clams, oysters, and whatever else you can pull out of the ocean. Servers would often stand out front, trying to woo any passersby inside. The problem was, there were hardly any people, much less the tourists that they seemed to be catering to, anywhere to be seen. We would later conclude that this was some kind of resort community for part of the year, but that we were there for the slow season. It was drizzly for most of the time that we were there, after all, and the beaches were empty. But why did the dozens of restaurants stay open for this time of year? Why did they keep their tubs of live sea creatures stocked for the few customers that might come in on a lucky day? I really don’t know, but we’d see the “if you build it, they will come” attitude pop up again in Ha Long, where they are building rows of condos and hotels in a part of the city that no one seems to live in or visit.
So anyway, amazing, fresh seafood was easy to find in east Da Nang, but it’s not all that cheap. When you want cheap and delicious, you look for bahn mi. Bahn mi is pretty much perfect. Yes, I’ve had it in Seattle, and it’s fine there. But to walk up to a cart in Da Nang, hand the cook 10,000 dong (45 cents!), and then watch them cut open the baguette, slather on that liver paste, pile on some anonymous meat and pickled veggies, and then maybe add a personal touch like a freshly fried egg or some kind of sauce… That’s just all you need, any time, day or night. No two are the same. I ate one on a rainy morning that was so spicy that it woke me up more than coffee does, warmed me up more than dry cloths would have, and filled my stomach just enough to be satisfied until the next one. Go to Vietnam; eat bahn mi. That’s my life advice to you.
As we walked through the city we couldn’t help but chuckle at the disparity of long abandoned, rubble filled empty lots beside nice buildings on dark streets, a few blocks from elaborately lit skyscrapers, all in a place that seemed, at least in the rainy season, to be underpopulated.
On our second day in Da Nang we rented motorbikes. Motorbikes are the primary mode of transportation in Southeast Asia, and for the American in to see for the first time what can be carried on a motorbike is to have your mind blown. It’s not uncommon to see a family of 4 or 5 on one bike. I’ve seen people transport multiple 30 foot pieces of rebar, lumber, multiple full size kegs of beer, a mobile cobbler/sewing shop, a pot and pan shop, dozens of giant fragile clay vases, hot ovens for mobile street food, mobile live pet fish displays, mobile florists… Anything that has ever been done with a van in the US has been done with a 125 cc motorbike in Vietnam. Mostly though, people just use them to get around. And they do get around.
In your first days of navigating a motorbike through city traffic in Vietnam you will experience the highest highs and the lowest lows. There were moments when I was sure that I was about to become a streak on the pavement, and some when I felt like I was riding a perfect wave with the riders around me. When you find yourself in a group of other bikes navigating through traffic at the same pace you feel unstoppable. When you find yourself weaving between cars you feel like you’re getting away with something terrible. Cars, trucks, and buses are the enemy; other bikers are your friends. Motorbikes are still in the majority, but there are more cars in Vietnam every year. Of course, if you’ve been navigating these streets for years, there’s nothing to it. You start young: I asked a lady who ran a hotel that we stayed in when her baby would be old enough to drive a motorbike on his own, and she seemed confused by the question. “Maybe four?” When the schools let the kids out every day, the streets and highways would suddenly be packed with kids on motorbikes heading home.
So we rented motorbikes because that’s what you do. We had no plans. We immediately headed up the coastal highway to a forested peninsula to our north that had a giant statue of the Buddha on a hillside. On the way there, we both skidded to a stop beside an impressive Buddhist temple, and went inside to have a look. Buddhists in Vietnam are welcoming about their temples; just be sure to take off your shoes before entering a building.
After exploring the temple, we headed up further to find the statue. It turned out to be a whole complex, the Linh Ung Pagoda, complete with several temples, and courtyards filled with bonsai trees and statues. There were plenty of tourists around, but few westerners. The air was thick with incense, and the moody clouds added to the atmosphere. While somewhat crowded, the place commanded a quiet respect. We hung out until sunset and rode home in the near dark.
The next day we took off again towards the peninsula, this time through a light rain, the narrowing road climbing through the jungle as we went. Monkeys scattered as we rounded corners, and eventually we stopped at a sign that pointed towards a “big banyan tree.” I’ve spent most of my life in forests but have never seen a tree with branches that grow up, and then horizontally, and then forking up and down, the downward forks replanting themselves in the ground to support the rest. Monkeys screeched at us from the thick jungle as we walked around the tree again and again.
We backtracked and turned down a different spur of the road, eventually passing through an open gate. We had no idea where we were headed. We rode through vine covered tunnels to a collection of huts in the jungle, where boys played soccer and an older woman greeted us warmly without words and showed us where to park our bikes before drawing a map in the dirt that showed which trails would lead, evidently, to monkeys and big trees. We gathered it was some kind of forest reserve. We wandered through the jungle until it was almost dark, went back to our bikes, waved goodbye, and then backtracked down the narrow jungle road and between the indifferent monkeys and down onto the highway beside the beach that led us home, squinting against the rain in spite of the darkness.
The next day we rode to Hoi An. “You can see a lot of westerners there,” a café owner in Da Nang had told us. Indeed, Hoi An is what many westerners come to this part of the country to see. It is a beautiful city, a mix of Vietnam and old France. Hoi An is famous for inexpensive, but nice tailored cloths, and in fact there are dozens of tailor shops in the tourist area. We walked through the market, found a famous bahn mi place, then returned to our scooters and rode around through the outskirts of the city to see how the people there live. Hoi An is for sure worth a visit, but if you go to the Da Nang area I’d recommend branching out and just getting lost on motorbikes for a couple of days.