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  • Writer's pictureTim and Lindsey

A Deserted Ribbon of Perfection – Hai Van Pass

Day 762

The Hai Van Pass has been made famous across the world by three blokes. The oldest, most outspoken and cynical of them describing it as "A deserted ribbon of perfection, one of the best coast roads in the world", with the view from this road nearly making him speechless.

The three presenters from BBC popular car show Top Gear in 2008 zoomed north from Hoi An on small motorbikes through the Hai Van Pass. Since then, I am sure that this Pass has seen steady growth in the number of travellers. And this is where we went but in the opposite direction. Hue to Hoi An, along this 21 km Pass which means "Sea of Clouds". The best way to go is by motorbike, with the wind in your hair, whizzing around hairpins and being rewarded with the most spectacular views of the Truing Son mountains, deserted white beaches and fishermen catching their prey the traditional way.

With all our luggage, we didn't think motorbikes would be practical, but I have since discovered that there are companies that will deliver your luggage separately. Hey Ho! In Vietnam, it seems that anyone can drive a motorbike, but it isn't straightforward to be allowed to hire a car, even with an international drivers licence, so we opted for a driver.

Our first stop was at the fishing village by Dam Cau Hai, where they farm oysters. Bo, our driver informed us that they sold for 10,000 dongs (£3) a kilo. In the UK it will be more like £20. To catch these, the locals tie rubber bike tyres to sticks poking out of the water, and the oysters cling to these to filter the water coming in from the South China Sea. Known as the "jewels of heaven", these oysters are used for food and jewellery, and the restaurant we stopped in for a well-needed coffee also sold some glorious pearl necklaces. But what would a traveller want with one of these?

We strolled along the beach, with women hassling us in a friendly way to buy their bracelets. There were Conacles, just the same that was found in the fenlands near to where we used to live, and we watched men building a new boat.

Much of the area was beautiful, but we did find the non-touristy parts were covered in rubbish. I suppose it's like when people keep their front gardens neat and tidy, but their backyards are a hovel.

Occasionally, Bo stopped for us to see the spectacular views. We had just crossed the railway track, which Hetty and Max had ridden on the day before, and stood looking across the curve of Lang Co bay. Stunning. With a deserted golden-white beach reaching out to the azure waters, and on the left, the new bridge leading into the Hai Van tunnel.

This tunnel, currently the longest in SE Asia at 6km, was completed in 2005. It takes the majority of traffic away from the Pass, which used to be a significant gridlock of traffic between the north and south. The Pass was known for its high death toll. Now, with less traffic and much safer, it is named the "Street without Traffic". And this spot is the same as where Jeremy Clarkson utters those words "A deserted ribbon of perfection".

Our next stop was at Hai Van Gate at nearly 500 m high, making the Pass the most elevated in Vietnam. It is a defensive construction and one of the critical frontier and strategic points of Vietnam. The history goes back to the 14th century when the Pass was a significant geopolitical boundary between Ancient Kingdoms. Many of the Emperors had their military in this location. Emperor Minh Manh, immediately after he was crowned in 1826, built this gate as a military fort to defend the south. In later times, during the "American War", the Pass was known as the "Street Without Joy", a dangerous and hotly contested place, connecting two heavily war-scarred cities of Hue and Da Nang.

As we walked up a slight incline, we saw a sign that read "the most imposing gate in the world". Mmmm really? Perhaps it was back in 1826. We walked through this imposing arch to bullet-ridden bunkers, built by the French during the First Indochina War and also used by American soldiers. Crikey, this place has seen its fair share of war. Such a dichotomy in a spectacularly, beautiful natural environment. What must Mother Earth think?

The views here are breathtaking, and in the distance was Da Nang, where we were heading next for lunch. After our Quang Noodles, a speciality for the area, we headed to Non Nioc Stone Carving Village, established 400 years ago and at the foot of the Marble Mountains. We stopped off at a Marble factory which had a vast array of sculptures: Buddhas, Guardian Lions, Maidens and some modern abstract pieces.

A large sculpture costs US$4,000, including shipping to the UK. At the back of the premises, we could see workers grinding the marble to transform a block of rock into a masterpiece.

Just around the corner are the Marble Mountains. We did wonder how big they used to be. There must have been tons upon tons of rock plundered from here. I am glad to read that rock extraction from the mountains was banned recently.

There are five marble and limestone hills here and named after the five elements: Kim (metal), Thuy (water), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire) and Tho (earth).

We took the glass elevator up Mount Thuy to a multitude of things to see; the enormous stone carved Pho Dong pagoda, which we were amazed was all from rock, and several Buddhist and Hindu sanctuaries. There were numerous tunnels, grottoes and caves, which were fun exploring, climbing up slippery stone narrow steps with bats squeaking above our heads. On the side of the hill was a massive Buddha sculpture that seemed to shimmer against the backdrop of greenery – gorgeous.

Sadly, at the sea view lookout, a gigantic hotel is being constructed, obscuring the view. Who in their right minds approved this?

Time was ticking so we descended the 156 steps ready for our final destination – the ancient city of Hoi An, famous for its tailoring. We did pop into a few tailors in the evening, which I will write more about for tomorrow, and had a delightful meal at the restaurant connected with founded in 2007, which is an 18-month free culinary and hospitality training program for disadvantaged and vulnerable youth living in poverty. It was so nice that we had eaten it by the time we thought about taking a photo! I think we're going to like it here in Hoi An.

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