Đèo Hải Vân – The Pass of Ocean Mist – is a mountainous stretch of road in Central Vietnam. On days when vapour from the South China Sea rises into the forests and clings to the mountaintops the pass lives up to its poetic name. But despite its romantic title the Hai Van Pass has always been something of a frontier: a boundary of kingdoms and climate, often fought over, sometimes tragic but never losing its ability to inspire awe.
During the ‘American War’ (as the ‘Vietnam War’ is known to the Vietnamese) the Hai Van Pass was known as the ‘Street Without Joy’. Back then, the pass connected the two war-scarred cities of Hue and Danang via the dangerous and hotly contested Highway 1. Thanks to a tunnel under the mountains, completed in 2005, the Hai Van Pass today is the ‘Street Without Traffic’. The majority of transport now takes the tunnel, which leaves the Hai Van Pass – one of the most scenic roads in Vietnam – to two-wheeled vehicles and the occasional oil truck (both of which are not allowed through the tunnel). The spectacular Hai Van Pass is perfect for a relatively easy, safe and short motorbike trip between the popular tourist spots of Hoi An/Danang to the south and Hue to the north.
The Hai Van Pass is a natural wall. It’s a mountainous finger jutting into the East (South China) Sea; an east-west spur of the Truong Son (Annamite) Range that runs north to south along the western spine of Vietnam. For centuries this natural barrier represented the limit of one kingdom and the beginning of another. The Hindu Kingdom of Champa resided south of the Hai Van Pass while the Confucian-Buddhist Kingdom of Dai Viet (Great Viet) was to the north. The two kingdoms fought constantly to control land either side of the pass. The Cham pushed as far north as the Dai Viet capital of Thang Long (Hanoi) in 1371.
Partly due to the favourable climate and fertility of the land south of the Hai Van Pass, the Cham in this area were known as the ‘Coconut Palm Group’. The Hai Van Pass sheltered the Cham from strong, cold winds and storms that blew from the north. Known as ‘Chinese Winds’ these still ravage territory north of the pass each year during the ‘typhoon months’ – around September and October.
The good climatic conditions south of the Hai Van Pass helped to build the Cham civilization, which lasted for more than a thousand years from the 3rd century onwards. It was the lure of the land of the ‘Coconut Palm Cham’ that led to its eventual conquest. Dai Viet, to the north of the Hai Van Pass, was growing steadily thanks to liberation from Chinese rule in AD938 followed by two strong imperial dynasties, the Ly (1009-1225) and the Tran (1225-1400). Agricultural productivity and population were on the rise, but unpredictable weather and devastating flooding in the Red River Delta was a constant threat to stability. With China looming large over their northern borders, Dai Viet looked to the south for more land and a better climate for their growing population. After centuries of fighting, it was the Le Dynasty who finally defeated the Cham in 1471, annexing the sunny territory south of the Hai Van Pass for Dai Viet.
The appeal of the land of the ‘Coconut Palm Cham’ is still obvious today. If heading out of Hue on a wet, grey February morning and driving up the Hai Van Pass in thick, moisture-laden cloud, when you arrive at the top and look down on the sun-filled Bay of Danang to the south, it’s easy to imagine how attractive these lands must have been to the Dai Viet from the north. Curling your way up the switchbacks and hairpin bends, the motorbike engine struggling to deal with the gradient, and then rolling down the other side, wondering if the brake pads will wear away before you reach the bottom, it’s also apparent how the pass could have separated two civilizations for so long.
Whatever the weather the Hai Van Pass is a scenic route. As with other great views, the pass has often inspired wonder – sometimes in the most unlikely of contexts and least likely of people. When Paul Theroux was passing through Vietnam during his Great Railway Bazaar in 1973, the Paris Peace Accords had only recently been signed by the Americans, South and North Vietnamese. Direct American military participation in Vietnam was officially over, but the war still had two more long years before the ‘liberation’ of Saigon. As most of the Trans-Indochinois Railway (now the Reunification Express) that linked Hanoi with Saigon had been blown up, Theroux was only able to travel on short sections of the line that were deemed safe. Fortunately for him one of these safe sections was between Hue and Danang.
At that time Hue was a ruin. Having been pounded for years, not least during the Tet Offensive in 1968, the city was all mud and rubble. Danang, formerly a massive American base, was, according to Theroux, ‘a poisoned city’. But the landscape between these two wounded cities, including the Hai Van Pass which the railway snakes around just below the road, was still majestic. Perhaps because of the juxtaposition between the ugly urban destruction in Hue and the rural peace and beauty around the Hai Van Pass, Theroux, having travelled across Europe, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent by train, was amazed by what he saw from his compartment on the Trans-Indochinois:
Of all the places the railway had taken me since London, this was the loveliest.
Beyond the leaping jade plates of the sea was an overhang of cliffs and the sight of a valley so large it contained sun, smoke, rain and cloud – all at once.
I had been unprepared for this beauty; it surprised and humbled me.
Who has mentioned the simple fact that the heights of Vietnam are places of unimaginable grandeur?
35 years later, Jeremy Clarkson, presenter of the popular BBC car show, Top Gear, had a similar reaction to the landscape around the Hai Van Pass. Famously sarcastic and not one to be easily moved – except by a good car – Clarkson and his co-presenters couldn’t help but be awed by the green mountains rolling down in pleats and folds toward the East Sea. On this strip of tarmac that he, characteristically, proclaimed, ‘one of the best ocean roads in the world’, Clarkson began to enjoy motorbiking. Indeed, the Top Gear Vietnam Special must have inspired others to follow in their tyre-tracks, because nowadays the hawkers at the top of the pass will ask, “Are you here because of Top Gear?!”
Like other borders and frontiers the Hai Van Pass has seen its fair share of blood and battles. At the top of the pass, by the brick gate built by Emperor Minh Mang in the 19th century, are gun towers that were used by French, South Vietnamese and American lookouts respectively, during the long wars from 1946-75. More recent reminders of tragedy on the pass are the small shrines lining the road to mark the sites of fatal accidents. (Note: most of these date from before the tunnel was built, when the pass was far more dangerous than it is today). As with many famous battle fields and scenic roads in Vietnam, tragedy contrasts sharply with the natural beauty of the surrounds.
As for me, I’ve always thought of the Hai Van Pass as a point of transition – both a boundary and a gate. When driving from south to north the pass is the point at which I feel I’ve entered unfamiliar territory. The clouds usually close-in and fierce rain pinches the skin on my face. With this comes a sense of adventure. Being from the south in both my native and adopted countries (London in Britain, Saigon in Vietnam) I’ve long associated travelling north with going into higher, wilder landscape and colder climes. Likewise, when I travel from north to south the Hai Van Pass is the point at which I feel I’ve arrived ‘home’ again, safe in the land of the ‘Coconut Palm Cham’ and the warmth of the tropical climate I’ve become accustomed to.
Located on the 16th parallel, just one south of the infamous 17th parallel that once divided the nation politically, the Hai Van Pass is a permanent natural boundary that will always divide the nation climatically, between tropical and sub-tropical. The ‘Ocean Mist’ clings to the pass, but the 30km stretch of road is beautiful in any weather, and each time I drive it, in either direction, there’s always the sense of having crossed a barrier.