Hai Van Pass: The Historic Misty Mountain Top
As soon as I’d heard about the Hai Van Pass I knew I wanted to go and see it for myself; it had become so famous at home in England after Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson had described it as “a deserted ribbon of perfection – one of the best coast roads in the world.” So when the opportunity arose, I jumped at the offer.
I first went up there with my brother Joe (a tour leader for Hoi An Motorbike Adventures), however I was more interested in the scenery than anything else. So I decided to take a second trip in order to learn more about the actual history of the Pass. The Hai Van Pass is an obvious boundary – both historically and in the physical sense – and as I ascended the ominous-looking mountain range for the second time around,
I remembered why. It looms above the coastal road, practically cutting it in two, and the fact that this used to be the main route from Da Nang to Hue before the completion of the Hai Van Tunnel in 2005 (the longest tunnel in South-East Asia) is almost unimaginable. Now, most traffic flows through the tunnel so the road itself is almost completely deserted save for tourist buses, a few locals and the occasional old-school delivery truck.
The road snakes along the hillside, weaving back and forth through a series of hairpin bends, steep inclines and breathtaking scenery until you reach its famous summit. The fortifications date back to the Dai Viet Kingdom and to Emperor Minh Mang’s rule and also include more recent French and American additions, all of which I was keen to find out more about. As I arrived in front of the makeshift shops at the top I was bombarded by women begging me to come look at jewellery and have a drink, but as I’d been there before, I knew exactly where to go to get the best coffee. I met Anh and her husband, the seldom seen Mr. Trung, who have been shop owners at the summit since 1991. Anh had promised to tell me all she knew about the Pass on the previous trip. She greeted me back with a smile, a hug and a welcome glass of ca phe sua da before I commenced an interview.
Historically, Hai Van was the physical division between the Champa and Dai Viet Kingdoms, and the imposing gate-like structures at the summit were used as a border crossing. Everything south of the Pass was referred to as “badlands” and moving from south to north through the gate was not easy. The gate has two carvings on each border entrance; on the Thua Thien Hue (Dai Viet) side ‘Hai Van Quan’ and on the Quang Nam side ‘The most grandiose gateway in the world’, which is no understatement.
It is not just a divisionary boundary; it is also a natural frontier between North and South Vietnam. Anh tells me that tourists think that the 17th Parallel is the correct boundary because of the Demilitarised Zone during the war, but she believes otherwise. She says that she feels like the Hai Van Pass is the center of Vietnam and her neighbors up there are inclined to agree. I was also informed that it’s the climatic boundary between North and South Vietnam, protecting Da Nang and Hoi An from the chilly ‘Chinese winds’ from the North-West.
During a break in the mist I took the opportunity to climb the hill on foot to explore the remnants of bunkers left by the French during the First Indochina War. The small octagonal bunkers were originally built by the French in order to defend the mountain pass and keep Da Nang safe. When they left, the South Vietnamese and Americans moved in. They are now nothing more than empty shells, but they serve as a reminder of Vietnam’s both glorious and equally painful past. As the mist began to surround me I looked back towards Da Nang and found that I had a clear view of the Son Tra Peninsula and the Cham Islands, which was truly spectacular.
I returned to the relative comfort of Anh and her amazing coffee as her husband Mr. Trung and another shop owner Ms Thuy arrived. After a quick conversation with his wife in Vietnamese, Mr. Trung agreed to tell me about his life at the Pass.
“I have worked here since 1991 when I married my wife, but my family have been here much longer – I think maybe just after the American war. When we took over the shop we only sold water, coffee, beer and small snacks for travelers. When more tourists started arriving we began selling jewellery and souvenirs. This is our main business now the tunnel has opened.”
I asked him if his family lived at the top of the Pass but he just laughed, “It would be foolish for us to all live here, there is no space and it gets too cold! There is a man who lives on the mountain, Nguyen Bua. He came here to chop wood to sell, but now he helps people if they have accidents or a flat tyre. He writes his telephone number on the roadside so they can call him if they need him. He also cleans the temples and checks for forest fires.”
Ms Thuy has also been working at the top of Hai Van for about 10 years. I asked her if there was an important event or an interesting fact she could also tell me about the area, although she did not speak very much English and my Vietnamese is embarrassingly poor so Anh provided translation.
“I remember about 4 years ago there was an oil leak from the military depot further down the hill. The petrol was running down into the sea. It was okay though, my husband went down and we collected enough to fill our bikes three times!”
After lots of laughing from all three (probably at the look of bewilderment on my face) she then went on to inform me that the beautiful bay I was admiring on my trip up the mountain was in fact a leper colony that had been there since before the war.
They continued to laugh when I noticed a small stairway at the back of Anh’s shop. I asked her where it led to and she ushered me to follow her. Hidden behind the small row of shops was another bunker I hadn’t even noticed when I looked back from the Hai Van gate, although its main use now is for concealing a shrine and a generator. I was led to the back of the structure, showed though a small opening and pointed to what looked like a ladder. It was pitch black and I was honestly terrified. I found myself standing in darkness looking out on to the road through a slit so small that it didn’t let any sunlight in. I had to use my camera flash to illuminate the room, and as it lit up I realised I was standing in front of a machine gun mount, still with all moving parts, minus the actual gun. I was dumbfounded and only brought back into action when Anh shouted, “haunted, haunted!”.
I went back down that ladder in a flash. It was a very eerie experience, especially because I asked Anh how many tourists had been up there and she replied simple, “no, no tourists”. I felt like I had seen a part of ‘real’ Vietnam.
King Tran Nhan Tong proclaimed that Hai Van was ‘the most marvellous wonder’ and I definitely agree. Its isolation, stubborn curves and misty outcrops only add to the mysterious and majestic nature of the Pass. I’d recommend that every visitor to Hoi An take a trip up there and explore.
There are many ways you can reach the Hai Van Pass; hire a car with a driver or a motorbike, or even get the train to Hue and come back via car/bike. You can also take the Hai Van Pass and Beyond Tour with Hoi An Motorbike Adventures.
Originally published in Live Hoi An magazine