HCMC Dining Guide

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Where Clouds Meet Ocean

The Hai Van Pass was one of the few well-known locations in Vietnam that I hadn't been to yet. The pass traverses the eastern end of the Annamite mountains, where lush, steep hills drop right into the East Sea. These mountains separate the dramatically different climates of northern and southern Vietnam; therefore the area is often shrouded in mist and low clouds. In English, Hai Van translates into "ocean cloud pass". The pass was the dividing line between the ancient Champa and Dai Viet empires; today it serves as the border between Da Nang and Thua Tien-Hue provinces.

The highlight of Hai Van is the 21km road that winds its way up and down the mountains. (The national railway also crosses the pass, hugging the coast the whole time in what must be a spectacular ride.) If you've seen the Top Gear Vietnam special, this is the road they fawned over halfway through the episode. The pass used to be extremely dangerous, as this was the only road connecting Hue and Da Nang, meaning everything from 18-wheelers and tour buses to motorbikes and bicycles used it. Luckily the opening of the Hai Van tunnel in 2005 took almost all large traffic off the pass, turning it into a motorbike's dream. I've already driven the Ma Li Peng pass, one of the most stunning in the world, way up in Ha Giang province, but I still wanted to see what all the fuss was about at Hai Van.

Our van driver found a place where we could rent motos in Da Nang, and as we waited for our bikes a fighter jet roared overhead and out to sea. I had never seen a military plane in Vietnam before - I assume it was flying out to patrol over the disputed island chains in the East Sea that are at the heart of the strained Vietnam-China relations.

With the bikes ready to go, Thinh, Jacqui and I headed north through the city, the cloud-topped mountains looming up ahead. We reached the beginning of the pass and began zigging and zagging our way up, the road following the curves of the geography. Climbing quickly, we were afforded expansive views of Da Nang's skyline, the East Sea, and other sections of the pass. The temperature began to drop, and after a few exhilarating hairpin turns, we were suddenly at the summit.

south towards Da Nang
zoom zoom
The view north looked over Lao Cai and the road down as it sliced through the mountains. An old, bullet-scarred French garrison sits at the top of the pass, along with a string of shops hawking drinks and useless knick-knacks to tourists. A stiff breeze blew through the opening in the pass, and the weather divide between the two halves of the country was distinct: thin clouds struggling to keep sunlight at bay to the south; a number of ominous dark clouds to the north. We scrambled around the ruins of the fort (where a couple was posing for cliched, but admittedly spectactular, wedding photos) for a bit before getting back on the bikes to head down the other side of Hai Van towards Hue.
looking north towards Lao Cai

bullet holes
view from a pillbox
This was an absolute blast, as we rocketed back down to sea level, carving up plenty of tight curves along the way. With the exception of a few cars and bikes we had the road to ourselves and could open the throttle with little concern. (I should also mention the fuel trucks - since flammable materials aren't allowed in the tunnel, the only trucks you see on the pass are those transporting gasoline and fuel tanks. Exactly the sort of vehicles you want to run into at high speed.) In no time we were spat out at the bottom of the pass, where we rejoined the bus and truck traffic on Highway 1 and stopped in Lao Cai for lunch. Hai Van can't compare to Ha Giang in terms of sheer beauty (few places can), but the drive is phenomenal, and lives up to the hype.
a happy camper

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