The Hải Vân Pass is the highest regarded road for travelers of Vietnam. Even if you don’t want to buy a motorbike and travel across the country like a nuthead, you can rent a motorbike in Hoi An or Hue and travel between the two along the Hải Vân Pass.
From Danang to Hue, we hit the Hải Vân Pass. Our expectations were high as many travelers had taken the route before us, hyping up the views and the scenery. The drive coming down from Dalat was gorgeous so we expected something just as awe-some.
Our expectations were too high. We drove up and up through the mountains hugging the curves that overlooked the ocean. At some points the city of Danang was visible across the water and at other points were stretches of beach and greenery, but nothing quite like driving through Dalat. Our eyes had seen too much, laid them upon scenery unobserved by the everyday traveler. We were different.
We spent two nights in Hue, where we visited the Royal Palace– grand architecture but expensive for our budget traveler tastes. That night we hung out at a popular bar where we were bombarded by local Vietnamese and then hit the hay for an early morning drive.
The Road to Phong Nha
The Ho Chi Minh Road (not to be confused with the Ho Chi Minh Trail which travels through Laos) is a popular road for motorbikes because of the lack of traffic, lush greenery, and general sense of peacefulness as you drive on it. During our travels we had been sticking to the coastline– following the dangerous AH1– and had never made the moves to go inland on the HCM Road. Since we were not in a rush and the road was nearby, we decided to take it. It is after all, a major reason to start motorbiking Vietnam in the first place.
The road was easy and our skills were becoming stronger. Twists and turns were rare, trucks were rare, stores were rare. We were fully immersed in the joy of riding without fear of danger, without the steady stresses of life. The sun warmed our skin as it penetrated through the dark clouds which loomed above us. When we stopped to take some pictures, a couple was nice enough to let us use their restroom as they continued to hoe their garden, the man with a cigarette dangling from his lips. We were two girls on the road with no attachments to anything or anyone. Freedom never felt so good.
It began to drizzle. Then it began to pour and when it rains while you’re riding a motorbike it’s like a million bees flying into your face. The downside of being on a secluded road though is there are less rest stops and less places to take cover. After driving for 15 minutes in near blindness we found a covered rest stop where we could drink some tea and eat some food.
We were only 15 km away from our destination but we couldn’t see so we decided to take our time until the rain passed. We pulled up to a group of men, a woman and some children sitting around the table. They gestured for us to bring our bikes under the covered area.
With every local that we meet comes a series of questions: Where are you from? How old are you? Are you sisters? Are you married? Do you want to be? This time was no different. They took an interest in Dianna’s bike, asking her as they circled it how much she bought it for and if she was willing to sell it as we sat at the table waiting for our food.
Dianna’s ability to speak Vietnamese has been a blessing during our trip, but then she can also engage in conversations she might not want to be party to.
I could feel her getting uncomfortable as she laughed nervously with the Vietnamese men. Probably another offer for marriage, I thought. I continued to sip my tea, completely unaware of where the conversation could be going. There was a pause between Dianna and the two men and she glanced at me. She pretended like she wasn’t saying anything to me, like we do when we are speaking English in front of non-English speakers, smiles on our faces, our mouths hardly moving.
“That’s not something you joke about,” she told me. The men and the one woman were laughing together. Without looking at them I waited for her to explain, “They said they’re going to take our bikes and kidnap us.” We both smiled at the men. I sipped my tea calmly.
“As soon as the rain clears, we’ll leave,” I reassured her, my teacup at my lips. I smiled back at them as they stared. One chewed on his toothpick, the other smoked a cigarette.
Our food came out but the men had already lost interest. I watched them from the corner of my eye as they stood up, said their goodbyes and walked across the road to the construction site where they worked.
Relieved, we slurped our noodles, waited for the rain to pass and left just as one of the men was walking back to the eating area. He didn’t seem threatening, but we weren’t taking risks and left as quickly as we could.
The Most Beautiful Place I’ve Ever Seen
Back on the Ho Chi Minh Road we approached the most beautiful scenery we had ever seen our entire trip. We had stopped to take some pictures and someone offered directions. When they offered these directions, we weren’t warned of the beauty that lie ahead. We weren’t prepared it.
As we drove up it was like nothing I had ever seen before. Mountains rose above us, flat valleys lay beneath us as we drove on the narrow pathway to Phong Nha. The limestone mountains were covered in green vines, up and down. Everything I had ever dreamed of in Vietnam was in this one place: mountains modestly rising toward the skies, green vines overpowering every inch of space, tall caves, roads void of traffic, mornings with fog that hung on the mountaintops like a scarf for the cold weather. If there were a heaven, this was it. The people did not hassle you and the children played comfortably outside. They did not live to work the foreigners but rather enjoyed the life that they had, riding on scooters, riding on bicycles, laughing in the streets at the strange faces that visited their home.
We ran into Stacie and Wade again and decided to stay in Phong Nha for 2 nights to explore the National Park. It ended up being our favorite destination of all of Vietnam.
As the sun lowered in the sky, before it hid behind the clouds again, we sat and watched as the boatmen returned to their homes from giving tours of the river, as a pair of men drank their coffee at their own makeshift table on the sidewalk. Do they know where they live? Do they realize how lucky they are to live in such a place? Questions which were only silenced by the need to enjoy the moment and nothing else.