There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Da Nang: Part 11 of Vietnam North to South

Back to Part 10:
Hue (2): A Self-immolating Monk, an Impotent Emperor and an Imperial Dinner
On to Part 12

The next morning was still a little misty but it was warm and threatened to become warmer, perhaps even sunny. Ten days ago we had flown north from the heat of Ho Chi Minh City and although we had remained in the tropics the whole time, the weather had hardly been tropical. Drizzle, mist and overcast skies had followed us around and although it had been cold only in the far north, it had not been hot anywhere.

We left Hue, driving roughly southeast until we reached what looked like the sea but turned out to be Dam Cau Hai lagoon. It does have a narrow outlet to the sea, but that was on the far side, some ten kilometres away and lost in the haze.  The road descended to the shore and we could see that the warm, blue, shallow water was extensively used for farming shellfish.
Dam Hau Cai Lagoon

Leaving the lagoon we passed a Christian graveyard. As a connoisseur of graveyards Lynne could not help but notice how different it was to the Taoist graveyard we had seen on the road to Ha Long Bay.

Christian graveyard south of Dam Hau Cai
The road now ran due east straight towards the real coast, but first there was another, smaller lagoon. There was no danger of mistaking this one for the sea as it was to our right as we turned south.

We paused to stretch our legs, photograph the lagoon…..

Lagoon near An Cu
…. and these two ladies, who sat under an umbrella shucking oysters with remarkable speed and dexterity. That they both had a full complement of fingers was a tribute to that dexterity.

Oyster shuckers near An Cu

We drove down the spit dividing the lagoon from the sea, to the village of An Cu near its tip and crossed the narrow stretch of water beyond.

Looking back to An Cu with the lagoon on the left and the open sea on the right
South of the lagoon a spur of the inland mountain range makes its way to the sea. A tunnel carries the modern version of Highway 1 beneath this geographical inconvenience but we turned onto the older version and wound our way slowly up the 500m Hai Van (Ocean Cloud) Pass. In the Top Gear Vietnam Special Jeremy Clarkson described it as ‘a deserted ribbon of perfection—one of the best coast roads in the world’. As I could not possibly agree with Jeremy Clarkson on anything, I will point out that it was hardly deserted; those who need to get somewhere use the tunnel, the tourists, all of them, go over the top

'A deserted ribbon of perfection'
Hai Van Pass
In medieval times the pass marked the boundary between the Vietnamese Dai Viet kingdom to the north and the Champa kingdoms to the south. It ceased to be the boundary in the fifteenth century when the Vietnamese started expanding southwards, but it remained an important strategic point and was fortified in turn by the Chinese, French and Americans.

Assorted Fortifications
Hai Van Pass

The city of Da Nang came into view as we descended the pass. There is no name more evocative of the news bulletins of the late 60s and early 70s than Da Nang and it was here, in March 1965, that American ground involvement started when the 3rd US Marine division landed on Red Beach.

Red Beach, Da Nang
They came originally to support the Da Nang airbase, but were soon involved in combat operations. By the end of the year there were 200 000 American troops in Vietnam and half a million by the winter of 1967. In 1954 the senate majority leader, William F. Knowland, had observed that ‘Using United States ground forces in the Indo-China jungle would be like trying to cover an elephant with a handkerchief.’ A lot of people went to a great deal of trouble to prove him right.

Da Nang is an ancient city, probably founded by the Champa at the end of the 3rd century AD. That it now has a population of 800 000 and is the fifth biggest city in Vietnam is largely a result of American involvement.

We stopped to visit the Champa Museum. The Champa arrived from Borneo in the 3rd century AD. A Hindu people, their power reached its zenith in the 9th and 10th centuries when they ruled central and southern Vietnam from the Hai Van Pass to the Mekong Delta, although it remains uncertain whether theirs was a single empire or a collection of competing kingdoms.

Eventually the Vietnamese started chipping away at Champa territory, annexing the area south of the Hai Van Pass (including Da Nang) in 1471, although it was not until 1832 that the last of the Champa lands were absorbed into Vietnam. Today about 100 000 Cham people remain in the southern part of their former domain. They still speak Cham, a Malayo-Polynesian language, and still practise Hinduism. [Other Cham converted to Islam. In 2014 we encountered Muslim Cham at Chau Doc in the Mekong Delta near the Cambodian border, and the battles between the Khmer and the Cham are the subject of many carving at Angkor Wat and neighbouring temples]

The small but well organised museum has a wealth of statues. Some look purely Indian, like this statue of Ganesh…..
Champa Museum, Da Nang

 ….others show a strong Buddhist influence….

Champa Museum, Da Nang

….while others seem Chinese in style.

Champa Museum, Da Nang
Lunch was at the nearby Apsara Restaurant which was doing good business with both foreigners and locals. Disappointingly it was another set meal - restaurants tend to play safe with these and after a while they become a little samey - but the quality was good and they were determined that we would not leave hungry. We did justice to the tapioca noodles stuffed with pork and prawns, fried spring rolls with more prawns, sautéed beef (with French Fries!), grilled pork with spices, fried rice with shrimps and finally watermelon.

The wide roads on which we resumed our southward journey are another legacy of the American occupation. To our left was China Beach, much used by the Americans for R & R. Minh said that in his (post-war) youth it had been a palm fringed sandy beach open to all, but now most of the palms have been replaced by buildings, and the beach is being carved up by ‘resort hotels’ as Da Nang, already an important port, aspires to become a holiday resort as well.
Da Nang's wide streets

To our right was the wall of the Da Nang airbase with hangars clearly visible behind it. Originally a French base, it was handed over to the South Vietnamese in 1955 and the first Americans arrived in 1961. It would become the major American airbase in Vietnam, at its peak handling over 2500 air operations daily, which at the time made it the world’s busiest airport.

Hangars, Da Nang Airbase
It remains a Vietnamese military airbase, but is also the city’s civil airport. We would return there later to fly to Ho Chi Minh City. Unlike Hue’s tiny airport with its single baggage carousel Da Nang has a large modern terminal with rows of check-in desks, only one of which was open. We passed through security into a cavernous departure lounge capable of handling a dozen flights simultaneously. The only people there were the hundred or so waiting for our flight. It would be our third internal flight and, like the others, the passengers were almost entirely western tourists. If they had to rely on local travellers Vietnam Airlines could replace their internal flights with a taxi.

As we waited, three single-seater jets took off – I thought they were aged Soviet built MiGs but I am certainly no expert. Fifteen minutes later our plane, the only civilian airliner in the airport, pushed back on time, but we had to wait at the end of the runway for the MiGs to return. They seemed flimsy vehicles to land at such high speed on such spindly legs.

South of the airport we drove towards the landmark of ‘Marble Mountain’.
Marble Mountain
Da Nang
Myth relates that the turtle god laid an egg on the shore, and the nymph that emerged broke the shell into five pieces which became the five peaks of the mountain. So much of it has been quarried away that it is difficult to tell how many peaks it once had. The marble for Ho Chi Minh’s tomb comes from here but quarrying has since been stopped. There does, however, seem to be plenty stockpiled in the workshop we visited.

Marble workshop
Da Nang
Like the wood-carver in Hue their equipment seemed ill-designed for delicate work but, without any noticeable plan, the sculptors produced wonders with apparent ease.

End product
Marble Mountain, Da Nang
As the possibility of fitting a substantial piece of marble into our hand luggage was small, we left them to it and continued south towards Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the first subject of the next post…..

Back to Part 10:
Hue (2): A Self-immolating Monk, an Impotent Emperor and an Imperial Dinner
On to Part 12

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