Danang is booming. Once seen by travellers as a mere gateway to Hoi An, this laid-back Central Vietnamese city of one million is now demanding time for itself.
Statement-making, lit-up bridges over breezy esplanades of the Han River neatly divide the city in two parts: a rising district of condo towers lining golden-sand beaches to the east, and a bustling centre of sidewalk vendors serving unique regional dishes. It’s easily worth a couple days. Here’s how we’d divvy them up.
Laid-back Danang offers everything from grand bridges to tacos on the beach © Kim Mott / Lonely Planet
Begin your day like Danang locals do, with mi quang noodles. Some call them the soul of the city; they’re certainly a bowl of joy. Flat rice noodles crowd a bowl with just a dash of herb-filled broth. On top, you’ll find greens, bean sprouts, shrimp, pork, chilli sauce and – for extra crunch – a rice cracker. There’s no other Vietnamese dish quite like it.
There's no other Vietnamese dish quite like mi quang noodles, served up here by Ms Trang © Kim Mott / Lonely Planet
Delicious options are everywhere. But Summer Le – a local foodie blogger who runs fusion restaurant Nén (more on that later) – reckons the sidewalk stand Mi Quang Phu Nhiem (441 Ong Ich Khiem St) is the best. For 15 years Ms Trang has run this food cart, which she named after her home village. As you work your way through your bowl, she'll fill it with extra noodles. It’s only open 6–10am, so go early.
After filling up, walk along the back streets eastward, peeking at the new Danang Fresco Village (a mural-filled alley at 75 Nguyen Van Linh St) – to reach the riverside Museum of Cham Sculpture, which occupies a century-old gold building blending French and Cham architectural styles. The Cham’s current population in Vietnam is around 150,000, but their culture once dominated present-day south-central Vietnam. Inside you’ll see Buddha and dancing Shiva figurines and lore-packed stelae inscriptions carved from sandstone in the 6th to 13th centuries. It’s open 7am–5pm, but try to get here by 8am, before tour buses arrive.
Afterwards, head up the river’s palm-lined esplanade on Bach Dang St. A kilometre north, browse the stalls of the lively Han Market (119 Tran Phu St), which is surrounded by appealing shops and cafes. The most unique coffee stop is Công Cafe (39–41 Nguyễn Thái Học), fashioned after ‘70s Viet Cong themes, complete with the staff’s stylised military outfits and folding army camp chairs. After an iced coffee, head a block south to see the Gothic-style Danang Cathedral, built in 1923, which woos locals for selfies before its bright pink facade.
Now’s time for tacos on the beach. Grab a taxi east to hole-in-the-wall Taco Ngon for a locally revered Taiwanese version of the Mexican staple. The fresh fish, pork or chicken tacos – seasoned with wasabi coleslaw or ginger lime – are excellent. Take them to-go and walk five minutes east to the gold-sand My Khe beach (nicknamed China Beach by US soldiers during the American War), where blue waves stream toward a long, tree-lined beach. Head north to find beach chairs where locals bring picnic food and order drinks in exchange for a seat with shade.
A sculpture of an evil man in Am Phu Cave, the Marble Mountains, Danang © Maks08 / Getty Images
After an hour or two of beach time, hail a cab to head 15 minutes to a compact mountain group visible to the south. The Marble Mountains (Ngu Hanh Son) are jagged mounds really, but topped with temples and dotted with atmospheric caves filled with Buddha and Hindu altars. Surrounding the area are a bevy of marble shops to buy pocket-sized figurines or life-scale statues.
For dinner, Nén is a garden villa restaurant on a residential block that showcases the hopeful future of Vietnamese food. Run by Summer Le (who also offers five-stop tours of local cuisine), the focus is on fusion dishes like sea urchin noodles, made with local ingredients and served at a leisurely pace.
Danang's famous Dragon Bridge was built in 2009 © Tang Trung Kien / Shutterstock
Follow dinner with a pint of the local award-winning IPA at recently opened 7 Bridges Brewing. Its rooftop deck is a perfect spot to admire the changing lights of nearby Dragon Bridge, which turns 10 this year. It’s best at 9pm on Saturday and Sunday, when the dragon’s head erupts in a short fire show that draws thousands of onlookers.
In June 2018, a mountain-top Golden Bridge, held up by the ‘hands of God’ suddenly took over Instagram. It’s the calling card of much bigger Sun World at Ba Na Hills Resort, and – make no mistake – visiting is a touristy and cheesy affair. And honestly, a pretty irresistible one.
Visiting, however, requires a 45-minute drive west of Danang, a steep entrance fee (adults 679,000 VND, children 534,000VND) and crowds of up to 20,000 a day. But the views over lush jungle up the mountains, reached via the world’s longest cable car, are outrageously rewarding.
The Golden Bridge in Ba Na Hills stretches 150m – its charms are cheesy but irresistible © Kim Mott / Lonely Planet
The first stop is the bridge (newlyweds galore!), then another cable car takes you to an expansive ‘French town’ created to transport visitors to a France where Russian dumplings are served (cash only), hokey amusement rides and arcade games are free, and oompah music gets played. There are also pagodas, supposedly a million tulips, and seemingly endless gardens and fountains. The park might lean toward 21st-century kitsch, but an actual French colonial site, built here in 1919, elusively lurks in the shadows as battered ruins. Watch for it below on the second cable-car ride.
Forego a group tour by arranging a car in Danang (about US$40 return) so you can arrive as the site opens at 7am to get some Golden Bridge time in relative isolation. Expect to spend at least four or five hours here, getting back to Danang by 1 or 2pm.
For some downtime after the Sun World hubbub, laze at Holiday Beach Club, one of the most inviting beach spots. You’ll find nice shade in wicker seats, a beach library to borrow from, and plenty of food and drinks as the East Sea makes its steady run toward you.
If you still have energy, rent a motorbike (120,000d) – there are endless options a block off the beachfront – and ride 20 minutes north along the coast to Son Tra, a once off-limits mountainous peninsula now open to DIY exploration. With a little effort (it's steep), you can reach the mountaintop by motorbike, or just zero in on the seaside Chua Ninh Ung’s giant Lady Buddha statue, offering huge views looking back across Danang’s coast.
The Han River is a great place for boat tours, selfies and eating out © Kim Mott / Lonely Planet
After a busy day, let someone else lead you around on your last night. The detailed and lively Danang Food Tour delivers an engaging, tasty exploration of local foods on a four-hour nomadic feast of both sides of the river. It’s US$45 per person, including food and beer, for groups of up to five people.
But if you prefer something even more low key, take a 45-minute boat ride on the Han River past the blinking lights of the Danang skyline. (Boats leave from near the Novotel Hotel, north of the Han River Bridge, from 6 to 9pm; it’s 150,000d per person.) Then grab some seafood at one of the dozens of seafood barbecue restaurants facing the sea from Vo Nguyen Giap St.