Every Marine in 1 Corps got to spend a few days at China Beach at least once during their 13-month tours,” writes journalist Michael Herr in his 1977 book Dispatches,a visceral, personal account of the Vietnam War.
“It was a place where they could go swimming or surfing, get drunk, get stoned, get laid, get straight, groove in the scivvie houses, rent sailboats or just sleep.”
It was on the sandy shores of Danang that 50 years ago the first US ground troops arrived at the start of the long, bloody conflict, striding from their boats through the warm waters of the bay, located midway down Vietnam’s S-shaped coastline.
You only have to read Dispatchesto get a sense of just how senseless the ensuing ten-year war was, one in which 58,000 US soldiers were killed, and three million Vietnamese perished, two-thirds of them civilians.
Against this background, you can appreciate how rapidly the country has rebuilt itself, and the incredible capacity of the local people for forgiveness.
These days, Danang is a thriving port city of over one million people. Down by the surf, fishermen mend their circular basket boats, just as they have always done, but all along the seafront promenade, glitzy karaoke bars, golf courses and luxury hotels are arriving at an remarkable pace.
Among local brands such as the luxurious Naman Retreat and Fusion Maia, there’s a Pullman and a Hyatt Regency. A Sheraton will open in 2018.
Vietnam remains a Communist country, but economic reforms have opened it up to the market, resulting in improved living standards and huge strides in development.
Last year, it welcomed 7.8 million visitors from overseas, while much improved relations with the US saw more than $36 billion generated in bilateral trade between the two nations.
By 2024, the Knight Frank 2015-2016 Wealth Report predicts that Vietnam will have seen a 159 percent increase in ultra-high net-worth individuals (those whose net worth is over $30 million), the highest forecast growth rate of any country in the world.
“You could fly up and into hot tropic sunsets that would change the way you thought about light forever,” writes Herr, who spent his days being airlifted by helicopter in and out of combat zones.
Nowadays, Danang’s former military airbase is a shiny international airport, with flag carrier Vietnam Airlines offering frequent daily services between the coastal city and the capital, Hanoi, 380 miles north.
Disembarking from the one-hour 20-minute flight from Hanoi in the morning, we are greeted in arrivals by a uniformed member of staff from the Intercontinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort, where we will be staying. As he rushes to the baggage carousel to collect our luggage, we take a seat in the hotel’s dedicated airport lounge and accept a cup of mint tea.
A 40-minute drive takes us through the city – past the Sun Wheel, Danang’s answer to the London Eye, which started turning last summer – and across the Han River. From here, a cliff road skirts the sea out to the Son Tra peninsula, where the resort overlooks its own bay.
Here, rows of villas are set on different levels carved into steep jungled slopes. From Heaven, at the top, we look down on Sky, Earth and Sea. Our own palatial beachside hideaway is easy to spot in the distance thanks to a long sliver of blue – a private pool.
Opened in 2013 and designed by Harvard-educated Bill Bensley – a man described by Timemagazine as “the king of exotic luxury resorts” – the spectacular 96-acre site took seven years to complete, bringing 197 stylish rooms, suites and penthouses to an otherwise virgin hillside.
To get around, you can jump in a golf cart and wend your way through lush gardens of frangipani or take the Nam Tram funicular railway, which shuttles guests down to the palm-fringed half-mile sandy beach. In the early hours, before the heat sets in, we go for sunrise yoga, followed by a relaxing swim in the sapphire sea and breakfast al fresco.
If you can resist room service on your balcony or terrace, Citron restaurant has cantilevered balconies with cushioned banquettes, and a magnificent buffet of local delicacies, fruit smoothies and eggs-to-order. (Try a Vietnamese iced coffee made with sweet condensed milk.) Guests staying in Executive rooms or suites also have access to the glass-walled Sun Peninsula Club lounge, which lays on free cocktails and canapés at sundown.
They also get their own butler – ours, Ty Na, goes out of her way to make the whole experience magical, one evening arranging a table for two on the sand, with curries cooked by our own personal chef. Another evening we drink champagne in the moonlit courtyard of the hotel’s fine-dining French restaurant, La Maison 1888, before enjoying a tasting menu conceived by three-Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire.
Although it’s tempting to spend most of your holiday by the pool or in the spa, a trip to Hoi An, a 45 minute drive away, provides enrichment of a different kind. The old town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is best explored in the evening, although we arrive earlier to take a scooter tour of the surrounding countryside (Vespa Adventures, $76 per person).
Our first stop is a fish market on the banks of the Thu Bon River. Men catch squid at night, luring them to the surface with bright lanterns, and sell them to women in conical straw hats who bring them to the market. A roadside stand sells banh mi, the country’s famous French colonial snack – a baguette filled with shredded pork, fragrant herbs, vegetables and chili sauce.
Whizzing down dusty alleys, our next stop is the home of a family who make rice crackers. The mother steams them by an open fire, while racks of them dry in the sun, ready to be toasted. Ben, our local guide, tells us she has been doing this for 18 years, and each day needs to spend nine or ten hours to make 600 or 700. Handing us a piece, he tells us they’re best served with green papaya or green mango salad.
It’s great to hear that the tour is bringing money directly to local communities – the weaver couple we visit, for example, will only make $5 for a large grass mat that takes three hours to make, but will receive $1.50 from Vespa Adventures for a few minutes spent talking with the tourists.
After paying a visit to a mushroom farm and a boat yard, we zoom on dirt tracks between fields of rice, loofah and corn, and park up for a bite to eat. “Farming is one of Vietnam’s main incomes – we are the second-largest exporter of rice after Thailand,” Ben tells us as he dishes up bowls of cold rice noodles, coriander and smoked aubergine under the shade of an arbor.
At dusk, we make our way back to Hoi An, piling the bikes on to a low wooden ferry that takes us over the river. In one direction, the road is lined with women selling vegetables; in the other are lively canal-side bars and restaurants. We take a seat at one for a cold Larue beer, and a seven-year-old girl comes over selling candlelit paper lanterns – we buy two, and cross the street to place them in the water, watching them join a flickering procession floating downstream, to the sea.
By Jenny Southan