Traversing Vietnam By Motorbike: Day 8 – Hoi An to Hue – the Hoi Van Pass and Backroads to Hue
Distance: 172km (106 miles)
Bike Condition: still moving forward
Driver Condition: refreshingly chilled
Channeling Top Gear’s Vietnam special (Season 12, Episode 8), this morning we set off from Hoi An heading northward to Hue (pronounced Hway) via the Hai Van Pass. The Hai Van Pass is one of the most spectacular coastal roads in all of Vietnam, and while the weather was a bit overcast and gloomy, it didn’t detract from the phenomenal coastal views along what Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson aptly referred to as “a deserted ribbon of perfection – one of the best coast roads in the world”.
En route to the pass, we passed through the city of Danang, where we took a brief detour to visit the giant Lady Buddha and also stopped by the river for some pictures of the famous Dragon Bridge.
From Danang, it was into the mountains, curving our way upward along the 21km Hai Van Pass, which climbs through the coastal spur of the Truong San (Annamite) mountain range that runs the length of Vietnam. The roadway curved up switchbacks past stunning coastal views over the South China Sea, through soaring forest-covered cliffsides, and around thrilling hairpin turns en route to the top of the pass, shrouded in mist on this overcast day. The cloudy mist was fitting, as the name of the pass translates roughly to “sea cloud” or pass of “ocean mist”. For the first time on this trip, there was a chill in the air!
The pass once formed the boundary between the ancient Dai Viet (great Viet) kingdom of the north and the Champa kingdom of the south. The pass sheltered the Cham from the strong, cold “Chinese winds” and storms from the north, a natural climate boundary that greatly enticed the Dai Viet, who would eventually overcome their southern neighbors and claim the sunny side of the pass for themselves.
In addition to serving as a natural boundary for kingdoms and climate, the pass was also an important feature on the wartime landscape, seeing its share of battles and bloodshed. Amidst the ruins at the top of the pass are gun towers used as lookouts by the French, South Vietnamese, and Americans during the wars from 1946 to 1975.
After stopping at the top of the pass for a few photos, we were cruising down the other side through more switchbacks, hairpin turns, and remarkable scenery. Not too far down the road after leaving the mountains, we took a detour to the “Elephant Springs”. I had thought this would be a natural sight of waterfalls or something of the like… and it kind of was, though the area of small waterfalls and natural pools had been turned into one large natural waterpark. Ha! Actually it looked pretty fun, and had it been any other of the VERY hot days on our motorbiking road trip, we probably would have jumped into the water in a heartbeat. Though as the first overcast and not terribly hot day, with a bit of driving left before us, we only stayed briefly, watching the families and kids jumping and sliding down natural rock slides into the water and splashing in the pools and waterfalls, before getting back to Ruby Toots and John Cena (our bikes, for those who are just tuning in) and heading down the road.
And head down the road we did, though we didn’t make it very far. Shawn’s exhaust was leaking again, so we stopped by a mechanic to take care of that and a few other fixes… typical day in the life of motorbiking the Nam.
Back on our bikes, for the rest of our journey into Hue, we detoured off the main highway, taking a more scenic route along smaller countryside roads. The first third of this route was spectacularly beautiful, with rice paddies abutting rolling hillsides and coastal estuary, tree-lined roadways, and farmers working in the fields and along the roads. Towns were lined with Vietnam’s flag hanging from every house and shop, and the roadways were busy with life.
Unfortunately, after this first bit, the remainder of the drive was mostly overcome with roadway work and not as exciting. The air was cool and beginning to feel quite saturated, with occasional drops of rain. Luckily, we cruised through the backroads and into the southern side of Hue without the skies opening up. Finally arriving, we did what we do best in Vietnam: find a good meal, tucking into some traditional dishes of Hue. Tomorrow we’re taking another rest day to explore (and eat) our way through Hue.