Xin Chào Da Nang!
Every traveller has experienced this before. That initial euphoria upon visiting a new land, only to be dampened by the realisation that commercialisation has arrived before you did. And your trip turns out to be more Bali than Lombok. We’re glad to tell you that if you’re in search of such an adventure, Vietnam is one of those rare places where you’ll find an entire nation’s heritage intact, as if preserved in a time bubble.
Having only recently opened its doors to tourism in 1997, much of Vietnam’s culture is still retained in the architecture and the local’s way of life. Leave any intention of finding a McDonalds or KFC here in Da Nang at home – what you’ll get is the true essence of Vietnamese culture and a taste of the multitude of flavours that make up the fabric of this society.
Da Nang’s central location also meant Hoi An and Hue were all within a two hour’s drive away. With each town having its own unique charm and beauty, it is definitely a good idea to include them into your travel itinerary.
Before you read on, feast your eyes on the beauty of Central Vietnam in this video we filmed whilst we were there.
My favourite city in Vietnam so far, the beautiful coastal town of Da Nang covers approximately the same land size as Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi but is only home to 1 million people as compared to 7 or 8 million. Home to mountains, beaches and some of the region’s tastiest food, Da Nang is one place where you can taste some of the best that Vietnam has to offer.
1. Visit the biggest Buddhist statue in Southeast Asia
Driving along Da Nang, it’s impossible to miss the massive white statue of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy (or Lady Buddha) perched atop a hill looking out to sea. Standing 72 metres tall and carved out of one gigantic piece of marble, this statue is reportedly the largest Buddhist statue in Southeast Asia.
You’ll be surprised to know the statue actually houses 17 floors with each floor celebrating the lives of different Buddhas. Also housed on the same premises is a pagoda that unfortunately was under construction during our visit.
The easiest way would be to take a taxi, which is extremely affordable. Tell the driver to go to the Lady Buddha statue, and ask him to wait in the carpark while you visit the attraction. Most taxi drivers are happy to do so, and you save yourself the hassle of finding a way down the hill after.
2. Visit the resort with its own cable cars
This resort has quite the reputation, because when you have an actual cable car within the premises, how can you not? The best part about this is that the public can actually visit and ride this for themselves! #cheapthrills
Perched atop Monkey Mountain, InterContinental Da Nang offers hands down the best views any resort in Da Nang can offer. Separated into four levels – Heaven, Sky, Earth and Sea, this hotel features award-winning architecture that pays homage to Vietnamese culture and folklore.
You can even have a meal at the on-site Citron restaurant with its hanging pods overlooking the bay.
Or, you can lounge at Long Bar with its cushy sunbeds and wide variety of drinks including those with a local twist like the My Mojito with homegrown chilli and palm sugar!
Address: InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort, Bai Bac, Sontra Peninsula, Da Nang, Vietnam
3. Eat what the locals eat (read: quail embryos)
Much like the balut you find in the Philippines, Vietnam has its own version of this strange, unfathomable delicacy – the quail embryo. And yes, the black stuff you see in the picture – they’re feathers.
Like Kubler Ross’ grief cycle, eating this comes in stages – first, you vehemently decline, then you reluctantly accept the egg because you feel bad for refusing, you slowly peel the egg hoping you’ll drop it onto the floor, and when all that fails, acceptance.
After eating the egg you’re meant to eat some of the narrow, sharp leaves on the table that helps to provide some form of consolation along with a swig of the local La Rue beer that comes served in crates delivered to your table.
Drink to your heart’s content and when you’re done, they’ll simply charge you for the opened bottles. At just 15,000 VND (SGD1) per bottle or even less, it’s really not that hard for a group of 4 to finish the entire crate.
For the less adventurous, you can never go wrong with popular favourites like the Bánh xèo (Vietnamese pancake) eaten rolled up in rice paper and fresh greens.
Or, you can have the bò né (meaning ‘avoid the beef’) for breakfast! Named as such for the splattering oil produced from placing raw beef on the hot plate, all you need is a bit of baguette and that impossibly delicious egg and mayonnaise gravy to start your day right.
The sữa bắp or corn milk was surprisingly addictive and a great relief for the spiciness Central Vietnam food is renowned for. It tasted much like the sweet corn flavoured Potong ice-cream from my childhood, albeit in liquid form.
If you don’t know your bánh bèo from your bánh xèo and need some help, do like we did and sign yourselves up for a food tour! Shaun (pictured above and who, by the way, spoke Vietnamese like a local) and Sally from Da Nang Food Tours were super fun to be around and taught us so much about Vietnamese cuisine. It’s one thing to enjoy your food and another to know it, and it was a truly eye-opening experience to say the least.
Price: USD45 per tour | USD80 for both morning and evening tours
With a reputation for being Vietnam’s most romantic city, there’s no way you can visit Da Nang and NOT visit Hoi An. Located just under an hour’s car ride away from Da Nang’s city centre, this charming town with its melting pot of cultures is one place you will definitely regret not visiting.
4. Star in your very own Disney movie
We visited Hoi An without even realising it was the day of the Full Moon Lantern Festival. On the 14th day of every Lunar month, Hoi An transforms under flickering candlelight into a city truly deserving of its romantic reputation.
People from all over Vietnam travel to Hoi An on this day to set little lotus-shaped lanterns upon the Thu Bon river for luck, love and happiness. You can buy a lantern for about 5000 VND (SGD0.30).
For the ultimate Tangled experience, hop onto one of the boats cruising down the river. We were quoted 300,000 VND (SGD20.00) for an hour’s ride for 4 people, so just make sure you agree on a price you are comfortable with before boarding the boat.
5. Learn how to cook in the Vietnamese countryside with a 90 year old Grandma
I firmly believe one of the best ways to get to know someone’s culture is via their food and there’s no better way to go about it than with a cooking class with a difference!
Vietnamese-grown garlic on the left and Chinese garlic on the right.
We met up with Thom, our guide from Grandma’s Home Cooking who brought us to visit the local market to acquaint us with ingredients regularly used in Vietnamese cooking. It was truly educational learning about unfamiliar fruits and vegetables like this banana flower above. As each banana plant only has one banana flower, this is expensive and is usually used as a premium ingredient in Vietnamese salads.
After visiting the bustling local market, we took a 35-minute ferry ride to a nearby island to the home of Thom’s own grandma where we met the grand dame herself.
Even at 90, Grandma was a sprightly lady who showed us how rice was refined in the olden days using traditional methods. We tried our hand at dehusking rice and grinding the rice grains to make rice water – the key ingredient in rice paper.
Here we learnt to make a variety of dishes including papaya salad, Vietnamese pancake, grilled pork and fish claypot. The recipes came from Thom’s grandma herself and Thom continues to use them in her cooking even today.
After the cooking we were fed even more food with a delicious pumpkin soup and other Vietnamese delicacies cooked by Thom’s own family. This truly wasn’t a mere cooking class – it was an experience enhanced by the peaceful Vietnamese countryside and the unbelievable hospitality of Thom and her family.
Thom even offered private car transfers from the hotel to her office at a much cheaper rate than local metered taxis. It cost us just 500,000 VND (SGD33.33) to get from our hotel all the way up Monkey Mountain in Da Nang to Hoi An as opposed to 800,000-900,000 VND (SGD53-60), so definitely consider arranging for a transfer if you’re not staying in Hoi An!
Address: 57 Ngo Quyen St, Quartier de An Hoi, Hoi An – Vietnam
The historical city of Hue (pronounced hoo-way) was once Vietnam’s national capital from 1802-1945 as its central location meant Nguyen Dynasty emperors could rule both the North and the South with ease. Full of historical significance and relics from the past, this charming city still remains steeped in history and culture today, and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
6. Feel on top of the world at Vietnam’s highest driveable point
There are two ways to go to Hue from Da Nang: either up the Hai Van Pass or through it via the Hai Van tunnel. Unless your pet goldfish in Hue is dying and you need to save it, you should always, always travel through the Hai Van Pass.
Most visitors only stop at the first or second military relic on the pass, but take the path to the right that leads up the pass. This path is certainly not for the faint-hearted or the unfit – the incline was so steep there were times I wanted to just roll back down the hill – but conquer it and you will be rewarded handsomely.
With this perfect view of course!
To get the shot, we had to climb up the remains of an old French bunker that required some effort and rock climbing abilities, but once you’re up there you’ll be glad you did. At approximately 500m above sea level, the view is unparallelled anywhere else in Vietnam.
7. Become Lara Croft for a day (literally)
Khai Dinh Tomb
The Royal Palace
Hue is home to numerous tombs of emperors from the past and they are all unique. With some surrounded by moats, lush forests or even high concrete walls, every tomb will give you an experience to remember.
Each attraction requires a ticket, which you can purchase individually for 200,000 VND (SGD13.33) or for a more cost-effective option you can purchase the ticket bundle at 360,000 VND (SGD24) for 4 attractions including the Khai Dinh Tomb, the Tu Duc Tomb, the Minh Mang Tomb and the Royal Palaces.
If you’re short on time, I recommend visiting the Khai Dinh Tomb and the Royal Palaces, the latter being close to the Hue city centre where most hotels are located.
8. Seal your love on Love Hill – one of Vietnam’s most romantic spots
Named as such for the dense forest that accords starstruck lovers some privacy, many a couple have come here to cement their love with a kiss at this popular spot with a panoramic view of the Perfume River.
Quiet, serene and peaceful, even if you don’t have someone to cement your love with on Love Hill, it’s still a scenic place to visit that will have you wondering if you’re still in Vietnam.
While there’s no signage or explicit directions on how to get here, this is a pit stop on the Hue Riders Motorcycle Tour (see point 10 below), if you ask the locals for directions to “Love Hill”, they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.
9. Stand in awe at the tallest religious building in Vietnam
The Thien Mu pagoda sits by the banks of the Perfume River. At seven stories tall, this is the tallest religious building in the whole of Vietnam.
Walking amidst the weather-worn structures, one can truly appreciate how old and regal the structures are. To many local Vietnamese, Thien Mu pagoda is also regarded as a symbol of the previous imperial regime.
10. Do all of the above on the back of a motorcycle!
The best way to experience Hue is on the back of a motorcycle. We found ourselves zipping through the streets and through endless rows of rice fields like a local. We were paired with one rider each and boy were they the best people to guide you to the best that Hue has to offer.
The expressive Linh was passionate in feeding us little nuggets of information about the various sights and attractions in Hue, and looked after us like a father – constantly reminding us to ensure our bags were closed and even going to the extent of cleaning our chopsticks at lunch for us! We felt so well taken care of – it was almost as if our long-lost relative was bringing us around.
The trip came to an end all too soon and we were all sad to leave our new friends. If you’re ever in Hue, look for Ben, Linh, Long and Quoc from the Hue Riders – you won’t be disappointed.
11. Catch a vermillion sunset on one of Vietnam’s most iconic rivers
Often depicted in many forms of Vietnamese art, the Perfume River in Hue stretches for 30km through the heart of Hue. Origins of its nickname stem from the fact that flowers from surrounding orchards would fall into it in Autumn, causing the river to take on a hypnotizing floral fragrance.
End your day with a slow cruise along the river aboard one of the many boats that the boat owners themselves often use as homes. The Thien Mu pagoda is also accessible via the Perfume River, and a tour can be arranged via your hotel.
Experience the best of Central Vietnam
What I loved about Central Vietnam was how personal every experience was. Here, I didn’t feel like an outsider, and even if there were stares they were more out of curiosity than hostility. It’s almost as if everywhere you go you meet a long-lost relative who’s only more than happy to welcome you into their homes and to share their culture with you. Also, don’t be afraid to practice some Vietnamese phrases with the locals – it immediately helps to break the ice.
Vietnam was remarkably untouched and picturesque and quite possibly one of my favourite places to visit in Southeast Asia.
Make your travels to Da Nang fuss-free with Jetstar!
Singapore Changi Airport connects you to Da Nang 7 times weekly and Jetstar is the only budget airline in Singapore offering direct flights to Da Nang. Flights start from a very affordable all-in return fare at $188, which leaves you way more time and money to spoil yourself silly with!
Say goodbye to the hassle of long check-in queues with Jetstar’s new self-service kiosks available for selected Jetstar Asia flights! Check-in with these 3 easy steps and you’ll be on your way in no time.
First, scan your passport and select your flight.
Print your boarding pass and bag tags. If this is your first time attaching a bag tag onto your check-in baggage you may be a little unsure. After attaching the tag, don’t forget to remove one rectangular barcode sticker from the label and stick it onto your bag; or if you’re a kiasu Singaporean like us you can use all four. There are always personnel positioned at the counters to help you through.
Finally, proceed to the automated check-in counter and scan your boarding pass to send your bag on its way!
Stand a chance to win a pair of return tickets to Da Nang on Jetstar. Click here to find out more on the contest, air fare and accommodation deals and get double Changi Rewards Points for all bookings to Danang made between 15- 30 March 2016!
This post was brought to you by Changi Airport.