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.
Visiting the Son Tra Peninsula
Starting from Da Nang city centre, head across the Han River 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 Museum 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.
A five-minute drive further will bring you to Quan Yin and the Linh Ung Pagoda, where 67 meters tall Lady Buddha looks down on the village and the city below and protects the people from wind and storms.
From this point the road goes a little up and starts to get curvy, but the views are better and better. On the right side the cliff, on which the road is built, drops dramatically down and crashes the blue ocean’s waves at its feet, ahead it runs around the lush green hills, covered by mist coming from the ocean. It is truly spectacular.
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. Be careful not to drive too fast. The road is not only steep, but also covered with vines and rocks, fallen from the surrounding cliffs. Every curve should be taken slowly and carefully. You don’t know what’s ahead of you.
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 Rang. 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.
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 get to the top of this little hill, go right. This part is called the Monkey Passage. This area is a home to the Red Shanked Douc – a very rare monkey, who is a little shy and doesn’t like to interact with people, but here and there you can see special ropes hanged over the road, to make it easier for the monkeys to cross it and not getting hit by a passing vehicle. Some say that if you go hiking in the hills you might be able to spot whole families of them.
Your next stop is Ban Co Peak. The entrance here is free. From here you can enjoy panoramic views over the city, but only if the day is clear enough. Da Nang is a very humid place and the humidity here turns into a mist and covers the city. Ban Co Peak is also famous for the statue of Confucius. This bronze statue of the great philosopher playing chess is a tribute to the man, who greatly influenced the Eastern culture.
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.
Alternative route via Bai Tien Sa
Tien Sa lies to the west of the Son Tra peninsula and is accessed from Da Nang via Ngo Quyen Road, which runs inland parallel to the coastal Son Tra access road Hoang Sa Road. If you follow this road to the left and continue for 500 metres you’ll find the Son Tra Tien 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 Tien 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 Den (Black Stone) 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.
Exploring Son Tra peninsula is best done by a motorbike as some of the roads, like the one leading to the Banyan Tree, or the Lighthouse, are hardly accessible for a taxi. Driving a scooter around the area is a great adventure. The roads here are almost empty, there is no traffic and it is safe to drive. However, remember that your scooter should have good brakes and should be working well enough to manage to drive up a steep hill.
Petrol can only be bought at the Son Tra peninsula. If you are afraid of getting low on gas, take some empty bottles with you and fill them with petrol, too.
You might be interested: Guide to Motorbike Rental in Da Nang
However, if you would like to visit only the Linh Ung Pagoda the easiest way to get to the Linh Ung Pagoda (Lady Buddha) on Son Tra peninsula is by taking the bright pink Coco Tour Bus, which runs in a route directly to the temple.
What to take
You should take sunscreen and better shoes than sandals, or flip-flops. There are no hiking opportunities, but you might have to ‘fight’ some gravel, sand and rocks to get some photos of the magnificent views. Having a GPS on your phone and a map of the area is great, too. There are no good signs around the Son Tra peninsula and it’s easy to get lost.