Trieu Chau Assembly Hall in Hoi An
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Da Nang Overview
Da Nang first appeared on maps of Vietnam in the 17th century, but most folks today know the city for its role in the Vietnam War. This is where U.S. troops first landed in 1965, and Da Nang became home to a major U.S. air base -- during the war, an airport runway here was extended to be the longest in Southeast Asia. Nearby China Beach provided sand and surf as a recreation center for the troops. The TV show "China Beach" and movie "Good Morning Vietnam" prominently feature Da Nang.
The city fell to the Viet Cong in 1975, signaling the South's defeat in the war. Today, the city -- the fourth largest in Vietnam -- is a commercial center. Downtown is bustling with motorbike traffic and a big market area. And while the city of one million does not offer much in the way of tourist attractions -- nor is it particularly picturesque -- it's close to the white sands of China Beach, the scenic Marble Mountains and the historic resort town of Hoi An, Vietnam's most important trading port from the 16th to 18th centuries (many of the historic buildings are now galleries, shops and cafes).
Da Nang, as well, is not yet a sophisticated tourism destination. Visitors should be aware that tour guides, even on shore excursion buses, may be better at speaking from prepared text than answering questions. Our guide on a Marble Mountains/China Beach shore tour shared such knowledge as "During the rainy season it rains a lot." As we passed the ramshackle outskirts of Da Nang, she was asked how much cars cost here and after some thought, replied in all sincerity, "One million U.S. dollars." When the questioner said that couldn't be right, the guide insisted she was correct: "Yes, one million U.S. dollars, she repeated. (The actual number is more like $35,000).
On a definite plus side, you will likely be struck by how friendly the people are while traveling in Vietnam. On a street at the foot of the Marble Mountains, an older woman approached us and asked where we were from. When we said America, she replied with a broad toothless smile, "Totally awesome."
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Other Asia Cruise Ports:
Bangkok (Laem Chabang) • Beijing • Cochin • Da Nang • Hanoi • Hiroshima • Ho Chi Minh City • Hong Kong • Koh Samui • Kuala Lumpur • Langkawi • Mumbai • Nagasaki • Osaka • Saipan • Seoul (Incheon) • Sihanoukville • Singapore
Where You're Docked
You dock at Cat Tien Sa Port, a commercial port about 30 to 40 minutes by car or bus from Da Nang. There are a couple of souvenir stalls at the pier selling marble carvings and other handicrafts.
Cruise ships offer shuttle buses to Da Nang, typically dropping you off near the market. There are also a limited number of taxis at the pier (you have to walk about 0.3 miles to the taxi stand). Rates are usually negotiable. A cab to Hoi An, a fabulously historic UNESCO world heritage town, will run $16 to $25, and to Da Nang about $10 each way.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The main unit of currency is the dong (VND), which comes in notes ranging from 200 to 500,000. There are also coins. The exchange rate is about 15,000 VND per $1. But U.S. dollars are also widely accepted. We recommended you have plenty of $1s and $5s to buy souvenirs (if you use larger bills, your change may be in dongs). There are ATM's at branches of Vietcombank in both Da Nang and Hoi An.
Marble anything from tiny elephants and boxes to huge statues you'll have to ship home. (Editor's note: Marble is heavy. Since some airlines enforce weight restrictions on luggage you may want to go with the shipping option if you buy numerous pieces, even if they are small). In Hoi An, the thing to buy is a tailor-made suit. Prices are unbelievably low (about $65 for a silk three-piece) and the tailor whizzes can whip them up in about four hours. (Editor's note: Allow time for a fitting or two to make sure you get what you wanted.)
In the city of Da Nang, The Cham Museum (Tran Phu St., open daily 7 a.m. - 6 p.m., admission $1.50) has the largest collection in the world of Cham sculpture, with more than 300 sandstone pieces dating from the 4th to 14th centuries.
About seven miles from Da Nang, the five Marble Mountains are each named for elements -- water, metal, wood, fire and earth. Tho Son (earth) is the highest peak, and visitors can climb 153 rather steep steps (admission is $2) to the top for tremendous views of Da Nang, China Beach and the Pacific Ocean beyond, as well as temples and shrines; some are located in caves. The Viet Cong hid here during the war, and most of the temples and shrines are new, replacements for those destroyed during the fighting. Donations are requested at some of the shrines. Below the mountains, the town of Non Nuoc produces marble goods, and there are numerous production studios and stalls selling everything from tiny folk figures and chess sets to giant statuary.
Been There, Done That
Hoi An, about 22 miles (or a 45-minute drive) from Da Nang where the coast meets the Thu Bon river, is a true find -- a historic town recognized by UNESCO. Hoi An's narrow streets are filled with well preserved architecture (temples, houses, meeting halls), and the town boasts a wonderfully quaint, resort-type atmosphere. Come here and sit in a cafe, visit the crafts shops, gawk at what people are eating at street stalls (some of the food items will be yucky to visitors), poke around the market and chat with the friendly locals.
If you want to visit the museums and old houses, you can get a ticket for about $3.50 at the Hoi An Tourist Guiding Office (1 Nguyen Truong). The historic buildings reflect how the Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese merchants once made their base here. For a history of the trade port, visit the Museum of Trade Ceramics (80 Tran Phu St., open 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily), which is located in a traditional house and offers a collection of objects from the 13th to 17th centuries (the house and its courtyard are as interesting as the collection). Lovers of Chinese antiques will want to visit The Tran Family Home and Chapel (21 Le Loi, open daily 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.).
But our favorite thing to do here is simply wander and shop. The Central Market, near the Thu Bon river at Nguyen and Tran Phu sts., has stalls selling food, crafts, spices, fish and so forth, and lots of hustle and bustle (haggle here if you want to buy anything). As for the shops, an excellent souvenir venue for high-quality silk scarves, purses and other accessories (at prices so reasonable you'll want to stock up) is Shop Ngoc Uyen (92 Le Loi St.). Hoi An is famous for its tailor shops, and our favorite is Dung Tailor (23 Le Loi St.). The proprietress, Mrs. Duyen-Dung, speaks decent English and couldn't be more accommodating, and her rates are in line with the standard in town (we paid $65 for a three-piece men's heavy silk suit and $40 for a women's linen suit, both made from scratch in about four hours). Buy $4 silk ties at the fancy Yaly Couture (47 Tran Phu St.).
The large Kim Do Restaurant on the waterfront (180 Tran Phu St., 0511/821-846) serves Chinese cuisine and is popular with locals.
The best restaurant in town is Brother's Cafe (27 Pham Boi Chau St., 0510/914-150, open 10 a.m. - 11 p.m. daily, main courses under $12, or set menu for about $16 per person). Try the local meat-stuffed dumpling specialty called "white roses." Enjoy scenic seating outside in the gardens or upscale comfort inside.
Hoi An's hip spot is Mango Rooms (111 Nguyen Thai Hoc, 0510/910-839, open 8 a.m. - midnight daily). Grab a streetfront seat and have a Vietnamese beer. The food is good too (the owner spent time in the U.S., and the menu has both Vietnamese and California-influenced offerings).
The Ancient Hoi An tour visits the Hoi An Museum (best viewed with a guide), a market, a Chinese temple (Phuoc Kien Temple), the Japanese covered bridge and an ancient house to drink green tea. The 4.5 hour tour also includes a stop at the Marble Mountains.
On the Hue and the Perfume River tour you head 3.5 hours by bus to Vietnam's one-time Imperial City. Tour the Royal Citadel, built by Emperor Gia Long in 1804. Also visit the Palace of Supreme Harmony, which has been restored to its full original grandeur including lavish furnishings. The Forbidden Purple City was reserved for the private life of the Emperors, where 13 of them ruled from Hue between 1802 and 1945. Included on the tour is lunch at a local restaurant on the Perfume River and a stop at a market in town. Also visit a holy pagoda and take a dragon boat ride on the river to King Minh Mang's elaborately tiled tomb.
One of Oceania's Da Nang excursions includes many of the aforementioned highlights of the city in this half-day (five-hour) Da Nang and China Beach tour, which features a visit to the renowned Cham Museum and a drive to Han Market, as well as to Marble Mountains and the marble carving village "Non Nuoc Stone Village," and finally, a relaxing stop at China Beach.
Staying in Touch
There are literally Internet cafes on every street in Hoi An, but a winner for those who want a latte and muffin (or even a tuna fish sandwich) with their e-mail is Hai's Scout Café (98 Nguyen Thai Hoc St.). In Da Nang, log on at HaNoi Pho Internet Cafe in 72 Le Hong Phong.
For More Information
On the Web: www.DaNangtourism.com.vn and www.hoianworldheritage.org.
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--by Fran Wenograd Golden. Boston-based Golden, whose contributions to Cruise Critic include features, ship reviews and destination-oriented port profiles, is a former travel editor of the Boston Herald and also co-author of Frommer's Europe Cruises & Ports of Call and Frommer's Alaska Cruises & Ports of Call.
--All images (except for main photo) are courtesy of Fran Wenograd Golden.