The Quest to Drive the Hai Van Pass

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June 11th 2013
Published: June 14th 2013
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It took us 2 days of hair-raising motorbiking to reach our goal. The Hai Van pass - a 21km long stretch of tarmac that wraps around the green mountains north of Da Nang - had, until earlier today, been nothing more than a distant dream, conceived long ago in a dingy pub back in frosty England. Today, Sam, Sam, Harry and I found that our heavy expectations could not meet the spectacular experience of driving a motorbike on one of the world's most scenic roads. Even Top Gear could not do the road justice. It's the closest to vehicular paradise we may ever get.

The adventure began to feel tangible when we arrived in our base in Hoi An - one of the few remaining ancient cities in Vietnam. Here, we found ourselves surrounded by a more tacky, more wacky version of Saville Row; over 200 tailors ply their trade in the small old town, offering anything from your standard business suit, to ball dresses, winter coats and even shoes. To complete our fantasy, we knew we'd have to tailor a suit that day, for use the next afternoon. We were, afterall, living the Top Gear dream. Thus, we hurriedly dropped off our bags at the budget hotel, limbered up, and headed down the many blocks of roads in search of the cheap, the colourful and the downright bonkers. We found an establishment that suited (if you'll pardon the pun) our needs fairly close to our hotel. For 50 dollars a pop, after haggling, we secured a suitor and began selecting materials. Sam F went for a charming crimson silk garb, with intricate floral needlework to add that extra woomph. Sam T decided on a bold, golden, shiny number with similar sewn details of tiny symbols and flowers. I opted for a white and green silk to complement the other two, this fabric detailed with large green and white leaves. Harry, in his stingy ways, decided against a suit. We chose our linings, were measured up comprehensively in turn, and excitedly handed over the 30 dollar deposit, hoping that in 24 hours we'd be presented with a suit that even Clarkson, May and Hammond might be proud of.

The rest of the evening was spent in nervous anticipation of the day ahead. Though we spent plenty of time looking at pictures and videos of the pass, we never once thought to consult a map. Afterall, it was the famous road off the telly - how hard could it be to find? This error proved to haunt us the following evening, when we found ourselves in the pouring monsoon rain, on a dead-end street, next to a ship-yard that was frequently spitting out convoys of oafish lorries that petrified the 4 of us on our under-powered 'peds.

The suits were fantastic. At 12 noon the following day, we loped into the shop with varied expectations and 20 dollars in our hands that I half-expected not to want to pass over. However, the sight of a gleaming white jacket and green matching trousers hung up against the wall put the end to all doubts, and we didn't stop laughing as they dressed us, made last-minute adjustments and then joined our laughing, taking photos on their own digital camera to show future punters. We bid them a fond farewell, and returned to our hotel - 3 glistening 19-year-old prats in red, gold and green. It was 40 degrees outside, and the silk linings in all our suits were instantly wet. All eyes were on us as we swaggered uncomfortably back to our hotel to sort our bags for the first stage of our journey; tourists took photos while the Vietnamese just pointed and laughed. With this attention we knew we were on to a good thing, so we went to hire some mopeds.

After our prang the previous week, we decided to be much more careful, to the point of sheer whimpishness. I tested all 4 bikes before the others got on, and found them fairly slow, which I assumed meant we'd be safer with less chance of dangerous wrist-slips on the accelerator, or lurching into busy junctions. I mounted the most powerful one as the others clipped their helmets on, and we did a few preliminary laps of our block to get the hang of the bikes before the 40km "first stage" drive to Da Nang. All seemed well, so we got some vague directions and set off with gusto.

The roads were not learner-friendly. Leading the group, my eyes flitted between the rear-view mirrors and the swarming road ahead. It's impossible to portray a standard Vietnam road. However, I may as well give it a go. Bikes shoot out from side roads without looking or indicating, and these bikes take up to 5 people, or 2 chicken hutches rattling on either side, or one huge wobbly metal grate held by the pillion, or other such precarious objects which continually astonish us. The addition of a weaving lunatic on the side of the road has now become the norm, but we to begin with gave them a gigantically wide berth, or stuck behind them timidly until they lurched off at their selected adjacent dirt road. To accompany this, trucks and buses ply the main routes and bully smaller vehicles off the tarmac with blaring horns and brash maneuvers of the sort that led to the Sams' previous fall. We agreed to just stop when they come thundering past - a philosophy in tune with locals as well as tourists. This is not to mention the push bikes, rickshaws and pedestrians that arbitrarily cross the road with deadpan faces in thick traffic, and look aghast when we honked angrily in their vague direction. The accumulation of zig-zagging traffic, juggernaut buses and clueless slow-movers make the roads a complete nightmare, which the novices dealt with extremely well. A Vietnam hazard perception test would mean near-constant clicking that would surely break the mouse. In itself it's an experience not to forget.

Negotiating these endless hazards, we met with a 4-lane highway that was linked to our road by a dusty and flooded avenue. Here, we were finally free of the traffic and could open our bikes up. They could hardly reach 60kph. Still, we made good progress down the dead straight smooth road which eventually led through to the hectic city of Da Nang, where we stopped for a cheap lunch in front of the luminously green mountains that constituted our next destination. The pass was in sight. Our goal was near. Little did we know as we lifted the chopsticks to our mouths, that the very mountain road that we yearned for was nowhere near the one we stared at so vehemently. The Hai Van Pass was another 20km to our left, and we were staring at the long road to the Intercontinental Hotel.

Obviously oblivious to this, we zoomed gleefully towards the giant marble Buddha that marked the beginning of the highway. To our right as we drove was a bare, yellow-sand, turquoise-sea beach that none of us spared more than a glance in the pursuit of the road ahead. We reached the towering marble Buddha, let out some exclamations of excitement and began to climb up the path ahead which afforded impossibly beautiful views down to the private coves, rocky headlands and bamboo fisheries below. The drive was exceptionally scenic. Sam and I were forced to swap bikes after one 10 degree climb - I, the lightest, took control of the most under-powered bike and did my best to force it up the inclines, while Sam sped off on mine. Still we weaved on, passing continually more amazing sights and views as we caressed the bikes up the hills. Then we passed the entrance of the 5-star cliff-top hotel, and the road abruptly stopped; it was replaced by 2 pitifully narrow and bumpy concrete roads which branched off - one uphill, one down. This didn't feature on the Top Gear episode, but it took a long while for it to sink in that we were in the wrong set of mountains.

We tried the uphill option. Two of the severely underpowered bikes nearly stalled on the 20 degree climb, and we sensibly gave up the ghost. The downhill option we followed for a further 20 minutes, but it too became narrower, steeper and more dangerous. Clearly this wasn't the famous mountain pass. We did, after brushing through insect-ridden jungle fringes, reach the road's peak, where we found our peninsula surrounded on all sides by deep blue sea, punctuated with tiny white horses. This is where we reluctantly accepted our error, turned back, and checked our watches to see it was already 4pm. Our dream was perilously close to being lost.

We retraced our tracks down the fantastic road, and asked multiple people for directions to the Hai Van Pass. As has repeatedly frustrated me over the last 4 months, the confused Vietnamese all pointed in totally different directions, and gave different kilometer estimates to boot. The dream slipped further. As a last-ditch attempt to find some tarmac that looked familiar to that of the Top Gear episode we'd watched the previous evening, we revved up a concrete slip road that climbed quickly into the hills to our right. At the top of the path, we saw huge mountains away across the coast. Evidently, this was the Hai Van Pass, another 25km past Da Nang, and out of range for the day's drive. The road we'd followed led nowhere, except into the brewing tropical storm that helpfully opened up just as we turned to go back to Hoi An. The curtain of rain made navigating near-impossible; with our average speed halved, visibility reduced to mere metres and the murderous Vietnamese lorry drivers groaning past us, we made slow and painful progress through wet, rush-hour Da Nang. Shuddering flashes of lightening surrounded us on the horizon, but more worrying was the fleet of motorbikes that we unwittingly joined on what turned out to be one of the city's busiest roads - we reluctantly became part of the infamous Vietnamese 2-wheeled swarm. Sam F's suit, drenched as we all were, was seeping red dye onto the road as we drove. I consider us lucky that it's the only red liquid that escaped our persons on the whirlwind of a road through Da Nang, which passed over a few swirling, dizzying roundabouts which, like a polluted whirlpool of raincoats and mopeds, sucked us in and spat us out violently in our water-logged suits. We did make it out of Da Nang though, and eventually navigated back to our hotel, haunted always by the shatteringly loud bus horns and retina-scorching lightening that kept us perched on the edge of our seats for the rest of the hour-long drive.

Sam's skin was worryingly red once he'd taken his suit off, and his toe nails and scrape wounds continue to hold the now-pink dye. We made quite a sight dripping morosely up the hotel steps with limp jackets hurled over our shoulders. We had been defeated at our first attempt, but resolved to hit Da Nang the next morning, this time armed with a map.

By 930am, we were back in our damp suits, and back on the bikes. We booked the bus to Hue (our next stop) for 1.30pm, and after managed to secure 4 powerful mopeds this time to avoid more cut-outs and 5kpm hill climbs. The map-guided drive to the pass was much simpler than the one the day before, though it was as dangerous, with plenty more eye-bulgingly odd antics from the Vietnamese road users. At roughly 11, we reached the blessed junction that separates the quicker tunnel and the blissful pass that both reconvene at the other side of the mountains. We passed the sign and, without stopping, zipped up the road to our right, which led towards the coast and uphill, beginning our conquest of the Hai Van Pass.

The road was immediately superb - a ribbon of flowing tarmac that flutters onto the side of the forested mountain like a strand of spiders' web caught on a bush. Signs lined the sea-ward edge of the cliff, warning of rock-falls, speed limits, oncoming bends and non-existant straights. Signs and memorials notified us ominously that cars regularly go over the edge, too. Of course, we took very little notice of this as we looped over the peaks, down the sweeping bends and around the 180 degree cut-backs that enabled us to traverse the mountain-side. We stopped regularly to take photos and admire the view of Da Nang and the pristine private beaches that backed into the cliff-side. At every stop, after every bend, the view just got better, and our grins wider. I personally was "yahoooo"ing intermittently as we progressed along the 20km stretch of road that constituted a long-desired dream and, suddenly now, a reality that surpassed all our expectations. We stopped at the bottom end, where the Top Gear lot sat on the crash barriers to admire the view of a Vietnamese village ringed by beach and linked to the pass by a long concrete bridge. It was another phenominal view, and we attempted to recreate the Top Gear poses with Sam, Sam and I in our sparkling suits.

Checking my watch, I realised we'd be in a big rush to return in time for our bus. We agreed to give it a go, and pulled the revs up to maximum with our right wrists as we retraced the stretch of hallowed road, this direction totally different but equally as incredible, on our return. This aim was lost when Harry disappeared off the back of the convoy. We stopped with hearts in mouths. Luckily, Harry had only suffered a flat tyre, literally right next to a bike repair shop (a little suspect, we agreed afterwards). This put paid to our hopes of making our 5 dollar onward bus, but entitled us to another couple of hours on the mountain, including a climb to a huge marble boulder that overlooked possibly the best view of my trip so far - the glistening China Sea lapping at light yellow sand and rich dark green tree-tops, with the grey but strangley alluring Da Nang in the background. We relaxed on our drive back, each revelling in the experience we'd all captured forever: driving the empty roads of the Hai Van pass. In 50 dollar tailored suits.


15th June 2013

Hai Van pass
Brilliant .

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