The following is a series of photos taken on a bus trip to the village of Hoi An and back to the cruise ship, which was anchored about an hour north of Da Nang. This is a series of views of Da Nang and vicinity, which show growth and continued poverty. Although scenes of less-well-kept streets might seem disturbing, they are similar to every resort town around the world.
My first visit to Da Nang was in 1972, a few days after a major typhoon had flattened most structures. I was not expecting to see high-rise buildings and beach resorts, so the area has made huge steps. The beautiful beach, like good beaches anywhere, is a blessing and a curse.
I had always thought that China Beach, well-known from the Vietnam War era, had been named for the South China Sea, which laps the sand. The first time I saw that beach was after a monsoon had wrecked havoc. the second time was on a recent trip. Anyways, I learned that the name had an unusual and unexpected origin.
To the Vietnamese, that piece of water is known as the Eastern Sea. Perhaps, this arises from their age-old dislike of the Chinese, who occupied their country for 1000 years. It would make no sense to allow those bastards to believe in ownership of the sea (which is not contested for oil drilling rights). When US soldiers arrived and began to dig in, as soldiers are wont to do wherever they arrive, they discovered old porcelain pots buried in the sand. Not being archeologists, educated, or interested in history, they discarded the evidence but named the beach “China”. This arose from the American habit of calling dinner plates china, which surely comes from the English “bone china”. If one follows the trail further back, it’s interesting to note that the English discovered the art of making porcelain in--where else?--China, thus the name bone china.
The only evidence of US military presence in this region, which I spotted, was the revetments at the former airfield. Much explosives will be required to remove this blight from the landscape, not unlike German bunkers still dotting the beaches of France. Tourists will ignore these remnants of history, just as all ignore any lessons, which should have been learned from the foolish mistakes of leaders.
Massive development is underway to turn Da Nang into a hotel, condominium, strip mall hell. Gated communities with golf courses have already sprung up, with high walls to shield foreign investors from real life outside (which I found to be more interesting). Although the beach was virtually empty, manned life guard stands dotted the kilometers-long stretch of white sand. This contrasts with the long stretches of Florida sands I saw with no one watching for trouble. Cost could be the reason or independent spirit and another case of different strokes for different folks, once in the water.
Fortunately, Vietnam has an entire coastline of fine beaches, which will take speculators and developers decades to spoil. I recall flying over one sandy cove and dreaming of owning it one day. Because it lies far from any city or town, this piece of beach might still be untouched by greedy hands. The only thing missing, for me, is modern conveniences, because I do not plan to camp on the beach and do enjoy a good meal. Perhaps, such spots are better suited for one’s imagination.
Today, the tour took us to Hoi An, via Da Nang. We chose that over Hue, because I wanted to see the ancient village of Hoi An and not another city. Saigon and Hanoi are enough. I had no desire to see Da Nang, but it was part of the deal.
My last visit to Da Nang was in 1972. For some reason, I had to fly to the military base from our home base near Tuy Hoi; the reason is lost in space. I do recall that a major typhoon had just wrecked havoc on Vietnam. The Army had inherited an Air Force base, so our helicopters had been protected in concrete hangars. I recall the devastation at Da Nang, where many Vietnamese aircraft had not had the luxury of hangar safety. I recently scanned photos from that time, so I clearly recall aircraft on their side and destroyed buildings.
Da Nang today is being visited by a storm of foreign investment. High rise buildings, gated communities, golf course, hotels, and resorts blight an area once blighted by military sprawl. The only evidence of the US presence is the concrete and steel hangars, which once protected only the visitors and not home team aircraft.
The beach is just as nice as it has been for millennium. Miles of sand are virtually deserted, but manned life guard posts watch over the pristine sand and gentle surf at regular intervals. Once the buildings are completed and filled with foreigners, bathers will be safe.
The guide pointed out the modern hall, used for sport or culture, and explained that it used to be an aquatic center. No one used it, and the center was forced to close. Vietnamese people are not stupid. They refused to pay money to swim, when Da Nang offers miles swimming for free.
Guides in Saigon and again today stressed that foreigners are investing $280 billion in Vietnam, which perhaps explains the lack of improvements to US infrastructure. There is only so much capital in the world, and investor seem to prefer foreign shores.
Nha Trang has more personality than Da Nang, thanks to the French colonial period, but the beach is not as long. That said, I say more evidence of construction and planned sites in the north.
As we drove through town, I looked to the Annamese Mountains to the west and thought of the foolish war, which once raged. This beautiful country and its friendly people deserve the peace which followed their epic struggle with greed and/or stupid foreigners. Many will profit from the changes and many will enjoy little financial benefit, but all will enjoy less fear. And, all can enjoy a beautiful beach and good food.
Prior to writing novels, the author enjoyed a multifaceted career: from decorated combat aviator to advertising professional to global communications director of a major consumer brand. He has traveled the world and met sports, film and television stars, political leaders, and royalty. He graduated from Middlebury College, is married, lives in Germany, and has two grown children.