Hai Van Pass or Sea Clouds Pass offers an impressive landscape of verdant mountains and clear blue skies, overlooking Da Nang City, Tien Sa Port, Son Tra Peninsula, and South China Sea. Crossing over a spur of Truong Son mountain range between Thua Thien-Hue Province and Da Nang City, it stands at 500m above sea level, making it the highest pass in Vietnam.
About Hai Van Pass
- Location: 30km north of Da Nang
The Hải Vân Pass (Vietnamese: Đèo Hải Vân, IPA: [ɗɛ̂w ha᷉ːj vən], “ocean cloud pass”), is an approximately 21 km long mountain pass on National Route 1A in Vietnam. It traverses a spur of the larger Annamite Range that juts into the East Sea of Viet Nam, on the border of Đà Nẵng and Thừa Thiên–Huế Province, near Bạch Mã National Park. Its name refers to the mists that rise from the sea, reducing visibility. Historically, the pass was a physical division between the kingdoms of Champa and Đại Việt.
The twisting road on the pass has long been a challenge for drivers traveling between the cities of Huế and Đà Nẵng. Since the completion of Hải Vân Tunnel, traffic flow and safety have improved. The pass has been the scene of at least two of Vietnam’s most serious rail accidents, and at least one air crash.
The Hải Vân Pass crosses over a spur of the Trường Sơn (Annamite) Range that emerges from the west and juts into the South China Sea, forming the Hải Vân Peninsula and the adjoining Son Tra Island. The pass, which once formed the boundary between the kingdoms of Đại Việt and Champa, also forms a boundary between the climates of northern and southern Vietnam, sheltering the city of Da Nang from the “Chinese winds” that blow in from the northwest. During the winter months (November–March), for instance, weather on the north side of the pass might be wet and cold, while the south side might be warm and dry.
The pass is renowned for its scenic beauty. Presenter Jeremy Clarkson, host of the BBC motoring programme Top Gear, featured the pass during the show’s 2008 Vietnam Special, calling the road “a deserted ribbon of perfection—one of the best coast roads in the world.”
Hải Vân Pass has been of major strategic importance in this history of Vietnam, and for a long time represented a major barrier to any land army that attempted to move between the northern and central regions of the country.
During the 1st century A.D., the Chinese general Ma Yuan (Mã Viện), after pacifying northern Vietnam, advanced south and established the southern border of the Han (Hán) empire by setting up columns of bronze, possibly at Hải Vân. Ma Yuan also left behind some Chinese military families to hold the frontier. When the Han empire collapsed at the end of the 2nd century, the local kingdom of Linyi (Lâm Ấp), the predecessor to the medieval polity of Champa, was created by a petty frontier bureaucrat of the Han administration, probably in the area of modern Huế somewhat to the north.
The 25 kilometre-long mountain pass is popular amongst thrill-seeking motorcyclists due to its winding roads, sudden curves and blind corners, while its lookout point offers gorgeous views of Da Nang Bay.
The pass also hosts the ancient Tran Dynasty’s Hai Van Gate, Hai Van Tunnel (the longest in ASEAN), wartime gun towers, and a decrepit French-built fort that was later used as a bunker by South Vietnamese and US armies during the Vietnam War. Prior to the construction of the Hai Van Tunnel, the mountain pass was notorious for its fair share of fatal accidents – look out for small altars set along the roadside that are dedicated to perished victims.
A motorcycle trip between Da Nang and Hue through Hai Van Pass takes between three and five hours, longer if you stop for seafood and coffee along the coastline. Priced between VND 150,000 to VND 200,000 per day, motorbikes can be rented from numerous hotels and tour operators in Da Nang City.
Aside from requiring the use of a powerful bike, do note that Hai Van Pass motorcycle tours can be challenging for new riders – expect uphill slopes, an average temperature of 17°C, and rainy weather if you’re travelling between the months of September and March. Driving licenses are required by law and do check your insurance to see if you’re covered before… if not, go at your own risk!
Why Hai Van Pass is special ?
On the north – south nation highway, Hai Van Pass is an impressive landscape. It is like a giant dragon, lying on Highway 1 on the border between Thua Thien-Hue Province and Danang City. This is the highest pass in Vietnam (500m above sea level). This rugged pass is the final section of the Truong Son Range stretching to the sea. Hai Van means “Clouds over the Sea”, since the peak of the mountain is in the clouds while its foot is close to the sea. In the past, Hai Van Pass was known as the Thuan Hoa and Quang Nam frontier.
In the early 14th century (11306), Che Man, a king from Cham Pa, offered two mountainous administrative units of O and Ri as engagement gifts to Princess Huyen Tran, daughter of King Tran Nhan Tong. On his way to see off the Princess in the Quang area in a Summer sunny noon, the King and his entourage were on horse back for almost half a day but could not reach the top of the pass. Facing upWards, the King saw a rampart of mountains in dim clouds, and at the foot of the pass, an immense ocean, of waves. Though sorry for his daughter’s difficult journey, the king was comforted by the closer ties between the two nations.
What to explore at Hai Van Pass?
Whenever one goes through Hai Van Pass, two feelings are experienced: amazement at passing through the clouds and fear when seeing the dangerous bends of the road. After climbing through several hair-pin curves for close to an hour, you reach the crest of the Hai Van Pass. Here, if the weather affords it (which it often doesn’t), there are views to both the North and the South. The pass forms an obvious boundary between North and South Vietnam, and if proof were needed, you need to look no further than the fortifications built by the French and then later used by the South Vietnamese and the Americans. You will, of course, want to stop here if you make this trip, but be warned that you will have to fight off a large band of souvenir and snack sellers who are among the most aggressive I encountered during the whole trip.
With sudden curves and blind corners, Hai Van Pass is likened to an arrogant but beautiful girl challenging drivers’ skills. Hai Van is considered to be the largest frontier post in Vietnam. The name “De Nhat Hung Quan”, meaning the colossal frontier post, is engraved on an incense burner in Thai Temple.
On a journey through the land, Hai Van is always an attractive landscape, full of perilous obstacles and is the last spur of the Truong Son Range reaching to the sea. On the top of the pass are the vestiges of long ago, a fortified gateway. The gate facing to Thua Thien-Hue Province is inscribed with the three words “Hai Van Quan” and the other gate looking down on Quang Nam province is engraved “the most grandiose gateway in the world”. The entrance to Hai Van Quan looks like the entrance to an old citadel with its stone structures. Time, war, and neglect has taken its toll on Hai Van Quan, as it sits today in near ruins. The old story is only a memory, old vestiges covered with green moss, among vast spaces vast of plants and trees, tourists are filled with the emotions of the past.
The most impressive about the journey is the sense of isolation you feel as you move further along. There is a strange delight about the desolate conditions, a seemingly unbroken asphalt road that cuts through a mass of forest. Below you, the green trees contrast with the breaking waves in the blue sea. And herein lies the beauty of Hai Van. While many rave about the charm of the Bao Loc mountain pass, the road is crowded with people and villages nestled along the way. But just as civilisation characterises the allure of Bao Loc, Hai Van’s beauty is closely connected to nature and its lack of population.
Lining the peak of the mountain is the immense abyss dotted with the light and dark green colours of the trees. The scene is capped off with fanciful clouds flying across the sky. The area is a perfect place to have a cup of coffee and contemplate the scene, looking over Hai Van as if from the heavens as the trees blow with the wind.
Hai Van is well known for its dangerous roads, and accident warning boards carefully appear regularly along the side. It’s a surprising sight to see the animation and modernity at the peak as foreign visitors buzzed about buying souvenirs. Those who do not make it to the peak would have a hard time believing there was such a busy trading and modern scene, as foreign women made their way up the rough staircase at the Hai Van Quan ancient vestige to take photos.
Whatever endowed by nature, time by time and by hands of man will be something of humanitarian values. Coming to Hai Van is to come to the sanction of two land, to satisfy the peak-conquering philosophy, to mix ourselves into echo of heroic songs of Vietnamese ancients when they went to find new lands, to be emotional to prolong past of the Center region that suffering a lot of losses in the course of finding and protecting the nation.
Hai Van Pass will satisfy your desire to conquer high peaks and remind you of the glorious past of the Viet people. Moreover, from the pass, on nice days, visitors can enjoy the whole vista of Danang, the Tien Sa seaport, Son Tra Peninsula, Cu Lao Cham Island and long sandy beaches.
The 21km that stretch over the Hai Van mountain pass may sound like a challenging journey, but after having done, it is certainly that you will find it is one worth taking.
How to get to Hai Van Pass?
Rent a motorbike from Hoi An or Danang to the south of the Hai Van Pass or from Hue to the north. Motorbikes can be rented through most hotels and guesthouses for between 150-200,000VNĐ ($7-10) a day. You don’t necessarily need a driving license and you don’t necessarily need to leave your passport with the hotel or rental company – everything is negotiable – and certainly don’t leave your passport if you are planning on an overnight trip; all hotels and guesthouses in Vietnam require your passport in order to stay.
The journey between the Hoi An/Danang and Hue via the Hai Van Pass is 100-160km depending on which route you choose to take. Driving time is approximately 3-5 hours, but allow at least another 3 hours for soaking up the scenery, stopping for seafood along the coast, coffee at the top of the pass, and for any unforeseen circumstances, such as bad weather and flat tyres.
Once at the top of the pass, for those who want an even more impressive view, take the narrow concrete path leading up behind the Old Gate. This goes straight up to the communications tower at the top of the mountain. Be warned it’s very steep – you’ll need a powerful bike!