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Vietnam's Danang poaches tourists from Phuket and Bali

Hilton, Hyatt and Intercontinental help city attract Chinese and South Koreans

The central Vietnamese city of Danang wants to be known for its white-sand beaches -- and as a quieter, slower-paced alternative to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. (Photo by Tomoya Onishi)

HANOI -- A central Vietnamese port city made infamous by a war that ended more than 40 years ago is now stepping up to compete with some of Southeast Asia's most famous beach resorts.

But unlike Thailand's Phuket and Indonesia's Bali, Danang is not an island. As Vietnam's third-largest city, it is beckoning guests from China and South Korea with luxury hotels and convenience. Proximity is its calling card. Its airport, city center and beaches are situated nearby one another. And it doesn't hurt that huge numbers of vacation seekers are a handful of hours away.

In December, the Hilton Da Nang became the latest upscale Western hotel to offer views of the sun rising over the South China Sea, taking its place near the Intercontinental and Hyatt Regency. And there are plans for Danang's coastline to be dotted with other big hospitality names from the West.

The city might have another thing going in its favor -- perception. It is not dogged by the safety concerns nor plagued by natural disasters.

Last summer, a sudden storm off Phuket capsized and sunk a tourist boat, killing 47 Chinese. In Bali, Mount Agung has been erupting since 2017, when it grounded flights and stranded tourists.

"In the past several years," a Danang travel agent said, "the pace of growth here has far exceeded [that of Phuket and Bali], thanks to [Danang's] good public safety record and lower risk of natural disasters."

The number of hotel rooms in Danang has roughly tripled in the past five years. During the same period, domestic and foreign visitor arrivals soared about 2.5-fold. In 2018, Danang attracted some 7.6 million tourists, many of them Chinese and South Korean.

Although Danang is being compared to Phuket and Bali, its arrival numbers are between one-third and half of the comparable figures for its Thai and Indonesian rivals.

Seoul is about a $300 budget flight away from the emerging resort. "I am happy to be able to come here from Seoul in five hours," said a 45-year-old South Korean engineer who has been to Danang twice. "I think its landscape and beach are very beautiful."

China is even closer to Vietnam. To a public servant living in Beijing, "Danang resembles China's Hainan Island. It has delicious food and reasonable prices."

Danang was once well-known for the role it played during the Vietnam War. The U.S. built key military installations in Danang, including what is today's airport. In 1965, the first U.S. combat troops to enter the war came ashore at Danang. Ten years later, Danang fell to the People's Army of Vietnam in one of the bloodiest military campaigns of the war. Saigon, present-day Ho Chi Minh City, would fall a month later.

Now Danang is attracting a different kind of attention. In Airbnb's 2018 rankings of trending travel destinations, Danang finished No. 5 globally and No. 1 in Southeast Asia. U.S.-based Airbnb is the world's largest vacation booking website.

Unlike Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's two largest cities, Danang does not fill visitors' ears with incessant motorcycle and other noises. Time passes more slowly in the city of over a million, too.

For tourists who want to explore more of the country, three World Heritage sites are a single day's journey away.

One is the ancient city of Hoi An, which hearkens back to its days as an important trading port. Its restaurants, boutiques and streetscapes maintain an old-time ambience.

Hoi An is also home to the Japanese Bridge, whose image is printed on 20,000-dong bank notes. The span is said to have been originally constructed in the 1590s by the town's Japanese community.

The My Son Sanctuary and Complex of Hue Monuments are the other nearby World Heritage sites.

The driving force behind Danang's rapid development, which began in 2000, was the late Nguyen Ba Thanh, an influential politician.

Thanh assumed important posts such as chairman of Danang's People's Committee, which is equivalent to mayor, and Communist Party secretary of Danang, between 1996 and 2012.

Under Thanh's leadership, Danang sold some of its prime coastal real estate to foreign hotel operators and other developers. The proceeds were then used to finance roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

The Vietnamese government provided tax and other support to help Danang become a tourist destination and foreign-currency earner. State-run Vietnam Airlines, travel agencies and other parties joined in to aggressively promote Danang.

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