During our trip through Vietnam in early 2020 we mostly used domestic flights to travel around the southern half of the country as it was a quick and cheap way to get through the country. From Hoi An, we took private vehicles and buses to take us the rest of the way up to Ho Chi Minh City.
Our trip from Hội An to Huế was a memorable one, as we previously went through the Marble Mountains as well as the modern city of Da Nang. The journey into Hải Vân Pass began just outside of Da Nang, where the land suddenly increased in elevation as approached the pass.
Hải Vân has long been an important frontier outpost, as it separates the south and central portions of the country with its narrow winding pass. This has prevented armies from moving through the centre of Vietnam, giving it vital strategic importance. After conquering the northern part of Vietnam in the 2nd century AD, Chinese general Ma Yuan set up bronze gates at the pass. It was done to protect against attack from the south, as well as being an admission of the limits of his military advance. For many centuries it also separated the powerful kingdoms of Champa and Đại Việt.
The winding pass is very steep and prone to fog and bad weather, a danger to drivers as well as a thrill for motorcyclists. The old national highways goes directly over the mountain, with the elevation rising to 496 m (1,627 ft) as you go up and over it. Hải Vân Pass was a favoured destination for the stars of Top Gear, with Jeremy Clarkson commenting the the pass was “a deserted ribbon of perfection—one of the best coast roads in the world” as they took motorcycles through it a number of years ago.
Unfortunately the narrow switchbacks of the pass does not allow for stops along the way, so the only rest stop for cars is at the top. As a result, much of the breathtaking scenery can only be enjoyed as a memory or in video.
At the top of the pass is the Hải Vân gate, a defensive structure dating from the 1800s.
The top of the pass had more modern defensive structures, as the pass was actively used during the Vietnam War. Most of the bunkers were French, originally dating from the 1950s. Years later they were used and expanded by American troops to protect convoys moving from Da Nang to Huế.
After we went down the other side of the mountain we stopped at Lap An lagoon, site of a fishing village and a picturesque series of beaches. There we enjoyed some fresh seafood and drinks before making our way onward to Huế.