In Đà Nẵng, Việt Nam, looking to the future

Lê Hạ Uyên never tires of searching her hometown’s shady alleys and side streets in search of the perfect bowl of noodles.

“It takes time to explore,” said Ms. Uyên, a 24-year-old foreign affairs officer who blogs about Đà Nẵng and its vast food culture.

“We have a very diverse cuisine, and different shops have different types of cooking.”

Rice-Cake

Tăng Thi Vui (right) sells savory rice cakes at a market in Đà Nẵn, Việt Nam

Travelers arriving in Đà Nẵng typically travel by road 29 kilometers, or 18 miles, south to the former trading port of Hội An, which Unesco has designated a cultural heritage landmark.

Others drive north to the former royal capital of Huế, another designated heritage site, where a preserved citadel offers glimpses into a former feudal empire.

But some residents and expatriates say Đà Nẵng, a coastal city that was host to a U.S. air base during the Việt Nam War, is emerging as an appealing destination in its own right.

The city’s charms include a riverfront promenade where locals sip iced coffee, and a museum displaying artifacts from the Champa kingdom, which ruled for centuries along Việt Nam’s central and southern coasts.

And the central region’s best-known foods, like the noodle dish mì quảng and the chicken-and-rice medley cơm gà, easily rival salty specialities from Hà Nội and sweet ones from Hồ Chí Minh City.

It is easy to spend less than 200,000 Vietnamese đồng, or about $9.60, on a day of eating in Đà Nẵng, and hard to resist sampling the noodles, snacks and desserts that confront you at every street corner.

Ms. Uyên, who lived in Japan and Australia before coming home in 2011, says dishes from Đà Nẵng and Việt Nam’s central coast are underrepresented outside the country, especially when compared with the interest in foods from the north or south.

“They deserve to be more popular,” she said.

Đà Nẵng, Việt Nam’s fourth-most populous city, also has a crescent-shaped beach that lies largely vacant by day except for some expatriate surfers.

Vietnamese revelers arrive just before dusk, tossing volleyballs or strolling in the surf as vendors sell beer and quail eggs from foam coolers.

Farther up the beach, fishermen prepare the thatched, circular boats that they row most evenings into the Việt Nam’s East Sea, catching squid and prawns as their grandparents did before Việt Nam won its independence from France in 1954.

“I catch anything in the sea,” Huỳnh Bá Sơn, 41, said recently on the beach before beginning his nightly fishing shift.

“Anything that swims into my net.”

The boats leave shore at sunset, passing a hilltop pagoda complex where a 67-meter, or 220-foot, female Buddha gazes back at the twinkling green lights of Đà Nẵng’s modest skyline of low-rise concrete houses and occasional office towers.

According to local legend, she has kept away typhoons that typically ravage this coastline during the winter rainy season.

The city may not stay lucky forever:

Like some of Đà Nẵng’s shinier buildings, the statue is a mere three years old.

In the 1960s, U.S. troops used the Đà Nẵng air base to mix and store dioxin, the toxic ingredient in the defoliant Agent Orange, which was sprayed over swaths of Việt Nam — the total area affected was about half the size of Switzerland — to deny cover to North Vietnamese troops and Việt Cộng guerrillas.

Việt Nam says millions of its citizens continue to suffer as a result of dioxin exposure.

The United States finances rehabilitation services for Vietnamese living with disabilities, regardless of cause, but maintains that no link between exposure and health consequence has been scientifically proved.

Although the two countries normalized relations in 1995, the United States has long resisted Vietnamese requests for help with dioxin remediation, even as it has spent billions on disability payments and health care for its soldiers who were exposed to Agent Orange during the war.

But last August, U.S. and Vietnamese officials shook hands in Đà Nẵng and introduced a $43 million joint project that will eradicate the remaining dioxin at the air base over four years, using technology that cleans contaminated soil by heating it to high temperatures.

The U.S. Agency for International Development says only the former air base is contaminated.

“We are both moving earth and taking the first steps to bury the legacies of our past,” David B. Shear, the U.S. ambassador to Việt Nam, said at a ceremony marking the occasion.

The United States increasingly views Việt Nam as a strategic partner in its efforts to counter China’s rising influence in the Việt Nam’s East Sea, which has international shipping lanes and is believed to contain untapped reserves of oil and natural resources.

The ghosts of a conflict that killed an estimated 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese have not entirely vanished:

Museums in Đà Nẵng display leftover bombs and tanks, and some residents suffer from leukemia and other illnesses that the Vietnamese Communist Party says are linked to dioxin from Agent Orange.

Linh-Ứng

Vietnamese tourists enter Linh Ứng Sơn Trà Pagoda, a popular tourist attraction in Đà Nẵng

But the city, which has a population of more than 700,000, is looking to the future.

Three bridges are under construction, and the newly refurbished airport, which has the country’s first Burger King, offers flights to major destinations in the region like Singapore and, at the end of the month, Hong Kong.

The city authorities are trying to bolster Đà Nẵng’s international image by promoting luxury resort development and staging sports competitions, including an inaugural marathon scheduled for Sept. 1.

They also have constructed a few unconventional attractions, including the giant Buddha statue and a 50-meter glass elevator that for 30,000 Vietnamese dong will lift a tourist to a hilltop pagoda overlooking coastline that U.S. troops once called China Beach.

Developers say Việt Nam’s central coast has the makings of Asia’s next beachfront resort destination, and some international hotel chains, including Hyatt and InterContinental, recently opened resorts along a stretch of prime coastline.

But change comes more slowly in central Đà Nẵng, where streets are still flanked by faded yellow homes from the French colonial era, and motorbike traffic is not nearly as frenetic as it is in Hà Nội or Hồ Chí Minh City.

Thanh Hương, who serves noodles in a small shop near the riverfront promenade, said she had not seen too many changes lately in her neighborhood, aside from some upscale restaurants that opened across the street.

As for her business, she said on a recent weekday afternoon:

“People like the way I cook, not too salty, not too plain.”

Ms. Hương said she and her husband, a soldier who fought with the Americans, moved to Đà Nẵng from Huế in 1968.

For the last 20 years she has been perfecting her recipe for bánh canh:

Rice or tapioca noodles in a mild broth made from crab, shrimp and beef stocks.

Unlike other vendors, Ms. Hương said, she makes her noodles from scratch, no matter that a bustling food market is only a few streets away.

Her regular customers include Ms. Uyên, the blogger, who says the shop is among her favorites.

Getting to Đà Nẵng

Da Nang’s airport offers several flights each day to and from Hà Nội, Hồ Chí Minh City and several other Vietnamese cities.

There also are direct flights to Singapore, Seoul and Kuala Lumpur, and on March 28, Dragonair is scheduled to begin flying three times a week between Đà Nẵng and Hong Kong.

Đà Nẵng is also a stop on a popular train route that traverses the country from north to south.

By MIKE IVES

Source: The New York Times 19/3/2013

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