By Jade Harvey
On the left side of the road, there are five-star resorts. On the right, there are tin shacks.
The drive down Vo Nguyen Giap Drive en route to our hotel feels a lot like moving along the border between two disparate nations: one a highly-developed, international tourist dreamland, the other a tropical town with more overgrown land plots than buildings. Looking out of our car window, resorts line up one after another in an avenue along the pristine coastline of Da Nang–a breathtaking mountainous seaside city, much like a tropical San Francisco. The beaches boast soft sand and tall palm trees, and the mountains above offering some of the most scenic views in the area. Many of the beaches along Vo Nguyen Giap Drive, however, are exclusive.
In exchange for bringing revenue to Da Nang, many of the international coastal resorts have privatized several miles of the city’s most desired beaches. As I stand on the sand looking in both directions, I cannot even see the nearest public beach. Certainly Da Nang has a variety of public spaces further North; however, the beautiful yet isolated international bubble along Vo Nguyen Giap seems to represent a common theme in my initial impressions of Da Nang: disconnect.
Though we have received nothing but kindness and hospitality since our arrival in Da Nang, apparently–and understandably–this coastal paradise has not always welcomed foreign travelers with open arms. According to Tripadvisor, Asia Tourism Holiday, Wikivoyage, Triposco, and other travel sites, Da Nang, until relatively recently, was somewhat hostile to foreigners. This adverse attitude was reportedly due to the previous provincial government’s less than enthusiastic response to increasing numbers of Westerners in the country. In the 1990s, however, the provincial government began eagerly pursuing foreign investment and infrastructural development. As expected, the redevelopment of areas near the city beaches across the river has led to the demolition of entire blocks of old housing to make room for the new roads, hotels, and luxurious villas. Today, the long avenue of luxury hotels flies the flags of the many developed nations that bring tourists to Da Nang, but the United States flag is conspicuously missing. What remains of the old fishing communities are just a few tin shacks, some one-story stone buildings, dilapidated storefronts, and a few fields of weeds.
From an outsider’s perspective, the city seems to be split into two. The inland side across the river is an archetypal vibrant Vietnamese city complete with dragon fruit vendors and banh mi stands. What lies on the other side is an up-and-coming metropolis of exclusive luxury resorts, slowly overtaking the old shacks of a disappearing fishing community. The decision to develop tourism in any region is a profitable, but complicated one. The hope is that hotels will bring publicity, foreigners, money, jobs, and then ultimately economic growth. The transitional process is nonetheless an uncomfortable one to observe. On Vo Nguyen Giap Drive there is luxury to the left, and huts to the right– but what’s most apparent is the newly-paved, four-lane avenue and painted brick wall dividing the two.