The Vietnamese people have dragon blood coursing through their veins. At least that’s what the country’s origin story says.
According to the creation myth, the dragon king of the seas and the fairy queen of the mountains fell in love nearly 5,000 years ago and produced 100 children. The romance didn’t last, but it did unite the land and sea, and their offspring spread their dragon genes throughout what would become Vietnam. Images of the mythical creature are found throughout the culture, and the country itself has the geographical shape of a dragon. Still, the most impressive representation is the fire-breathing Dragon Bridge that stretches 2,185 feet across the Han River in Da Nang.
The Dragon Bridge (or Cau Rong in Vietnamese) puts on a fire show at 9 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and select holidays. I didn’t just want to see the dragon, I wanted to see it spit fireballs, so I arrived early on Sunday. I explored several places to live out my childhood Dungeons & Dragons fantasy, and the 7 Bridges rooftop was my first choice. As fate would have it, it wasn’t my best choice.
Owned and operated by an American expat, 7 Bridges produces some of the best craft beer in Vietnam, and its rooftop has a bird’s eye view of the dragon head. Future travelers should come here to see the fire show, but this was during the coronavirus peak in Asia, and contact tracing suggested a tourist visited the pub that day after exposure to someone who tested positive for covid-19. The owner recommended that everyone leave, and I escaped before the authorities arrived.
Draft Beer Euro Village is another multi-level bar on the other side of the dragon head, and its beer and vantage point made it a worthy second choice, but I only had time to find a spot among the mass of spectators on the riverwalk. After I rushed out of 7 Bridges and settled into the sea of people on the street below, the dragon started breathing streams of fire as if on cue.
The verdict? Watching a giant dragon head spit fire is always going to be fun, but we’re not talking Game of Thrones-sized fireballs here. Maybe the uniqueness of the experience was more impressive than the fire itself, though I did enjoy what came next: The show finished with the dragon soaking the crowds below with a blast of water that many did not seem to expect. Even still, the fire and water show did not outshine the glorious design of the dragon itself.
The Dragon Bridge, opened in 2013 on the 38th anniversary of Da Nang’s liberation, features a stunning S-shaped serpentine body that extends above and below the traffic lanes. While the date of the opening ceremony celebrated America’s departure from the central coast, a major U.S. firm with architects who worked on U.S. landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel actually designed the Dragon Bridge. In a certain way, this irony highlights the special relationship that Da Nang has with America.
Just as the French occupation of Vietnam started in Da Nang in 1857, the arrival of U.S. troops in 1965 began in Da Nang, which is also where the final U.S. ground operations took place seven years later. Most U.S. flight activity during the war was based out of Da Nang Air Base, which is now Da Nang International Airport. The military often sent American troops to the city’s white sand beaches for rest and relaxation (i.e., partying), and the post-boot camp scenes in Full Metal Jacket largely took place in Da Nang, including the infamous “me so horny” scene that I doubt is a source of local pride.
Saigon fell 45 years ago last week, effectively ending the Vietnam War. About a million Vietnamese died in the conflict, but not so many years later, the country somehow welcomes American tourists with open arms. Vietnam is currently the seventh-fastest growing tourist destination, and Americans made up the fifth-largest group of international tourists last year… and the largest from a non-Asian country. Travelers often flock to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi (with nearby Halong Bay), but Da Nang is the fast-rising star among both tourists and expats.
While I personally chased the dragon to Da Nang, I soon learned the city offers so much more.
San Francisco might be its sister city, but Da Nang feels more like a Vietnamese Miami Beach in the ’80s minus Tubbs & Crockett. While that might not be a perfect comparison, Da Nang boasts the feel of a big city with lots of beautiful beaches and restaurants, including Michelin-level spots like Nen and La Maison 1888. The Han River (with its many bridges, including Cau Rong) splits most of the city in two, with nightlife flourishing on both the riverwalks and on the waterfront. My Khe is a solid urban beach in the city center and the setting for the late ’80s series China Beach, but those looking to eat, drink and party in style should consider the remarkably named Apocalypse Now Beach Club.
On the northeastern edge of the city, the Son Tra Peninsula juts out into the sea with amazing views from what American soldiers called Monkey Mountain. This area is home to the ultra-plush InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort featuring insane suites with private infinity pools overlooking the ocean. To the south, Non Nuoc Beach stands out as a sandy white paradise lined with impressive yet relatively inexpensive beach resorts. I opted for the epic Sheraton Grand Danang Resort (photo above) with massive rooms, a luxury spa and a kilometer-long pool that crashes right up against the beach with an infinity edge. There’s not much action outside the resort, but the Sheraton Grand features several bars and restaurants, from a high-end steakhouse serving Australian wagyu to a lively waterfront bistro.
Hotels in this area offer calm and tranquility, yet it’s easy to reach the city using the Grab app (GrabTaxi for an official taxi, GrabCar for a ride share) and a portable Wi-Fi device (when public networks aren’t available). Those who prefer to stay in the heart of the city can find decent waterfront hotels with swimming pools for as little as $50 per night.
For those who want more than waves and whiskey, Da Nang offers an abundance of activities, from hiking the Monkey and/or Marble Mountains to channeling the BBC’s Top Gear with a 13-mile road trip through the Hai Van Pass. Those up for a day trip can visit nearby towns like imperial Hue and ancient Hoi An or the millennium-old My Son Sanctuary ruins in a remote valley forest. The singular must-do activity, however, is spending the day at the Sun World Da Nang entertainment park 5,000 feet up in Ba Na Hills. The heart of the park resembles a French Village, but wander around to see everything from a 90-foot-tall Buddha statue to the Instagram-greedy Golden Bridge (photo above). Car services to any of these attractions (as well as the airport) can be pre-booked through Klook.
Now for the basics. You do need a visa to visit Vietnam, but most Americans can complete the process without visiting an embassy. Follow the instructions here for a loose-leaf visa that will be sent as a separate page that’s not attached to your passport. Vietnamese dong trades at about 23,000 to the dollar, so prices are often displayed without the final three zeros. Finally, local tourism typically takes place in the fiery hot summer months between June and August, so come between March and May or September and October for better tropical weather, fewer tourists and less crowded beaches.
Just make sure to include a weekend night so you too can chase the dragon.