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In Da Nang, Vietnam, Looking to the Future
|Tang Thi Vui, right, sells savory rice cakes at a market in Da Nang, Vietnam. The central region’s best-known foods can rival specialties from other parts of the country.|
Published: March 19, 2013
“It takes time to explore,” said Ms. Uyen, a 24-year-old foreign affairs officer who blogs about Da Nang and its vast food culture. “We have a very diverse cuisine, and different shops have different types of cooking.”
Travelers arriving in Da Nang typically travel by road 29 kilometers, or 18 miles, south to the former trading port of Hoi An, which Unesco has designated a cultural heritage landmark. Others drive north to the former royal capital of Hue, another designated heritage site, where a preserved citadel offers glimpses into a former feudal empire.
But some residents and expatriates say Da Nang, a coastal city that was host to a U.S. air base during the Vietnam War, is emerging as an appealing destination in its own right. The city’s charms include a riverfront promenade where locals sip iced coffee, and a museum displaying artifacts from the Champa kingdom, which ruled for centuries along Vietnam’s central and southern coasts.
And the central region’s best-known foods, like the noodle dish mi quang and the chicken-and-rice medley com ga, easily rival salty specialities from Hanoi and sweet ones from Ho Chi Minh City. It is easy to spend less than 200,000 Vietnamese dong, or about $9.60, on a day of eating in Da Nang, and hard to resist sampling the noodles, snacks and desserts that confront you at every street corner.
Ms. Uyen, who lived in Japan and Australia before coming home in 2011, says dishes from Da Nang and Vietnam’s central coast are underrepresented outside the country, especially when compared with the interest in foods from the north or south. “They deserve to be more popular,” she said.
Da Nang, Vietnam’s fourth-most populous city, also has a crescent-shaped beach that lies largely vacant by day except for some expatriate surfers. Vietnamese revelers arrive just before dusk, tossing volleyballs or strolling in the surf as vendors sell beer and quail eggs from foam coolers.
Farther up the beach, fishermen prepare the thatched, circular boats that they row most evenings into the South China Sea, catching squid and prawns as their grandparents did before Vietnam won its independence from France in 1954.
“I catch anything in the sea,” Huynh Ba Son, 41, said recently on the beach before beginning his nightly fishing shift. “Anything that swims into my net.”
The boats leave shore at sunset, passing a hilltop pagoda complex where a 67-meter, or 220-foot, female Buddha gazes back at the twinkling green lights of Da Nang’s modest skyline of low-rise concrete houses and occasional office towers. According to local legend, she has kept away typhoons that typically ravage this coastline during the winter rainy season. The city may not stay lucky forever: Like some of Da Nang’s shinier buildings, the statue is a mere three years old.
In the 1960s, U.S. troops used the Da Nang air base to mix and store dioxin, the toxic ingredient in the defoliant Agent Orange, which was sprayed over swaths of Vietnam — the total area affected was about half the size of Switzerland — to deny cover to North Vietnamese troops and Vietcong guerrillas.
Vietnam says millions of its citizens continue to suffer as a result of dioxin exposure. The United States finances rehabilitation services for Vietnamese living with disabilities, regardless of cause, but maintains that no link between exposure and health consequence has been scientifically proved. Although the two countries normalized relations in 1995, the United States has long resisted Vietnamese requests for help with dioxin remediation, even as it has spent billions on disability payments and health care for its soldiers who were exposed to Agent Orange during the war.
But last August, U.S. and Vietnamese officials shook hands in Da Nang and introduced a $43 million joint project that will eradicate the remaining dioxin at the air base over four years, using technology that cleans contaminated soil by heating it to high temperatures. The U.S. Agency for International Development says only the former air base is contaminated.
“We are both moving earth and taking the first steps to bury the legacies of our past,” David B. Shear, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, said at a ceremony marking the occasion. The United States increasingly views Vietnam as a strategic partner in its efforts to counter China’s rising influence in the South China Sea, which has international shipping lanes and is believed to contain untapped reserves of oil and natural resources.
The ghosts of a conflict that killed an estimated 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese have not entirely vanished: Museums in Da Nang display leftover bombs and tanks, and some residents suffer from leukemia and other illnesses that the Vietnamese Communist Party says are linked to dioxin from Agent Orange.
But the city, which has a population of more than 700,000, is looking to the future. Three bridges are under construction, and the newly refurbished airport, which has the country’s first Burger King, offers flights to major destinations in the region like Singapore and, at the end of the month, Hong Kong.
The city authorities are trying to bolster Da Nang’s international image by promoting luxury resort development and staging sports competitions, including an inaugural marathon scheduled for Sept. 1. They also have constructed a few unconventional attractions, including the giant Buddha statue and a 50-meter glass elevator that for 30,000 Vietnamese dong will lift a tourist to a hilltop pagoda overlooking coastline that U.S. troops once called China Beach.
Developers say Vietnam’s central coast has the makings of Asia’s next beachfront resort destination, and some international hotel chains, including Hyatt and InterContinental, recently opened resorts along a stretch of prime coastline. But change comes more slowly in central Da Nang, where streets are still flanked by faded yellow homes from the French colonial era, and motorbike traffic is not nearly as frenetic as it is in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.
Thanh Huong, who serves noodles in a small shop near the riverfront promenade, said she had not seen too many changes lately in her neighborhood, aside from some upscale restaurants that opened across the street.
As for her business, she said on a recent weekday afternoon, “People like the way I cook, not too salty, not too plain.”
Ms. Huong said she and her husband, a soldier who fought with the Americans, moved to Da Nang from Hue in 1968. For the last 20 years she has been perfecting her recipe for banh canh: rice or tapioca noodles in a mild broth made from crab, shrimp and beef stocks.
Unlike other vendors, Ms. Huong said, she makes her noodles from scratch, no matter that a bustling food market is only a few streets away. Her regular customers include Ms. Uyen, the blogger, who says the shop is among her favorites.
Getting to Da Nang
Da Nang’s airport offers several flights each day to and from Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and several other Vietnamese cities. There also are direct flights to Singapore, Seoul and Kuala Lumpur, and on March 28, Dragonair is scheduled to begin flying three times a week between Da Nang and Hong Kong.
Da Nang is also a stop on a popular train route that traverses the country from north to south..
A version of this special report appeared in print on March 20, 2013, in The International Herald Tribune.