Friday, June 23, 2017

Crossing the Climate Boundary: from Huế to Đà Nãng

                                    by Jim Goodman

looking north from the Hải Vân Pass
       South of Ngh An Province, the land of Vietnam narrows to a thin coastal plain with mountains rising immediately to the west.  A little north of Đà Nng the Bch Mã Range of these mountains swerves across the valley to the sea, ending in a shoreline hill.  On top of this hill is the Hi Vân Pass and until recently all north-south traffic, on foot or in vehicles, had to pass this way, so from posts on the pass all approaches were easily visible in advance.  Governments in the past, from ancient times down to the 20th century, established fortresses here.
An Cư Lagoon
        Besides physically separating the country’s north and south, the intersection of the Bch Mã Range with the East Sea also affects Vietnam’s climate.  The range blocks the cold winds and rainclouds coming down from the north.  Even in typhoon season the storms pummel the provinces north of the pass—Thừa Thiên Hué to Hà Tĩnh—more than Đà Nẵng or Quảng Nam.  Leaving Huế on a cloudy, misty day, after crossing the pass it may be only partly cloudy in Đà Nẵng, with plenty of sunshine in between.  
       In ancient times the Hải Vân Pass was also a political and cultural boundary between the Vietnamese in the north and the Chăm to the south.  Even while the north was under Chinese administration the two sides battled for control of the area north of the pass.  After Vietnam won back its independence in 938 the struggle continued.  By the end of the 15th century the Vietnamese had vanquished the nearest Chăm kingdoms and extended its borders to just north of Nha Tang.
fishing huts and nets on the An Cư Lagoon
       Vietnamese immigration south of the Hài Vân Pass, however, did not begin in earnest until the 16th century, when a protracted civil war ravaged so much of the Red River Delta that in many places life was no longer tenable.  With Vietnamese settled on both sides, the pass lost its symbolic and military significance until the colonial period.  The French built a railway line that skirted around the base of the hill and a road that ran over it.  Once the Vietnamese insurrection began, the French installed lookout posts and machine gun nests on the pass.  These were later used again during the American War, though they failed to stop the North Vietnamese Army from swarming over Hài Vân in the spring offensive in 1975 that would soon capture Saigon and conclude the war.
boats on the beach at Lăng Cô
       Years later, when tourists began traveling around Vietnam, the Hải Vân Pass was on the route between the popular destinations of Huế and Đà Nẵng.  From Huế the road ran southeast across the plain and then alongside the large Cầu Hai Lagoon on its left, with the Bạch Mã Mountain Range suddenly rising on its right.  A portion of this area, 22.000 hectares of evergreen rain forest, has been reserved as a national park.  Over 1150 species of plants have been discovered so far, 330 of birds and over 90 different mammals, including a few previously unknown species discovered in the 1990s.
bringing in a boat at Lăng Cô
       After passing Cầu Hai Lagoon, the road ascends slightly over low hills and then runs back down to the plain to the picturesque An Cư Lagoon on the western side of the road opposite seaside Lăng Cô village.  The mountains rise steeply on the other side and the railway line runs along the base of these mountains, on the opposite side of the lagoon from the road.  As this was roughly halfway between Huế and Hội An, tour buses always make a half-hour stop here for refreshments or a simple meal, which allows for a quick look at the lagoon scenery.
eyes on the prow of a Lăng Cô boat
       On my first journey on this route in the winter of 2005, after the Lăng Cô stopover, the bus climbed up the hill over the pass and immediately descended towards Đà Nẵng without even a momentary pause for passengers to take in the view.  Several months later, making the trip again and noticing at the Lăng Cô stop nearly all the travelers had cameras, I decided to enlist the support of some of them when we started climbing the hill to join me in demanding the bus make a ten-minute stop at Hải Vân Pass.  But my plan was foiled when we didn’t go up over the pass after all, but instead through a new tunnel at the base of the hill that had just opened since my last trip.
       The only way for me to get another, and more leisurely, look at the pass was to return to Lăng Cô and hire a motorbike.  The village certainly looked inviting, so it would be a pleasant excursion anyway.  Weather spoiled my first attempt, though, for low, dark clouds hung over the area, obscuring the pass and most of the mountains behind the lagoon.  It was a day to remind me of the meaning of Hải Vân—Sea of Clouds.  But it didn’t rain, giving me the opportunity to explore Lăng Cô on foot.
Lăng Cô village and beach
       The village lies on a long finger of land next to An Cư Lagoon, with sandy beaches just on the other side of the road.  The most densely settled part is at the south end, where the lagoon enters the sea.  The beach resorts and other hotels and restaurants are further up.  The ocean water is relatively clean, the waves usually moderate and, closer to the main village residential area, the beach is lined with small fishing boats.  Like other boats in Central Vietnam, the prows feature a pair of painted eyes.
lagoon waters as they enter the sea
       Few people stayed in the beach resorts, a couple of which included tennis courts and a swimming pool, not even when I returned a few months later and enjoyed excellent weather.  Perhaps it’s because people from Đà Nẵng, the nearest potential visitors, have plenty of beaches around their own city.  And while Lăng Cô restaurants do offer tasty fresh seafood dishes, that’s true in Đà Nẵng and all along the entire coast of Vietnam.
       The lagoon makes Lăng Cô a different kind of beach resort.  Only a short walk from the main road, the near shoreline has a paved road running beside it, while the railway line on the other side runs right along the base of the mountains’ steep cliffs.  The water is shallow, not more than waist-deep far out from the shoreline.  Small pirogues and basket boats, when not out on the lagoon, sit parked next to the land.  Stilted fishing huts stand out in the water not far from the shore, as well as some large fishing nets attached to poles and hanging just above the water surface. 
catching oysters in An Cư Lagoon
       Besides the lagoon and the Hải Vân Pass, the other attraction in the vicinity is Elephant Spring, in the lap of the Bạch Mã Mountains about ten km north of Lăng Cô and three km off the highway to the west.  A hot spring next to what used to be a thick forest, by the time I visited it, and that was over a decade ago, it was a failed and abandoned resort.  A disused, dilapidated guesthouse, its cottages in serious need of roof repair, stood on a clearing near the spring.  Boulders that roughly resembled elephants had been painted to accentuate those features.  Statues of deer and tiger peeped through the bushes around the spring, as well as one of, oddly enough, a giraffe.
the abandoned park at Elephant Spring
       As for the pass, sunny skies prevailed throughout my second stay in Lăng Cô and I could hire a motorbike to make the excursion.  The pass is not very high up, less than 500 meters above the sea, and the road winds along the slope facing the sea.  No roadside trees block the good views of Lăng Cô and its beaches to the north and the coastline south towards Đà Nẵng.  About halfway up, a waterfall spills through a forested slope and when its creek comes near the road, it flows over a stretch of wide, smooth, nearly flat boulders.
machine gun nest at Hải Vân Pass
       Besides the magnificent view, the Hải Vân Pass also features relics of its past military significance.  A couple of red brick watchtowers stand on the slope just above the road.  An empty machine gun nest sits on a spot overlooking the route up the hill from Lăng Cô.  A few concrete bunkers lie in the area, one of them converted to a small cave temple, with refreshments stands and souvenir stalls set up in front of the entrance.  
       After crossing the pass, it’s another 25 km or so to Đà Nẵng, Vietnam’s fourth largest city and the northern limit of the country’s tropical zone.  City suburbs begin along the shore of the Bay of Đà Nẳng, while the main port and commercial area lie further east and up to the coast.  On the eastern side of the bay the large hilly Sơn Trà Peninsula stretches out north of the business district.  Also called Monkey Mountain after the primates living there, it is mostly an off-limits military zone, but does provide a nice backdrop to views from beaches.
wartime watchtower at Hải Vân Pass
       Known as Tourane in the French colonial period, it rose in importance from the beginning of the 19th century, replacing Hội An, where river silt had accumulated to the point commercial ships could no longer reach the port.  Đà Nẵng is now a thoroughly modern city, but a fairly relaxed one.  Traffic runs smoothly even in rush hour.  With no old town extant, the only buildings identified as tourist attractions are a couple of Buddhist temples, the French-built cathedral, a Cao Đài temple and the well-stocked, fascinating Chăm Museum.  For some travelers, this museum is the only reason to stop in Đà Nẵng, especially since it’s a short trip from Hội An.
       The city’s other main physical (and cultural) attraction is the group of five small hills, called Marble Mountains, just beyond its southern suburbs.  Non Nước, the village next to the largest hill, has long been a craft village specializing in marble sculptures.  Tour buses from Huế en route to Hội An often make a stop here, where teenaged girls immediately importune the passengers to purchase anything from a small carving that can be held in the hand to a heavy, life-sized statue of a lion or religious deity.  Marble deposits in the hills were played out long ago and now Non Nước imports its raw materials from Thanh Hoá.  The skill survives, though, and the business is still thriving.
boats in Đà Nẵng
       Each of the hills is named after one of the five essential elements.  The largest, nearest the beach, Water Mountain ̣(Thủy Sơn), contains several cave shrines that have drawn religious pilgrims since the time of the Chăm kingdoms.  Originally Hindu, the shrines now honor the Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian deities popular with the Vietnamese, who added statues of gods and guardians, built temples and erected pagodas on the hill.
       Guides are available to the sights, but visitors can simply follow the pathways that wind around and up the hill to the temples, pavilions and pagodas and branch off into the caves.  One leads to a complex of several caverns, connected by two tunnels, with old Chăm stone carvings and more recently installed concrete Buddhas.  The most interesting is Huyên Không Cave, with a very high interior and a small opening to the sky at the top.  When the sun is overhead a shaft of light pours through this hole and strikes one of the altars.  During the American War the cave was a Viet Cong field hospital and the base of a Women’s Artillery Division famous for shooting down nineteen American warplanes. 
Huyên Không Cave
Buddha statue on Water Mountain
       The seacoast next to the Marble Mountains is lined with beaches, but around Non Nước and for several km towards Hội An walls belonging to a succession of resort hotels block public access.  The beaches closer to Hội An, a more popular tourist destination than Đà Nẵng, are usually quite congested.  But Đà Nẵng residents and visitors have a few prime beach alternatives right next to the city. 
one of the Marble Mountains near Đà Nẵng
       A long beach runs along the shore of the Bay of Đả Nẵng, frequented by suburbanites in the late afternoon.  On the eastern shore of the East Sea (a.k.a. South China Sea) the beaches offer a more scenic view of Monkey Mountain, but the waters are only calm enough for swimming in the summer months and a bit rough other times.   From mid-September through December, however, they are quite suitable for surfing.
       The northern beach just below the peninsula is called Mỹ Khê, while further down it is known as China Beach.  American Marines landed here in March 1965 in the first major commitment of U. S. troops to South Vietnam.  China Beach later became a popular R&R spot for U. S. soldiers, flown in by helicopter.  Nowadays, over five decades since the war’s end, with comfortable hotels and fine restaurants, for both Đà Nẵng residents and passing travelers, China Beach is once again serving its former purpose--rest and recreation.

China Beach and Monkey Mountain, Đà Nẵng
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Delta Tours Vietnam’s cultural-historical journey through the country passes over this route. See

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