The Hai Van Pass: 19 kilometres of roadway that winds up and over a fortress of mountains, connecting Da Nang with the town of Lang Co in Hue province. Popularised by the BBC TV programme Top Gear, travellers armed with selfie sticks now come in droves to tackle the route and soak in breathtaking views of the mountain and coast.
Top Gear presenters called the Hai Van Pass "a deserted ribbon of perfection, one of the best coast roads in the world". And while we think that the Vinh Hy-Binh Tien Pass could also be in the running for the title, there's no denying that the Hai Van is memorable must-do.
Until the Hai Van tunnel opened in 2005, the Hai Van Pass was the only route vehicles could take to go north or south in this region. As you can imagine, the winding mountain journey reaching 496 metres altitude was a treacherous one for trucks and buses. But with the tunnel (6.2 kilometres long, the longest in Southeast Asia), most traffic now bypasses the pass, making it a great ride for those on motorbike or diehard cyclists -- you literally need to be hard-to-die because it is a strenuous challenge. Doing it under your own steam can be downright brutal on the hottest days.
You'll want to rent a motorbike in good condition or the best bicycle you can find with gears. Gradient can exceed 10% and except for one tourist rest stop, no other infrastructure exists along the pass. From Da Nang, get yourself to Highway 1A. The most pleasant way is to drive north along the coastal road Ngueyn Tat Thanh, then when it ends, Highway 1A is only a block away. Drive north on Highway 1A, crossing the bridge over the Cu De River. After the bridge the junction is 700 metres -- turn left for the tunnel, continue straight for the Hai Van Pass.
The best time to do it is during the hot, dry season from around April to October. November to March is cold and wet, and the weather around these mountains can be downright miserable and conditions riskier. During this time it's best to be flexible, waiting to pounce on a dry spell. Also be mindful that large transport trucks still use the route since vehicles carrying chemicals or livestock are not allowed in the tunnel.
At the north end of the pass, just as you arrive down to Lang Co, there is a breathtaking spot overlooking the town, beach, bridge and where the sea feeds into a massive lagoon, which is worth taking a spin around. We definitely recommend spending some time exploring the beaches and countryside around Lang Co, as well as enjoying some seafood.
All the Easy Rider-type tour companies in Hoi An and Da Nang offer this trip. If you're arriving into either city on a multiday Easy-Rider tour, say from Nha Trang or Da Lat, it is usually included. Go full hog with a heavy duty motorcycle or try something fun like going up on the back of a Vespa with Vespa Adventures. (Price, for instance, for full day "Hai Van Pass & Coastal Adventure" is $169 per person.) The motorbike tour scene is always shifting so ask other travellers for referrals as close as possible to your trip. We have previously reviewed Hoi An Motorbike Adventures and found them to be overall recommendable, showing guests some pretty amazing things, which they enrich with stories picked up from locals and interesting war history. (Price is $175 per person per day.)
Another flashy way is with Looking Glass Jeep Tours. If you are looking to increase your knowledge of the war, these are your guys, and they do a lot of trips with veterans. Ask for Tam, a Vietnamese woman who worked with the Americans during the conflict, to ride along with you. She and the tour leaders can take you to under-visited war sites. Even if Tam can't come along, book at her cafe, Tam's Pub and Surf Shop, near the beach in Da Nang, which has a mean burger and walls filled with photos past and present of the American soldiers she served alongside. Tam is one very cool lady. (Price is $340 per Jeep per day.)
Most privately hired cars don't like to do the Hai Van Pass, but of course it can still be arranged. Drivers speak little or no English -- if they spoke any more they would be tour guides -- so for air-con and information, you need to hire both a driver and a guide.
The Hai Van is a memorable journey. You won't soon forget those fabulous views and what you learned about the war.
Hoi An Motorbike Adventures: 111 Ba Trieu St, Hoi An; T: (0510) 3911 930; email@example.com.
Looking Glass Jeep Tours: Tam's Pub and Surf Shop at 38 An Thuong 5, Bac My An Beach, Da Nang; T: 01204) 409 665; (01229) 788 981; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vespa Adventures: 134 Tran Cao Van, Hoi An; T: (012) 2299 3585; (093) 850 0997; email@example.com
By Cindy Fan
Last updated on 21st June, 2016.