Da Nang: Rapid Growth vs Lost Beaches?

Two recent articles in the Vietnamese press attracted my attention. They summarize a worrying dilemma for the country’s leaders. The first piece heralded HSBC’s new branch bank in Da Nang and in so doing made the following point;

(Da Nang is the)…core city of the Key Economic Zone in central Vietnam. The city is a hotbed of development, from upscale resorts and residential properties to industrial and commercial ventures, with a GDP growth of around 11 to 12 percent recorded year-on-year since 2001. Currently there are more than 10,000 businesses across all sectors operating in the city, and jobs are expected to increase annually from 32,000 to 35,000.

The second article was an interview with Nguyen Van Tuan, General Director of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, who;

…has admitted that the seaside has been cut into small bits and seaside investment projects should be reexamined.
After development experts and newspapers rang alarm bells over the “disappearance” of beautiful beaches to massive construction of resorts and hotels, Government officials have realized the issue’s importance. Tuan, in a recent interview…admitted that mismanagement is the culprit.


Philip and I visited Da Nang for the first time in September. We knew about the city’s growing reputation as a fast-growing destination and were not surprised to find a vibrant economy underlying its success.
Da Nang is almost equidistant from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City but the real estate conference we were attending was aimed squarely at raising the city’s investment profile in Ho Chi Minh City, a 40-minute flight to the south. Set on an attractive coastal plain edged by mountains and laying at the mouth of the Han River, Da Nang has become a shining example of Vietnam’s aggressive courting of foreign investment. Non Nuoc Beach is one Da Nang’s greatest assets, with 32 uninterrupted kilometers (about 20 miles) forming a vast protected bay.

 

Life Resort, Da Nang. Exclusive and underwhelming.

 

On arriving at Da Nang’s airport, we headed straight for Non Nuoc Beach and the recently opened Life Resort where the press conference was to be held.  Along the way, the growing impact of international real estate investment was evident in one or two new office buildings and a 210-hectare cleared site already under development by the Korean construction company, Daewon. We left behind  the busy, vibrant city center and headed for the beach, joining the new four-lane highway that has been built 300 to 400 back from the water’s edge and runs parallel to the mostly undeveloped seaside.  Florida must have looked just like this in the 1950s.
We found Life Resort almost immediately, its large portico and main reception building blocking any view of the water or beach. Everything was bright and new. The combination of light woods, quiet fabrics and neutral marble floors was meant to engender calmness and relaxation while underlining the theme of ‘man’s ten senses’. There was something Scandinavian about the place, almost ‘IKEA-n’.  A long reflecting pool, lined by detached villas and individual buildings, led to the beach which, at this early hour, was empty.  This site layout, from the highway to the water, is typical of the smaller resorts dotted along Vietnam’s beaches. In this case, a rectangular 4.3 hectare piece of land, complete with its own 145 meter beach front marks Life Resort’s footprint.  It was only, later, after we left the resort and drove along the beach that we began to understand the stultifying effect of this kind of cookie cutter land planning.

 

A section of 'chopped-up' beach at Da nang

 

For mile after mile, the water front had been divided into a series of large lots of varying size, spanning the dune line and perpendicular to the beach. Development was sporadic and felt unplanned and disconnected.  Where construction had commenced, the dunes had been flattened and cleared of all vegetation. Next to the Life Resort was Furama, located on a 6 hectare site and considered the model for this kind of hotel-and-villa-with-its-own-beach program. Furama was followed by a resort over twice the size, the Crowne Plaza, which included a casino and was built by Chinese developers for Chinese visitors.  After a couple of kilometers of empty dunes, the latest new resort loomed, this time with an international ‘flag’; the Da Nang Hyatt is almost complete and will take up a 17 hectare site, stretching from highway to beach front.
Each resort is walled and designed to be entirely insular; a luxurious world of international homogeneity removed from the richer, authentic experience of Da Nang City. The only place to walk is along the beach itself (if you can get to it) because the highway is a bleak, rapid transit corridor bereft of any supporting services. The beach front has no shops, restaurants or any other sign of life outside of the resorts, especially now that the resident population is being rehoused to make way for future development. As the article says ‘…the seaside has been cut into small bits…’ but in this case, even the largest resort is dwarfed by the scale of the beach and its scrubby dunes.

 

Left behind by the receding tide...

 

Earlier, at lunch, I had been seated opposite a bright young local government representative who talked proudly in perfect English of the care and speed which large investors – especially from overseas – were shepherded through the process of obtaining land, gaining an investment license and then constructing a resort. If only I had met him after our tour of the beach. I could have asked him whether there was a regional master plan, why the resorts were so disconnected and when would there emerge a discernible mix of mutually supporting land uses?

 

Another resort. Another empty, private stretch of beach...

 

I thought again of Florida, especially around Fort Lauderdale and Panama City Beach where towering condominiums have destroyed the protective natural dune-scape and long ago eliminated easy access to the beaches.  Da Nang at least has resisted the allure of the high-rise but in its place is an equally destructive model; the sprawling, low-density private resort for the enjoyment of a few and the exclusion of many, especially Vietnam’s fishing communities and the locals who were content to enjoy the great expanses of rolling dunes with their stabilizing scrub vegetation and beaches of spectacular proportion.
The dilemma remains. Can the government harness growth, create sensitive, balanced, regional development plans and preserve Vietnam’s peerless natural environment while meeting the aspirations of a growing, ambitious and youthful population?

Memories of Towns by the Sea

I could have taken the 30 minute direct flight from Saigon to Quy Nhon but instead, a few friends and I decided to rent a car and explore the coastal landscape of south central Viet Nam.

The eight-hour drive along the famous National Route 1A to Quy Nhon was definitely a long journey. For those of you who are new to this part of the world or Viet Nam, National Route 1A (a two-lane highway) traverses the entire length of the country from Ha Noi in the north and to Ca Mau in the south.

We made several stops at small villages for fuel and food. As one would expect, we passed many inland towns along the narrow road, hectare after hectare of farmland, rice paddies and coastal villages.

 

Hectare after hectare of farmland by Philip G

 

In some places, the road was very narrow and winding. To make matters worse, we found ourselves in a “conga line” of trucks, buses and cars, led by, yes, cattle. It was like a snake weaving its way along the contours of the mountains and through the valleys.

As the road skirted the shoreline, we were in awe of the incredible views of the Pacific Ocean. This brought back many memories. When I was studying in Rome, our class rented a bus to tour the southern cities of Italy. I remembered many beautiful coastal towns, marinas and beach communities clustered along the Italian Amalfi Coast.

 

by Amalfi-coast, Italy

 

There was always a “picture perfect” moment in each town, as it nestled on the shoreline with its deep blue water and beautiful beaches.

The City of Quy Nhon is in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam. It was once a French trading port and later an important American military base. And it is just as beautiful and breathtaking as one would imagine for this part of the Pacific Coast. Quy Nhon, there is no doubt in my mind, is a hideaway treasure waiting to be discovered.

Our SUV had trailed heavily loaded trucks, tourist buses and a few mopeds for hours. We were happy to get off route 1A and finally arrive.

 

Quy Nhon City on the horizon by Philip G

 

The approach to Quy Nhon from the south is spectacular; the blue-green water of the Pacific is very refreshing, the calm and undisturbed beach stretches as far as your eye can see, the white-topped waves gently caress the shoreline and the majestic view of Quy Nhon gradually comes into focus on the horizon to welcome us to its hideaway coastal location.

Quy Nhon is geographically very different from my home town – Tat Cau which is located on the southwest coast of the delta region. It is about 190 Km (120 miles) from Ho Chi Minh City to the East. The image I remember when I left Viet Nam as a child was of my village photographed from the boat before the sun set.

 

A village built on the edge of the river by Philip G

 

Tat Cau is neither a beach town nor a coastal city. It is a village built along the edge of the river near the Gulf of Thailand.

Water ways were the main transportation routes in Tat Cau. Boats were the vessels that transported goods and people throughout the region. Water was everywhere. There were barge/ferries for transportation, boats for living and for fishing and boats for transporting fruit and other food. Every morning those boats gathered on the water’s edge near our town center or at the water taxi stop to sell fresh fruit, fish and vegetables to local merchants.

 

Tat Cau town center by Philip G

 

Back then when I was a child, beach towns like Da Nang, Nha Trang and Vung Tau were far away places where rich people vacationed in extreme luxury – at least to us. Those places were like a dream and only existed on postcards and old pictures that were sent to us from wealthy relatives on their vacation.