Singaporeans’ travel tales of Việt Nam inevitably revolve around one of two cities:
Hà Nội in the north
Hồ Chí Minh City in the south.
But right smack in the middle of these two tourist-trodden paths is one that is fast emerging as an up-and-coming destination.
Tourists sitting on cyclos in Hoi An, a Unesco World Heritage site half an hour’s drive from Danang City
Đà Nẵng may have none of Hà Nội’s evocative old-world charms or Hồ Chí Minh City’s hair-raising frenetic appeal.
But the biggest city in central Việt Nam is wasting no time in playing catch-up, and carving a niche for itself as a one-stop shop for pristine beaches, abundant seafood and steep heritage.
Like the other two cities, Đà Nẵng has both the old and the new going for it, although at the frenzied rate that it is developing its tourism sector, the focus is clearly on the new.
It built a swanky terminal at its international airport last December and hooked up direct flights with regional cities such as Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Seoul and Singapore.
Luxury hotels have also been sprouting along the coast, and boutique hotels downtown, at break-neck speed.
Two years ago, Đà Nẵng had just two five-star hotels.
Today, it has eight and counting, many along a stretch of 10km coastline.
“Đà Nẵng as a destination is moving forward,” said Mr Tony Marrinan, general manager of the new Intercontinental Đà Nẵng Sun Peninsula Resort, an ultra-luxurious property under its flagship brand.
The Intercontinental, designed by Bill Bensley – a name synonymous with exotic luxury resorts – and built to a tune of US$200 million (S$245 million), is but the latest in a clutch of brand names to muscle in on the Đà Nẵng action.
With just 197 rooms perched on a cliff framed by a private bay and a three- Michelin-starred chef, Michel Roux, as its fine-dining draw, the resort is going all out to woo high-spending travellers from China, Korea and Singapore when it opens in December.
Hot on its heels is Banyan Tree’s Laguna Lăng Cô, a 280ha integrated resort with a golf course designed by six-time champion Nick Faldo, convention facilities and residences.
Indeed, Đà Nẵng is not sparing the golfers:
It already has world-class golf courses, including a links-style course designed by former world No. 1 Greg Norman which opened in 2010.
The Việt Nam National Administration of Tourism said that since early this year, Đà Nẵng’s tourist receipts have piled up so quickly that it now brings in the third-highest tourism revenue of all localities in Việt Nam, after Hà Nội and Hồ Chí Minh City.
In the first eight months of this year, it welcomed more than 1.87 million tourists, up 8 per cent from the same period last year.
There is much more in the works.
To tap the growing cruise market, Đà Nẵng Port Holding signed a memorandum of understanding with Singapore Cruise Centre in 2010 to build an international cruise hub.
The Sun Group, which owns Intercontinental, will work with Bensley again on a US$200-million theme park, Đà Nẵng Asian Park, which will have a 125m observation wheel, international standard rides and shows.
The Bill Bensley-designed Intercontinental resort in Đà Nẵng cascades through rainforest-covered mountain slopes and all rooms have a view of the Vietnam East Sea.
The city itself is also prepped for the tourist boom:
Tree-lined boulevards, a rash of seafood restaurants and a concerted effort to rid the city of beggars.
The main thoroughfare, Bạch Đằng Street, next to Hàn River, probably embodies Đà Nẵng’s old-versus-new character best – with expatriates sitting in bars on one side of the street, and residents on the other playing chess and doing taiji in the evening.
But while Đà Nẵng may be swiftly shedding its image as an R&R hotspot for American soldiers from the neighbouring military base, it holds on to its heritage dearly.
Its prime location makes it a perfect base to explore historical sites such as the imperial city of Huế, Mỵ Sơn holy land and Hội An port town.
Just 30 minutes by car from Đà Nẵng City, Hội An is a Unesco World Heritage site that scores high on the quaint metre with its narrow old streets, remarkably well-preserved ancient houses and assembly halls.
Souvenir shops have since taken over, but it is still worth getting lost amid the winding streets before stopping at one of the many cafes for a snack and some strong Vietnamese coffee.
Further afield is Huế, an ancient imperial capital on the banks of the Perfume River that is a two-hour car ride from Đà Nẵng; and Mỹ Sơn, whose main feature is a collection of Hindu temple ruins dating back to the 4th century built by the kings of Champa.
This kingdom ruled what is now southern and central Việt Nam from the 7th century to 1832.
Many artefacts have been dug up in the area and are now kept in a perfunctory museum in Đà Nẵng City.
But the bedrock of Đà Nẵng must surely be Marble Mountain, a bundle of five marble and limestone hills that is home to temples and an array of sculpture shops peddling life-sized lions, Buddhas and even Greek- styled statues.
A cave temple in Marble Mountain used as shelter by guerillas during the Việt Nam War
The best time to visit Đà Nẵng is February to May, outside of the searing summer weather and rainy season.
Ms Shelle Yeu, senior manager of Fascinating Holidays, said while response was slow when the company started offering tour packages to Đà Nẵng in 2006, it has picked up after the agency marketed the destination as a romantic holiday spot.
Ms Jane Chang, spokesman for travel agency Chan Brothers, said tours to Đà Nẵng have seen a 10 per cent year-on-year increase in demand since the company started offering packages more than five years ago.
Its three-day Đà Nẵng free-and-easy package starts from $478, while a four-day Đà Nẵng-Hội-An-Huế tour package goes for $748.
The appeal of Đà Nẵng is that of “an off-the-beaten-track pristine resort destination”, she said.
For Bali- and Phuket-weary holidaymakers, or those looking to tell a different Vietnamese tale beyond Hà Nội and Hồ Chí Minh City, Đà Nẵng might just be the answer.
How to get there?
SilkAir flies direct to Đà Nẵng twice a week.
Flight time is 2 hours and 45 minutes. The airport is 3km from the city.
Where to stay?
Intercontinental Đà Nẵng Sun Peninsula Resort, Bãi Bạc, Sơn Trà Peninsula, Danang City:
US$280 (S$343) a night for standard room to US$880 for villa by the beach.
All rooms and villas are sea-fronting.
Mercure Danang, Lot A1 Zone of Green Island, Hoa Cuong Bac, Hai Chau District:
US$88 for superior room to US$150 for deluxe suite
Mango Đà Nẵng, 50 An Thuong 1, Mỹ Khê Beach, Ngũ Hành Sơn District
Rates: S$37 for standard room to $58 for family room
By TAN DAWN WEI