Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. His last dispatch was from Hampi, India, a stunningly beautiful and less-visited historic site.
There were still two hours until sunset and I was already about to have my fifth meal of the day. The low, thick clouds that hung over the city of Danang had been pouring buckets of rain on and off since morning, washing my plans for a day trip into the countryside down the gutter for the third consecutive day. Holding a limp umbrella that broke after the first of many storms, I dashed between the awnings that cover the city’s sidewalks. Bold, bright letters decorated with the diacritics that denote tones in the Vietnamese language advertised the dishes on sale.
Soaked through, I ducked into a restaurant for no other reason than that it was crowded. Out front, just out of range of the rain, a woman loaded bowls with gleaming white noodles and a clear, steaming broth. I sat at a communal table with my serving of bun cha ca, a noodle soup with dense fish cakes. Around me was the kind of constant buzz I crave, as though the city was an organism and I was looking at it under a microscope. Families laughed; couples took photos of their food and each other. The man sitting next to me, also alone, pushed a plate of freshly chopped chilies my way and motioned to my bowl. I finished a $1 can of beer and ordered another. I considered asking for a second bowl of the bun cha ca, but restrained myself. There was more to eat.
Danang, the largest city in Central Vietnam, is on this year’s list of 52 Places to Go largely because of its beaches. Cranes fill the sky along the 20-mile beachfront, and gleaming new resorts compete with seafood restaurants and bars for prime real estate. Crowds are relatively thin, though: Danang, a city of about 1 million, has long been more of a stopover for travelers heading to the lantern-filled streets of Hoi An or the old imperial capital of Hue, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The American military made landfall in Vietnam on Danang’s beaches in 1965. The city became a place for American soldiers to recuperate between missions, until it fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975.
I had but one afternoon on one of the city’s giant stretches of white sand, Non Nuoc, or China Beach as it was dubbed by American G.I.s. My beach plans were derailed by the rainy season and a pair of typhoons that hit elsewhere in the country while I was there. For a week, the sky mostly remained a dull gray. The ubiquitous motorcyclists wore colorful ponchos as they drove down the city’s wide avenues, sending sprays of water onto pedestrians like me. But the weather turned out to be an opportunity. The great thing about restaurants? They have roofs.
Though Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi deservedly get accolades when it comes to street food, Danang is no slouch. Walking down the alleyway that led to my apartment, I couldn’t go five paces without running into something to eat or drink.
There were the national classics, of course, and Danang’s geographic location means it gets a bit of everything. Pho spots make sure to include a hint to their provenance in their name — restaurants with “north” or “Hanoi” in their title specialize in a pared down variety where the broth is the main focus; the southern ones, with references to Ho Chi Minh City in their names, offer something slightly sweeter and in your face. I had a banh mi every day, the crispy baguettes holding a slew of different meats and fresh herbs, living proof that sometimes the colonized can take the tools of the colonizer and make them better. On average, each meal cost around 50,000 Vietnamese dong — or $2.
Filling the spaces between restaurants were cafes. At any time of day, crowds spilled onto the streets, crouching on kid-size plastic stools, smoking cigarettes and sipping turbocharged Vietnamese coffee sweetened with condensed milk, another legacy of history: coffee from the French, condensed milk because of the lack of fresh milk at the time.
Danang also has its own signature dishes, which beckoned me most enthusiastically. The pride and joy of the city is mi quang — rice noodles sitting in a lukewarm turmeric-tinged bone broth and topped with roast pork, chicken or bright red shrimp the size of quarters. I returned to My Quang Ba Mua twice — once in the morning and once again in the late afternoon to learn of the different varieties. The morning soup was thicker — the sustenance you need to face the day — and the afternoon’s less intense variety felt more like a snack. Or at least I treated it as such.
Danang’s main specialty is seafood. A seemingly never-ending chain of restaurants on the eastern side of the city, just across the Han River, serves octopus, crab, clams, squid, prawns and fish cooked in delicate sauces of garlic, tamarind, chiles and lemongrass. All meals come with a smorgasbord of optional additions. Vietnam is a land of condiments, but I found myself repeatedly drawn to the most simple: a tiny bowl of salt, pepper, cut-up chiles and squeeze-it-yourself lime juice.