The Hai Van Pass

12th FEBRUARY 2019

There’s no breakfast option at the Binh An Guest House this morning, so I stop for food at a Banh Mi stall on my way out of the village. Banh Mi are essentially just little filled baguettes and are a legacy from when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. The baguette is sliced lengthwise, like a Subway sandwich and usually filled with one or more meats and some local vegetables. So far I’ve seen fillings of pork, beef, chicken, egg, tinned fish, omelette, sausages and pate, although I’m sure I’ll encounter many more varieties in the next month or so. The meats are topped off with ingredients like sliced cucumber, pickled carrots, coriander leaves, chilli, soy sauce and fish sauce. Banh Mi stalls are becoming a more common sight as I cycle further South, and they provide such a cheap, easy way to start the day. Today I have two egg Banh Mi, which fill me up nicely and cost 20,000 Vietnamese Dong. That’s my breakfast taken care of today for the ridiculously cheap price of sixty pence.

With my stomach full, I follow a straight, flat and gloriously quiet road away from Chan May Bay. From my humble surroundings last night, I’m now cycling past large international resorts and spas that overlook the more exclusive Lang Co beach. Because I only have a short ride today, I decide I have time to faff about to try and get some ‘In Action’ photos of myself cycling. I don’t normally bother with this, as I find it a chore setting up my camera and then riding past the same spot three or four times just to get a shot of myself cycling. Nevertheless, I find a roadside milestone, set up the camera and dutifully ride past a handful of times in the hope I get a decent picture.

I’m going to be traversing the Hai Van Pass today, a hulking chunk of mountain that was once a natural barrier between kingdoms in ancient Vietnam. The name apparently translates as ‘Ocean Cloud Pass’ due to mists that rise from the sea and cloak the mountain. This route over the pass used to be part of the main North-South road, but now the twisting 21km trek can by bypassed by using a shorter, straighter 6km tunnel. The road splits before the pass – cars, buses and lorries will generally use the tunnel, whereas scooters and cyclists have no choice and must use the mountain road. One exception to this is petrol tankers, who have to crawl slowly up and over the pass, forbidden from using the tunnel as a potential explosion hazard.

For the start of the climb I just take it easy and get into that slow, plodding rhythm I use for big hills. Road signs are telling me that the gradient is only 8% at this stage, which is just about manageable even for me. The fact that I’ll probably be stopping to take scenery pictures every few hundred metres is certainly going to help too. Not long after starting the ascent I’m treated to a spectacular view back down towards Lang Co beach, the very spot where I was cycling thirty minutes ago. Now I’m above a location where a large lagoon flows out to meet the sea, both waters coloured a brilliant azure blue. The sands of Lang Co beach stretch off for kilometres into the distance and I can just about see the beach I walked along last night. I spend a while taking photos and marvelling at the view. It’ll take me forever to get over the pass at this rate.

I trudge upwards until I reach a tight, right hand bend, where an Asian guy suddenly jumps out into the road in front of me and starts taking pictures. I’m breathing hard, whilst trying not to laugh at the absurdity of his actions as I creep past him. A few metres further on I realise that this man has just been taking the very same ‘In Action’ shots of me cycling that I was trying to manufacture earlier this morning. It would be great to get a copy of these pictures, so I turn around and go back to see him. It turns out the guy is a Chinese tourist in his forties who is here with his family, and also an avid cyclist. His son, Han, speaks good English and says he can e-mail me the pictures later as Chinese don’t have access to Facebook or WhatsApp. I’m not entirely confident that he will, but I’m hoping he’s true to his word.

It’s warm near the bottom of the hill, but luckily roadside trees and the twisting nature of the pass itself means that I remain shaded for large parts of the climb. I take more rest stops as I get higher, although the pay-off is that the temperature does become cooler with height. A few scooter riders offer me encouragement on my ascent, and occasionally stop and talk with me when I’m resting. It’s great that’s it’s only me and the scooters up here. There are also a small amount of tourist buses, cars and petrol tankers, but otherwise this is two-wheeled transport heaven. When the Top Gear team rode motorbikes for their Vietnam Special, the Hai Van Pass was a highlight with it’s winding roads and breath-taking views. I’m stopping so often to take pictures that I’m only slightly tired as I near the summit, whereas normally I’d be knackered.

I reach a viewpoint just below the top, where a different group of Chinese tourists have stopped to take photos. A couple of the women ask if they can pose with my bike to make it look like they’ve cycled to the top. I don’t mind their cheekiness though, as it means they’re happy to reciprocate and take pictures of me too. By this point though, things have started to become rather misty and almost a little chilly. The cloud line has drifted ominously down the mountain to nearly the same level I’m standing at, and it’s time I got moving again. Another few hundred metres of steady climbing then gets me to the summit, where the landmark is denoted by a collection of ramshackle tourist stalls lining the road. At only 500 metres high, the Hai Van Pass is not the tallest, but it’s definitely one of the more spectacular roads that I’ve cycled.

At the top I just roll straight past the market stalls and begin a speedy 10km descent on the opposite side. Now I’m over the pass I can look across a huge bay to my left and see the tall city buildings of Da Nang in the distance. The downhill zips past and I’m soon back down at sea-level, riding along the seafront and being buffeted by a strong, blustery headwind. I Google Map my way towards my accommodation and cross one of the seven bridges that span the city’s Han River. Da Nang is Vietnam’s fifth largest city, with a population of 1.2 million, yet it still doesn’t feel stupidly busy like Hanoi. Thank Goodness.

I continue pedalling to a lovely, leafy suburb that sits between city and beach to find my Homestay. I’m dawdling up the street, trying to read house numbers, when a guy who’s been talking with his neighbours realises that I must be his house guest. He shows me in and gives me a bottle of Desperados as soon as I sit down. The cold beer mixed with tequila and lime is going down beautifully after all today’s climbing. He’s a nice guy, although our language barrier means that most of our communication relies on Google Translate. I bring my bike inside and leave it parked on their wooden-floored lounge, alongside the family scooters.

From here a ten minute walk takes me to the beach, which has a row of tall hotels dominating the strip along the seafront, giving the place a Gold Coast or Miami feel. It’s a busy beach too, with sun loungers and straw umbrellas monopolising the sand. I order another two Banh Mi and watch messy waves dumping on the shore whilst waiting for my food to arrive. Then it’s back to my Homestay to meet the rest of the family. Lin, the wife is lovely and disarmingly helpful, always making sure I have a bottle of water on hand. Their oldest child, Michael, is thirteen and quite an earnest young man who spends most of his evening studying. Cherry, who’s six, is quite shy at first but then comes out of her shell and transforms into a giggling, mischievous little monkey. Studying becomes increasingly difficult for poor Michael as Cherry starts getting more and more hyper. I spend a while in their lounge just chatting with the family and munching on biscuits that Lin keeps feeding me. I’ve been made to feel very much at home here, so I’m more than happy to have a Rest Day tomorrow and stay in Da Nang for one extra day.





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