Cua Dai Bridge

On an unrealistically warm late December day in 2014 I joined a group of motorcycle riders at a small ferry terminal in Cẩm Thanh ward close to Hội An. We were headed across the Thu Bồn river to a terminal at the harbor village of Duy Hải. My friends – all surfers – were intent on exploring the undeveloped stretch of pristine coastline south of the city of Hội An in search of ‘pounders’.

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As our ferry labored across the wide estuary, we passed beneath a series of pylons forming the structure of a vast new bridge – the ‘Cửa Đại’ – which, within months, would render our ferry crossing obsolete.

Quảng Nam province boasts a 100 km coastline of fine white sand beaches stretching from Marble Mountain (Ngũ Hành Sơn) in the North, to the southern border of Núi Thành district beyond the capital city of Tam Kỳ.

For many visitors arriving in Hội An from Đà Nẵng, first impressions of the area are of glamorous resort hotels lining sparkling beaches, and of new construction sites attesting to the rapid development of tourist infrastructure.

However, south of Hội An, the coastal areas of Duy Xuyên and Thăng Bình districts form a much lesser known stretch of beaches, which, although close to the city, have been difficult to access because of the complex inlets and islands that form the estuary of the Thu Bồn river. This coastal wedge of Quảng Nam province – extending 70 km down the coast to Tam Kỳ – has been effectively isolated from the mainland by the sweeping river estuary of the Thu Bồn, and an additional river – the sông Trường Giang  (Yangtze river) – which separates this coastal strip from the mainland.

Although small ferries similar to the one on which we traveled had traditionally provided access for pedestrians and motorcycles between terminals on the north side of the river mouth at Hội An and the harbor of Duy Hải, road access from the city was limited to a long bone-jarring journey south and east through the rural district of Điện Bàn. While the development of coastal Quảng Nam province north of Hội An is obviously well advanced, this difficult access to the southern coastal beaches has deterred both visitors and investors.

In a comprehensive plan to open these coastal areas to development, the Vietnamese government, in 2009, proposed a project to create a coastal route connecting Đà Nẵng and Northern Quảng Nam province with the city of Tam Kỳ and the ‘Chu Lai Open Economic Zone’ which extends down to the southern border of Núi Thành district. This zone, which includes an industrial complex built close to a new airport and container shipping facility, is to include a massive gambling and resort development – ‘Nam Hội An’ (Hội An South) – which, along with the economic engine of Hội An city, is to carry the banner for the future development of the district.

A pivotal element of this project was the construction of a direct route over the Thu Bồn river– the Của Đại bridge (cầu Dủa Đại). A series of elevated ‘flyovers’ were envisaged, leading from the ‘old’ Đà Nẵng road in the west of the city, crossing major local streets, to connect to the new bridge – with additional road construction continuing down the coast.

The Của Đại project – a bridge and road complex 18.3 km long – was designed to include a four lane, 1.48 km crossing of the Thu Bồn. The biggest investment project in the locality, the complex was budgeted at 3.5 trillion VND ($157 million USD),  half of the cash to be provided from Quảng Nam province’s budget, the other half sponsored by the central government.

Site preparation for the bridge began on August 30th 2011, along with ramp construction and the acquisition of land for road-building on both sides of the river.  According to government figures, fifteen communes in Quảng Nam’s eastern region will eventually be affected, requiring the ‘relocation’ of 10,300 families.

The project ran long. Complex and challenging conditions were cited. However, despite the delays, construction work on the bridge was largely completed by the end of August 2015, with a ceremonial opening on October 21st – although audacious pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcycle riders had been regularly crossing the bridge months before the on-ramps and guardrails were completed.

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I returned to the site of the Cẩm Thanh ferry terminal recently. The ferries, of course, have gone, the former terminal building and general store, shuttered. In its place, a local entrepreneur has whimsically erected a clubhouse for the ‘Hội An Sailing Club’. Outside, a miniature trimaran was moored in the shallows, while a larger sailboat – resembling a re-purposed ferry – was under construction at the end of the pier. Gone, too, is the ferry terminal at Duy Hải, although the bustling fishing boat industry persists, and the harbor has retained its colorful if dog-eared charm.

Today, the Của Đại bridge can be easily reached – even by bicycle – a 10-12 km ride from downtown Hội An. From the top of the bridge,  extraordinary panoramic vistas extend out to the harbor mouth, and back in to the city.

And no, my surfer friends did not find the heady breakers that would have set their hearts aflutter – but we did discover dazzling, remote, largely unpopulated beaches, punctuated with occasional fishing communities, and mile after mile of scenic rural farms and villages – all now readily accessible to any visitor with a motorcycle and the spirit of adventure.

Updated March 2018

Originally Published 2016

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