When we passed the dragon bridge in da Nang and sliding into the big roundabout, I can't help but think that this traffic is actually worse than in India. Here at home, I am shocked when someone blinks at the wrong time when driving in a roundabout. Here I take a deep breath and watch when a hundred motorbikes are going around the same roundabout at the same time. There don't seem to be any files or rules to deal with here, but strangely enough, it seems to work. Everyone creeps forward a bit slowly in the roundabout and when someone has to turn off, you just do it and trust that everyone around you stops. Those of us sitting in a car really have no problem getting there. Biggest goes first.
We have hired a car with driver in Vietnam to take us from Hoi An to the world heritage city of Hue, the imperial city with its forbidden city, beautiful river and imperial tombs. Driving yourself didn't feel like an option, as much as we love road trips, Vietnam is not the easiest country to drive yourself in.
To get us north to Hue, there are two options to get through the Annamite mountain range – the road tunnel inaugurated in 2005 or Hai Van mountain pass. We decided to take the mountain pass to Hue and the tunnel home. To get over the mountain pass, we need to drive over a long winding road with both hairpin bends, a 15 degree incline and morning fog. The translation of the Vietnamese name for Hai Van Pass is roughly "Sea Cloud Pass", which you understand when you see the clouds from the sea slowly sliding in over the mountain. This can simply be a challenging drive.
It is very interesting to see everything that is loaded and transported by motorcycle here in Vietnam. Often the pack feels disproportionately large compared to the motorcycle itself, and tension straps and safety considerations are not high on the priority list. Helmets are usually only used by the motorcycle rider, not by the passengers. As motorbikes are not allowed to drive through the Hai Van tunnel, they have to go over the mountain pass with all their luggage. Nor are trucks with dangerous cargo allowed to travel through the tunnel. As you probably understand, the mountain pass is not the fastest route.
The Hai Van pass is one of the most famous roads in Vietnam and the road became known to the rest of the world when Top Gear-gang a few years ago drove by here with screwy motorbikes loaded with everything from a large wooden ship to a stone statue. If you are going to ride a motorcycle in Vietnam, they would have understood that you have to have something really unwieldy on the luggage rack to blend in. Although the trio have traveled numerous roads around the world, they couldn't help but stop to admire the view of the green hills and blue sea, naming the road "one of the best coastal roads in the world". It is clear that this sets some expectations for today's excursion. Could it really be such a great road?
The total distance between Hoi An and Hue is only about 17 miles, but it can easily take 4 hours if you take the road over the mountain pass. Also, it takes even longer during the rainy monsoon season. When we were here in June, we had the best conditions for a clear view of the mountain pass. Da Nang even offered sunshine, so we would probably avoid the worst of the morning fog.
We start climbing uphill with our car. Yes, it almost feels like climbing in bits and pieces. The road is interspersed in the green cover and in parts the road looks like "Road to Hana” in Hawaii – even though the Hai Van pass goes at a significantly higher altitude. It's not easy to see around the next bend and it's lucky that it's slow, because obstacles often appear where you least expect them. Like, for example, two cows that decide to go against the direction of travel in our lane. Just behind a curve.
We have gained a few meters of altitude now and behind us the bay of Da Nang spreads out. Beautiful beaches, fishing boats and clear sea meet the eye. I look over my shoulder. We still have a long way to go to the top of the mountain pass. It is understandable that the mountain range has been a natural land border for millennia - both between climate zones and old kingdoms. On the north side, the climate is cooler, rainier and subtropical, while the south side has a tropical climate.
The last bit up to the top is approaching and we have then reached 500 meters above sea level. In a curve at the top, there are restaurants and souvenir shops in a row. Our driver stops and has a well-deserved coffee, while we walk up to the gate (Hai Van Quan) which was built by Emperor Minh Mang in the 19th century. Next to the gate is an old shooting tower that was used during several wars in the 20th century. Here the French, South Vietnamese and Americans have been lying and shooting long before there was a real road here over the mountain pass. Getting here a hundred years ago must have taken days.
The view up here is truly amazing and the white beaches of Lang Co shine on the horizon. I can see the road continuing down the mountain on the other side of the mountain pass, cutting through the green hills. There are hardly any houses here after the road, I guess it would be a bit well insulated to live up here during the monsoon rains when the clouds are dense and the wind whips against the ridge.
The number of people who have to climb up the old shooting tower is large, even though it is clearly stated that you should not climb up. There is even a queue to take a picture of the landscape, so we get tired quite quickly and jump back into the car.
On the way down we don't meet any more cows, but a motorcyclist almost made us cry. At first we didn't see what he had on his motorcycle, but then we saw the little pigs that had been horribly wrapped in a metal net on his luggage rack. One poor pig's foot was hanging out through the net and even if the motorcyclist put hay in the bottom of the cage, it can't have helped the poor animals much. No thanks, there will be no more pork for me on this trip!
We overtake the tormented piglets with a bit of a stomach ache. Soon on level ground. We look out over the bay at Lang Co, the beaches and the new bridges built here. I'll probably pass by Lang Co the next time I'm in Vietnam, but right now I just want to get to the palace in Hue. We have come over to the other side of the mountain and the "regular" 70 roads are back. The mountain pass is defeated.
Road facts Hai Van Pass
Stretch: From Hoi An to Hue it is 17 miles, 2 miles of which are mountain passes. Expect 4 hours one way if you cross the pass by car.
Creepiness: Not so dangerous. It would probably have felt much scarier riding a motorcycle in the fog!
Was Top Gear right that it is one of the world's most beautiful roads? Well, it's very beautiful, but the competition for the title is fierce. I would probably dare to say that it is one of Asia's most beautiful roads. But the taste is like the cake.
Is it worth going over the pass or should I take the tunnel? Take the passport – at least once! The road is well worth driving! But it was nice to take the tunnel on the way back to Hoi An.
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