Nui Son Tra (Monkey Mountain)
Jutting out into the sea like a giant pair of Mickey Mouse ears, the Son Tra peninsula is crowned by the mountain that the American soldiers called Monkey. Grandly overlooking Danang to the south and the Hai Van Pass to the north, it was a prized radar and communications base during the American War. Until recently it was a closed military area (and virtually untouched except for the port Cang Tien Sa), but new roads and beach resorts are opening up the peninsula.
The highlight of visiting Monkey Mountain is the view from the summit, which is stupendous on a clear day. All that remains of the American military presence are a couple of radar domes (still used by the Vietnamese military and a no-go for tourists) next to a helicopter pad, now a lookout point. The steep road to the summit is pretty deserted and road conditions can be iffy. If you’re going on a motorbike, you’ll need a powerful one to make it to the top. The turn-off to this road is about 3km before Tien Sa Port and marked by a blue sign that reads ‘Son Tra Eco-Tourism’.
Most Vietnamese who come here head to one of the beach resorts along the peninsula’s southwestern coast. The other big attraction on the peninsula is Linh Ung , a colossal new Buddha statue positioned on a lotus-shaped platform that looks south to Danang city; there’s a monastery here too. Eventually you should be able to complete a loop of the peninsula; when completed, the road will make an incredibly scenic drive.
On the other side of Nui Son Tra, next to the port, is sheltered Tien Sa Beach. A memorial near the port commemorates an unfortunate episode of colonial history. Spanish -led Filipino and French troops attacked Danang in August 1858, ostensibly to end Emperor Tu Duc’s mistreatment of Catholics. The city quickly fell, but the invaders were hit by cholera, dysentery, scurvy, typhus and mysterious fevers. By the summer of 1859, the number of invaders who had died of illness was 20 times the number who had been killed in combat.
Many of the tombs of Spanish and French soldiers are below a chapel that’s located behind Tien Sa Port.
There’s some construction around the coastline, but Son Tra is pretty quiet on the whole and a delight to explore by motorbike. Luxury hotels are the name of the game here.
Son Tra Resort & Spa HOTEL $$$
( 0511-392 4924; www.sontra.com.vn; Son Tra; villa US$220-250) Looking directly over a sheltered white sand beach, these handsome villas are well maintained, spacious and attractive, all with kitchens, hardwood floors and sea views. They’re ideal for families. Book online and deals as cheap as US$100 are possible.
( 0511-393 8888; http://danang.intercontinental.com; Son Tra; r/ste from US$230/400) Spilling down a hillside this huge resort hotel dominates this corner of Son Tra, with golf buggies whisking its pampered guests around the landscaped grounds. There’s an impressive spa, fully loaded fitness centre and huge main pool.
( 0511-221 4237; Son Tra; meals 80,000-250,000d; 11am-9.30pm) Authentic seafood restaurant that’s very popular with Vietnamese families on weekends and during holiday season, but usually quiet the rest of the time. Eat right over the water in one of the thatched shelters in the bay. There are all kinds of delicious fresh fish, spider crab, eel and shrimp dishes.
Nam O Beach, 15km northwest of the city, was where the first US combat troops landed in South Vietnam in 1965. Today Nam O Beach has reverted to a more humble form. There are a few hotels located here, but the beach is not as attractive as those south of Danang.
The villagers make nuoc mam (fish sauce) and goi ca. The latter is a kind of Vietnamese sushi: fresh, raw fish fillets marinated in a special sauce and coated in a spicy powder. It’s served with fresh vegetables on rice- paper rolls. You’ll find it for sale on the beach in summer or look for it in the village.
Just off the China Beach coastal road, the Marble Mountains (Ngu Hanh Son) consist of five craggy marble outcrops topped with pagodas. Each mountain is named for the natural element it’s said to represent: Thuy Son (Water), Moc Son (Wood), Hoa Son (Fire), Kim Son (Metal or Gold) and Tho Son (Earth). The villages that have sprung up at the base of the mountains specialise in marble sculpture, though they now astutely use marble from China rather than hacking away at the mountains that bring the visitors (and buyers) in.
Thuy Son (admission 15,000d; 7am-5pm) is the largest and most famous of the five mountains, with a number of natural caves in which first Hindu and later Buddhist sanctuaries have been created. At the top of the staircase is a gate, Ong Chon, which is pockmarked with bullet holes. This leads to Linh Ong Pagoda. Behind it, a path heads through two tunnels to caverns that contain several Buddhas and Cham carvings. A flight of steps also leads up to another cave, partially open to the sky, with two seated Buddhas in it.
Immediately to the left as you enter Ong Chon Gate is the main path to the rest of Thuy Son, beginning with Xa Loi Pagoda, a beautiful stone tower that overlooks the coast. Stairs off the main pathway lead to Vong Hai Da, a viewing point that would yield a brilliant panorama of China Beach if it weren’t so untended. The stone-paved path continues to the right and into a mini gorge. On the left is Van Thong Cave, opposite which is a cement Buddha.
Exit the gorge through a battle-scarred masonry gate. There’s a rocky path to the right leading to Linh Nham, a tall chimney-shaped cave with a small altar inside. Nearby, another path leads to Hoa Nghiem, a shallow cave with a Buddha. Left of here is cathedral-like Huyen Khong Cave, lit by an opening to the sky. The entrance to this spectacular chamber is guarded by two administrative mandarins (to the left of the doorway) and two military mandarins (to the right).
Scattered about the cave are Buddhist and Confucian shrines; note the inscriptions carved into the stone walls. On the right a door leads to a chamber with two s talactites – during the American War this was used as a VC field hospital. Inside is a plaque dedicated to the Women’s Artillery Group, which destroyed 19 US aircraft from a base below the mountains in 1972.
Local buses between Danang and Hoi An (tickets 18,000d) can drop you at Marble Mountains, 10km south of Danang.
During the war the Americans used the name China Beach to refer to the beautiful 30km sweep of fine white sand that starts at Monkey Mountain and ends near Hoi An. Soldiers would be sent here for some R&R from bases all over the country.
The Vietnamese call sections of the beach by different names, including My Khe, My An, Non Nuoc, An Bang and Cua Dai. The northernmost stretch, My Khe, is now basically a suburb of Danang, while in the far south Cua Dai is widely considered Hoi An’s beach. The area in between has been carved up by the likes of the Raffles, Hyatt and other five-star brands, with swanky beach resorts under construction. Of course, how they’ll fill all those ritzy rooms is another matter.
The best time for swimming at China Beach is from April to July, when the sea is at its calmest. At other times the water can get rough. Be warned that lifeguards only patrol some sections of the beach.
The surf can be very good from around mid-September to December.
Just across the Song Han Bridge, My Khe is fast becoming Danang’s easternmost suburb. In the early morning and evening the beach fills up with city folk doing t’ai chi. Tourists emerge during peak sun-tanning hours, while locals start showing up in the evening. Despite its popularity, the beach is still largely free from hawkers.
The water can have a dangerous undertow, especially in winter. However, it’s protected by the bulk of Nui Son Tra and is safer than the rest of China Beach.
Much of the central section of China Beach has been parceled off for luxury resort developments. The inland side of the coastal road has a scattering of budget hotels between exclusive golf courses designed by the likes of Greg Norman.
( 0511-222 5123; www.geocities.jp/eenahotel; Khu An Cu 3, My Khe; s 150,000-400,000d, d & tw 350,000-800,000d) This Japanese-owned minihotel is a great base with its immaculately clean, light, spacious, white rooms. There’s a lift, fast wi-fi, friendly English-speaking staff and a good complimentary breakfast.
( 0511-396 7401; email@example.com; 4 Truong Sa, Hoa Hai, My An beach; r 300,000-400,000d) Great little minihotel, just across the road from the beach break on My An so a good option for surfers. Offers well-kept rooms and the jovial owner speaks some English.
( 0511-395 8831; firstname.lastname@example.org; 5 Hoang Ke Viem; apt US$20-40) A two-minute walk from My Khe beach, these simple, serviced apartments have excellent discounts for longer stays. There’s a cafe downstairs and the owners have lots of similar options close by.
( 0511-396 7999; http://maiadanang.fusion-resorts.com; Ð Truong Sa, Khue My Beach; ste/villas from US$400/600) Contemporary beachfront hotel with an outstanding spa (all guests get a minimum of two treatments per day). And what a wellness zone it is, with treatment rooms, saunas and steam rooms set around a courtyard-style garden. Suites and villas don’t disappointment either: all boast minimalist decor, private pool and gadgets including music-loaded iPods. Free shuttle buses run to/from Hoi An.
The My Khe section of China Beach is just 3km or so east of central Danang and costs around 40,000d by taxi.