First published July 2017 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | MORE POSTS
Historically, four great passes have always divided what is now Vietnam. These occur at the four points along the coast where spurs from the Truong Son Mountain Range spread eastwards to the sea. When the mountains meet the coast they create natural barriers, dividing the land, people, and culture to the north and south of them. These locations boast some of the most dramatic coastal scenery in Vietnam, where waves crash against sheer walls of black rock, and jungle-covered slopes slide into the ocean. Over time, passes were carved out of the mountains: winding and precarious routes leading up, around, and over the mighty spurs. Of the four great passes, the Hai Van is the most famous. But, for me, the twin passes of the Cổ Mã and Cả, are my favourite. Nowadays, new engineering projects lead under the mountains, rather than over them. And so, in September 2017, two new tunnels are due to open, leaving the Cổ Mã and Cả passes in relative peace, and making them a far more enjoyable and scenic prospect for road-trippers.
GUIDE: THE CỔ MÃ & CẢ PASSES
I’ve written the following guide as a travelogue of the road trip between the twin passes, including details about the location, a bit of history, a map, and some places to stop and to see along the way. The combined length of the Cổ Mã and Cả passes is only around 20km. You can use Dai Lanh Beach as a base from which to explore the passes, or incorporate this scenic coastal stretch into part of a longer road trip, such as one of my Saigon-to-Hanoi routes. There are also lots of other excellent sights within easy reach of the Cổ Mã and Cả passes, which can easily be reached on two wheels and, when combined with the passes, make a rewarding itinerary (see Related Posts for details).
The Twin Passes of Cổ Mã & Cả on Highway 1
View in a LARGER MAP
The Cổ Mã and Cả passes are 80km north of Nha Trang and 40km south of Tuy Hoa, connecting the provinces of Khanh Hoa and Phu Yen. The passes frame the pretty beach of Dai Lanh, whose wide arc of sand is squeezed between two mountainous headlands, which the Cổ Mã and Cả passes climb up and down. The Cổ Mã Pass lies to the south of Dai Lanh; the Cả Pass is to the north. The former is a short ‘oxbow’ pass, bending around a large, jungle-covered rock-pile as it meets the sea; the latter is a long, winding pass, leading around a high, spreading headland above a calm, blue lagoon, and down the other side into lush farmland. The two passes are both part of Highway 1, Vietnam’s notoriously busy, main artery. However, when two new tunnels open, in September 2017, the highway will lead under the mountains, rendering the passes obsolete, and practically unused by large vehicles (with the exception of gas tankers). Thus, the Cổ Mã and Cả passes will soon be much quieter than any time in the last ten years, ever since heavy traffic began to clog the road. And they will be safer too, with the potential to become a popular and scenic coastal road trip on a par with the more famous Hai Van Pass in Central Vietnam.
The Cổ Mã Pass is a two-kilometre section of road that makes a 180° hook around a rocky bluff and then descends into Dai Lanh, with sweeping views across the gaping bay and broad beach, backed by steep, green mountains. The name ‘Cổ Mã’ means, to the best of my knowledge, ‘horse’s neck’, which presumably refers to the similarity between the sharp bend of the animal’s neck and head, and the bend of the pass as it veers around the bluff. It may be a short pass, but it’s also a very scenic one. At the eastern tip of the bluff, there are expansive views to the south, along the empty beaches of Hon Gom Sandbar, stretching all the way to the horizon, where mainland Vietnam’s most easterly point is located; and to the north, where the fishing village of Dai Lanh nestles in the blue shadow of a mountainous spur, above which you can just make out the meandering course of the Cả Pass, cutting its route through jungle foliage, high above the sea.
However, the Cổ Mã Pass is just a teaser; something to whet your appetite before the main event. Because, after dropping into Dai Lanh and skirting the length of its fine, two-kilometre beach, Highway 1 bears northeast, out of the fishing village and up into the green mountains which plunge into the calm blue waters of the East Sea. This is the beginning of the twelve-kilometre Cả Pass. Climbing sharply out of Dai Lanh, the pass immediately opens up superb vistas back across the bay, where dozens of blue fishing boats clustered together just offshore. A little cafe and restaurant, aptly named Hướng Biển (‘Ocean View’), is perched by the roadside not 50 metres after leaving Dai Lanh.
Lush foliage grows above and below the pass, sometimes reaching across the road, obscuring the stunning views out to sea, where a small island with interesting rock formations lies in the deep-blue water. This is the kind of enchanted isle where a Homeric creature might live, lying in wait for a shipwrecked sailor to be washed ashore. Breaks in the foliage afford glimpses of the railroad, clinging to the mountainside several metres below the pass, echoing the course of the road. Freshwater springs, coming off the higher slopes, are utilized by truck drivers, who take the opportunity to wash the caked-mud and dusk from their long, dirty haulage vehicles. I once cycled this pass, in 2005, not long after I’d arrived in Vietnam. After pedaling to the top in 35°C heat, I took advantage of these springs by standing beneath one of them for 10 minutes, after having paid a few cents to one of the locals who control the springs by funneling the water into jets.
The pass winds on, corkscrewing through hairpin bends straddling the green and rocky slopes, below which lies nothing but broken boulders and sea. But, despite the steep pitch of the mountainside, the lower slopes, beneath the road, are cultivated and planted with mango and star fruit trees. The higher slopes appear wilder: overgrown, threatening, and untamed. There’s something powerful and awesome about a good mountain pass. It’s a clash of man and nature: the road and the mountain locked in a constant battle, with the man-made structure fighting to prevail over the relentless push of the elements. Along the central section of the Cả Pass, when flat, stable land is nowhere to be seen, giant boulders threaten to roll off the mountain, tumbling towards the road; the crash barriers are dented from rockfalls and accidents; roadside shrines mark the sites of past casualties; and the heat, if it’s a sunny day, becomes more intense, or the rain, if it’s a stormy day, becomes heavier. Black exhaust spews from the backs of trucks and buses, crawling and hauling their way up the incline at a slow and painful pace.
Steep and winding, lush and lofty, scary yet thrilling, spectacular yet terrifying: these are all things that a good, memorable pass should be. But the Cả Pass has always been spoiled by the traffic, which, on reaching the incline, slows and struggles and pushes until it comes to a complete stop: a clot of traffic on a vein of asphalt. In some ways, this lends even more theatre to the spectacle of the pass: the long convoy of stationary vehicles stretching all the way around the mountainside, its impeded progress visible for kilometres in the distance. But this is also a dangerous pass. Because, when the vehicles aren’t hampered, some of the driving is horrendous. Drivers, bored and infuriated by the slow crawl up the pass, let out their frustrations by flying down the other side, including articulated lorries overtaking on blind corners next to near-vertical drops of hundreds of feet onto the rocks below. It’s the kind of maniacal driving that makes your blood boil. In the case of some of the long-distance truck and bus drivers, it’s difficult not to conclude that they have lost their minds: hours each day cooped up in the driver’s cabin on hot, busy, chaotic roads for little financial reward finally breaking their sanity. But, mercifully, this should immediately and completely change once the tunnels open, taking the vast majority of heavy traffic away from the pass, and leaving motorcyclists, cyclists, and ‘leisure drivers’ to enjoy this road in relative safety. The sooner the better, because I shudder to think how many lives have been needlessly lost on this pass over the years.
Like the Hai Van Pass before it (whose underpass opened in 2005), the new tunnels should breathe new life into this area as a whole, but especially the Cả Pass. Because, not only is this pass one of the most scenic sections of coast road in Vietnam, as a natural barrier and frontier between peoples and cultures it’s also been the scene of many historic battles over the past 500 years. The Vietnamese clashed with the Cham here, as the former pushed their way southwards, conquering what is now southern Vietnam; centuries later, Vietnamese rulers fought each other for power at the Cả Pass; and, most recently, skirmishes between the Viet Minh and the colonial French flared up along the pass, as the former fought for their independence in the 1940s and 1950s. Rich in natural beauty and historical significance, the Cả Pass has the potential to be just as famous and popular as the Hai Van Pass, but this will only happen once the tunnels open and draw the heavy traffic away.
As the pass begins to turn northwards, the mountainside becomes increasingly unstable; made up of loose rocks and giant boulders. At one point, however, it’s as if the boulders have coalesced to form one sheer face of what I assume is granite. This wall of dark, bare rock protrudes into the bay, creating a formidable obstacle for the pass to negotiate. The road is chiseled out of the rock, producing an overhang which bears down on the vehicles as they pass through what is known as ‘Cua Đá Đen’ (Black Rock Gate).
After passing through the ‘Black Rock Gate’, a spectacular, bright-blue lagoon opens up beneath the pass. This is the fabulous Vung Ro Bay, a natural harbour circled by high, forested hills, and dotted with fishing boats and floating fish farms. Vung Ro port shelters at the western end of the bay, a sinister sight with its large oil drums, tankers anchored to a long jetty, and queues of unmarked trucks covered in military-green tarpaulin, waiting by the docks.
Presiding over the entire scene, at the top of the highest peak in the area, is Đá Bia, an 80-metre-high pillar of freestanding solid rock, looming above the pass like an colossal sculpture of an ancient god. From here, the pass snakes up to its highest point, at over 1,000 feet. It’s noticeably cooler, and this is often the point at which the weather changes: one side of the pass might be in bright sunshine, while the other could be in cloud and rain. A small and scruffy cafe offers some refreshments, where you can gaze over the lush fields and valleys of Phu Yen Province to the north, and back down over the blue bays and rocky promontories of Khanh Hoa Province to the south. (To visit Vung Ro Bay, turn east at the summit, down a beautiful road leading along the coast to Mon Beach.)
The north side of the Cả Pass is a steep series of wide switchbacks, descending sharply beneath the colossal rocks of Đá Bia. Traffic can become severely bottle-necked on this section, as articulated trucks struggle to round the tight corners, hauling their heavy loads behind them, which often look in danger of overturning. But, of course, this won’t be the case for much longer….after the tunnels open. Halfway down, a small parking lot indicates the beginning of a long, steep and winding pathway, leading to the mountaintop where the stone pillars stand, known as Núi Đá Bia. Weather permitting, the views from the top are stupendous. A couple of other inviting-looking rest stops line this section of road, taking advantage of streams and gullies amid the jungle foliage.
As the road begins to level out, it runs alongside the railroad once more, through an expansive valley of vivid-green rice paddies. The bottom of the Cả Pass leads into large boulder-fields scattered around ponds, lakes and streams. The hills are planted with eucalyptus trees and dotted with red-brick homes. This is where the tunnel, when it opens, will exit from beneath the mountain and join Highway 1. The road straightens, stretching across acres of heavily-cultivated farmland and the wide, flat floodplains of the Da Rang River, before crossing the long bridge into Tuy Hoa City, the capital of Phu Yen Province. (For ideas about how extend this road trip and other interesting excursions in the area, take a look at the Related Posts below).