Hai Van Pass (Sea Cloud) crosses over a spur of the Truong Son mountain range that juts into the sea. About 30km north of Da Nang, the road climbs to an elevation of 496m, passing south of the Ai Van Son peak (1172m). It’s an incredibly mountainous stretch of highway. The railway track, with its tunnels, goes around the peninsula, following the beautiful and deserted shoreline.
In the 15th century this pass formed the boundary between Vietnam and the kingdom of Champa. Until the American War it was heavily forested. At the summit is a bullet-scarred French fort, later used as a bunker by the South Vietnamese and US armies.
If you cross in winter, the pass serves as something of a visible dividing line between the climates of the north and south, protecting Da Nang from the fierce ‘Chinese winds’ that sweep in from the northeast. From about November to March the exposed Lang Co side of the pass can be wet and chilly, while just to the south it’s often warm and dry.
The top of the pass is the only place you can pull over for a while. The view is well worth it, but you’ll have to fight off a rather large crowd of very insistent vendors and dodgy money-changers.
In 2005, the 6280m-long Hai Van tunnel opened, bypassing the pass and shaving an hour off the journey between Da Nang and Hue. Motor-bikers and cyclists are not permitted to ride through the tunnel. Sure it saves time, but on a nice day it really is a shame to miss the views from the pass.
Despite the odd hair-raising encounter, the pass road is safer than it used to be. If you can take your eyes off the highway, keep them peeled for the small altars on the roadside – sobering reminders of those who have died in accidents on this winding route.