This is the first time I’ve felt a little guilty about writing one of these posts. The beach town of Da Nang is an underappreciated gem. It’s the smallest of the big five cities in Vietnam, and much less well-known than Hanoi or Saigon.
But it’s been vaunted as an up-and-coming hub for digital nomads in recent years, so the cat’s out of the bag already. If it starts getting overrun with bitcoin enthusiasts and wellness coaches, I swear it’s not my fault!
I arrived in Da Nang during Tet (lunar new year). It was sleepy, mostly a time for family, with not a whole lot going on. By contrast, after Tet ended, it was… sleepy, mostly a time for family, with not a whole lot going on.
It felt like I’d time warped into idyllic 80s suburbia. Everyone is up and outside their homes at 6am, sweeping their section of the street in unison. Down at the beach, well-preserved old folks swim while the sun is still coming up. Men sit on comically small chairs on every corner, drinking endless cups of coffee. There’s a laissez-faire approach to health and safety, and a cigarette dangling from every lip. Children play in the streets in the evenings, and wave from the back of scooters. Everyone smiles and says hello.
That last bit might have something to do with being a conspicuous paleface. I had to gently let down a couple of kids who thought I might be a famous footballer, although I was tempted to sign their shirts anyway. Da Nang is not really a backpacking town, and the expat community is small. Even the tourists are mostly Korean and Chinese, rather than westerners. The net result is it feels a lot more like the ‘real’ Vietnam compared to Saigon, where someone’s trying to sell you drugs or knock-off Ray Bans every three seconds.
Then there are the beaches. Some of the best I’ve seen in Asia, or anywhere really. Miles of pristine-ish, palm-fronded, white sand. Hardly any litter. The sea breezes help with air quality, which was especially refreshing after escaping the godawful burning season in Thailand. Apparently there are some intermittent issues with swimming, but the ocean was sparkling during my stay.
The Sound and the Fury
Whatever Da Nang might lack in air and water pollution, it makes up for in noise pollution.
Vietnamese people really, really like karaoke. In the same way that I ‘like’ breathing. Unlike the rest of us, they don’t have the good grace to hide their shame in private soundproofed rooms. Instead, the men sit on their stoops at home, and drag out the hugest speaker stacks you’ve ever seen outside of a Metallica concert. The suburbs are alive with the sound of, if not music, the amplified croonings of slightly sotted old men. There’s a giant soundstage on the beach which hosts a karaoke contest every night, and some sociopath even strung speakers up in the palm trees along the promenade, which blast a tinny mixture of elevator music and, of course, karaoke. There is no escape.
At least it usually shuts off pretty early, presumably so everyone can get up at dawn to sweep their section of street and go take a freezing ocean dip, although the police did have (comically small) chairs thrown at them when they tried to break up a 10pm rager in my district.
Then there’s the construction noise. There are cranes all over the skyline, and the beachfront is built up with hotels. Every morning I drove past troops of uniformed worker bees doing their warm-up exercises, and often stopped to watch the heavy machinery in action, which remains as fascinating to me at twenty-eight as it was as eight years old. Friends who’ve visited in years gone by complain that it used to be a simpler place. Personally I don’t mind the development, and I suspect many locals don’t mind the money.
Also potentially jarring to dainty western sensibilities: rats the size of small dogs; dogs the size of large rats, both of which could make an appearance on your dinner plate, if you were so inclined. And the public urination. My favourite Banh Mi lady’s kid dropped her daks a meter away from where I was eating, to the point that I had to move my feet out of the splash zone, and no-one so much as batted an eyelid. I’m more or less used to this kind of thing by now; your mileage may vary.
Anyway. On to the money stuff, which is the actual point of this post. If you have a fistful of dong, which by the way will never not be funny, you’re an instant millionaire.
As per usual, I’ve done my thing of keeping a tally of everything I spent over the last couple months. The idea is to give a sense of how much it costs to ‘live’ here, rather than visit as a tourist. This includes all the boring stuff (like insurance and bank fees) which most reports tend to ignore.
Da Nang Cost of Living: The Breakdown
I spent a little more than Chiang Mai, and roughly in line with Bali. At the end of the article, we’ll look at a couple of strategies for how you could bring this number down even further, if you really wanted to.
First I’ll lay out each category, and explain what I did to keep my spending down. This is not meant to be a prescriptive guide; only an illustration of what’s possible. All prices are in US dollars.
Skip to a particular section:
Accommodation—Food—Transport—Alcohol—Internet—Co-working—Insurance—Recreation—Tourism—Bank and Currency Fees—Visas
I went for the lazy option of getting an Airbnb, which was five minutes’ walk from the beach, and cost less than $300 a month. It’s not hard to find long-term rentals in the $250 to $450 price range:
You can almost certainly get a better deal by renting an apartment or house offline. The usual strategy is to book a few days’ short-term accommodation on arrival, then get a real estate agent to show you around. Google Translate is a godsend here. Alternatively, you can check the various Facebook groups, which list properties in English, and also sometimes advertise rooms in shared houses.
The city is roughly split into the river side and the beach side. The river side has the business district, better restaurants and entertainment, and nightlife. The beach side has… the beach. I stayed in the suburbs of the Son Tra peninsula, which is a few kilometres north of the trendy and more built-up My An area. Whichever side you choose, it’s still only going to be a 10 or 15 minute drive to get anywhere you want to go.
The usual rules of Southeast Asia apply: you can get excellent local food for a steal, or pay a premium to eat western food of dubious quality. To be honest, I didn’t really make the most of this. Vietnamese cuisine is not very vegetarian-friendly, although I did eat vast quantities of (egg or tofu) Banh Mi, which are 15,000 dong each (65c).
The local markets have all the fresh produce you could want. Supermarkets are not very well-stocked with western foodstuffs, and I didn’t bother cooking at all.
Apparently Da Nang’s city planners have always had a strong independent streak, and it shows. The colonial-era boulevards are still actually wide and strollable, whereas I’m used to seeing them choked up with stalls and motorcycles which force you to walk on the road. The blocks are widely-spaced, the main roads are multi-lane, there are lots of roundabouts, and scenic promenades along the river.
I never got caught in anything resembling a traffic jam, although there is the usual chaos that comes from a sea of bikes, a cacophony of beeping horns, and fairly organic approach to give-way rules.
If you want to rent a moped or motorcycle, prices start from about $100 a month. I was without my trusty bicycle, so I walked as much as I could (in the mornings and evenings when it wasn’t too hot).
The rest of the time I took Grab motorbike taxis, which are typically ~15,000 dong (65c) for anywhere within a few kilometres (you can get a discount on your first ride here, then you’ll be barraged with constant coupons and deals thereafter). Grab = the Southeast Asian Uber. You can also use the Grab app to hail normal four-wheeled taxis, rent a car, or get food delivered to you.
Bottled beer is typically 20,000 dong (less than a buck), and draught beer is cheaper still. Vietnam’s craft beer scene is mostly based in Saigon, but you can find the likes of Heart of Darkness in various bars and restaurants here. I didn’t go out much, but an ex-FT journalist and I made a pretty decent attempt at working our way through the impressive cocktail menu at Wanderlust, which was hard to argue with at ~$4 per drink.
My Airbnb was fully serviced, with cleaning, electricity, water and laundry all inclusive, so I’m not much help here. Apparently, electricity costs 8c per kilowatt hour, and I saw lots of places advertising laundry services at $1 per kilogram.
I got a SIM card at the airport, which is usually a bad idea, but in this case was dirt-cheap: $9 for 2GB of data a day. I chose Vinaphone as a carrier, which worked fine, and could be topped up at any mini-mart. This blog post was invaluable for decoding their cryptic messages and figuring out how to change plans.
I wasn’t much taken with the co-working spaces I visited, so I ended up almost entirely working from coffee shops. And what better place for it? Vietnam has the best coffee in the world, and there are approximately three zillion cafés to choose from.
The classic drip-style cà phê den (black) or sữa đá (iced with enough condensed milk to make your teeth ache) costs less than 20,000 dong on the street. If you want to work somewhere with power sockets, aircon and non-comically small chairs, you’re looking at more like 35,000 – 50,000 dong a cup, i.e. a couple of bucks.
As someone in the nomad group observed, if you want good coffee, a good workspace, and the absence of loud, crappy pop music, well… you can choose any two of the three. One of the longterm expats, Edwin Merino, has put together this very handy Google Map of workable coffee shops. He also rates Surf Space, which is the one co-working space I didn’t get a chance to check out.
I’m just going to copy-paste my usual rant: it never fails to blow my mind how many people don’t have insurance. I don’t care about minor things like missed flights or theft, which I can cover myself, but if I get hit in the head with a comically small chair, I don’t want to have to foot the hospital bill. I use the no-frills Atlas Travel, which offers basic cover for a little over a dollar a day, if you crank up the co-pay and ditch any non-essential add-ons.
Sport and Recreation
The real reason I love this city: not one, not two, not three, but four street workout parks that I saw, and no doubt more that I missed. I soon made friends with the local calisthenics crew on the beach by Công viên Biển Đông park, if you’re looking for workout buddies. There’s another set of bars towards My An, as well as on the shores of the mini-lake in town, and one more that I forgot to mark down.
For gym-goers: the cheap and cheerful places cost as little as 20,000 dong a session. I went to a more upmarket place with a small sauna a few times (HD Fitness) which is 100,000 dong for casuals, but very reasonably priced if you take out a multi-month membership.
Then there’s Tai Chi groups, volleyball nets all along the beach, surfing, and swimming with proper surf lifeguards and everything (although instead of IRBs they have red-and-yellow painted coracles, which is pretty funny).
Massages are about 200,000 dong ($9) an hour, with lots of spa options for whatever other fancy treatments you might want. I thought the traditional massage I had in Saigon was some crazy Cirque du Soleil shit; in Da Nang, the masseuse quite literally walked around on my back, then attempted to dislocate every one of my limbs.
Da Nang is within 100km of several UNESCO world heritage sites… none of which I visited. Whoops. It’s a short drive from the picturesque Hoi An, which…I also didn’t visit. Maybe next time. I’m kind of done with tourist stuff at this particular point in time. I just wanted to do some writing, eat food, and lay out on the beach. So that’s what I did.
Occasionally I would get a wild hair up my ass and go for a walk to look at the weird architecture. Whoever decided to build a 666 metre long bridge in the shape of a frickin’ dragon, which breathes fire every weekend, deserves a pay rise. The other bridges across the Han are almost as quirky, as are lots of buildings (a gigantic fish trap, a UFO-shaped sports centre), especially mixed in with colonial-era villas.
Bank and Currency Fees
I paid for my accommodation using Paypal, my transport with the Grab app (linked to my credit card), and also ordered quite a few meals via Grab. So I didn’t need a whole lot of cash money, which is fortunate, because it’s a pain finding ATMs that dispense more than piddling amounts of dong. HSBC gave me the most (7 million) but also hit me with a pretty hefty 140,000 dong fee.
If I were staying for longer, I’d definitely open a Vietnamese bank account and then use Transferwise to send money to myself. It’s apparently no problem for a tourist to open a bank account—you just need to show a stamped visa, passport, and mailing address.
Another strong drawing card. The rules vary somewhat depending on your country, but generally, you can stay for as long as six months or a whole year if you apply for a proper visa before you come, or get a one/three month e-visa online, and pick it up at the airport on arrival.
This latter option involves getting a letter of approval from a visa agency, which costs ~$25 for a three month single-entry, then paying a stamping fee of $25 when you arrive. It’s not as attractive as countries like Malaysia or Taiwan (90 days free, no visa required), but still pretty great.
Living on Less Than $800 a Month
All up, the monthly cost of living is just shy of US$800. Can we improve on this further? Looking at this pie chart, I can see a couple of possible ways:
- Accommodation. If you rent an apartment for a longer term, you can probably bring this down somewhat (or cut it in two if you’re one half of a couple).
- Boozing and similar. If you don’t have any vices, you’ll get down closer to the $700 mark.
But to be honest, this is already pretty spartan. Assuming you do more touristic stuff than I did, and maybe rent a moped, you’d want to budget at least $900 a month, and probably more like $1000 to be comfy.
How cheap is too cheap? I’ll repeat the same disclaimer from previous posts:
Be mindful of crossing the line between frugality and being cheap. People get confused by this, even though it’s a clear distinction: Deny yourself all you want, and I’ll applaud your steely self-discipline. Save money at the expense of others, and you’re a low-down cheapskate. One guy living here bragged about taking his own rice to restaurants. Don’t be that guy.
Da Nang vs Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai, Thailand has become the benchmark for every city I visit in this part of the world. Da Nang is roughly comparable in price, scores extra points for having a beach, and is cleaner (lots of people I met had joined the exodus from northern Thailand’s burning season, like me). Da Nang is also much less popular as a nomadic hub, hence the ‘hidden jewel’ vibe.
Of course, this cuts both ways: the co-working facilities are not as good, the community is much smaller, there are nowhere near as many events and meetups, and a limited dating pool. I found it a little harder to make friends than I usually do, although I did hit it off with the locals at the calisthenics park, and met some interesting expats at the fortnightly meetup organised by Edwin. I would definitely come back with a girlfriend or at least one good friend in tow, but perhaps not on my own—and I know of a few other people who reached similar conclusions.
If anyone has more Da Nang tips to share, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll update the article accordingly!
Where to Next?
This brings an end to my time in Asia, at least for the foreseeable future. I’m back home in New Zealand right now, and about to head off on a tour of the Americas, where I’m hoping to settle somewhere (probably south or central) for the next little phase of life. Thanks to everyone who has reached out to me—I’m excited to meet y’all soon!