A very famous road exists in Central Vietnam … a road made famous by Top Gear Vietnam special … a road between Hoi An (or Danang) and Hue that crosses one of Vietnam’s most scenic mountain passes – the Hai Van Pass.
The drive through the winding mountain road of Hai Van pass stretches for ~21 km and its highest point reaches 496 m.
If you are comfortable driving a motorbike (a 110-125 ccm scooter is fine) and are in Hoi An, Danang or Hue you should definitely do the Hai Van Pass. There is little traffic (most of regular traffic goes through the tunnel beneath it), the views are great and it seems as if it was made to be driven by motorbike.
If you don’t want to go all the way from Hoi An to Hue (or Hue to Hoi An), you could just go to and over the pass and then head back to where you came from (through the tunnel beneath the pass if you are in a hurry). The Hai Van Pass is ~29 km away from Danang, ~56 km away from Hoi An and ~78 km away from Hue.
Possible options to experience the Hai Van Pass
- By car (it seems that the widely available tours with military jeeps are popular)
- On a train (the Ho Chi Minh – Hanoi line goes over the Hai Van Pass)
- With a motorbike (the best way to do it)
If you want to do it by motorbike there are a few options.
- Doing it as part of a guided tour (where you drive the motorbike with a guide and possibly a group of other riders). This should cost around 70 USD.
- Driving it on your own (just rent a bike and go).
- Or with an “Easy rider” if you are not comfortable driving a motorbike on your own. A driver will take you on the back of a motorbike and that means that you can really enjoy the views, because you don’t need to constantly look at the road. This should cost around 40 USD and is widely available in agencies around Hoi An.
I’ve decided to rent a motorbike and do it on my own. One thing that would be different this time is that I’d rent it in Hoi An and leave it in Hue. This costs 15 USD and includes the transport of your (big) bag to your hotel in Hue or their office (if you have no hotel reservation).
If you return to where you rented the motorbike the cost of rent is the usual 3-5 USD (per day).
The road to Hue
The distance between Hoi An and Hue is ~135 km and the whole trip requires ~4 hours of driving, but there are quite a few possible stops (and views) on the way, so you should leave as early as possible and plan the whole day for it.
Try to avoid driving at night. Especially the last part of the trip (after the Hai Van Pass) is very tricky and dangerous. You ride on the main highway, with many buses and trucks constantly overtaking each other, constant road work (that means two way traffic on one lane!), dust, potholes … and the, khm, “different” driving of the Vietnamese.
One thing I would really advise is to get a helmet with a visor or bring some other eye protection (possibly other than sunglasses, which are not usable at night). In the late afternoon there’s lots of bugs in the air and a lot of dust in the last part of the journey. The visors on the rental helmets are usually in very bad condition and while usable at daytime, they are completely useless at night, when headlights of oncoming traffic look like big light stains and you can’t see nothing. Also bring a bandana (or a face mask which you can buy everywhere) to cover your mouth and nose so you don’t breathe all the dust.
The Hai Van Pass
As soon as the road starts ascending you start to feel the excitement … and just after the first few turns the first views of the sea below appear and bring a smile to your face.
And then there’s the dilemma – it’s so much fun driving through all the turns that it’s very hard to stop to enjoy the views and take some pictures … but you really should, right? And what’s worse is that every turn brings a better, different view and you could be stopping too frequently … but that way, you can’t really enjoy the ride.
Anyway, the weather made my choice easier. It was quite grey and the top was covered in fog – no good pictures for me – so I just enjoyed the ride.
The weather here can be tricky – there is a very high chance of thick fog on top (especially in the rainy, winter season), so you have to be lucky. Check the weather before you go. I had waited in Hoi An for two days because it was rainy and unstable and went as soon as there was some sun in the morning, but unfortunately the pass was still foggy and grey.
But when you fall into the rhythm, turn by turn, overtaking an occasional slow truck on the way (that probably wants to save on the toll for the tunnel), you reach the top of the pass too soon.
There’s a lot of (lady) sellers on the top of the pass and a lot of blogs will tell you not to stop at the top because of that, but I didn’t find them too annoying. Sure, they are quite persistent and if you go walking around the bunkers on top they’ll start walking with you and start asking all the typical questions: “Where you from?”, “What’s your name?”, “How old are you? …”, “Are you married?” … but they somehow always leave me alone very quickly. I guess they see the “You’re wasting your time” look on my face.
One more thing – everybody parks on top of the pass and walks around the bunkers, so I did the same. There is a very steep small “road” leading to the top of the pass and I automatically thought you that you can’t drive up, but after 10-15 minutes of walking up three motorbikes passed by me and I just ran down and drove up too. There’s a great view of both sides of the pass from up top, so be sure to go and don’t waste your time walking.
Sights on the way
Marble Mountain is first, just ~20 minutes out of Hoi An. A nice stop with many caves with Buddha statues and temples. The biggest (last) cave is especially impressive, so if you are limited with time, just skip the small ones and go there directly.
You can park your motorbike in front of one of the marble shops for free, but you’ll have to go in when you return and say “no thank you” a few times.
Admission fee is 30.000 VND and you have to walk 156 stairs. You can also use an elevator – I don’t really know how much that costs and the walk is so short that it would be a crime to not walk the stairs.
I took too much time on Marble Mountain, one of the reasons being that there were so many people there, that I constantly had to wait to get a clean picture (or multiple pictures, so I could easily remove them later).
Next possible stop (after the Hai Van Pass) is Elephant springs, where you can cool yourself with a swim. I didn’t go, because it was not really too hot and I was a bit late. Also plan at least one stop for food on the way (many eateries after the Hai Van Pass).
You’ll also be driving along a long stretch of coast before the Hai Van pass, so it’s possible to stop anywhere to refresh yourself in the sea. Again, this was not possible for me because the seas in October are pretty rough.
Arriving to Hue
When I finally arrived to Hue (at 18:30) I was greeted by the first Hue hawker. On my first stop on the red traffic light (!) a guy on a motorbike stopped besides me and started his pitch: “What you want?”, “Where you goin’?”, “Marihuana? Lady? Boom Boom?” … it seemed funny, but little did I know that this is the national sport here. After getting a shower and going for a walk, some food and a beer it quickly got quite annoying. Every second person stopped and gave me the same “Marihuana? Beautiful lady? Boom boom?” … “What you want? Tell me, what you want?”. And they just didn’t seem to understand what “no thank you” and “no” means. And the worst part? After you manage to get rid of one the next one pops along. Lesson learned: don’t walk around Hue (alone) at night, ride a motorbike or take a motorbike taxi (and even those will probably give you the pitch).