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Danang, Vietnam: A city in transition

By Jonathan Evans 10 May 2021

Header image courtesy of @jameshim (via Unsplash)

Until recently, Vietnam’s third city never wielded the pulling power of Saigon or Hanoi. But in recent years, it has undergone a makeover that might surprise visitors who considered it merely a functional stopover between the nearby heritage cities of Hue and Hoi An

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For decades, Vietnam’s third city of Danang suffered from a chronic image problem. In 1858, it was where the French first landed on their imperial quest to control the chunk of Southeast Asia they later called Indochina. 

A century later, it was a major US airbase during the Vietnam War, as well as the site of huge stockpiles of the disfiguring, dioxin-laced herbicide known as Agent Orange. And when global travel accelerated in the late twentieth century, Danang was better known as a gateway to Hue and Hoi An than as a destination in its own right.

In the present day, these negative associations from a regrettable past seem a distant memory. The last decade has seen Danang (Đà Nẵng) on a fast-track drive into hypermodernity, as a brace of architecture, engineering, and design projects have propelled the once-traditional city into the echelons of Asia’s more cutting-edge destinations. 

Architect extraordinaire Bill Bensley spent six years reimagining the InterContinental resort hotel in Sơn Trà Peninsula into a design showpiece, unveiled in 2012. In 2013, the now-iconic Cầu Rồng (also known as the Dragon Bridge even to some locals) opened to traffic, a gargantuan structure bestriding the Hàn River.

In 2014, Sky36, at the time Vietnam’s tallest rooftop bar, was completed atop the Novotel; and in 2015, a new wharf development, DHC Marina, lit up the riverside. With buildings like the unmissable Danang Administration Centre—a parsnip-shaped skyscraper—now gracing the riverfront, the riverfront now more closely resembles Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour than anything we’d normally associate with Vietnam.

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Certainly, sandwiched as it is between two world-famous heritage destinations—the former imperial capital of Hue (Huế) and the UNESCO-designated city of Hoi An (Hội An)—the city’s sudden embrace of modernity seems surprising. Yet it fits Danang’s easy-going, urbane vibe perfectly: A relatively small conurbation of one million residents, its streets of manageable traffic and well-observed pedestrian crossings are flanked by fashionable boutiques and European-style restaurants. 

Even on the outskirts of the city, major breakthroughs have reshaped the landscape. The cable car which now transports visitors to the mist-enshrouded Bà Nà Hills Mountain Resort became the world’s longest single-track gondola ride on its unveiling in 2013—a ride immortalised in 2018 with the addition of the two-handed Golden Bridge (Cầu Vàng)—taking 30 minutes to travel over five kilometres and rising almost 1,500 metres over breathtaking sylvan scenery and waterfalls.

Danang’s newfound penchant for remarkable alfresco set pieces was matched by aesthetic triumphs on the interiors of restaurants, bars, and hotels lining the long, central streets of Bạch Đằng, Trần Phú, and Phan Châu Trinh

Sanouva hotel, which began operations in a heritage building in June 2014, flaunts a dazzling lobby with mid-century armchairs set around golden butterfly murals, arched windows, suspended birdcages, and crimson lanterns dangling from minimalist chandeliers, all framed against the imposing balustrades of a grand, curvilinear staircase. Naman Retreat, an ultra-sophisticated beachside resort, is a grand showcase for the artistry of Saigon’s hippest architects.

Take a closer look at the standout areas of this newly minted design city with this rundown of Danang’s urban highlights.

Bà Nà Hills Mountain Resort

The standout attraction of Danang, Bà Nà is an unmissable destination on many levels: a one-time mountaintop village for French colonialists, the modern update nostalgically reflects on its roots but also contains some of the city’s most striking building, artistic, and design-driven concepts. As you disembark the cable car at Gare l’Indochine, first you enter a Disneyland-like pastiche of a French town that harks back to the hill sanctuary’s origins a hundred years ago—complete with a cathedral, shops like a florist and a bakery, and a Mercure hotel, all ensconced within mock period architecture.

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It takes another cable car journey from Gare de Morin, and a funicular ride to Gare d’Amour, before you reach Le Jardin d’Amour. The “Garden of Love” is a remarkable collection of gardens including the world’s largest vertical garden, Le Jardin des Secrets, designed by Saigon-based sustainable-project specialists TA Landscape Architecture (also responsible for the Golden Bridge), and shortlisted for the 2014 World Architecture Festival Awards. Horticulturalists will marvel at the scientific complexity—each of the 44,800 plants was selected and positioned to suit its individual sunlight and water requirements.

But what’s equally ingenious is the playful layout: the garden doubles as a full-scale, maddeningly effective labyrinth. As you make your way through tall rows of philodendrons, pandanus, and caladiums, with only the giant head of a 24-metre-high Buddha visible overhead, it’s common to see fellow visitors laughing, cussing, and mildly panicking as they try to make their way back out. 

The inevitable relief on emerging at the exit is accompanied by delight at the sight of the Love Garden, all heart-shaped topiary and splendid curlicued flowerbeds, overseen by two courting swans. By contrast, the top level of this multi-tiered attraction, Nhà Tịnh Tâm (The Meditation Place), is built from remnants of pillars and archways from the villas originally built here, intertwined with lilac, white, and blue hydrangeas.

Naman Retreat

A 20-minute ride from the city centre brings you to Mỹ Khê Beach, now dotted with a string of luxury resorts and golf courses, with Non Nước Beach (“China Beach”) just next along. It’s in this area that Naman Retreat opened in February 2015 with an emphasis on enhancing spiritual wellbeing and sensual pleasure using the gifts of nature. It’s an ethos that runs right through the five-star resort—from the Sitini infinity pool, metres from the white sand; the undulating grass roofs of the UFO-like beachside villas; the pond of surrealist sculptures; the magnificent Hay Hay restaurant; and the “no wall” spa. 

Hay Hay, in particular, is a design lover’s dream and well worth a lunch trip out of town to experience in the flesh. Conjured up by the award-winning Võ Trọng Nghĩa architecture practice, its 29 trumpet-like canopies of bamboo—bent by fire, soaked in water, and fumigated—soar up to a ceiling dominated by two extraordinary domes, one with a giant skylight. 

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Architectural highlights

Now that the Dragon Bridge dominates the Han riverside, becoming its central focal point—especially at night when it lights up, changes colour, and breathes fire—other attractions have inevitably clustered around it, most notably the pierside wharf DHC Marina. Offering a prime viewing location, its 7.5-metre-tall carp statue stands guard over the river (next to a “Love Bridge”) in apparent homage to its Singaporean lookalike, the Merlion. 

In fact, the recent development of this whole area is reminiscent of Singapore’s Fullerton Bay, where, throughout the 2010s, the various architectural components came together in perfect harmony, meticulously prepared and perfectly executed, like a life-size jigsaw puzzle.

When the Danang Administration Centre on Trần Phú was completed in 2014, it seemed to anticipate the shape of things to come in this area of town. With its swirling façade of mirrored glass seeming to spiral upwards, the building looked far removed from any normal provincial government office, as well as the smartly preserved, yellow-and-white colonial buildings adjoining it on the riverside. 

Now, though, it blends right in with a series of skyscraper hotels that have risen up along the promenade in the last few years: Danang Golden Bay, Brilliant Hotel, and the Novotel, all of which boast swanky rooftop bars.

But the newest skyscraper in town will be opening in the first quarter of 2021, an as-yet-unnamed edifice standing at 72 floors and over 300 metres tall, built by the Sunshine Group. The most lauded new piece of architecture in the city—until the next skyscraper, at least—this lofty structure, already known as “The Pearl” for its oyster-like design centrepiece, joins a parade of similar additions to Danang’s skyline in recent years and stands as a testament to the city’s vaulting ambition.

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Rooftop bars

In the last few years, a plethora of lofty, upscale drink spots has graced the riverfront of a city, which, until recently, had none. With its neon splashes, DJ platform, sofa beds, and sharp fittings, Sky36 resembles the upscale Saigon club Chill Skybar, but its style, just on the right side of flashy, gives it the edge. 

The bar is illuminated by a plectrum-shaped cabinet, and from here, it’s a short ascent to the rooftop to survey the Han river spectacle, with the Dragon Bridge a few hundred metres away. This, the city’s most exclusive party den, is reached via a dramatic glass-elevator ride that glides up the Novotel’s exterior.

Perched on the twenty-ninth floor of the Danang Golden Bay hotel, Golden Pool Bar does not only offer panoramic views over the city but also one of the city’s best restaurants. The emphasis here is on quiet relaxation rather than hardcore partying—though it can accommodate up to a hundred people—and inevitably attracts a somewhat older crowd, with warm lighting, rattan chairs, and floor-to-ceiling windows allowing guests to survey the scenery across the Han river.

Restaurants

A five-minute cab ride over the Dragon Bridge whisks diners to Fatfish Restaurant & Lounge Bar, a buzzing, split-level European restaurant fetchingly decked out in a soft palette of primary colours, where seafood teriyaki on focaccia is a representative dish. The water-spewing carp statue and fire-breathing dragon are on view at this locale, which was the first bar in Danang to offer craft beer.

In a city where you are just as likely to stumble upon a casual European restaurant as a Vietnamese diner, Limoncello is a cosy Italian diner closer to the city centre whose relatively traditional trattoria-style interior starkly contrasts with the bright yellow, colonial four-storey building whose ground floor it occupies. 

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Jonathan Evans

Contributor

Jonathan is a British national but has lived and worked in four other countries: Italy, Singapore, Indonesia, and Cambodia, where he is currently resident. Having spent 13 years in Asia, he has shuttled across the region countless times, especially over the last four years when he was researched numerous stories as a freelance travel writer. In his spare time, he can often be found hiking, cycling, and dreaming up his next story, while regularly documenting his travels on Instagram. In Cambodia, he travels widely across the country and continues to marvel at its cuisine, culture, coffee, and cheerful spirit. 

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