Hai Van Pass - Top Gear style

June 09, 2014 | 08:24
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If you’re looking for adventure, stunning coastal views or simply need to escape the chaos of the city and explore Vietnam’s beautiful countryside, then the Hai Van Pass is a must on any itinerary of Vietnam.

Our day began early, in true Vietnamese style, sipping on a strong black coffee with condensed milk and slurping on a delicious bowl of fragrant Pho Ga, that’s chicken noodle soup to you and I.

As we put down our chopsticks and tipped the bowls to finish off the last of our breakfast, our minds turned to the epic journey ahead.

Bike companions Niall O’Connor and Tom Adams on the road

Inspired by the BBC Top Gear ‘Vietnam special’ and the lure of the open road, we hired two Yamaha Nouvos. With a full tank of petrol and plenty of sun screen, we set off from Phu Bai airport on the first leg of our journey, even at 9.30 in the morning the heat of the sun was intense.

Full of anticipation and excitement it wasn’t long until we crossed over the famous Perfume River and into the old imperial capital of Hue (1802-1945). The walls and gates of the old citadel are very impressive and immediately give rise to its rich ancient past and status as a UNESCO world heritage site.

The sprawling complex of the Imperial Citadel is Hue’s main attraction with temples, pavilions, moats, walls, gates and courtyards dating back thousands of years. We drove around the old city walls and briefly stopped to take a few photos.

Vietnamese women in traditional dress( Ao Dai) in front of the old citadel in Hue

We were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a group of Vietnamese women elegantly dressed in the traditional Vietnamese dress of Hue, a striking, purple, full-length silk dress ‘Ao Dai’ with white pants.

I would have liked to have stayed longer in Hue and explored more of this compact city, but unfortunately on this occasion we did not have the luxury of time. With a long drive ahead we had to hit the road.

We opted to take the slower, more scenic, peninsular road from Hue to the Hai Van Pass, avoiding the main highway full of trucks and buses. With our trusty map and a few stops for directions, we navigated our way through the streets of Hue. Something which struck us all was how much wider and more spacious the streets were compared to Hanoi and how little beeping of horns there was.

We soon reached the countryside, the roads became narrower, dustier and much quieter it was just us and the open road stretching as far into the distance as the eye could see. We passed through rice fields, farm land and lakes with fishermen in round boats, there were occasional glimpses of the sea as we passed through tiny villages, dotted with colourful temples, schools and huge graveyards.  The land was very flat but all the while in the distance we could make out the silhouetted mountains of the Hai Van Pass.

Niall O’Connor admires the views at the top of the Hai Van Pass

By noon the phrase ‘Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’ sprang to mind, there was barely another moped on the road and in the villages the only people we saw were locals, napping in hammocks or drinking iced coffee in the shade.

We stopped at a road-side cafe where two local women ushered us to sit down at a low table with plastic chairs in the shade. The younger woman got us a cold can of coke each and the older lady dished us up three bowls of home-made beef noodle soup, from a large cooking pot, accompanied by a mountain of fresh herbs.

Over lunch we remarked that since we left Hue we had not seen a single tourist bus or westerner. It felt good to be off the beaten track and in the ‘real’ Vietnamese countryside.

Two hours later, after crossing the main railway line, passing numerous mopeds laden with ducks and stopping for much-needed petrol and ice-cream, we finally reached the foot of the pass.

The Hai Van Pass is an approximately 21 km long mountain pass, connecting the north of Vietnam with the south. It crosses a spur of the larger Annamite Range that juts into the East Sea and is one of the most scenic hillside roads in Vietnam, hence its popularity with travellers and bikers from all over the world.

Winding up the mountain, around sharp hairpin bends, with lush green jungle on one side and breathtaking, panoramic views of the glistening blue sea on the other, it was apparent the long, hot journey had been worth it.

One of the many hairpin bends on the way up the pass

Hai Van means Ocean Cloud in Vietnamese and I can understand why it was so aptly named. You feel like you are up in the clouds and I imagine on a winters’ day you actually would be shrouded in ocean mist and mountain fog.

At the highest point we stopped to admire the view and check out what’s left of the Hai Van gate, an old fortified rampart and gateway built in 1826, as well as an old war bunker.

The Views down the other side were equally, if not more spectacular, with clear blue skies we could see the beaches and the city of Danang stretching out ahead of us and the Cham Islands far in the distance.

With the wind in my hair and the sun on my face I’ve never felt so free. People always say travelling by train is a great way to travel, but I honestly think I prefer the humble scooter, you really feel like you’re interacting with the environment and the elements.

Crossing one of the many bridges in the coastal city of Danang

Passing through Danang I got the feeling it was a vibrant, modern city with wide roads, lots of roundabouts and impressive bridges. I particularly liked the golden dragon bridge, which I have since learnt is lit up at night and breathes fire. It would have been nice to have got off the bikes and spent some time in this beach-side city, but again time was not on our side. Oh well, I guess it’s the perfect excuse to return some day.

We eventually arrived at the rustic ‘Nha Lan’ home stay in Hoi An at about 6pm. Hoi An at night is one of the most peaceful, romantic and magical places I have ever been. Hundreds of glowing lanterns hanging everywhere you look and candles floating down the river, against a backdrop of ancient, ochre-coloured buildings, narrow streets and brightly coloured wooden fishing boats. It really is completely different to anywhere else I have been in Vietnam and a definite must-see.

Lanterns light up Hoi An

Its reputation for outstanding food did not disappoint either. We went to ‘Morning Glory’, one of Hoi An’s finest street food restaurants complete with open kitchen. Just reading the menu teased the taste buds, but when the food arrived it truly was a taste sensation, a complex blend of textures, flavours, fresh herbs, nuts and dipping sauces to die for.

We ordered the fresh spring rolls, Banh Xeo (traditional Hoi An savoury pancakes); pork belly with sticky rice, duck and banana flower salad and mackerel wrapped in banana leaf, and it was all incredible.

Aside from the taste, the thing I enjoy most about Vietnamese cuisine is the culture of sharing and everyone dipping in to every dish on the table. It’s much more communal than food in the UK and means you get to try lots of different dishes.

Dinner was washed down with a few local beers and then we hit the sack with a feeling of contentment and accomplishment.


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