The Hai Van Pass
What we say:
I always feel a bit embarrassed saying this, but that bloody Top Gear Vietnam special a few years back was the final nail in the coffin for a comfortable life back in good ol’ Blighty. Seeing the cast struggle with the Hai Van Pass also put achieving it on the top of my must-do list and I have now: six times to be exact, and I’d do it again at the drop of a hat.
The Hai Van Pass is “a deserted ribbon of perfection”. Every 90 degree corner unveils even more spectacular views as you progress, and since they opened a tunnel so that local commuters could bypass it, you pretty much get the whole thing to yourself – save the stop-off point at the top where you will always find about 50 coaches and hoards of Vietnamese climbing on pill boxes, striking a pose with the obligatory victory sign and snapping away on their iPhones. I have no idea how they get there! From Hoi An it’s a 55 kilometre trip, which apparently you can do in two hours if you don’t stop.
So far I have taken this route perched on the back of an old Honda Win with Eddie Murphy — an Easy Rider plucked off the streets of Nha Trang — as well as on a Russian Minsk courtesy of western-run Hoi An Motorbike Adventures, in a private car (not so much fun), on the train from Hue to Da Nang and most recently by $4 hired scooter with a bunch of friends. Oh and I did it by US Army Jeep, which was awesome. From Hoi An, the Hai Van Pass is a daytrip that’s not so difficult to negotiate on your own. Just pop yourself on the coastal road to Da Nang, nip off on highway one, over the new bridge, past Red Beach, follow the road round to the left, hang a right and there it is.
If you’re into huge mental challenges and want to eat lizard heads and pig intestines you can’t go wrong with an Easy Rider, which is what we got with Eddie Murphy. Eddie sadly lacked in local knowledge — maybe because he was from Nha Trang — but more than made up for it by being unnervingly forward with the locals, getting us invitations for rice wine power drinking and helping with the rice harvesting.
With Hoi An Motorbike Adventures it was all about the ride. They’ll show you some pretty amazing things, which they back up with stories they have picked up from locals, throwing in some interesting war history — the Hai Van Pass was a military check point and look out after all.
Most privately hired cars don’t like to do the Hai Van Pass. I’m not sure why exactly, but I think it has something to do with the fact these drivers learn to drive motorbikes, then when put in a car they stick with either first or fourth gear; usually fourth on the way up and first on the way down. Most drivers only speak a little English — if they spoke any more they would be tour guides — so if you want air-con and information you need to take a guide with you as well as your driver.
The Jeep was a tour led by Looking Glass Jeep Tours. If you are looking to increase your knowledge of the war, these are your guys. If you can fit her in, ask for Tam, a Vietnamese woman who worked with the Americans during the conflict, to ride along with you. She and both tour leaders, Canadian Jeremy and English Neil, can take you to largely unvisited war sites and have an uncanny knack of locating firing zones — I came back with bullets. They also do a lot of tours for war veterans. If Tam can’t come with you you can always get the guys to stop off at her Surf Café near the beach in Da Nang, where she makes a mean burger; her walls are filled with photos past and present of the American soldiers she served alongside. Tam is one very cool lady.
From the train, you weave in and out of the Hai Van Pass, the stunning coastline and East Sea to one side and the jungle roads to the other. You miss out on the stops and the waterfalls, of course, but it’s still better than a car. I can recommend the guide below.
If you want the most memorable adventure, an incredible journey, fabulous views, to learn a little about the war or to buy a fabulous pearl necklace at the coach stop, I can’t think of a better way to do this in one day than along the Hai Van Pass.
Hoi An Motorbike Adventures
54A Phan Chau Trinh St, Hoi An
T: (84) 05103 991930
Looking Glass Jeep Tours
T: (84) 01229 788981
Easy Riders, Car and Train Booking Office
Diem Diem Travel
55 Tran Hung Doa St, Hoi An
T: (84) 01503 861477
Guide Phan Loc
T: (84) 0903 596 560 / (84) 05113 750632
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