The Hai Van Pass is one of the crown jewels of Vietnam’s roads. Even though it’s a short 21 kilometers (13 miles) from sea level to sea level, the road punches far above its weight due to its breathtaking views, thrilling bends, and overall fun factor.
The road has a long history but truly gained notoriety as a Vietnam motorcycle tour destination. This is thanks to Top Gear’s Vietnam episode, released in 2008. And they weren’t wrong in choosing to feature it. If you’re any variety of road trip enthusiast, the Hai Van Pass will be a highlight (no pun intended) of your Vietnam motorbike trip.
The Pass itself has played a large role in Vietnam’s history but currently serves as one of the premier pleasure-driving roads in the world. That’s not an understatement: it really is that cool. We’re not kidding.
‘Hai Van’ is old Vietnamese for sea and clouds, which are two constants at the Pass. Due to the dramatic elevation change, the mountain’s cap with clouds while from the road drivers can see the ocean all the way to the horizon. The top of the road is 500 meters, but the mountains go much higher than that. The road gives spectacular views: from the south side, the city of Da Nang is gleaming next to the ocean while Lang Co lazes at the lagoon just to the north.
Follow along as we discuss one of Vietnam’s best roads. Its history, what to look for, and what’s on either side.
Hai Van Pass History
The Pass is more than just a landmark or a famous road for a motorcycle tour. For centuries, it represented the divide between Vietnam’s fully tropical south and its less-tropical north. This led to cultural and political divisions as well, which had a long-lasting impact on the history of Vietnam.
The Pass was the only way to get from north to south before the completion of the Hai Van tunnel in 2006. Consequently, it marked the boundary between the northern Dai Viet and southern Champa kingdoms prior to Dai Viet’s conquest of Champa in the 15th century. Champa was a primarily Hindu kingdom with Buddhist influences. If you visit the ruins of My Son outside Da Nang, for example, you’re visiting Hindu remains from the Champa kingdom.
The Pass and the Mongol Yuan Dynasty
The pass helped the two kingdoms fight off the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century. A Mongol sea-based invasion of Champa was meant to turn into a pincer attack on Dai Viet to the north. However, the Pass made supply lines to the north untenable for the Mongols and forcing them to retreat.
The towers at the top of the Pass were built by Emperor Minh Mang in the 1820s. Coincidentally, Minh Mang was the same emperor who annexed the remaining rump states left over from the previous Champa kingdom.
The Pass also had more recent military significance, as evidenced by French- and American-built bunkers still remaining at the top. Since then, the Pass has served as a crucial north-south trade route. Essentially, all trade passing between Hue and Da Nang had to go over the pass, which made the road quite dangerous. Altars built on the side of the road indicate fatal crashes — most of which happened before 2006 when the tunnel under the mountain was created.
Hai Van Pass Tunnel
The creation of the Hai Van tunnel in 2006 made the pass far less dangerous since most cargo now goes through the tunnel. The only types of cargo that still require to go over the pass are livestock and fuel due to safety reasons. Besides that cargo and tour buses, pleasure riders are the main traffic on the road now.
If you don’t want to go over the Pass — for example, due to inclement weather — there are drop-off points both north and south of the pass. For a small fee, you can put your motorbike on a bus, ride on the bus, and pick it up on the other side. Riding over the pass in heavy wind and rain is not a good idea.
Hai Van Pass Highlights
The drive along the Pass road offers some great views from just about any angle, but some spots stand out as truly special.
On the climb up from the south side is a large boulder protruding from the side of the mountain. It’s colloquially popular as ‘Selfie Rock’ due to the large number of tourists who, well, take selfies there. It’s a good spot to get a quick beverage or a snack — or to simply hang out and enjoy the view.
The top of the pass features the aforementioned towers built by Emperor Minh Mang. But that’s just one of the highlights at the top: some of the views up here are excellent as long as the weather is good.
Onyabike Adventures Tip: The top of the pass offers another good area to have a quick rest, coffee, or snack. You can find vendors and their stores here, and they’ll look after your motorbike while you wander around as long as you make a purchase.
While prices may seem higher than at the low levels, they’re significantly lower than in more heavily touristed areas like Hoi An or Ha Long Bay. Recall also that the people who sell goods there have to haul them from the city each day, so expect higher prices. In general, the vendors here are pretty honest and won’t try to charge you outrageous prices, so recall that they’re simply honest people trying to make a living.
On the north side of the Pass is what we like to call “Clarkson Point,” where Jeremy Clarkson stopped to film his speaking bit for Top Gear. This viewpoint offers a fantastic view of the hamlet of Lang Co, sandwiched between lagoon and sea. While there are no amenities offered here, it’s certainly worth a stop for a photo or a quick stretch of the legs.
Besides viewpoints, the road offers other interesting attractions.
The South Side
A Buddhist temple can be found on the south side of the pass: Chua Nam Hai. It boasts a full-time monk to bless riders and protect them from harm as they go over the pass. You can stop and visit if you so choose.
From the beach road, you can see what was formerly a leper colony: Lang Van Beach and nearby Bai Xoan. This was the only leper colony in central Vietnam. Established in the 1980s, the colony housed lepers from the entire region. They were all sent here due to a lack of proper medical facilities and treatment options. In 2012, all the lepers were re-housed and given proper medical care — the beach is now empty. Due to the improvement of medical facilities in general in Vietnam, leprosy is no longer an issue.
The road along the Pass roughly follows the same route that the famed French Indochina line follows. That same line today is used as Vietnam’s main north-south rail corridor. Rail travel offers an alternative to road travel in Vietnam, with its pricing roughly midway between flights and buses. A train ride along the Pass allows similar views, though not quite as dramatic, as those given by driving. Of course, there won’t be an opportunity to stop for photos.
Hai Van Pass Safety
When driving on this road, you’ll definitely need to look both ways — and in all directions, in fact, as you always should in Vietnam. Here are some things to look out for when driving the Hai Van Pass.
As with most mountain roads, trucks and buses can present a major hazard. Although there is a tunnel under the mountain that most commercial traffic goes through, some vehicles are not allowed through.
Trucks bearing potentially hazardous material like gasoline, for example, to go over the pass by force. It’s easy to get stuck behind one of these trucks for longer than you’d like. This is especially true when there are blind turns coming up. In addition to gas trucks, hog-haulers are another common sight going over the mountain. Though one wonders what hazards pigs may pose to prevent them from being tunnel-worthy.
Onyabike Adventures Tip: As everywhere in Vietnam, maniacal bus drivers are another road hazard. Since they seem to think they and their vehicles are invincible. One of their favorite hobbies is overtaking other drivers at blind turns. So always keep your eyes open for buses that may appear out of nowhere.
Additionally, since there are so many vista points along the way you’ll often encounter several bikes stopped at a point with people out taking photos. It’s best to be patient with them since you’ll likely want to do the same at some point.
Like many well-known spots in Asia, the peak of the Hai Van Pass can often be swarmed with Chinese tourists taking photos, shouting at each other, and generally having little appreciation for personal space. There isn’t much you can do about them besides leave or, alternatively, practice patience.
You may indeed be lucky and get to the top when there is a lull in bus traffic. You can comfort yourself with the fact that most of the Chinese tour buses only stop at the top. So other vistas along the way are much easier to have to yourself.
On a sunny day, the drive over the Pass can be a truly uplifting (again, no pun intended) experience. As you get to revel in 360 degrees of beauty while basking in the sunshine. Additionally, being at elevation means it’s cooler in the mountains than at sea level. And, there’s often a breeze that will keep you refreshed.
Crossing the mountain in the rain, however, can be harrowing. While it’s certainly doable, it’s best not to do unless you must. First, as you might assume, the roads are far more treacherous when they’re wet. While the amount of commercial traffic remains the same. Second, the reduced visibility has a double effect. You lose the usually-inspiring views and at the same time you lose the ability to spot any potential hazards. Like the aforementioned homicidal bus drivers. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the rain brings out any oil or fuel that has seeped into the road, adding to already slick conditions.
What’s on Either Side?
On the south side of the Pass is the outskirts of the up-and-coming city of Da Nang. Famous for its combination of beach vibes and a growing cosmopolitan scene. The western suburbs of Da Nang don’t attract much tourism—the vast majority of tourists end up in the city center or on the east side.
On the north side of the Pass is the sleepy beach town of Lang Co. Famous for its massive lagoon ringed by mountains and floating restaurants. Some of these restaurants serve the best mussels (vem in Vietnamese) in Vietnam, so they’re very much worth a stop for a plate of grilled mussels and a beer or five. Resorts along the beach can be thoroughly relaxing, if often quiet.
Further on up the road is the old imperial capital of Hue, which deserves its own destination post.
Onyabike Adventures Verdict: Definitely Worth It!
For such a small commitment of time, the Hai Van Pass can easily become one of the highlights of any road trip in Vietnam. Its popularity is well-earned and it remains one of central Vietnam’s crowning jewels despite its status as a known destination. Even if your time in central Vietnam is short, make sure to include the Pass in your plans if you are at all interested in driving, or being a passenger, or views, or being able to make your friends jealous with a cool story.