Motorbiking Along The Hai Van Pass: A Travel Journal By Daniel Deacon
It’s 8.20 am on Monday morning. My bike has arrived before my breakfast even appears, and the rider is strapping my backpack onto his bike already. I’m a little disconcerted because the bike looks tiny, and I had visions of it being Harley-style machine with a comfortable back seat.
Today I’m riding on a motorbike from Hoi An to Hue. The route is about 180 km (111 miles), passing through the city of Da Nang and snaking over the Hai Van Pass. The pass was made famous when in the 2009 Top Gear Vietnam Special, and travel companies advertise it as the Top Gear Tour or the Top Gear Road. It costs around $58 to ride as a passenger or $35 to ride your own bike.
Our first stop is the Marble Mountains, about 7 kilometres from Da Nang. It’s humid now. We go to the top of Water Mountain, the only one of the five limestone mountains that it’s possible to climb. At the top are pagodas and temples and shrines. To get there I climb up through a cave. The hole at the top that we must exit through is tiny, and the stairs and footholds are small and slippery, but the view from the top makes the heat and the struggle worth it.
Back on the bike. We stop in Da Nang to take pictures with the lady buddha in the background before continuing on to the Hai Van pass - a steep, winding route across the mountains that peaks at 500 metres above sea level. The name translates as ocean (hai) cloud (van), and true to its name it is shrouded in clouds as we climb up. Goats trot along the roads, a huge tanker thunders past and we see the Reunification Express train snaking along the valley. The views across the ocean and the mountains are simply stunning.
The French army used these mountains as a strategic fortress since they cross the narrow waist of Vietnam through the centre of the country. During the war the Americans took them over. The ocean is on one side, the road snaking back down to the other in a series of sharp hairpins and cutting through steep and lush jungles.
We come to the Elephant Springs. This is a spring that flows down the mountainside and into a five meter-deep well. The rocks down to the water are slippery, and locals are diving from a rock perched high above the well. The water looks so inviting and it is so good to cool off after the sweatiness of the Marble Mountains.
Our final stop is a fishing village about 40 kilometres from Hue. We learn how the locals lived only on the boats until 15 years ago, selling their catch at a local market. The government gave them free land and they built houses along the shore. Interestingly, the boats are made out of sheets of aluminium left behind by the Americans, and more than 40 years later they are still intact and still in daily use. ‘Hello! Hello! Hello!’ yell inquisitive children in the house behind us. Now that the inhabitants have more wealth the kids can go to school, which is something they didn’t get to do twenty years ago.
I arrive in Hue as the sun goes down. The whole journey has been smooth, and my rider has been very conscientious. I never once felt unsafe, despite my initial wobbles. It’s been a long day - around ten hours in all - but one of the most exhilarating I’ve ever had.