Old World Charm Comes of Age: Da Nang
Published 27 January 2011
Two important historical destinations in Vietnam’s provincial central coast are now emerging as magnets for Asia’s modern-day discerning traveller – offering an intoxicating injection of gourmet dining, award-winning luxury resorts and world-class golf courses.
Text by Katie Truman
Along Vietnam’s coastal central provinces, Hoi An and Danang have long been prominent stars in this nation’s epic history. Former capital of the ancient Champa civilization (founded by the Chams post-AD192), Danang was an important US military base during the Vietnam War. Today, Vietnam’s third largest city and important seaport boasts a 1916-founded Cham Museum housing the world’s finest Champa art collection. And ten minutes from downtown, the stunning China Beach, ranked by US Forbes Magazine as “One of the World’s Most Luxurious Beaches.”
Thirty kilometres south along the coast of the sparkling South China Sea, riverside Faifo was a major silk road trading port from the 15th to 18th centuries – until the Thu Bon River silted up and Danang stole its thunder. Today, renamed Hoi An lords it up as one of Vietnam’s top tourist destinations; this UNESCO-listed World Cultural Heritage Site boasting an exceptionally well-preserved ancient quarter and unique blend of Chinese, Japanese and European architectural influences, a legacy of its seafaring merchant past. Within a living museum-like scenario, atmospheric narrow streets running parallel to the river come crammed with gorgeously intact monuments and attractions, including Chinese merchant houses, pagodas and yellow-washed French colonial villas, interspersed with souvenir shops, cafés and restaurants.
Further afield, the surrounding region is littered with scenic gems, cultural diversity and historical points of interest. These include two more UNESCO sites: former capital and imperial city of Hue, once home to 13 Nguyen dynasty emperors and reached via the breathtaking Hai Van Pass (at 1,200m, Vietnam’s highest), and My Son, ancient Champa’s spiritual sanctuary and considered one of the foremost Hindu temple complexes in Southeast Asia.
Once again, the tides of change are shifting for Hoi An and Danang, as this fast developing Central Coast region now emerges as an increasingly sophisticated tourism hot spot and beach destination. Pivotal to the region’s current development is Danang, or rather, the glorious beach strip running down to Hoi An – and especially, the 17km China Beach stretch.
A legendary R+R hang-out for GIs during the Vietnam War, despite its creamy white sands and spectacular backdrop of mountains, China Beach has been mysteriously left undeveloped for years, with a couple of exceptions.
In the last couple of years, however, Vietnamese authorities have given this much-prized stretch of coastline the green light for some of the world’s most prestigious hotel groups and brand-name golf courses to do business. With this new feverish construction, sleepy, almost forgotten Danang now finds itself emerging as a new, premier Southeast Asia destination.
Luxurious new resorts opened 2010 on China Beach include contemporary-Asian style Life Resorts Danang and Fusion Maia Danang. The first all pool villa-style resort in the region, Fusion Maia is an innovative resort-spa fusion with unlimited spa treatments included in room rates and total wellbeing part of daily life. This uber-stylish beach resort features 87 pool suites, beach villas and a spa which offer contemporary open-plan living and private courtyard with swimming pool. Maia Spa, Central Vietnam’s largest spa, delivers therapies based on the resort’s Natural Living Programme, a seven-principle guideline for a balanced lifestyle.
More resorts to follow include five-star Hyatt Regency Danang Resort and Spa – Vietnam’s third Hyatt property. Launching 2011, this exclusive beachfront property promises a 200-room resort and residential complex. And when it opens in 2013, luxurious Le Meridian Danang Resort and Spa will offer deluxe villas, residences and five-star hotel spread over 12 hectares of prime beach front.
Currently, one of China Beach’s original resorts is Vietnam’s most internationally-acclaimed. When it opened 2006, all-villa The Nam Hai raised the benchmark for luxurious accommodation in Vietnam, with an unsurpassed opulence. Amid 35 landscaped gardens, the lavishly appointed 60 one-bedroom villas and 40 multi-room pool villas boast private gardens, state-of the-art gadgetry and Zen-like serenity, with interiors of ultra-modern sophistication. Three beachfront infinity-edge pools, two gourmet restaurants and sublime The Spa.
With the recent launch of two world-class, links-style golf courses located minutes apart along China Beach, plus half a dozen or so more planned regionally, Vietnam’s Central Coast also emerges as an important golfing destination for Southeast Asia.
This region’s first 18-hole facility, Montgomerie Links and the latest offering, Dunes Course @ Danang Golf Club come designed by golfing greats, Colin Montgomerie and Greg Norman respectively. Weaving through wild seaside landscape, both outstanding links-style courses have won rave reviews from golf connoisseurs and publications alike. An hour north, Laguna Hue, Vietnam’s second golf course designed by Masters Champion Nick Faldo, will open in 2012, cementing this area as Asia’s “next golf Mecca.”
For years, Hoi An was geared to the budget-minded traveler; however it’s now increasingly catering to the more well-heeled clientele and their discerning tastes, with several stylish bars and restaurants and again, luxury international resorts. Situated 4km from the coast, like Danang, Hoi An has been slow to capitalize on its lovely town beach, but all that’s changing with a new construction boom. This includes deluxe beachfront properties from French hotel group, ACCOR, with the Le Belhamy Hoi An Resort and Spa, just opened in 2010 and Novotel Imperial Hoi An, scheduled to open this year.
In the historic quarter, following a major renovation overhaul in 2008, boutique Life Heritage Resort Hoi An has been elevated to Asia’s crème de la crème and part of Dutch-concept Life Resorts. Successfully fusing Hoi An’s trading heritage with contemporary comforts, Life Heritage features a distinctly “Tropical Asian Moderne” design throughout. Reserve a river view room and watch sampans chug past your private porch.
Unlike Bali, villa living hasn’t made its mark yet in Vietnam, so Villa @ Red Bridge is a pioneering concept. Set in an exclusive riverside compound 2km downstream from Hoi An’s ancient quarter, this one-off villa is part of the Australian-owned and acclaimed Red Bridge Cookery School and Restaurant.
Although continually thronged with tourists, Hoi An has lacked somewhat in nightlife and sophisticated ambience, but this is all changing. Contrasting sharply with their historic surrounds, some swanky new additions are moving in. Reminiscent of Indochina’s classic hotel bars, Life Heritage Resort’s Heritage Bar boasts one of the town’s finest and extensive wine cellars, Cuban cigars and top-notch single malts and cognacs.
In similar style and also taking things up a notch is White Marble Wine Bar- Restaurant. This upscale lounge-style venue housed within a restored double-storey heritage building not only provides a decent chilled sauvignon blanc, but is also a perfect people-watching spot.
Several restaurants double as chill-out bars with to-die-for river views and cocktails. One of Hoi An’s most cosmopolitan and celebrated joints, Mango Rooms serves up fresh fusion cuisine and mango cocktails amid psychedelic-coloured, funky interiors. Flamboyant chef-owner, Duc (an original “boat child” done good) has opened his equally successful bar-restaurant Mango Mango across the river.
Also in amongst this expanding new riverbank section, Austrian-owned River Lounge is already a favourite for its chic ambience, sweeping river views and delicious Euro-Asian cuisine created by a Michelin-starred chef. Head upstairs for a sunset cocktail reclining on daybeds – the ultimate wind down from sightseeing. Arguably, Hoi An’s latest hip offering is the eternally-glam Q Bar, one of Ho Chi Minh City’s longest running bars which has imported their iconic lounge-bar formula – plus divine cocktails – right into the heart of the ancient quarter.
Of course, this region’s development has been aided and accelerated by much-needed, improved infrastructure. A vastly better road network servicing all the sites of interest further afield make Hoi An and Danang an ideal (not to mention comfortable) base to explore the surrounding area. And China Beach and surrounds is only around 20 minutes from Danang’s international airport, main gateway for the central provinces. Once the world’s busiest airport during the war, Danang’s present-day international flight services have been limited. However, this is all improving with direct flights now to Guangzhou, Taipei and Singapore. With a highly anticipated international airport terminal opening late 2011, Danang will have access to more international flights– a big boost to the region and allowing greater access to the Asia market.
CLIMATE: Central provinces’ rainy season and cooler temperatures run from October through to mid-January. During this time, Hoi An town can experience serious flooding and diving and beach pursuits can be disrupted.
GETTING THERE: Danang International Airport (DAD) is Vietnam’s third largest airport and operates multiple daily connecting flights to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, both one hour away. Located 3km from downtown and 20 minutes from China Beach, airport transfers should be pre-booked with your accommodation.
CURRENCY: Vietnam’s official currency is Vietnamese Dong (VND), but US dollars are widely accepted (US$1 = approx. 20,000VND)
VISA: Apart from some exceptions (check for updates on www.vietnam-embassy.org) everyone must have a visa to enter Vietnam. Standard tourist visas are 15 / 30 days.