Tipi canoe and Simba too
How Danang and its many charms won me over
Tipi brought us to Da Nang.
A few months ago, I became a member of a website called Workaway that connects travelers to local communities exchanging work for lodging and cultural exchanges. The work varies and can be anything from helping out on a tea plantation in the middle of Nepal or helping someone paint their chateau somewhere in the middle of France. This particular Workaway involved volunteering at Tipi Cafe, a place where locals can informally practice their English with native speakers, in exchange for free coffee and a place to sleep. I liked the idea of being casually available in a cafe rather than actually teaching or tutoring people because it's much less work and pressure, plus it involved a shorter time commitment.
We took the 14-hour night bus from Dalat, snuggled in our individual little beds armed with podcasts and pringles, and got to Danang just as the sun was coming up, traffic was building, and Tipi was starting to brew its first cups of coffee. I dropped my bags down in an open air black and white cafe scattered with long tables and lots of chairs. On the wall, a map of the world in brick adjacent to a large painting of Che Guevara next to a sign that said "Speak English." One of the staff ushered us into a room off of the dining area and motioned for us to put our bags down. The door opened, the rank stench of mildew assaulted me. In the dim light, I could see a couple thin cots on the ground and understood that they expected us to stay there. There had been some miscommunication- I wanted a homestay and they had failed to arrange it. I wanted so badly to be excited about coming here but after causing half a foot of water to build up for a whole day in our only bathroom after taking a short shower, I was doubting if I could handle the squalid living conditions. For those who know me, I'm not exactly a princess when I'm traveling- I can definitely rough it! So believe me when I say this was next-level gross.
Tired though I was, as people trickled into the cafe and asked if they could sit with me, I lit up with the electric enthusiasm of meeting new people. There's a wide array of patrons that frequent Tipi, from mothers who want to expose their kids to the language to students with impending exams to people who know the language well and just want a space to speak it. The four-hour shifts absolutely flew by. I met so many very special people and made quite a few genuine connections, which made the experience invaluable to me. The warmness, geniality, and openness of the Vietnamese people was especially evident to me at Tipi. People talked to me about everything: how Katy Perry 'throws shade,' critiques of the communist party's greed and corruption as they used public funds reserved for improving HCMC airport to build a private golf course, and differences in beauty standards (these women are under a lot of pressure to have a specific waist/hip and face measurements... and I thought we had it rough!). They thought it was really cool that I live in California, have natural blonde hair and am taller than everyone but Dain, and the guys lit up when I told them I work in Silicon Valley.
For a couple people, we delved deeper than surface conversation and formed real friendships. We had only been talking with Simba for twenty minutes or so before we mentioned we were trying to buy a motorbike but had no way to call the seller. He took it upon himself to call the guy, negotiate the price down for us, arrange a meeting point, and translate/broker the deal for us. In an hour, we'd made a great new friend and bought our first motorbike. We named the bike Simba.
On one of our afternoons off, Dain and wandered the city. At first glance, Da Nang is nothing special. It's the third-biggest city in Vietnam and seems like a place for tall buildings and reckless motorbikes, not tourists. There aren't a ton of traditional tourist activities like museums and sight-seeing; Danang is a place where real people live, and they're not used to seeing white people crossing the street or eating at their restaurants. Needless to say, everyone (especially kids) said "hello" at least to greet us and make us feel welcome; Vietnam is a hyper-social society and everyone is treated as a neighbor even in the large cities. We grabbed some noodles and strolled down to the waterfront where Danang's greatest architectural achievements, their bridges, are on proud display. The most impressive is the dragon bridge which looks exactly like it sounds: a humongous yellow dragon weaving up and down over the road. On Friday night, the head breathes fire. We traversed the bridge on our walk to see both the head and tail ends and on the walk, you get a good view of the other four very different but equally majestic bridges close by.
Next to the dragon bridge is the Cham Museum, the premier tourist attraction in the city. The Cham people were the indigenous people of Vietnam who lived from the 5th-15th century. The proud relics of their Hindu civilization were discovered by French colonists in the early 1900s, collected, and displayed in this museum. The sculptures and temple remains are in remarkably pristine conditions and interesting on their own, but there's a sparse amount of information to explain the historical significance of each piece, which I'm sure is astoundingly rich. Nevertheless, we learned a lot about the deities and the symbolism of Cham art which has helped us in our travels beyond Danang. Outside, there was a special exhibit displaying photos taken all around Vietnam and they were spectacular.
The next day, as we were hanging out outside of the cafe deciding what to do, our friend Simba drove up and offered to show us around Danang. We happily obliged, and after a quick coffee we took off over the dragon bridge, past the beach littered with fishing boats, and around the bend to the Lady Buddha pagoda. It was just after a light rain so luckily there weren't many people there and we had the temple and all its bonsai trees, burning incense, and fat happy Buddhas to ourselves. It was so helpful having Simba there to walk us through local customs and etiquette; I learned the little orange trees are there because orange is a lucky color and the bitterness of the fruit reflects the "life is suffering" mantra from Buddhist teachings. Incense is burned because the smoke wards off evil spirits, and touching the Buddha brings you good luck. We took some time to pray before exploring the rest of the grounds.
Right next to the pagoda is Lady Buddha, a very rare sight since Buddha is mostly depicted as male, towering tall and holding her own against the dramatic mountain landscape behind her. She stands between two mountains, one symbolizing a lion and the other a tiger, and together they protect the city from harm. In her hands she holds an ewer of holy water to bless the Vietnamese people and displays the sign of wisdom. It's magnificent to stand at her feet alternating between taking in her sheer scale and looking down the mountain at the ocean and the Da Nang skyline.
Just a ways up the road, Simba wanted to show us a small museum. It didn't look so much like a museum as a very quaint forested garden. Each room of the museum was in its own thatched hut separated in the garden from the rest and the themes ranged from rural fishing gear, ancient pottery and tribal artifacts, and modern art. We were the only people there- it was like being in a beautiful, peaceful resort. Again it was great to have Simba there to translate beyond the scant meanings posted in the museum and show us how resourceful the Vietnamese people are and were.
On our last day in Danang, our friend Tristen came to visit! We got a chance to show her around what we knew of the city and stop to get some of our favorite foods: a big bowl of noodles with a little broth and fresh veggies and some family style banh xeo, a kind of crepe/omelette with shrimp that you put into rice paper with mint, basil, lettuce, and pickles veggies. We spent a few hours taking a very long walk along the riverfront and got to see the famous bridges at night, which is arguably more inspiring than during the day. The four main bridges are all differently and brilliantly lit up in a litany of colors and patterns, their light dancing on the water intermittently shattered by the occasional passing boat. It was like an entirely different city by night- the empty restaurants and bars along the main roads were bursting with people and the soft ambient noise of thousands of pleasant evenings filled the night.