A Day in Đà Nẵng

Việt Nam is a land of early risers. And if we want breakfast, so are we. By 6:30, we're at the bún bò stand around the corner. The plastic tables and tiny stools are already packed - workers making a quick stop on their way to the office or families getting ready for the school day. Most local restaurants are mom and pop affairs catering to the commuter crowd. By 8, there's no sign they were ever there, so if we want food, we've got to set the alarm early. A woman waves us in, and there's a chorus of hellos as we sit. Everyone smiles, laughs a little as I settle carefully onto a stool. I look like a stork trying to sit on a postage stamp. But I don't mind being the morning's entertainment. Everyone's good natured about it, at least.

Ordering isn't complicated - they only sell one thing. We hold up a pair of fingers and in a few minutes, two steaming bowls arrive at our table. Bún bò is noodles in beef broth, spiced with lemongrass, lime, shrimp sauce, and cilantro.

It's spicy and savory and salty and sweet all at once. Also? It's surprisingly hearty, perfect for a day in the humid air of Việt Nam.

Afterward, we head into the city. Đà Nẵng has a population of over a million people, but still manages to feel like a small town. At the Han River, we cross the Cầu Rồng, or Dragon Bridge.

Just completed in 2013, it's a spectacular landmark in the center of town, and the most direct link between the airport and the beach.

We're on our way to one of Đà Nẵng's more famous markets, so we turn north and walk the river, snapping a few photos of the skyline.

The Han Market is bustling when we arrive, crowded with locals and tourists.

Han Market Map
Han Market Map

The building smells like spice and fish and durian fruit. This is a daunting combination (for those of you who don't know, durian is wildly popular, but smells like fermented armpit). We push inside anyway.

The stalls are packed with merchandise.

Vendors climb like gymnasts just to reach the higher shelves.

And everything is blend of familiar and exotic. We spend a few happy hours wandering the aisles. There's a fish vendor...

A lot of fruits and vegetables...

Surprisingly festive garlic...

A vendor making nem lụi.

Nem lụi is a local specialty. It's basically pork on a stick, flavored with salt and lemongrass. Yes, they are also delicious.

Then we find more... unusual... foods. I think these are bags of octopus and seahorse jerky.

And I don't even know what this is.

We dodge the culinary offerings. Every vendor tries to sell us bags of ground coffee. Việt Nam is famous for its coffee, so I guess this isn't a surprise. Still, it puts us in the mood for a caffeine pick-me-up and we head outside. We pass a vendor selling baguettes on the street.

A block further, we find one of Việt Nam's many, many coffee shops. Erin has picked up just enough survival Vietnamese to order two iced coffees with milk. Can she ask directions to the police station or the toilet? Nope. But coffee she's got down cold. My wife has her priorities.

The cups arrive in a towered configuration, a metal filter above a glass of concentrated darkness, with a layer of milky white at the bottom.

That's condensed milk down there. Add some of the ice, and the whole concoction tastes like cool chocolate milk. We enjoy our drinks before heading home.

Mid-day in Việt Nam is a sleepy time. Between 10 and 2, most shops close. Lunch hour is like siesta. People give us distinctly funny looks if we try to get anything done in the middle of the day, so we've long since learned to fort up and wait out the noon heat. We do catch a nice photo of the Dragon Bridge through some rooftops on our way, though.

Later, as the sun is setting, we go up to the roof of our building for a shot of the skyline.

Then it's time for dinner. We head outside and back to the river, looking for some food.

For a change of pace, Erin and I decide to get bánh mì. This is one of Việt Nam's most famous dishes - basically a baguette sandwich that comes in a thousand varieties. The Đà Nẵng speciality is bánh mì gà. It's shredded, feathery dried meat that's called chicken but is actually pork. We like it, but we go for bánh mì thịt nướng, which includes chunks of marinated, barbecued pig. No matter what the main topping is, everything comes topped with radish and papaya and cucumber and gravy, and Oh-My-God delicious. And the stands are everywhere, little glass booths ready to deliver sandwichy happiness.


Then it's time for entertainment. We could go catch a movie or explore the big, fancy, western-style grocery store at Vincom.


But we decide that the river's more fun. The broad walk is crowded with relaxing adults, romantic couples, and playing children. We find a dance class in full swing just short of the Dragon Bridge. Middle aged couples are learning ballroom steps. We stop to watch the smiling faces, the swings and dips and twirls. And we're not the only ones. There's a crowd of onlookers enjoying the show.

Then the music changes, and the speakers blare Boom, Boom, Boom, I Want You In My Room. For a moment, the dancers look at each other, uncertain. Then they start fox-trotting the sh#t out of those bubblegum lyrics. And it is AWESOME - middle-aged Vietnamese breaking it down to the Vengaboys on the waterfront in Đà Nẵng. The spectators begin clapping, bouncing around, and soon it becomes a free-for-all.

Eventually, the music returns to something more appropriate for waltzing, and Erin and I move on. We cross the bridge, heading home. But there's a crowd gathering at the far end. Many people have cameras out, pointed toward the dragon's head.

It looks like there's a show coming, so we stop and wait. Then a gasp rises from the onlookers, and we turn to see the dragon breathing fire.

There's a carnival atmosphere to all this, music thumping, people enjoying cool drinks in the evening air. We learn later that the Dragon Bridge regularly breathes fire on the weekends, for tourists and locals alike. If you're in the area and want to see the show yourself, stop by at 9pm.

The dragon ripples through color changes, going from golden to green to white. Smoke curls around its head, and it seems like a living thing, about to rip out of its foundation and go charging off into the sky.

Then it sends water jetting out in a column forty meters long. The crowd on the bridge scrambles for cover in the sudden deluge. A mom makes a game of huddling under an umbrella with her children. But the kids chicken out and go sprinting for better cover. She laughs after them.

And then the dragon quiets, and it's time for bed. Erin and I walk the few blocks back to our apartment and collapse. It's been a full and awesome day in Đà Nẵng.