Ribbon of Perfection: Motorbiking the Hai Van Pass from Hue to Hoi An, Vietnam

When you find yourself in Hue, Vietnam then chances are your next stop is the town of Hoi An, about 120 km south. This journey can be done by bus in only a few hours, but the far better way to do it is by motorbike. This drive should be number one on the list of things to do in central Vietnam. Simply put, it is spectacular.

The 25 km long Hai Van Pass, about halfway between Hue and Hoi An, is an amazing strip of asphalt with views that are shockingly good.
But let’s start at the beginning. First, to rent a bike. In Hue there are any number of stores with signs offering one way “motorbike” rental from Hue to Hoi An. One way rental includes a service where they take your big bags on to Hoi An for you. This is great, since you just need to bring a day pack with you for the day’s ride.
It quickly becomes obvious that motorbike rental does not always refer to actual geared motorbikes. The basic offering at most rental places is an automatic or semi automatic scooter, usually 100 or 125 cc. These seem to go for $13-15 USD, including a helmet but gasoline being extra. From there you go up in price into actual geared motorcycles. The best motorbikes we saw in Hue were $45 USD one way, and that included a helmet and surprisingly other safety gear such as gloves.
Now if you’re not experienced on motorbikes, don’t worry. There are several companies in town that will drive the Hai Van Pass for you, while you ride on the back of the motorbike. If you’re a learner and want to ride on your own there are also guided day trips, where you ride in a group with a guide leading the way. These will run $50 and up, depending on the motorbike and the company.
We shopped around to a few places, negotiating on price and checking out the quality of the motorbikes. We wanted to rent from a store that had good English skills, and also had their motorbikes present at the store front so we could inspect them personally before renting them.
We ended up renting two 110 cc Honda Wins (geared motorbikes) from a store not far from our hotel. Like so many companies in Asia, this store was a restaurant with travel agency attached. But across the street their motorbikes were parked at a mechanic shop. This meant we actually got to go over the motorbikes with the mechanic before committing. We paid $15 USD per bike including helmet and luggage service. This same place would have rented us larger (and more comfortable) 135cc Honda cruiser style bikes for $25 USD.
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Our Honda Wins, waiting for us while we ate breakfast.
 On the morning of the ride we had a good breakfast and then set off a little after 9 am. We were pleased to see the mechanics give our bikes some adjustments and a good cleaning before we set up. One bike was missing a side mirror, and they quickly installed a new one.
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The Honda Win is the most ubiquitous motorbike in Vietnam. When travelers talk about buying a motorbike and traveling Vietnam, this is the bike they’re talking about.

The first order of business: gasoline. We found a gas station not far from the rental shop, which was good because the bikes were mostly empty. Or at least as far as we could tell – no fuel gauges. Eager to get gasoline, we didn’t really pay much attention to the cost: 244,000 dong to fill both bikes. The Vietnamese currency is bad for conversion (17,000 dong is $2 CAD) which leads to confusion. So when thinking about this later, we realized that we paid about $14 CAD in fuel. This seems expensive based on what we have paid for fuel elsewhere on Asia, so we wonder if we got scammed by the attendant.

Finally, we hit the road. For the first stretch we opted to take the coast road, avoiding the highway. So we had about 60km of fairly slow (25-40 km/h) country roads that were of varying condition. Much of it seemed to be under construction, making for slow progress. Including several stops to stretch our legs, this took us until around 12:30pm.
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The coast road.
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The sun was strong and it was over 35C.  We were both burned by 11am, despite using sunscreen.
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More of the coast road, before joining the highway.
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We stopped at a random “restaurant” for lunch along the way.  It was basically someone’s house/front yard, and we were definitely the only people there.  The lady didn’t even attempt to converse with us in English or Vietnamese. Rather, she brought us two bowls of this. It was some sort of noodles with what we think were beef chunks.  The circular thing is some sort of sesame rice cake that we were told (via charades) to break up and mix into the bowl of noodles.  It was cheap ($1 USD per bowl) and pretty tasty.
After the coastal road, there was a short 15 km highway section that continues south, toward the city of Da Nang. Before before reaching Da Nang, a ridge of mountains rises in the distance. You see the height of them and know unmistakably that is the purpose of this ride. The Hai Van Pass crosses this ridge of mountains.
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Clouds moving in as we approach the Hai Van Pass.
 Nowadays, there is a toll tunnel that takes you under the mountains thereby negating the need for the pass and saving much time on a highway drive. Thankfully this is now the route taken by the trucks and tourist busses, leaving the Hai Van Pass almost exclusively for motorbikes. And this is a very good thing.
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Motorbike paradise.
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The mountains end at the sea.
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Nearly at the top.
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Just shy of the top of the pass.  496m in elevation gained over 11km to get to this point.

You may recognize these views from the Top Gear Vietnam Special. It was this amazing ribbon of asphalt and these breathtaking views that Jeremy Clarkson described as “a deserted ribbon of perfection – one of the best coast roads in the world”.

Almost exactly when we left the highway to start up the pass, we heard the first rumble of thunder. The thunder and rain chased us all the way up the pass. While this added some drama, we did not want to get caught in rain.  So we pushed hard and stopped less than we would have liked. Once at the top, the sky was really dark and it began to spit. As we headed down towards Da Nang, the rain became more insistent. We stopped near the bottom of the mountain to put our rain cover on our camera bag and to protect our other electronics. We stopped just in time, because the skies opened up on us and in moments we were completely soaked. It was actually a nice change from the oppressive heat.

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The top of the pass, 496m above sea level.  We aren’t sure what the gate was/is.  Notice the couple taking wedding photos? Quite a view behind them (the previous picture).

 

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We encountered a herd of goats along the way.
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The goats were also enjoying the view.
At this point we were running a little late, due to a combination of our relatively slow driving and all our stops along the way. So we opted to go back on the highway through Da Nang, and push right on to Hoi An. The alternative, and a much better alternative we suspect, would have been to go through Da Nang to the beachside road. But this route is slower and we would have been getting to our destination in the dark – something we really wanted to avoid on these roads. The highway through Da Nang was a nightmare of bad driving, so next time we would definitely try to avoid this stretch.
We rolled into our homestay in Hoi An around 5:30, exhausted and extremely sore. There are many things that can be said about a Honda Win, but you’d never call it a comfortable bike – especially for people over 6′ tall.
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Motorbike exhaust are hot. We both had our share of burns on our legs.
If you’re in this part of the world, find a way to go over the Hai Van Pass. It doesn’t matter if you go on scooter, motorbike, guided motorbike, or even bicycle (yes, we saw some cyclists on the pass. They were hardcore). Find a way. You won’t regret it. We haven’t been riding motorbikes long, but this surely must be one of the best roads in the world. It’s hard to imagine better.
And now some bonus pictures of Hoi An Town.  The Hai Van Pass is incredible, and ending up in beautiful Hoi An is a great way to end the day.
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Hoi An Old Town, a UNESCO WOrld Heritage Site.  The Old Town streets are heavily influenced by the Chinese who settled here during the 16th and 17th century.

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And finally, the Banh Mi that Anthony Bourdain called the best in Vietnam.  This is from a place called Banh Mi Phuong. Get the barbeque meat one, it’s incredible and only $1 USD.
– Doug / April 23, 2017 / Hoi An, Vietnam on the Bus to My Sot at 9:21 am
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