The saying goes: “It’s not about where you’re going. It’s about how you get there.” In central Vietnam, draped across the hillsides and clifftops, is a road that could define this well-worn motto.
Here’s everything you need to know about one of the most inspiring roads you will ever travel: The Hai Van Pass. It connects Da Nang to the south with Hue to the north. And there are several ways to traverse this pass, including motorcycle or motorbike, bus and Jeep.
So, why do we love the Hai Van Pass?!
Thirteen years ago, BBC’s Top Gear tore through Vietnam on their wonderfully ill-prepared motorcycle trip. Ever since, the Pass has become a place of pilgrimage for travelers with a love of the open road.
It’s easy to see why the Top Gear trio chose this route as their trip’s centerpiece. It’s is one of those rare gems that truly has it all…
Clear ocean vistas one minute and misty mountain peaks the next. Simple villages and huts pepper the roadside while distant city lights sparkle on the horizon. Even the heavy traffic that blights most Vietnamese highways is mercifully absent.
Instead, there’s a warm camaraderie with the fellow travelers you meet along the way. A smile and a waved greeting as you pass each other is enough to leave a grin on your face long after you have rounded the next corner!
Twisting up into the mountains through mile after mile of lush, emerald-green jungle, the road itself is almost perfection. It cuts into the hillside, rising and plunging with the land’s flow and navigating the steep climbs with tight hairpin turns.
Every curve and crest in the mountainside brings you out to yet another sweeping panorama of The South China Sea or walls of sheer cliff faces blanketed with jungle.
If you’re driving, the only problem will be keeping your eyes on the road. The scenery is difficult to tear your eyes away from! And, if you’re a passenger on a bike or a Jeep, you won’t even know where to point your camera first! Whatever your chosen mode of transport, this is a drive to be savored.
I will never forget piloting my cheap motorcycle up and down the Hai Van Pass on a spring day, stopping for far too many photos, and just hoping that it wouldn’t end. When, dusty and aching, we finally reached Hue, my only wish was to turn around and do it all again!
History and geography of the Pass
The name Hai Van Pass refers to the mists that rise up from the water below. Literally translated, it means “ocean cloud pass.”
At 21km long, 496m high, and densely forested, the Pass straddles the Annamite mountain range. Its unforgiving landscape has marked a crucial political boundary for centuries and was once the border between the Champa and Dai Viet kingdoms.
More recently, during the American war, it earned that sad name of “The Street Without Joy.” It marked a boarder between North and South Vietnam.
The mountains also hold back much of the colder, wet weather that sweeps in from the North West. The result is a noticeable shift in climate from one side to the other. It’s not uncommon during winter to depart Hue on a chilly and rainy day, only to arrive in Da Nang in dry, warm sunshine!
When to visit
Ideally, plan your visit for September. The hottest weather will have passed, but the rains are still rare. The wet season around Da Nang usually runs from October until January. So, any time outside of these months gives you a good chance of a clear day.
I visited in March, for example, and had a spectacular ride! One section was a little misty, but the sensation of swooping in and out of the clouds was, if anything, even better than a clear day!
In the middle of summer, the heat can become oppressive, and most people prefer to lounge in the shade. But, if you can withstand the sun’s rays, then feeling the rush of fresh air aboard a motorcycle or an open-topped Jeep can be the perfect day trip!
Unless you’re traveling in these summer months, it’s always worth taking a jacket. The temperature up at nearly 500m can be considerably lower than at sea level, especially when the wind picks up.
An important note for motorcyclists: Vietnamese trucks are notorious for leaking oil and diesel. Wet weather will lift the oil up to the road’s surface, making for extremely slippery conditions. Hitting a mixture of oil and water mid-corner is no fun at all, so it’s worth taking it very easy in the rain!
What are your options for transport?
The way to get the Hai Van experience! Motorcyclists flock to this road, and for good reason. Guiding your own machine through the hills, completely immersed in the surroundings, is an unreal way to travel.
Don’t get me wrong, if you’re unaccustomed to Asian roads, it can be a challenge! Cattle will casually lumber across the street as you approach… Locals have, ahem, “different” safety standards when it comes to overtaking on corners… The steep twists and turns often sit on the edge of dizzying drops…
Riding a motorbike might not be for the faint-hearted, but if you feel confident to take on the challenge, I can promise that the ride will reward you tenfold!
As your own driver, you have the freedom to decide where you want to ride, stop and eat. Read a little further to find a couple of top tips for places to see.
Renting a motorcycle/motorbike
A steady stream of travelers ride their own bikes the entire length of the country, hitting the Hai Van Pass along the way. It’s a truly epic journey, and if you have the time, then I can’t recommend it enough! On the other hand, if you just want a quick taste of life on two wheels, then you can take a break from buses or trains to ride the Pass for a day.
Some people who are short on time fly into Da Nang just for the trip!
It’s possible to hunt down a rental shop in one of Da Nang or Hue’s labyrinths of streets and side alleys. But your best bet is to first check out a quality, reputable vendor online.
The small stores that run bike rental as a side hustle don’t always keep their motorcycles in top condition. You wouldn’t be the first person to hire a bike in good faith, only to discover the true meaning of terror when the brakes fail near a cliff edge!
Bikes are available in a range of sizes and prices. Starting from small, 110cc scooter-like bikes for $10 per day and ranging up to 500cc adventure machines for $45, there is something for every budget and experience level.
The best option, in our opinion, is a 150cc Honda. At $20 per day, it won’t break the bank, and it’s more than powerful enough for Vietnamese roads. A 150cc is one of the larger motorbikes, but it’s still not as intimidating as an even larger, faster motorcycle.
Assuming you take things at a leisurely pace, both Hue and Hoi An are a 90-minute ride from the Pass. From Da Nang city center, it’s around 30 minutes. The Pass itself takes about 45 minutes, but an hour and a half will give you time to check out the views and take photos.
Although the mountain roads are the highlight, any trip will also include a drive along the coastline. That’s no bad thing because these beaches are stunning!
Whether you’re staying in Hoi An or Da Nang, you can avoid most of Da Nang’s city center traffic by sticking to the coast road for as long as possible. This will take a little longer, but it’s well worth it to enjoy the views and skip the traffic.
Offline map apps, like maps.me are your friend here. Taking a few minutes to plan the route can save a lot of hassle later on.
As a bonus, the coast road around Da Nang can take you directly to the Son Tra Peninsula. Check out the “places to see” and “top tips” section to read more about it.
Want the motorcycle experience but don’t want to drive?
Several companies in Hue, Da Nang, and Hoi An provide pillion (passenger) motorcycle trips. Professional guides will do the driving, leaving you with the wind in your hair and your eyes free to soak up the scenery. A good guide will also explain the local culture, history, and landmarks, so it’s a great way to learn some details you might otherwise have missed.
Prices start at around $100 for the day and typically cover the entire route between Hue and either Da Nang or Hoi An. They should also include luggage transfer to your destination, so you don’t have to carry anything more than a small day pack.
Self-driving guided tours
Alternatively, the same companies also offer the option to drive alongside a guide. This might be the best of both worlds. You can still benefit from the local knowledge and the security of having a guide to lead you, but with the added thrill of riding your own machine. Prices and routes are roughly the same as pillion tours.
Maybe the whole bike thing just isn’t for you. Or perhaps you like the idea of getting the family or a group of friends together and making a road trip of it!?
For around $70 per person, you can benefit from a guide’s local knowledge and take a leisurely cruise along the same routes as the bike tours. All the jeeps are open-topped, so you can enjoy that safari feeling while having the safety of four wheels instead of two!
Definitely the poor relation to a jeep or motorbike! Nevertheless, if you need to travel between Da Nang and Hue on a tight budget, then a bus will still give you a flavor of the experience. All the buses will stop at the top of the Pass for you to take photos, and of course, the views from the window will always be breath-taking.
Even if you’re traveling on a shoestring, I’d highly recommend finding room in the budget for a motorbike or a jeep, if possible. At $10 per day, the cheapest bikes are very reasonably priced.
Or, if you club together with some other travelers, you might be able to strike a bargain on the price of a Jeep. After all, we’re talking about one of the most beautiful roads in the world here. You want the full experience!
Places to see and top tips
The French Bunker
At the summit of the Pass sits this relic from French colonial days. A stop here provides spectacular views to the North and South. But, no doubt due to the gorgeous views, it’s unlikely to be a peaceful experience.
Crowd after crowd of tourists stop here for photos, and several cafes have sprung up around the bunker. If you don’t mind the bustle, it’s still the ideal location to take in the sights. But, if you’re anything like me, you’ll prefer a bit of peace and tranquility.
A top tip is to pinpoint the bunker on a map first (search for “Hai Van Temple” – confusing, I know!). Then stop for photos on the last corner before the bunker and/or one corner after it. The views are equally beautiful, but you’ll have the place almost entirely to yourself!
In Vietnam, the local food is so delicious and so cheap that it’s possible to eat like a king for every meal! Instead of finding a place to eat on the Pass, which will be pricier and arguably less authentic, try the seaside restaurants on the beaches and waterfronts.
Located before the mountains at either end of the Pass, they stock some spectacular fresh seafood. Don’t worry about researching a specific restaurant in advance. Just leave enough time to stop and hunt out a place that suits your budget and tastes.
Lang Co beach
Personally, a favorite spot for a bite to eat is Lang Co beach. It sits between the ocean and a vast saltwater lagoon on the Pass’s Northern side. Golden beaches, all the seafood you could ever eat, and still unknown to most of the tourist crowds… This is the perfect place to refuel during your Hai Van adventure!
It’s one of the most beautiful beaches in the country.
A real hidden gem. If you love the sound of the Hai Van Pass and you’re keen for more, then take a look at the Son Tra Peninsula.
Directly North-East of Da Nang, this mountainous spit of land juts out into the ocean. An oasis on the city’s doorstep, it’s home to stunning jungle beaches, winding mountain roads, and views that rival those on Hai Van.
You can include Son Tra as a loop either before or after hitting the Pass, depending on the direction you’re traveling. Allow around one hour for the loop, including a break for photos. Just be aware that some parts of the road are unbelievably steep, so it may be daunting to novice riders!
If you’re traveling from Hue, stopping here to dip your toes in the turquoise sea and sip a cool drink from one of the straw-roofed bars could be the ultimate ending to your epic journey!
For anyone who’s in Vietnam and loves the thought of adventure, the Hai Van Pass is unmissable.
Traveling from a bustling city to the ocean and beaches, then touching the clouds and diving back past the ocean to the city lights again, it’s more than just a series of beautiful views. The stark changes in environment and altitude give you the very real sense that you have traveled an epic trail!
And I hope that now, armed with the information here, you feel confident to hit the roads in Vietnam and inspired to design your own Hai Van adventure!