The Hai Van Pass is a 20-kilometre strip of road that joins the city of Da Nang and Lang Co in Hue Province. At 500 metres above sea level, it’s the highest pass in the whole of Vietnam.
As the road curves back and forth, some slight bends, some hairpin turns, drivers are rewarded with spectacular views of misty mountains rising high over the South China Sea, deserted sandy beaches, forests and the twinkling lights of far-off cities.
The road has been called a “ribbon of perfection” and was dubbed one of the “best coastal roads in the world” by the UK program, Top Gear, in their Vietnam Special (2008). Since the episode aired and the road’s fame escalated, thousands of backpackers have been going out of their way to experience the road and see what the fuss is all about! Have a watch of the Top Gear episode which features the Hai Van Pass below…
Hai Van Pass – History
Hai Van roughly translates as ‘Sea of Clouds’ in Vietnamese, which perfectly describes this misty mountain coastal road which connects the ocean with the sky.
The history of the road dates back to the 1300s when it marked a physical boundary between the Champa and Dai Viet Kingdoms. To this day, you can see an ancient grand gate at the summit of the pass which used to be a border crossing between the kingdoms.
Today, the road still represents a division between two distinct sides to Vietnam. Many travellers who backpack the length of the country say that the north and south of the country have very different personalities, as well as climatic differences. The north being colder, more industrial and more serious, while the south is warmer, more tropical and the people are often said to be more laid-back. The Hai Van Pass is the point at which these two worlds meet.
During the Vietnamese-American War, the Hai Van Pass was referred to as the ‘Street Without Joy’ as it connected the two war-ravaged cities of Hue and Da Nang along Highway 1.
Once upon a time, the road was the only thoroughfare connecting the city of Da Nang with Hue a few hours north. When the Hai Van Tunnel was built in 2005 (now the longest tunnel in Southeast Asia) much of the traffic from the pass redirected to the shorter and considerably less windy route! Today, the road exists as a scenic alternative. Free of lorries and other heavy vehicles, the quiet road is enjoyed by tourists who come to experience the road by motorbike, jeep or even bicycle!
What’s the best way to ride the Hai Van Pass?
As a backpacker, there are several ways to experience the Hai Van Pass…
Hire/Buy a Motorbike and Ride The Hai Van Pass Yourself
If you’re an experienced motorbike rider then surely this is the best way to experience Vietnam’s best coastal road! With two wheels on the tarmac, the wind in your hair and the ability to stop wherever and whenever you want, this is freedom at it’s best!
A Hai Van Pass Jeep Tour
Those nervous of riding a motorbike on those crazy Vietnamese roads (for good reason!), might like to opt for a Hai Van Pass Jeep Tour. Travelling by jeep with a group of friends is often cheaper than a motorbike tour (see below). The advantages of this are the added comfort of being in an actual seat, as well as the fresh air on your face and the camaraderie you’ll experience with fellow road-trippers! If you’d prefer to sit back and relax, have a laugh while taking in the views, the Hai Van Pass this option is for you! We’d recommend the tour offered by the company Road Trippers who offer a safe and fun experience. Cost = Approx. $65 USD.
A Hai Van Pass Motorbike Tour
One of the most popular ways to experience the road is on a Hai Van Pass Motorbike Tour with a local adventure company. The great thing about these motorbike tours is that you can use them as a way to get yourself and your luggage from Hue to Hoi An, and vice versa. As you see the sights by motorbike, your backpack is carried safely in a jeep and will meet you at the other end.
Hoi An Motorbike Adventures offer one-day motorbike trips for backpackers to experience the Hai Van Pass. On these very popular tours, you can either ride pillion (on the back of a bike with an experienced rider) or you can opt to ride the motorbike yourself. You’ll have a tour guide with you along the way who will show you interesting historical sites, hidden viewpoints and explain about the history of the road. Cost = Approx. $95 USD.
We sent two of our ambassadors, Rosie and Hannah, off on a Hai Van Pass Motorbike Tour with Hoi An Motorbike Adventures that began in the ancient city of Hue and finished some hours later, and 120 kilometres further South, in the city of Hoi An. The tour was called the Hai Van Pass & Coast Tour. They decided to ride pillion, letting an experienced Vietnamese driver do the hard work while they relaxed, took in the splendid views and snapped photos along the way…
Here’s what they had to say about the experience!
Hai Van Pass Tour – By Motorbike
Review by Rosie Davies.
The English speaking Vietnamese guide arrived at our hostel and introduced himself and the two experienced motorbike drivers we’d be riding with. We hopped on the back of the motorbikes once our bags had been transferred to the company’s jeep that was also making its way south to Hoi An.
The adventure starts out of the busy city of Hue and heads down the smaller village roads on the outskirts of the city. The first leg of the journey passes through the ‘City of Ghosts’, an eerie stretch of road lined by numerous elaborate graveyards. After passing through this somewhat unconventional cemetery, we stopped off at a duck farm for a short while, a good excuse to shake our legs off and snap some photos of the local farming scenery.
At this stop, the tour guide explained to us a local culture and traditions, and he welcomed us to request to pull over if there was anything that we’d like to know more information about or take a photo of.
After another short stint on the bike, we pulled over for a coffee break (all the food and drink breaks are included in the price of the tour). Following this break, we headed closer to the coast and passed Southeast Asia’s largest saltwater lake, Dam Cau Hai or Cau Hai Lagoon, in the process – a perfect photo opportunity!
This is where the scenery became truly incredible as we ducked in and out of small villages and back onto coastal roads. After a short while, we were presented with what appeared to be a small beach. The skilled drivers navigated the sandy terrain well, however for the novice driver this could be incredibly difficult! The wet sand closer to the water’s edge provided for better riding. As we reached this surface, the beach opened up and we caught our first glimpse of the beautiful stretches of white sand!
We expected the drivers to pull up here, however, they carried on driving alongside the water, providing a truly unique experience. We were both beaming when we eventually pulled over at a little beach restaurant. After ordering a couple of dishes, including fresh seafood, we quickly ran into the sea for a dip!
Once we’d finished off our lunch and drinks we hopped back on the bikes and rode towards the beginning of the Hai Van mountain pass. This is the moment we’d been waiting for.
The road quickly began to climb and the traffic increased with motorbikes, cars and buses fighting to overtake each other. We pulled over at a number of viewpoints to take photos and then continued along the pass.
The view improves greatly as you ascend higher, this is where riding pillion really is beneficial. The thrill of weaving in and out of the traffic against one of the most impressive backdrops is something that will stay ingrained in our memories forever.
As we approached the summit of the famous Hai Van Pass it became incredibly busy – expect lots of restaurants and tourists!
Don’t let this put you off exploring the remaining land divide though, separating the south and the north during the American-Vietnamese War. Our guide had a wealth of knowledge on the history of this structure and alerted us to the bullet holes that remained intact in some of the walls!
Stood right on the top of the summit, at this historical spot, we enjoyed a breathtaking view to both the north and the south of Vietnam. Here, we could already see the city of Da Nang in the distance, which we later drove through.
Having reached the halfway point, of our journey and of the country as a whole, it was time to get back on the bikes and head south!
From now on, the road now hugged the coast more noticeably than before. We were tempted to ask our driver to pull over every five minutes whilst cruising down this road to try and get a good scenic shot! There are a few concrete ledges that lend themselves to this purpose perfectly, so look out for those if you end up doing the trip yourself.
As we got closer to sea level, the skyline of Da Nang became more prominent and the crazy traffic that Vietnam is so infamous for, once again increased as it approached rush hour.
The city of Da Nang is known as the city of bridges due to its vast number and different designs. One of the most impressive bridges that we had to cross during our journey was the Dragon Bridge. Named for its mythical design, the bridge is believed to bestow luck on all of those who pass over it. And if you’re passing through on a weekend, its fire-breathing show occurs every Saturday and Sunday at 8 pm!
The experience of the guide and drivers once again shone through as they navigated the frantic city, and then the complex routes of countryside paths exiting Da Nang!
The destination we were headed to was the colonial UNESCO World Heritage city of Hoi An, is known for its pleasant climate and colourful buildings.
As soon as we entered its surrounding countryside, we could notice the more favourable climate. It made for a memorable last leg of the journey as we zipped along sandy paths lined by lush rice paddies either side!
By this point of the tour, we were suffering from a slightly numb lower half so we were trying our best to have a wiggle about every couple of minutes, without wiggling the motorbike! However, it was another half an hour or so to our destination.
You know you’ve entered the beautiful Hoi An from your first sight of a hanging lantern, something the city is famous for. We were lucky enough to find the sun had nearly set as we saw our first lantern, making it that bit extra special! The tour concluded by dropping us off right at the door of our hostel, Hoi An Backpackers Hostel, with our bags already waiting for us!
Hai Van Pass Motorbike Tour: The Verdict
Our Hai Van Pass Motorbike Tour really made the experience a stress-free and insightful day that neither of us will ever forget. If you’re confident enough and like the thrill of navigating Vietnamese roads then definitely consider hiring the motorbike yourself!
However, for us non-riders, the pillion experience was perfect. It allowed us to admire the unbelievable surroundings without having to worry about your safety and crashing into the other vehicles around you. To top off the experience, our beach drive and subsequent seafood lunch was something we never would have experienced ourselves.
The company we did the ride with, Hoi An Motorbike Adventures, comes highly recommended and sets the standard incredibly high for Hai Van Pass Tours. Towards the end of a tour or experience, we often challenge ourselves to consider what else a backpacker may want from an experience and where it could be improved. With this tour, it was impossible to suggest improvements, as the service provided was flawless from start to finish. It’s not often that we struggle to think of any missing elements but this tour really did have it all!
Book the Hai Van Pass Motorbike Tour here! (Fully refundable)