To travel through a large swath of Vietnam, we opted for the country’s affordable and scenic rail transit. We took Vietnam Railway’s Reunification Express from the southern town of Nha Trong, all the way north to Hanoi, stopping at several cities along the way. Vietnam’s principal rail system, the route was completed by the French in 1936, but was cut in 1954 when the country was split into North and South Vietnam. The line remained closed until the end of 1976, when the war in Vietnam ended and the north and south were rejoined. Today, the long stretch of railway runs 1,726 km (1,073 miles), from Saigon to Hanoi, largely hugging the country’s east coast. Over the course of a couple weeks, we traveled 1,144 km (711 miles) of track, with our first stop being a quick daytrip and overnight in Da Nang.
Da Nang is a fairly large and affluent city (population ~1 million) perched along the shores of the South China Sea. While, again, another large metro area, Da Nang had a certain charm to it. The Hàn River slices through the sprawling downtown, and a number of unique bridges span the tranquil waters (fellow science geeks – tell me you see the DNA helix on the Tran Thi Ly Bridge). To the northeast, the verdant slopes of the Son Tra Peninsula tumble to the azure sea. With only 24 hours to get a feel for the city, we grabbed a motorbike and headed into the hot, summer sun to explore. As usual, we pointed the bike away from the mass of skyscrapers, instead heading for the more isolated peninsula. The coastal road wound along narrow stretches of beach – the sands dotted with shady umbrellas, the calm waters with dozens of wooden fishing boats – before slowing climbing the forested hillside. After only a few miles, we reached the city’s iconic Lady Buddha, a white, marble statue standing an impressive 72 meters tall, looking out over Da Nang’s expansive skyline.
Enjoying the modest breeze generated by our moving moto, we decided to continue ascending Monkey Pass to the top of the 693 meter (2,274’) Ban Co Peak. The road turned to the left, and abruptly narrowed as it transformed into a seemingly-vertical climb. As we headed up, the initial grade quickly proved too steep for our underpowered, 125 cc moped; the bike slowed… and then slowed… and then came to a pitiful halt. I was ultimately forced to hop off and hike to the top of the first crest in the oppressive heat. Upon meeting Stephan at the top, we both kind of looked at the poor little bike, wondering if it could handle the remaining 6.5 km to the summit. Up for the challenge, we gave it a whirl. Luckily, just after hopping back on the bike, we noticed an even smaller road that forked off to the right, up an equally-sheer slope. Stephan figured if we turned up that hill, maybe we could get enough momentum coming down to turn back onto our road and make the second hill. Sure enough, we flew down the hill (with me squealing from the back), successfully navigated the sharp right-hand turn, and (barely) crested the second slope. Somehow, we eventually made it to the top… although Stephan may have had to assist the strained engine a couple times with a little foot power – it was like Fred Flintstone in a snazzy teal helmet. In the end, though, the adventure gave us many good laughs along the way, and the view wasn’t too shabby either.
Back at sea level, we spent part of the afternoon at My Khe Beach, just around the corner from our guesthouse. The white sand was scorching in the 115-degree sunshine, but the cool(er) waves of the South China Sea were a welcome relief.
That evening, we headed downtown to see the colorful illumination of the city’s Dragon Bridge (Cau Rong). With construction beginning in 2009, and the 2,185’ span opening to traffic in 2013, Cau Rong is a fairly new addition to Da Nang’s architecture. We’d heard that on Saturday and Sunday evenings, the colorful serpent turned into a literal fire-breathing dragon; and since we were there on a Sunday, we figured we had to check it out. Before heading to the bridge, though, we stopped for dinner at an unbelievable vegan restaurant. I was beginning to lose hope of ever enjoying a meal in the country, as the options are just super limited for vegetarians (my monotonous fried rice meals were frighteningly reminiscent of my PB&Js in Australia). Karma Waters, however, surprised me with the most outstanding bean curry, dahl, fruit juice, and fruit salad ever. Only hours earlier I had told Stephan I’d kill for some beans (impossible to find on a menu in SE Asia) and fresh fruit (ostensibly less abundant in Vietnam, for some reason). Needless to say, I was shocked to find them on the menu, and don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to see a bowl of legumes; I pretty much had to restrain myself from jumping up and down and shrieking with delight. What made the meal better still was that Karma Waters donates all their profits to local charities, provides free monthly meals to low-income individuals, and promotes veganism and sustainability.
After perhaps my happiest meal ever, we scooted over to the bridge to see the dragon in action. The bridge and marina were absolutely jammed with people – surprisingly so for such a modest event that happens every weekend. Nonetheless, the few breaths of fire were pretty cool and, as evidenced by the abundance of photos below, I was fairly obsessed with the color-changing dragon. I didn’t expect to enjoy standing there watching a silly bridge transform from a vibrant gold to green to blue, but I was unexpectedly captivated by the shimmering serpent, and it ended up being a highlight of Da Nang.
Upon returning to our guesthouse that evening, Miss Kim – who runs the My An Dong Hotel along with her husband and daughter – was waiting in the lobby with a small bag. She told me she had a gift for me. I opened the bag to find a beautiful, locally-made, embroidered clutch, adorned with adorable deer and small flowers. She thanked us for visiting, presented me with the lovely accessory, and gave us each a warm hug. I have no idea why she felt compelled to give me such a precious gift, and it seemed like thank you just wasn’t enough. She and her family were some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, and clearly just want to share their happiness with others. Thank you again, Miss Kim – we so enjoyed our stay at your lovely inn.