Over the years the scenic Son Tra Peninsula has undergone many guises.
So enraptured were the French during their occupancy in the 19th century that they gave it the title Tien Sa – Angels' Landing, which is now the name of the main seaport.
American soldiers tagged the 13.5 kilometre-long mountain pass Monkey Mountain. Son Tra was recognised in 1997 as a natural reserve and the habitat of more than 100 species of fauna, including a number of rare animals, most famously the red shanked douc. It wasn't until January 1, 1997 when Da Nang took independence from Quang Nam province that the 4,370 hectares of land protecting Da Nang from the strong winds and storms from the sea became known as Son Tra.
Unlike other coastal areas in Da Nang, the Son Tra peninsula has benefited by a conservation order which has kept big resorts at bay – only two presently exist (the Intercontinental and Son Tra Resort). This means it remains a scenic escape from the rapidly growing urban area of Da Nang city. The area was well and truly put on the map in the summer of 2010 with the completion of Son Tra Quan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, similar to the Jesus Christ in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), and Ling Ung Pagoda, which has become one of the most significant pilgrimage destinations for Buddhists throughout Vietnam.
A great motorbike trek is available out of Da Nang encompassing the entire area. It's about 40 kilometres in total and it takes you across a road that crests 16 kilometres across the top of the Son Tra mountains.
The road is usually deserted and the views are fantastic in fair weather. When it's a bit cloudy, the mist washing over the mountain tops more than compensates for the lack of views. The road features some of the steepest inclines we've seen in Southeast Asia, so if you take a 100cc bike, you won't be able to pull up a passenger -- take separate bikes, unless you have something more powerful.
Starting from Da Nang, head across the Song Han bridge, two kilometres to the beach, and take a left, heading north. From there the road hugs the coast of the peninsula. As you exit the My Khe beach stretch you'll pass through Man Thai fishing village – a good landmark visable from the distance to know you are heading the right way. Continue past and you'll pass a lake/reservoir on your left. Just past the reservoir on the steep incline you'll see the sign for Dong Dinh Museum.
Located on the Da Nang side of the Son Tra mountain incline, 10 kilometres from the city, Dong Dinh opened in 2011 and is the first privately owned museum to open in Da Nang.
The museum consists of two traditional ancient garden houses set in a shady forest garden and a stunning architectural example of a modern eco-house, which is used as a more modern art and sculpture gallery featuring the work of famous Vietnamese artists, including a couple of collections by comic artist Dinh Y Nhi Dang.
Artefacts on display in the museum were collected in the central region from ancient cultures including the Sa Huynh, Champa and the Dai Viet, some of the exhibits are thought to date back more than 2,500 years.
Sadly collector, artist and owner Doan Huy Giao works rather sporadic hours and only opens the museum up at the weekends and on some public holidays. A five-minute drive further will bring you to Quan Yin and the Ling Ung pagoda temple site, which is worth a stop.
Towering a staggering 69.7 metres in height (not including the 35-metre lotus flower beneath her), the collosal Goddess of Mercy statue was built alongside the Ling Un pagoda after the devastation of typhoon Ketsana, a Buddhist symbol to protect the coastline and fishermen from the unkind elements dealt out from the East Sea.
After a six-year build, the statue was opened in 2010, becoming the official symbol for Da Nang and one of Vietnam's most significant pilgrimage sites. Popular with domestic travellers at the weekend and during public holidays, the site is practically deserted during week days and is well worth a visit for the peninsula views alone.
A good tip is to head here at sunset to avoid the overbearing midday heat and crowds. If you are lucky (it's not often open), you'll get the chance to climb the 17 storeys to the top of the statue; each floor houses 21 Buddha idols and the view from the top is outstanding.
Continuing on you'll reach some beautiful bays and see motorbikes parked by the road, marking out the very steep climb down with the access points to restaurants and bays, some easily accessed by motorbike.
There are six main coves in all: Bai But (Buddha beach), Bai Nam, Bai Con, Bai Bac, Bai Rang and the rocky fishing harbour Bai Tien Sa. The best months to visit are during the dry season from March through till September when the sea is at its calmest and you can make the most of snorkelling the coral reef.
Bai But is the first beach on the southern end of the peninsula. It's not quite the unspoilt paradise of years gone by since the opening of Buddha Beach Resort with its by-the-hour beach huts (you can't stay overnight here), over-priced seafood restaurant and the introduction of motorised watersports, but a nice spot if you happen to be lucky enough to visit on a quiet day.
Next up from Bai But you'll find a series of steep rocky stairways down to two thatched seafood restaurants built on stilts over the rocky bay of Bai Rung. Both restaurants rent out shaggy looking day huts scattered along the cliff's edge, which make for a great private hangout if you choose to spend the day. Of the two restaurants, we advise heading for the second, which is run by a cheerful local couple who are happy to let you swing undisturbed in a hammock all day for the price of a drink, or arrange a trip in a local fishing boat.
Bai Nam is a small sandy cove edged by rocky outcrops exclusively owned by the Son Tra Resort and Spa. It is possible to hangout here during the day if you eat at the resort's poolside seafood restaurant. Sunset views are spectacular here and although there are better beaches along the peninsula, this one is a good stop if you've got kids in tow as the beach is sheltered and shady with shallow water and if it's a bit rough there's the pool.
Unless you are minted enough to be staying at the Intercontinental, North Beach is strictly off limits (even if you dine at the resort). Beautiful beach, nice towels and loungers, but not the best stretch in the area.
Once you are done with the beaches (or just decide to whizz past), further along you'll hit the new road that leads to the Intercontinental Resort at North Beach; don't take their designated left turn but head past and the next left will take you past the Intercon (on your right).
Head up the steep hill and keep going along the bumpy road all the way to the viewpoint. If you decide to take the right turn, you'll reach the giant banyan tree at Hon Nghe Point. This 25-metre tall Banyan tree has a circumference of approximately 10 metres with many lateral roots anchoring it in place. The tree is thought to be more than 1,000 years old (although no-one really knows), and the landmark has become a bit of a popular spot for picnicking locals. On a clear day, views stretch out over Da Nang, the Cham Islands and the coastal stretch to Hoi An.
Although a tree is just a tree to most, the local community place great importance on the giant banyan tree as a representation of the living spirit world.
Once you decide to leave the spirit world behind, it's all left turns for the next 10 clicks, taking you through the national park, past the big mobile phone tower to the top viewpoint, with Confucious playing chess and a shaded area to have a picnic. These are the best views of Da Nang and the East Vietnam Sea.
Carrying on in the same direction you'll pass the old US helicopter landing area and reach the final viewpoint opposite the three golf-ball shaped radars (still in operation – this area is strictly off limits). From the viewpoint, however, you'll be treated to great views across Da Nang Bay toward the Hai Van Pass. Don't turn left back up the hill as it's not permitted.
From here, turn right onto the new tarmac road, which twists and turns down to sea level. At the bottom intersection, turn right and drive across the new suspension bridge for more great views of Da Nang. There's little traffic so you can stop easily on the bridge. At the first roundabout, take the first left and then after two kilometres head straight over that roundabout onto the one-way Tran Phu Street into central Da Nang (it runs parallel to Bach Dang).
Alternative route via Bai Tein Sa
Tien Sa lies to the west of the Son Tra peninsula and is accessed from Da Nang via Duong Ngo Quyen Road, which runs inland parallel to the coastal Son Tra access road Duong Hoang Sa. If you follow this road to the left and continue for 500 metres you'll find the Son Tra Tein Sa lighthouse and the French War cemetery.
Set 223 metres above sea level at the top of Hon Son Tra in the fishing port of Bai Tein Sa, the lighthouse was built in the 1950s by the French during their shortlived occupancy of Son Tra. The 16-metre tall, colonial-style lighthouse makes for a worthwhile stop if you are doing the shorter Son Tra loop. Near here is a small chapel and cemetery – the final 19th century resting place of the French and Spanish soldiers left behind during the French's unsuccessful attempt to take Da Nang in 1859. The story goes that after 18 long months of battling to breakthrough the Vietnamese siege line, the French evacuated the area unopposed, leaving behind a small garrison, chapel and grave yard.
The site is voluntarily tended to by a local fisherman; if he's here when you visit you are in luck as he'll give you a tour of the area. To find the chapel just as you approach Tien Sa beach, keep an eye out for a 500-metre high ‘hill' to the right – among the foliage you'll see a white crucifix and the chapel lies just behind this.?
This route otherwise takes you on a westerly loop of the peninsula through Tien Sa port, up to Bai Da Ben beach and then east through some incredible jungle landscape. Just as the three golf balls come into view the road forks the the left and this will take you on the complete Son Tra loop. The right-hand fork takes you through national park area back to your original start point. This is a beautiful less-visited (and much shorter) loop offering up stunning stretches of beach, viewpoints and nature walks along with some war relics left over from the French occupation.