Last updated May 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS
A contender for the most famous road in Vietnam, the Hai Van Pass is a short but scenic route winding around a mountainside above the East Sea, on the central coast. Đèo Hải Vân – Ocean Cloud Pass – is famous for a number of reasons: as a geographic and political boundary between ancient kingdoms; as a climatic divide between the tropical south and the subtropical north; and as a strategic military post during times of war, both ancient and modern. But, most recently, the Hai Van Pass is famous, quite simply, as a great road trip linking the popular central Vietnamese destinations of Hoi An, Danang, and Hue. For Vietnamese and foreign road-trippers alike, the Hai Van Pass is a favourite ride, its fame bolstered by the popularity of the Top Gear Vietnam Special (2008), in which the presenters waxed lyrical about the pass, inspiring a generation of travellers to take to the road on two wheels and hit the Hai Van Pass. Although it’s certainly not the greatest road in Vietnam, the Hai Van Pass is still a lot of fun to ride, with excellent views, light traffic, and easy access from several cities.
GUIDE: THE HAI VAN PASS BY MOTORBIKE
ROAD TRIP DETAILS:
- Total Distance: 165km (or 135km)
- Duration: 1-3 days
- Route: the scenic coastal route between Hoi An, Danang & Hue [MAP]
- Road Conditions: good, smooth, wide highways, paved back-roads, light traffic
- Scenery: high coastal passes, excellent sea views, empty beaches, fishing villages, farmland, cities
ABOUT THIS ROUTE:
The Hai Van Pass can be ridden as a day-trip from any of the three main cities on either side of it: Hoi An, Danang, and Hue. Alternatively, the Hai Van Pass is a great way to ride all the way between these three cities via an extended coastal route, which avoids busy Highway 1 for the vast majority of the way, and uses quiet, scenic coast roads instead (see the blue line on my map). Although this route is slightly longer than taking Highway 1 (see the brown line on my map), it’s far more scenic, more rewarding, and quieter (not to mention safer). Renting motorbikes in any of the three cities should be fairly easy, and some rental companies even offer one-way pick-up and drop-off services, allowing you to ride in one direction without having to return to your starting point to give the bike back. The total distance for the scenic coastal route between Hoi An, Danang, and Hue is 165km. This can be completed in one day, or you can break it up into 2-3 days, by staying somewhere in the middle (see Accommodation). There are several options for side routes along the way (see the red lines on my map), including exploring the scenic roads around the Son Tra Peninsular, getting lost on the paved lanes and muddy tracks leading down to the coast from the top of the Hai Van Pass, and short detours to Elephant Springs and Bach Ma National Park. The best time of year is April to September; at other times, the pass can be covered in cloud and very wet. After riding the Hai Van Pass you can loop back via the mountains on the Ho Chi Minh Road, as described in the Golden Loop, or you can continue along coastal back-roads to Dong Hoi and Phong Nha, following the Tomb Rider route.
The Hai Van Pass: Hoi An-Danang-Hue| 165km (or 135km)
View in a LARGER MAP
HISTORY & COMMENTARY:
Đèo Hải Vân – Ocean Cloud Pass – is a mountainous stretch of road in Central Vietnam. On days when vapour from the East Sea rises into the forests and clings to the mountaintops, the pass lives up to its poetic name. But, despite its romantic title, the Hai Van Pass has always been something of a frontier: a boundary of kingdoms and climate; often fought over, sometimes tragic but never losing its ability to inspire awe.
During the ‘American War’, the Hai Van Pass was known as the ‘Street Without Joy’. Back then, the pass connected the two war-scarred cities of Hue and Danang via the dangerous and hotly contested Highway 1. Thanks to a tunnel under the mountains, completed in 2005, the Hai Van Pass today is the ‘Street Without Traffic’. The majority of transport now takes the tunnel, which leaves the Hai Van Pass – one of the most scenic coastal roads in Vietnam – to two-wheeled vehicles and the occasional oil truck (both of which are not allowed through the tunnel). The spectacular Hai Van Pass is perfect for a relatively easy, safe and short motorbike trip between the popular tourist spots of Hoi An/Danang to the south and Hue to the north.
The Hai Van Pass is a natural wall: a mountainous finger of land jutting into the East Sea. This is an east-west spur of the Truong Son (Annamite) Range that runs north to south along the western spine of Vietnam. For centuries this natural barrier represented the limit of one kingdom and the beginning of another. The Hindu Kingdom of Champa resided south of the Hai Van Pass, while the Confucian-Buddhist Kingdom of Dai Viet was to the north. The two kingdoms fought constantly to control land either side of the pass. The Cham pushed as far north as the Dai Viet capital of Thang Long (Hanoi) in 1371.* Partly due to the favourable climate and fertility of the land south of the Hai Van Pass, the Cham in this area were known as the ‘Coconut Palm Group’. The Hai Van Pass sheltered the Cham from strong, cold winds and storms that blew from the north. Known as ‘Chinese Winds’, these still ravage territory north of the pass each year during the ‘typhoon months’, which are usually around September and October.
*Historical information in this article is based solely on my reading of various sources and conversations with local people. I make no claims as an historian.
The good climatic conditions south of the Hai Van Pass helped to build the Cham civilization, which lasted for more than a thousand years, from the 3rd century onwards. It was the lure of the land of the ‘Coconut Palm Cham’ that led to its eventual conquest. Dai Viet, to the north of the Hai Van Pass, was growing steadily thanks to liberation from Chinese rule in AD938 followed by two strong imperial dynasties, the Ly (1009-1225) and the Tran (1225-1400). Agricultural productivity and population were on the rise, but unpredictable weather and devastating flooding in the Red River Delta was a constant threat to stability. With China looming large over their northern borders, Dai Viet looked to the south for more land and a better climate for their growing population. After centuries of fighting, it was the Le Dynasty who finally defeated the Cham, in 1471, annexing the sunny territory south of the Hai Van Pass for Dai Viet. The ruins of the Cham temples at My Son, near Hoi An, can still be seen today.
The appeal of the land of the ‘Coconut Palm Cham’ is still obvious today. If travelling from north to south, heading out of Hue on a wet, grey February morning and driving up the Hai Van Pass in thick, moisture-laden cloud, when you arrive at the top and look down on the sun-filled Bay of Danang to the south, it’s easy to imagine how attractive these lands must have been to the Dai Viet from the north. Curling your way up the switchbacks and hairpin bends, the motorbike engine struggling to deal with the gradient, and then rolling down the other side, wondering if the brake pads will wear away before you reach the bottom, it’s also apparent how the pass could have separated two civilizations for so long.
Whatever the weather, the Hai Van Pass is always a scenic route. As with other great views, the pass has often inspired wonder, sometimes in the most unlikely of contexts and least likely of people. When Paul Theroux was passing through Vietnam during his Great Railway Bazaar, in 1973, the Paris Peace Accords had only recently been signed by the United States, South and North Vietnam. Direct American military participation in Vietnam was officially over, but the war still had two more long years before the fall of Saigon. As most of the Trans-Indochinois Railway (now the Reunification Express) that linked Hanoi with Saigon had been blown up, Theroux was only able to travel on short sections of the line that were deemed safe. Fortunately for him one of these safe sections was between Hue and Danang.
At that time, Hue was a ruin. Having been pounded for years, not least during the Tet Offensive in 1968, the city was all mud and rubble. Danang, formerly a massive American military base, was, according to Theroux, ‘a poisoned city’. But the landscape between these two wounded cities, including the Hai Van Pass which the railway snakes around just below the road, was still majestic. Perhaps because of the juxtaposition between the ugly urban destruction in Hue and the rural peace and beauty around the Hai Van Pass, Theroux, having travelled across Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent by train, was amazed by what he saw from his compartment on the Trans-Indochinois:
Of all the places the railway had taken me since London, this was the loveliest.
Beyond the leaping jade plates of the sea was an overhang of cliffs and the sight of a valley so large it contained sun, smoke, rain and cloud – all at once.
I had been unprepared for this beauty; it surprised and humbled me.
Who has mentioned the simple fact that the heights of Vietnam are places of unimaginable grandeur?
35 years later, Jeremy Clarkson, former presenter of the popular BBC car show, Top Gear, had a similar reaction to the landscape around the Hai Van Pass. Famously sarcastic and not one to be easily moved – except by a good car – Clarkson and his co-presenters couldn’t help but be awed by the green mountains rolling down in pleats and folds toward the East Sea. On this strip of tarmac, that he proclaimed ‘one of the best ocean roads in the world’, Clarkson began to enjoy motorbiking. Indeed, the Top Gear Vietnam Special must surely have inspired thousands of travellers to follow in their tyre-tracks, because nowadays hawkers at the top of the pass will often ask, “Are you here because of Top Gear?!”
VIDEO: Top Gear Vietnam Special (skip to 3:15 for the Hai Van Pass scene):
Like other borders and frontiers, the Hai Van Pass has seen its fair share of blood and battles. At the top of the pass, by the brick gate built by Emperor Minh Mang in the 19th century, are gun towers that were used by French, South Vietnamese and American lookouts respectively, during the long wars from 1946-75. More recent reminders of tragedy on the pass are the small shrines lining the road that mark the sites of fatal accidents. (Note: most of these date from before the tunnel was built, when the pass was far more dangerous than it is today). As with many famous battle fields and scenic roads in Vietnam, tragedy contrasts sharply with the natural beauty of the surrounds.
As for me, I’ve always thought of the Hai Van Pass as a point of transition: both a boundary and a gate. When riding from south to north, the pass is the point at which I feel I’ve entered more unfamiliar territory. The clouds usually close-in and fierce rain pinches the skin on my face. With this comes a sense of adventure. Being from the south in both my native and adopted countries (London in Britain, Saigon in Vietnam), I’ve long associated travelling north with going into higher, wilder landscape and colder climes. Likewise, when I travel from north to south, the Hai Van Pass is the point at which I feel I’ve arrived ‘home’ again, safe in the land of the ‘Coconut Palm Cham’ and the warmth of the tropical climate I’ve become accustomed to.
Located on the 16th parallel, just one south of the infamous 17th parallel that once divided the nation politically, the Hai Van Pass is a permanent natural boundary that will always divide the nation climatically, between tropical and sub-tropical. The ‘Ocean Cloud’ clings to the pass, but this 30km stretch of road is beautiful in any weather, and each time I ride it, in either direction, there’s always the sense of having crossed a barrier.
I’ve written these directions going south to north, starting in Hoi An, going via Danang, and ending in Hue. You can, of course, ride this route in the opposite direction.
Leave Hoi An’s old town in the morning – the earlier the better if you want to make it all the way to Hue in one day. Take the coast road to Danang, stretching all the way from Cua Dai Beach, past An Bang Beach, and the Marble Mountains, to Danang’s My Khe Beach, once known as China Beach. If you want to explore the Son Tra Peninsular side route, continue along the coast and onto the winding roads crisscrossing the headland (see the red line on my map). If not, turn west onto the famous Dragon Bridge over the Han River and into Danang city. Cruise along the river bank before turning onto Nguyen Tat Thanh Street which skirts the ocean along Nam O Beach. At the end of the beach road, turn onto the broad lanes of Highway 1 for a brief stretch before the road starts to climb into foliage: this is the start of the Hai Van Pass.
Curling around the mountainside, the pass opens up spectacular views across Danang Bay. At the top of the pass, a collection of overpriced food and drink shacks vie for your custom. The ancient gate and old gun towers are located across the road, offering good viewing points and short, pleasant walks. On either side of the top of the pass, the small paved lanes and dirt tracks leading down the slopes towards the sea, are possible side routes (see the red lines on my map), especially if you have a bike that can cope with muddy conditions. However, be aware that you may be stopped from continuing down these side routes due to military presence in the area.
Snaking down the other side of the pass, the views get even better: looking over the winding tarmac as it drops towards the long, empty beach of Lang Co. Just after one of the last hairpin bends of the pass, a much-photographed scene opens up over Lang Co bay and fishing village, with a long bridge over the water (the exit of the Hai Van Tunnel) and the lush, misty mountains behind. This might as well be known as the ‘Top Gear Viewing Point‘, as it was here that the final scene on the Hai Van Pass from the Vietnam Special episode was filmed, with the three co-presenters all gazing at the sunset, enraptured by the beauty of Vietnam’s landscape.
In Lang Co, where you can stop at one of the many seafood restaurants (nhà hàng hải sẳn in Vietnamese), it’s necessary to join Highway 1 briefly, before turning off on the Chan May coast road. (If you want to continue to Hue on the shorter route using Highway 1 follow the brown line on my map. Or if you want to explore the side routes to Elephant Spring and Bach Ma National Park, see the red lines on my map).
The Chan May road stays close to the coast, where there are several high-end resorts and backpacker campgrounds (see Accommodation). Veering off the Chan May route, a good paved roads leads over a bridge and along a back-route before connecting with Highway 1 again at the Phuoc Tuong Pass. On the other side of this pass (now empty thanks to a new tunnel), weave your way across Highway 1 to join road QL49B, heading north along the shores of the Cau Hai Lagoon. (Alternatively, stay on Highway 1 all the way to Hue: see the brown line on my map).
QL49B crosses a bridge at the mouth of the lagoon and turns west along a long peninsular to Thuan An. This road has been mostly upgraded, but some patches are still in the process of reconstruction. The route is notable for the thousands of elaborately carved family tombs, which are scattered across the sandy banks between the road and the sea. At Thuan An village, turn south over a bridge and follow the Pho Loi River into Hue. (For ideas about how to continue this road trip from Hue, see Related Guides.)
Although there’s no accommodation on the Hai Van Pass itself, there are a handful of good and interesting places to stay along the coastal route, as well as an enormous array of hotels and resorts for all budgets at either end of the route: in Hoi An, Danang, and Hue.
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Hoi An has possibly the best-value and range of hotels in all Vietnam. The sheer volume of hotels, and the continuing popularity of Hoi An as a travel destination, drives prices down and quality up. For budget accommodation check out the cheap but clean and classy rooms at Kiman Hotel, and Hoi An Backpackers Hostel. Two excellent-value mid-range places to stay are Lasenta Boutique and Hoi An Waterway. For luxury it’s hard to beat the Anantara or Victoria Beach Resort. Besides these recommendations there are hundreds more to choose from, which you can browse here.
Funtastic Beach Hostel is a great budget option by the sea, just 5 minutes from Danang city. Stay Hotel offers good mid-range value, with neat rooms, good views and a pool. The Novotel Danang is very swish and modern with incredible views over the city and sea. Or to really splash out, head to the Intercontinental Sun Peninsular Resort on the Son Tra headland, which is another world of luxury.
Hue Backpacker Hostel is as cheap as they come, and offers all the familiar characteristics of a budget, dorm-based hostel. Villa Hue is fabulous mid-range accommodation with lots of style and charm. The Pilgrimage, just outside the city, is also excellent. The most famous high-end option is the colonial-era La Residence, occupying a prime location by the riverside.
On the Route:
In many of the small towns along the route, you’ll find nhà nghỉ (local guesthouses), which offer cheap rooms for a night on the road, particularly around Lang Co and Chan May Beach. Budget travellers can spend a night under canvas at Canh Duong Beach Camping or Tan Canh Guesthouse, for example, both on Chan May Bay. But there are also some luxury accommodations along the coastal route which you can stop at for a night or two to break the journey. After Lang Co there are several ultra luxurious resorts spread along the coast, including the Bayan Tree and Angsana. Further down the road, near Phu Loc village, Verdana Lagoon Resort is very good for a night of affordable luxury in a very atmospheric position.