Due to Da Nang‘s soaring popularity as the holiday destination of choice for both domestic and Asian tourists, combined with a recent rise in expats putting down roots in downtown Da Nang, the city’s international restaurant scene has flourished. In fact, the biggest problem now is that with most of the Western restaurants located on one easily walkable strip – from the Dragon bridge up to the Han River bridge along Bach Dang and Tran Phu – it’s almost easier to go for what you know than seek out a back-alley pho. However, you can’t come to the city and not try some of Da Nang’s local specialities and fortunately you don’t need to go far to find them. As in most Vietnamese cities, the best of the street scene is easily located nearest the source – in this case the alleys and roads leading off Han Market, or for seafood, the beach.
The most popular street food and cafe spots for city locals are along the streets off Nguyen Chi Thanh all the way up to Duong Da, popular for its afternoon nem lui (charcoal barbecue pork skewer) stalls. For Da Nang’s best-kept-secret dish, keep an eye out for bo ne a sizzling hot plate of beef, pork ball, egg and baguette served in the mornings till around 10:30. Of all the joints around town we had good luck at hugely popular Lan Huong Cafe, a lively spot on Nguyen Chi Thanh, though hardly a word of English is spoken. Locals swear by the authentic banh xeo (crispy savoury pancakes, pork skewers, shrimp spring rolls and herbs) and family atmosphere at Ba Duong, down a tiny alley off Hoang Dieu Street – ask if you can’t find it, as everyone knows Ba Duong. For Da Nang’s speciality dish of mi quang (shrimp, pork and noodles with a fragrant broth) Ba Vi on Le Dinh Duong is well worth seeking out and unusually is open all day. Not strictly a Da Nang dish (but so good we have to mention it), the bun bo at Ba Dieu on Tran Tong, open 14:00 till around 18:00 daily is worth seeking out. If you are looking for dinner, be aware that most of the best places pack up at around 19:00.
Bread of Life is a Da Nang institution among expats and has been running since 2005, though they moved from their old Tran Phu location to Duong Da (just off the roundabout) in 2011. Bread of Life employs deaf workers and proceeds help support projects for the deaf. It has an excellent cafe atmosphere and offers a fabulous menu of pizza, pasta, burgers and comfort foods — we enjoyed the cheese quesadilla with black beans so much we went back for breakfast the next day. The tender Vietnamese beef stew is great too, while they bake their own bread and cakes and run a local delivery service. If you happen to know any American Sign Language, the Vietnamese version is similar (both derive from French sign) and you might actually be able to communicate here better than trying to speak Vietnamese. At least one hearing staff member is always on duty to translate orders for customers.
Pizza and Italian
Several spots for pasta and pizza lovers are dotted around town. Luna Pub on Tran Phu has set the bar high, with wood-fired thin crust pizza,house-made pasta, affettati (meat and cheese plates to you and me) and well prepared steaks. All is served up in a huge brick warehouse that wouldn’t look out of place in Brooklyn – there’s even a red fire truck DJ station along with petrol pump paraphernalia. Not nearly as good, but popular with Da Nang locals, is Pizza Hug on Tran Phu. It’s hit and miss as to whether you’ll get a decent meal but on a busy night it’s good fun and cheap. Another option isAlfresco’s which serves a more American-style pizza and has a strong TexMex menu – their ribs are almost too good and they have some great two-for-one deals on each week.
Then there’s Le Bambino, hard to find off an alley on Quang Trang, but recognisable by the vintage yellow VW Beetle parked out front. The owners are an affable Frenchman, Jena Paul (who does all the cooking himself), and his Vietnamese wife, who was schooled from birth in French and speaks it better than she does Vietnamese, despite never having been to France. The atmosphere is perfect for a cosy romantic meal – one of the best-designed restaurant interiors we’ve seen in Vietnam. The menu includes pastas and pizzaas well as French fare like filet mignon.
Coffee, ice-cream and cakes
A number of cafes around town offer booming pop music all day long and attract a young crowd, especially along Bach Dang. They may be worth checking out and we really do recommend dropping in to Simple Man Cafe on Bach Dang for the best of it, but if the whole point is lost on you, seek out Cafe Nha Leo. Strictly speaking it’s on the east side, but it’s so good we’re slipping it in with the city set. Run by French Leo and Vietnamese Xuan, Nha Leo is an oasis in a jungle of cafes. Open everyday from 08:00 (with a special set French breakfast every Sunday) and occasional live music, Leo’s has a wonderfully calming vibe, with both indoor and outdoor garden seating. It’s intimate (read small) but perfectly formed with a menu of house-made thin-crust pizza and the most wonderful quiche lorraine and pies, but we are recommending this place for the cakes, ice-cream, coffee and amazing hospitality. Come for coffee, stay for everything.
With roof terrace views of the dragon bridge, a Bangkok chef, dishes under $7 a pop and a bar downstairs with (officially) the biggest range of beers and cider in the country, Soho on the fire-side (head) of the bridge on Tran Hung Dao is worth checking out. The food on the menu here is on par with good Thai restaurants in Bangkok – the massaman curry we had was amazing. On Le Loi in downtown Da Nang is Sala Thai, run by a Thai-Vietnamese couple who source most of their ingredients from Bangkok; dishes here are smaller than Soho but they come with a cheaper price tag — their lunch set menu (11:00 to 13:30) is just 55,000 VND. The restaurant itself is small and homely but out the back they have a great walled garden set up for alfresco dining.
Across the road from the Aspara is Mumtaz, an authentic curry house with chefs from many different regions of India and a menu that covers dishes from north to south (including a good selection of vegetarian options). The interior is as bright and cheery as you could want — think bright red and zingy yellow walls, sprinkled with Indian paintings and knick-knacks — as is owner-manager Ratheesh, who’s always up for a chat.
Da Nang hosts plenty of Japanese restaurants, including the half-decent Tsukiji in Bach Dang’s Indochina River Towers food court, but the best by far is Banjiro on Nguyen Chi Thanh. The food here is amazing and despite their main focus being on ‘food from the sea’ their chefs knock up some mouthwatering grilled meats, which is just as well as we didn’t get a look in at the sashimi and sushi delivered to our table as this restaurant is (in this case) sadly welcoming to children. Staff are polite and dress in traditional Japanese kimonos, with a traditional welcome as you come through the door. The atmosphere is lively and prices are cheap at $2 to $6 per dish. If sushi’s your thing and you’d prefer to eat tapas style in a more casual, bar-like environment The Rachel on Bach Dang Street (next door to the Brilliant Hotel) is a good choice.
Western fine dining
On Bach Dang Street, a load of restaurants, cafes and bars open late into the night. The best we tried was the Waterfront, an uber-cool two-storey restaurant and bar with balcony seating overlooking the river. Popular with expats and increasingly the young jetset of Da Nang, the menu here is bistro style and includes both Asian and Western dishes.
Set back from the riverside streets on Phan Chau Trinh is the glitzy Samdi — this building wouldn’t look out of place in Las Vegas. The interior is one big ‘special event’ room with oversized Chinese furnishings, chandeliers and wood carvings throughout. The menu is packed full of both traditional and modern Chinese fare and although on the fine dining price scale, it’s very good. For dim sum don’t go anywhere but the Golden Dragon in the Mercure Hotel situated on Green Island a little out of town. On weekends they hold an all-you-can eat dim sum buffet for $25 where you can order anything (or everything) off the menu. If you are not there for the weekend, the restaurant is open both afternoon and evenings and is by far the best dim sum we’ve found in the area.
Drinking and nightlife
If you’re looking for a good party spot where you can mix it up with other tourists, locals and expats, you’ve hit the jackpot in the city, where Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest. However on a week night you’ll still not struggle to find a few drinking buddies if you hit any of the bars along Bach Dang Street. Long-term, late-night expat favourites are Diem’s Bamboo 2 (which relocated to the riverside strip in 2012) and the Golden Pine, a riverfront favourite for expats and locals alike — both the kitchen and bar stay open until the last person leaves. The flashier Waterfront Cafe serves up great cocktails and a good menu of Vietnamese and international dishes; their second floor balcony is one of the best spots from which to sit back and watch the riverside madness below and at the weekend — the fire-breathing dragon bridge. If you prefer your bars more local, then check out the Simple Man Coffee Bar on Bach Dang, a rock bar where the Da Nang cool set hang out and jam the night away between shots. The atmosphere is rockin’ — checkout the bar with an old Mobylette bike parked on the top.
Just back from the river on Tran Phu Street is Luna Pub; a huge rustic warehouse-style venue with a DJ booth in front of a bright red truck. On the food front Luna serves some of the finest Italian dishes in the city — the wood-fired pizzas are a delicious way to line your stomach before moving on to their one-metre shooter slab.
Over on the eastside (next to the dragon bridge) is Soho; complete with the biggest disco ball in Vietnam (possibly) the ground floor is taken up with a vast bar area, fusball and pool tables. TexMex tapas is served at the bar, while the second floor is home to an excellent Thai restaurant.
The one exception to the city’s explosion of excellent eateries is the lack of upscale Vietnamese restaurants. Most joints include a bit of Asian fusion on their menus but for fine dining Vietnamese there’s really only the Apsara, located on Tran Phu Street. It’s set in a grand colonial-style building that looks very impressive from the outside, but step in the door and it’s Cham Disneyland, with seating for 300, an Aspara dancing stage and garden complete with a miniature My Son Champa tower. The menu is expensive and other than the exceptional staff and food quality, the only reason we are including Aspara is because it features some difficult to find speciality dishes. We tried the soft shell crabs and they were superb; we’d recommend sitting outside, as the garden though a little bizarre offers a more private setting. The only other notable Vietnamese fine dining we think is worth a mention is the Square Restaurant on the fourth floor of the Novotel. Every Thursday they run a Vietnamese buffet for around $25. It’s a decent location and you can sit out by the pool overlooking the river, or if they have finally finished building it (set to open late 2014), you can head up to the Vertigo Bar on the 35th floor for pre-dinner cocktails.
Further off the strip we were pleasantly surprised to find Bia Tiep Tulip just west of the brightly lit Nguyen Van Troi (sail) bridge. It has a great European beer hall atmosphere and the highlight is the delicious brewed-on-premises, dark Czech beer — the next best thing to Guinness stout we’ve had in Southeast Asia. Visitors are also offered a free tour of the production line and the epic Vietnamese menu of more than 200 dishes includes German sausage specials. Most dishes come in at under 100,000 VND and they also do a $1 buffet if you order something off the menu. In true Vietnamese style, once you’ve had your fill you can pop upstairs for a spa massage.
If after all that you’ve still got the stamina to move on to a club, your options go thumpa-thumpa-thumpa-thump, with several discos around town offering expensive drinks, techno music, laser light shows and crowded dance floors. Tourists are usually pointed to the infamous New Phuong Dong discotheque on Duong Da Street, the TV Club at Da Na Beach or the Seventeen Saloon on Bach Dang. Of the three, Western-style Seventeen Saloon is the most fun with live music every night. At all of these places you will be assigned an extra friendly hostess whose job it is to keep your glass full to overflowing — not a great idea if you’ve come over all local and ordered a bottle of spirits. Still, these clubs are great fun, even if you do go home with your ears bleeding from the speaker system, and attract a mixed crowd of happy party people.