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?

Across the Delta

It was still dark when we left Ho Chi Minh City, heading Southwest to Can Tho and the heart of the Mekong Delta. We were entering a region a little smaller in area than Switzerland, with a population a little larger than Chile’s. The Mekong river system – the world’s 12th longest – rises high in the Himalayas, travels 4,350 kilometers (2,700 miles) through six countries and drains 307,000 square miles of land. The Mekong Delta is one of Southeast Asia’s great food baskets, producing considerable quantities of fish, shrimp and more rice than Japan and Korea combined.

Once out of the city, the land pattern of the delta began to emerge.  Our route to Can Tho was punctuated by one bridge crossing after another as the road carved its perpendicular course across the myriad waterways that comprise the Mekong river system. At each major crossing, a bustling town would cling not only to either side of the road but also along each riverbank, accentuating a crossroad of land and water.

Crossing a typical bridge.

Our first stop was for breakfast. I had experienced many a dreary halt at highway rest-stops in North America or ‘motorway service stations’ in Europe. So imagine my surprise to encounter the Vietnamese equivalent and find it so utterly superior to its ‘Western’ counterparts that it did not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. A series of large thatched, open-sided pavilions sat away from the road among lush landscaping, carefully designed to reflect the natural vegetation of the region.  Breakfast was Bun Bo Hue, a traditional light but flavorful broth of beef and pork with rice vermacelli and the fragrant leaves of numerous local herbs and water plants.  Coffee was dark, strong and iced  and served by the glass. Not a Starbucks in sight, I’m pleased to add.

The nicest rest-stop I've ever visited!

Driving in Vietnam is tough, even for the Vietnamese. We were lucky enough to be passengers able to take in and discuss the sights of the Mekong Delta as our driver negotiated buses, trucks, motos, bicycles and numerous road works along a four-lane undivided highway that allowed an average speed of no more than 45 miles per hour. The highway was closely lined with home-businesses, mostly aimed squarely at the many thousands of travelers who filled the endless fleet of small buses.

A brick-kiln deep in the Delta

Eventually, we arrived in Can Tho where we were scheduled to attend an important day-long conference on investment in the Mekong Delta.  While the conference was interesting enough, it was the side meetings with provincial leaders that provided the real purpose for the long drive. It also gave us an excuse to take a quick look at the Victoria Hotel, next door to the conference venue.  One of a French-owned group of six hotels in Cambodia and Vietnam, the Victoria in Can Tho exuded simple charm and laid back elegance. Each hotel includes some interesting form of transport that allows its guests to better experience the place in which they find themselves. At the Victoria in Can Tho, a remodeled rice barge called The Lady Hau cruises the river at breakfast and sunset for the benefit of the hotel’s guests.

The Victoria Hotel, Can Tho. Quiet, understated elegance.

Unfortunately for us, we had to head back to Ho Chi Minh City that evening, ‘racing’ back across the Mekong Delta in order to make a detour to Ben Tre before sunset.  Ben Tre is one of the thirteen provinces that comprise the Mekong Delta and is famous for its coconut plantations and rice paddies. Fifty-one years ago, it was the site of the first large-scale military action of the Vietnam War, when Viet Cong forces led by Nguyen Thi Dinh engaged the 23rd Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Today, the city of Ben Tre (from which the province takes its name) is a proud and bustling riverside community with tree-lined roads, carefully-laid sidewalks and several pleasing parks. Most roads lead to the waterfront where, during the day, a floating market gathers and in the warm evenings families stroll.  Sunset on the Mekong Delta was the perfect way to end an exhausting day full of impressions and moments that will live with us for ever. As we left Ben Tre and headed north towards Ho Chi Minh City, Philip and I knew that one day we would return to this region of one of the world’s greatest rivers.

Sunset on the Mekong, across the river from Ben Tre