Snapshots from Da Nang
“You want to see Lady Buddha? How ‘bout Marble Mountain? The trees here are 100 years old, but there, one thousand years old!”
Outside the Museum of Cham Sculpture, a single-story French colonial building flanked by noble banyans and gnarled frangipani trees, a local tout in a worn-out cap makes his pitch. The man is presumably in his sixties, and he speaks American English with a distinctive nasal twang and a Southern-style drawl.
“There’s not a lot to see here in Da Nang,” the man says. “You’ll spend maybe half an hour at this museum. It’s small.”
He’s partially right about Vietnam’s third-largest city, though he couldn’t have picked a more difficult target. Bama and I are the kind of travelers who could spend hours wandering a history museum stocked with artifacts. Having both grown up in Asia, we have both seen our share of banyan trees, while enormous Bodhisattva statues erected in the last 20 or 30 years rarely – if ever – pique our interest. We politely decline the man’s offer, but he still trails us from time to time inside the building, when he’s not latching on to other visitors.
This museum holds the world’s largest collection of sculpture from the seafaring Cham people, who once ruled a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom spread across central and southern Vietnam. After tramping around a slew of ancient temples from Indonesia to Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal, I am finally beginning to recognize the divine characters hewn from stone. Bama points out a dvarapala statue, markedly different from the pot-bellied guardians seen outside many Javanese temples; we come across an intricately carved gajasimha, a hybrid creature with an elephant’s head and lion’s body; and find depictions of Garuda, a divine bird from Hindu-Buddhist mythology that is also the national emblem of Indonesia and Thailand. Elsewhere in the same hall, a magnificent 13th-century dragon strikes me as a uniquely Vietnamese creation.
Eventually the prospective guide sidles up to me with a toothy smile. “What do you think? Beautiful?”
“Yes, very beautiful.”
“How ‘bout a one-hour cyclo tour of the city? I can take you to see the cathedral and the Dragon Bridge.”
We’d already wandered the grounds of the candy-colored church earlier that morning – it was barely a block from our hotel.
“It’s okay,” I tell him. “After this I think we’ll just walk around.”
The man finally leaves us in peace, disappearing completely for the remainder of our time in the museum. Thankfully this is the only occasion when we feel pressured by touts in easygoing Da Nang. The gateway to central Vietnam is otherwise a showcase of the country’s economic progress, with monumental bridges spanning the wide, brackish waters of the Han River, and a growing skyline of high-rise hotels, balconied condominiums, and glassy office blocks. We walk past cartoon posters promoting a code of conduct for tourists: they warn against excessive public displays of affection, getting drunk, and making too much noise. All told, Da Nang has aspirations to become more like the developed city-state where we boarded our flight to Vietnam.
Singapore has the Merlion, and Da Nang has recently built a copycat version spewing water into the Han River. Bama and I quickly name this white marble creature the “Merdragon”; it rises from a pedestal beside a pier where padlocks dangle from the railings and heart-shaped lanterns sway in the breeze. A speaker pumps out a series of 80s and 90s love songs (think Ronan Keating’s cover of When You Say Nothing At All and Diana Ross singing If We Hold on Together), as happy couples take pre-wedding photos in the late morning heat.
Da Nang is better known as a beach destination: there are no must-see-before-you-die landmarks or panoramic views, no must-do experiences in town, but Da Nang is a place where almost anyone can eat well. As a first rule of thumb, Bama and I eschew the pan-Asian and Western restaurants facing the Han River promenade; these offer the standard tourist fare at vastly inflated prices. Instead we opt for the informal street-side eateries where benches and plastic chairs spill out onto the pavement. Our reward is the regional specialty mi Quang (Quang noodles) served with spring rolls, fresh greens, and a generously sized rice cracker at local institution Ba Vi, followed by a steaming bowl of pho at another stall, where the perfectly cooked rice noodles are combined with slices of beef tendon, the crunch of boiled bean sprouts, and aromatic sprigs of Thai basil and mint.
The city takes on a different character after dark, when cooler temperatures prevail and the riverfront promenade becomes a stage for aerobics sessions and group dances. We cross the Dragon Bridge, encountering mobile vendors selling fruit and candy floss, as throaty melodies from a Vietnamese folk performance drift over from a thatched riverside enclosure. Mickey Mouse, Pikachu, and Doraemon are here too – or at least misshapen versions of them – offering handshakes and candies to passersby.
Bama and I stop at the far end of the bridge, below the dragon head and its heart-shaped right eye, waiting for a show that transpires on weekend nights at nine o’clock. Five minutes before the spectacle, policemen close the roadway to traffic and we turn our attention to a contraption opening up inside the dragon’s mouth. We stand enraptured as it spews fire into the night air, feeling the raw heat on our faces. After several bursts of flame, the dragon roars back to life with a jet of water. A collective cry of both shock and delight erupts from our fellow onlookers; Bama and I quickly turn around, covering our cameras as the wind blows a fine mist of water droplets onto us all. Perhaps there isn’t a lot to do in Da Nang, but the central Vietnamese city – from its delicious local cuisine to a fire-breathing bridge – has plenty of surprises up its sleeve. ◊