Coming down the Hue side of the Hai Van Pass

Hai Van Pass Vietnam

My alarm started shrieking at me at 5.30am one morning, which is a time I don’t particularly relish for anything, never mind what we had planned for this day. The previous day we had hired a taxi to drive us from Hoi An to Hue, over the Hai Van Pass. And today, we would be hiring a moped to go back to the top of the pass, and complete what turned out to be a six hour round trip and make it back to Hue in time for our bus. Any why were we planning to return to the top of the Hai Van Pass? Well, because it’s just so gosh darn beautiful. And to correct a terrible error from the day before.

We had spent most of the previous night planning the route we would take to return to the top of the pass, opting to avoid as much of the highway as possible. Our hotel advised us to go around a huge lake if we wanted to avoid the traffic, and warned it would add an hour or so to our time. We printed a map to help us, drank an insane amount of coffee, donned a rather fetching pair of matching pink helmets and set off on the rented moped.

Matching pink helmets on the scooter to the Hai Van Pass

Matching pink helmets on the scooter to the Hai Van Pass

We pulled into the last petrol station on the way out of town, and as the attendant filled the tank for us Graham casually mentioned the speedometer wasn’t working. At all. I couldn’t help but think this was a bad omen for our little ride, after all, bad things come in threes, right? And this could easily be considered to be number two. We paid the guy and reluctantly, on my part, climbed back on the bike.

The ride around the lake was absolutely stunning. Mile after scenic mile came and went, without another traveller in sight. We passed through small villages and smaller farm holds. Occasionally, we stopped in the shade of some trees to rest, have a drink of water and try to work out how much farther it would be. All the while, locals on mopeds were shooting past us, kicking up plumes of dirt. Occasionally we would try and keep pace with the reckless locals, but a healthy cocktail of potholes, no speedometer and my fear of falling off the back meant we didn’t keep up with them for long.

Eventually there came a time that I was going to have to ask to use a loo. We pulled over in a small village centre that seemed to be a hive of activity. As I walked towards the six or seven locals they stopped and stared at me. I gave the elderly bunch my warmest smile and wave hello, and was greeted by the same response. Do you have a toilet I could use? I asked, hoping that the locals of little town that had likely never seen a westerner had a surprising grasp of the English language. They didn’t, though, and made gestures to demonstrate they didn’t understand. Good, at least I spent so long practising key phrases in Vietnamese, I said smiling and checking that Graham wasn’t watching, well here goes. I squatted down a little and used my hand to make a pee like gesture whilst saying again toilet? The group looked at me with blank expressions as I mime-squatted in the middle of their village, and continued to do so with a more desperate smile on my face. As it became more and more awkward I gave up and admitted defeat. Then, all at once, my small audience broke into laughter, and through gasps for air shook their heads no and waved me to go further to the next town. I’m not sure if there was a loo at the next town or if they just wanted me to do the mime for their friends down the road, either way I climbed onto the bike mumbling that I would just hold it.

It was another dusty hour before we hit the bottom of the Hai Van Pass, its road winding its way up the mountain side. It wasn’t too busy, as most traffic  goes through the tunnel. The vehicles that do choose to go over the pass are huge, slow moving lorries that struggle to manoeuvre around the roads sharp corners. I clutched to the back of the bike, with my eyes tightly closed, as I pictured one of the lorries pulling into us or rolling backwards towards us. Our little moped had no troubles, though, as Graham weaved us through the trucks and we zipped on ahead of them.

At the top of the pass, we rounded a corner to the familiar row of shops that we had stopped at the day before. We pulled into the shop at the end and said hi to the owners, explaining we had been there the day before. Ooh, they said as their eyes lit up, sit, drink coffee, we were instructed. First, though, we had to ensure they had what we had travelled so far to get. The day before, in all the excitement of taking pictures and exploring the pass, Graham had left his bag on the side of the mountain. The bag that happened to have a bunch of expensive camera gear in it. And three passports. That’s right, this trip was by no means for pleasure. Reluctantly, the man retrieved the bag to show he did indeed have it, and we gave such a sigh of relief it could be heard for miles around.

At the top of Hai Van Pass

At the top of Hai Van Pass. Notice Graham’s beautiful, passport-containing bag?

The next episode of our misadventure I like to call “how much do we need to spend so we can leave”? It started out with a coffee as we made small talk and a few jokes about how silly we were to leave it there. This soon turned into them reassuring us that we were indeed lucky that they had found it, because most Vietnamese people would have stolen it. Which escalated to, “we helped you, now you help us”. Which is totally fair, after all they had just given us a bag that was worth a rather large amount of money. I followed the smiling lady around the shop as she put bracelets on me and handed me little plastic trinkets. Whenever I said I didn’t like something or asked the price the smile would fade and she would repeat firmly “we helped you, now you help us”. Wearily I would smile and say how I hadn’t looked at it properly and actually it was lovely. On an unrelated note, I have a large amount of bracelets and plastic trinkets to give as presents to friends and family back in the UK.

View rom the top of the Hai Van Pass

View rom the top of the Hai Van Pass

About thirty minutes and twenty five dollars later we were permitted to leave. First, though, they would have to help me again, as I was still in need of a toilet break. I ummed and ahhed over how much it would cost for the pleasure, and decided it would be worth another twenty dollars if they asked for it. Luckily, their loo was toll free. The reason I mention this is simply because I don’t think there is a toilet anywhere in the world that has such an incredible view! Seriously, anyone taking the Hai Van Pass, go to the last shop heading north and ask to use the loo!

The return journey, though a race against the clock, was relatively uneventful. We circled our way back around the lake and into Hue, with a little time to spare before heading to our next bus.

North side of the Hai Van Pass

North side of the Hai Van Pass

Hai Van Pass

The Hai Van Pass runs across the mountain range separating Da Nang and Hue. If you take the bus it’ll take you through a tunnel, meaning you miss out on the awesome views. We were travelling from Hoi An and as there were three of us, we decided to hire a taxi for the day. We arranged for the cab to take us to the Marble Mountains, over the pass and into Hue for just a little more than the cost of three bus tickets. It’s also popular to hire a moped to go over the pass. Although we couldn’t find any way of leaving the bike at the other side of the mountain, meaning you’d have to get to the top and then go back the way you came.

For the private car, we paid around 60USD, split between three of us, or 20USD each. Though, at the time I’m sure it was a better exchange rate! The bus is around 10USD each.

Next week I will be sharing a guest post from Rachel, from Plan to Vacation, who will be sharing some of her own misadventures. What misadventures have you had whilst travelling?

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