The Hai Van Pass, otherwise known as Ocean Cloud Pass, is a ~12 mile stretch of roadway between the cities of Da Nang and Hue. The National Route 1A road snakes up the side of the mountain with stunning views of the Da Nang Bay 1,600 feet below. The road has countless bends with poor visibility and made the drive from Da Nang to Hue quite challenging before the addition of the Hai Van Tunnel.
Now the Hai Van pass route is still frequented by tourists taking the scenic route, motorbikes commuting between the cities as the tunnel is only open to vehicles, and a handful of large trucks. It makes for an incredibly beautiful drive if you are headed from Hue to Da Nang or Hoi An (or vice versa). It can also be done as a day trip from any one of those three towns.
Read on to learn all about how to rent a motorbike in Vietnam, driving precautions, and what to expect when taking the Hai Van Pass route. Enjoy!
The Hai Van Pass by Motorbike: Everything You Need To Know
The History of the Hai Van Pass
Historically, the Hai Van Pass served as a geographic and political boundary between the ancient kingdoms of Champa and Dai Viet. Today it separates Da Nang from the Thua Thien Hue Province. It also forms a climate boundary between northern and southern Vietnam meaning it may be cold and rainy on one side and hot and dry on the other.
The Hai Van Pass also has had military significance both in ancient and modern times as it creates a major barrier to any army that is on foot.
But regardless of the history of Hai Van, the best reason to take a drive over the mountain pass is simply that it’s an exciting and spectacularly beautiful road trip! Lush greenery cascades down the mountain and views of the sandy beaches and crystal clear water can be seen for most of the journey. You’ll want to stop every 1/2 mile or so to take pictures of the breathtaking scenery.
How to Visit the Hai Van Pass
The Hai Van Pass is easily accessible from the 3 popular tourist towns nearby – Hue, Da Nang, and Hoi An. The best and most cost-effective way to experience the Hai Van Pass is by renting a motorbike and driving it yourself. However, if your motorbike driving skills aren’t up to snuff you can hire a motorbike with a driver or hire a car and driver to take you up and over the mountains.
Note: The bus takes the faster, less scenic tunnel route and the train takes a route that is also beautiful but quite a bit closer to sea level.
Touring the Hai Van Pass by Motorbike
How long your journey over the Hai Van Pass takes will depend on what city you’re coming from and how often you stop along the way. You should allot 5-6 hours for a round trip journey if you’re coming from Da Nang or Hue. Driving it one way between Da Nang to Hue is about a 3-hour trip.
If you’re planning on starting or ending in Hoi An add an extra 1-1.5 hours each way for the journey between Hoi An and Da Nang.
The National Route 1A is paved so you won’t need to worry about a bumpy or particularly dusty road trip, but the Hai Van Pass has several steep sections where the gradient can exceed 10%. Be sure to rent a bike in good working condition as it will be difficult to make it up some of the steeper sections, especially if you plan on fitting 2 people on the bike. When it comes to the Hai Van Pass it’s best to rent a well-maintained motorbike with a little more oomph.
We would highly recommend renting a motorbike from Tigit Motorbikes. They offer touring style motorbikes that are well suited for the Hai Van Pass such as the Honda Blade (110cc) or the Honda XR (150cc). The staff members are kind, knowledgeable and courteous, and their bikes are in perfect condition. They also have a good selection of quality helmets in a variety of sizes.
Now that most automobile traffic flows through the Hai Van Tunnel, you’ll find the Hai Van Pass to be an easy drive with little traffic and few dangers. However, there are quite a few tight turns, a steep gradient, and drivers that are occasionally distracted by the views. You’ll also find that cars and trucks have no reservations about passing you around blind corners, and visibility on the road can be limited from the mist that rises from the sea. Just drive defensively and keep your eyes on the road and you’ll be fine!
Note: Make sure you fill up on gas prior to leaving civilization as there are no gas stations on the Hai Van Pass.
Amenities along the Hai Van Pass (and What to Bring)
There are a few roadside shops selling water, snacks, and coffee and it’s worth stopping to get out of the hot sun and enjoy the views. One of them is built around a massive rock where you can get 360° panorama views of the area. And their next door neighbor has hammocks that are perfect for relaxing.
At the very top of the Hai Van Pass is an area with several restaurants, snack shops, and a bathroom. There are also a few old buildings up on the hill where you can check out the views of both sides of the mountain. It’s worth having a walk around here to snap some photos.
What to Pack for the Hai Van Pass:
- Sunscreen. There is little to no shade on the 1A going over the Hai Van Pass.
- Something to cover your motorbike seat when you aren’t sitting on it. If you leave your bike in the sun you will scorch your buns off when you get back on.
- A camera to capture the immense beauty of the area.
- A rain jacket. The weather over the Hai Van Pass can change rapidly and it’s not unusual to have clear skies in the morning but a torrential downpour in the afternoon.
Our Experience Touring the Hai Van Pass
We arrived at Tigit Motorbikes around 9:30am. We had reserved our bike in advance so it only took about 30 minutes to pick out our helmets, take the bike on a quick test ride, and fill out some paperwork. And by 10:00am we were on the road. We stopped a couple times along the way – first for water at a roadside shop with a spectacular view, then at the top of the pass to wander around the old ruins.
It took us about 3 hours to cruise up and over the mountains (that includes the stops listed above as well as many stops for photos). Once we were back at sea level we decided to check out one of the beaches on Chan May Bay. The white sand beach was beautiful and desolate – other than the restaurant owners there wasn’t a single soul in sight.
After knocking back a Huda Beer we turned around to head home. We had a couple delays along the way. First was for road construction and the second was for a train crossing. We stopped again for an iced coffee on our way back over the Hai Van Pass to soak up the beautiful views one last time.
We were back in Da Nang eating tacos at Tacos Danang with a cold margarita in our hand by 5:30pm.
Tips for Renting and Driving a Motorbike in Vietnam
- Double check that everything works on the bike; electric starter, front and back brakes, horn, speedometer, and lights. It’s tempting to just jump on your bike and take off, but when renting bikes in Vietnam we often discover (too late) that the brakes are soft or the horn doesn’t work.
- It’s always a good idea to take photographs of any scratches or dents on the bike prior to departing, just in case.
- Honking in Vietnam is common so don’t be alarmed when you get beeped at and don’t be afraid to use your horn as well. The honk is used to notify other drivers of your presence, not to say “you’re a terrible driver asshole!” like it is in the US.
- The roads have lanes but no one actually uses them. No need to worry about staying in those white lines.
- Pedestrians don’t have the right-of-way here. If you stop to let someone walk you’re likely to cause more trouble as you’ll confuse everyone around you.
- It is quite common for people in Vietnam to run red lights, pass on blind corners, go the wrong way down a one-way street, and take the most bizarre shortcuts to save time. Keep your head on a swivel and be aware of your surroundings at all times.
- Just because other people frequently break traffic laws doesn’t mean that you should.
- When in doubt, drive slowly and on the far right side of the road. Don’t worry, no one will be afraid to pass you.
Vietnam’s Helmet Law
Vietnam is the second highest country in SE Asia for traffic fatalities with 24.5 per 100,000. And motorbikes are much more common than cars here, accounting for 95% of registered vehicles in the country.
In December of 2007 Vietnam enacted a comprehensive mandatory helmet law to help to lessen the country’s traffic fatalities. Locals and foreigners alike are now required by law to wear a helmet. And if you look around, you’ll see that most people actually do. The AIP Foundation estimates that 15,000 fatalities and 500,000 injuries have been prevented in the 10 years since the law was enacted!
Don’t risk a run-in with the police or a trip to the emergency room in Vietnam. Wear a helmet.
Touring Vietnam by Motorbike
Motorbike touring in Vietnam took off after the airing of Top Gear’s Vietnam Special which featured the hosts travelling 1,000 miles by motorbike – from Ho Chi Minh City to Halong Bay – in just 8 days.
These days many foreigners actually opt to use a motorbike as their primary form of transportation around Vietnam, and some even consider a cross-country bike tour of Vietnam to be the highlight of their Southeast Asia trip.
If you don’t have experience driving a motorcycle and want to get a taste for it, then cruising along the Hai Van Pass route is a great place to start. The route is short so if you encounter any issues with comfort or your ability to drive a bike, you can easily make it back to the shop. And the road is highly trafficked in case you require any assistance.
Have a great trip to the Hai Van Pass!
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