Reaching this point in Vietnam felt like a bit of a milestone, which happens a lot when traveling by bicycle.
When planning routes, whilst focusing one day at a time, your sights are usually set on the larger settlements a few days ahead, and Hue, Da Nang and Hoi An are a perfect example of this. This is especially apt for this part of Vietnam, as within 122km, you’ve got 3 of the most popular destinations in Vietnam, and the Hai Van Pass in the middle, a significant 21km long mountain pass, which is of major strategic importance in the history of Vietnam and the divide between the north and the south, two weather systems, the kingdoms of Champa and Đại Việt and also popularised in the west by Top Gear.
With so much history and importance dating back thousands of years, and breathtaking views for 21km’s, I can’t put into words what an absolute privilege and memorable experience this would be
Besides it’s breath-taking scenery, and rich history, the Hai Van Pass has also been called ‘Vietnams most dangerous mountain’ and has been the scene of at least two of Vietnams most serious rail accidents and at least one air crash, so I’d needed to remember that on the downhill!
The ride from Phong Nha to Dong Hoi, Bao Ninh Beach Resort was a leisurely, undulating 50km, which provided some stunning scenery and taste of what Vietnam was like 30+ years ago.
Dong Hoi suffered more than most during the Vietnam war, which isn’t apparent when riding through, except for the large amounts of undeveloped land and coastal plots, which are slowly giving way to the demands if increased tourism and very large hotels, which remain desolate out of season.
Dong Hoi was the main staging area for the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) during the Vietnam war.
In addition, there is further significance in the ‘proven’ knowledge that humans lived in what is now Quảng Bình province in the Stone Age, with Archaeological excavation unearthing many artefacts, such as ceramic vases, stone tools, and china.
Human settlement in Đồng Hới can be traced 5,000 years back, so as an area so close to other popular destinations, the historians amongst you would find this very interesting I’m sure.
On arriving at an eerily quiet Bao Ninh Beach Resort, I headed straight for the equally eerie beach which had a ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ esque fog to it and a beautiful stillness.
I walked the deserted beach and took a seat, staring out into the abyss and had a real moment of contemplation, as I so frequently do now. Like Ferris Bueller said “ If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you’re gonna miss it”. If that is lost on anyone, then please watch Ferris Buellers Day Off.
I set out early the next day, with the intention of taking 2 days to get to Hue, 175km away. The morning was great and I felt awesome. 30km’s in, I meet another Russian couple who spoke more English than the last chap, but certainly not enough to want to share life stories.
They were nice though and were stopped at a Banh Mi stall on the side of the road. Banh Mi really my favourite food in Vietnam as a bike traveler. It’s awesomely delicious, quick, errywhere, and you can eat it cycling along. There’s been days where I’ve had four in a day and the beauty is, that each stall is different, and unlike restaurants, the most ‘Deliverance’ looking places often have the best.
I reached the 102km mark in good time and feeling great, so in true Forrest Gump style “I just kept on cycling", with the help of some peanut butter and an awesome playlist inlcuding the theme tunes from both Jurassic Park and E.T, courtesy of John Williams.
145km in and the weather changed and the rain came, which was only a good thing. It cooled me down, but it also distracts you and makes it easier. I’ve found that to be true every time it rains now, and as long as you are prepared, i.e, waterproofed and warm, rain shouldn’t put a ‘dampener’ or stop you enjoying the outdoors. I’ve always enjoyed the rain, within reason, and I’ll be sure to embrace it and dance in it here on.
Vietnams first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1993
I‘d heard and read lots about Huế and was excited to cycle in after a great day. I could have kept on going for another 50km I think, but I was happy to have arrived and cycle through this beautiful and instantly intriguing former Capital City.
Due to it’s central location, Huế, was vulnerable in the Vietnam War. In the Tết Offensive of 1968, during the Battle of Huế, the city suffered considerable damage not only to its physical features, but its reputation as well, due to a combination of the American military bombing of historic buildings held by the North Vietnamese, and the massacre at Huế committed by the communist forces.
5,000 civilians were killed (2,800 of them executed by the People’s Army of Vietnam and Viet Cong, according to the South Vietnamese government). The communist forces lost an estimated 2,400 to 8,000 killed, while Allied forces lost 668 dead and 3,707 wounded.
When you walk the earth you stand on, it is easy to forget just how much has happened in that very place over millions of years. A simple moment to consider can offer valuable perspective.
As I cycled into the south east side of the city where the many hotels rise into the sky, I stopped and had some food and chose a hotel. During this time, I had about 10 different Vietnamese men on motorbikes ride past offering marijuana, and feeling generous I bought some off all 10. Just yoking. This just became a thing that I would get used to over the next 2 days in Huế.
There’s plenty to do and see in Huế, but having seen the old citadel and pagodas as I arrived and cycled around it, I spent my time walking the streets, watching and talking to the people and taking in life and culture as I tend to do rather than visiting the ‘tourist attaractions’.
-Blogging on the roof of my hotel-
Huế is not short of dining options, with a little bit of something for all. There’s something about little Parisian restaurants that attract me in any city in the world, and Bistro La Carambole did not dissapoint. Sat on the bustling streets of Huế, sipping on a glass of red wine and tuking into French onion soup, La Carambole is a treat restaurant that offers classic French food as well as Vietnamese.
The food in Huế, know as ‘food for the Emporer’, has many specialities unique to Huế, including their own take on Pho, called Bun Bo Hue, or Hue Beef Noodle Soup, Nem Lui or Hue pork lemongrass skewers and Banh Khoai or Vietnamese crepe, typically filled with pork, shrimp, beansprouts and spring onion, to name a few.
The predominant flavours of Hue food is sweet and spicy with fresh herbs, and you’ll find the Lemongrass is a regular feature in a lot of Huếs food.
There is a great Italian restaurant called Little Italy, that serves excellent, fresh pastas, which were ideal for my last night in Huế, as the next day I had another big ride.
The Hai Van Pass, Baby!
‘Ocean Cloud Pass’
I can’t tell you how excited I was to take on this next section from Huế to Da Nang. It wasn’t excitement about arriving in Da Nang, it was excitement for cycling the Hai Van Pass.
The ride leading up to the Hai Van pass was a flat 70km of the worst headwind I’d experienced yet and my first real experience of a headwind and the realisation that of all the elements, when cycling, head winds are my very least favourite and tail winds are my friend.
That said, when I arrived at the foot of the Hai Van Pass I was absolutely buzzing for the next 40km and 2000m of climbing.
The scenery from start to finish was breath taking, and for the first 3 km, I found myself stopping around almost every corner to take in the new vista.
It turns out that it’s not only Southeast Asian people that hold bike touring in high regard. As a very popular excursion from Da Nang and Hue, I passed lots and lots of tourists on motorbikes, usually in convoys, with lots giving thumbs and a look of “ you’re nuts, but bravo” and me giving a tentative smile and a “I haven’t made it yet” look etched across my Chevy Chase.
The Hai Van Pass is 21km in total, with 11km of 7% up hill, so it’s certainly not the most challenging, but it sure is fun. At the very top you’ll find wartime gun towers, and a decrepit French built fort that was later used as a bunker by south Vietnamese and US armies during the Vietnam war.
I didn’t hang around at the top as I knew what was to come. 10+ km of fast down hill and boy was it fast and fun, with a top speed of 60kmph. You know you are ‘hauling ass’ when you overtake cars and motorbikes on your way down. It was exhilarating and the Hai Van Pass will be something I will reflect on for years to come, I’m sure.
The views on the way down were equally as spectacular, and once the roads juts back into towards land, the view of the Da Nang coastline appears which offers a birds eye view and scale of what is an area steeped in history and now heavily developed.
Once back to sea level, I still had 20 km to go and an even stronger headwind than at the start of the day. I’d done my research about the winds of Vietnam, which, to date, had proved wrong. A few local people had also mentioned it, and whilst coastal weather systems can be unpredictable, these northern winds seem to be a bit of an anomaly.
I had no idea what to expect from Da Nang, nor had I done much research, but I heard it was a great place, so I was excited to cycle through.
Da Nang is big. It’s the fourth biggest city after Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Hai Phong, and seeing it from the mountain road above on ride down showed how far it has come in the last 30 years since it was home to the American forces during the Vietnam war
The ride into Da Nang was great, and one of the many great things about biketouring, is that you really get to see a lot of a place before you even know where you going or staying. I was pretty tired when I arrived, and the first thing on my mind was a cold dink and some food.
I headed straight for the beautiful beach area, sat a foot away from the sand and just stared out into the seemingly never ending sea in front of me.
“This has become my normal” I thought to my self, sipping on a cold beer and just feeling elated.
My comfort zone has been pushed every single day of this adventure, and the months leading up to this adventure.
What I believe I am now capable of, mentally especially, but physically also, has changed the course of my life forever. I give very little thought to the past and even less to the past 8 years, but there’s certainly thanks to give and that will forever remain unsaid.
I was ravenous by this point, so when I saw a lively beach promenade kiosk serving hotdogs, I knew it was going to be quick, filling, and would perfectly complement more beer!
Here I met Peter from Holland, and engineer who builds vessels all over the world and who currently resides in Vietnam. He noticed me ride up, and as a cycling enthusiastic who had certainly done and continues to do his fair share of touring, was very intrigued. We chatted for a few hours and soon enough, I find myself about 8 beers down and feeling funky, without anywhere booked to sleep yet.
Suitably fed and watered, and buzzing from my day, I booked the closest hotel and made my way to my room, where I quickly found out that I had been completely frazzled by the sun. Suffice to say I slept like and absolute dream that night.
The next day was very chilled out, with me blogging and catching up on admin and staying out of the sun having ben cooked to a medium rare the day before. All day I’d wanted Italian food, I think I even woke up thinking about it, and fortunately, very close to where I was staying, was an excellently reviewed Italian restaurant called My Casa, which was excellent and probably the best Italian food I’d had since being in SEA.
The manager Sonny spoke excellent English and we ended up chatting most of the night between her serving customers in between. It seemed we connected on a nice level, so much so that towards the end of the night and Sonnys shift, she asked if I was still hungry and would I like to join her and some of her friends for dinner and drinks. I certainly wasn’t hungry, but I wasn’t not going to take up the opportunity to experience local life and learn something new.
I jumped on the back of Sonnys motorbike, and soon enough we were riding along the beachside road, city lights shining around us, the wind in our hair and warm air in our faces and a pretty big smile etched across my face. There’s been numerous times where I felt like I was in an augmented reality, like a movie scene, and this was certainly one of them.
Sonny was great and although I wasn’t hungry, she made sure I was able to try everything and I’m so glad she did as the food was exceptional. So much so, I’d say it was probably the tastiest Vietnamese food I had since cycling in from Laos.
One thing I have a new found taste for is tofu, and Vietnam seems to be the place for it. On nearly all of the food markets I’ve been to, fresh, wobbly tofu seems to be a reoccurring, consistently good product.
For all the bad rep that Vietnam gets for swindling, cheating and blatant lies, when you are invited into their hospitality, they ensure you are very well looked after and very conscientious in that respect, which I’d already experienced a few times and felt privileged to experience again.
I had intended to stay in Da Nang a few more days and hang out with, and be shown around by Sonny some more, but decided that Da Nang didn’t really offer me much, and I knew Hoi An was going to offer me much much more, so I decided to leave. Sonny and I have stayed in contact a little bit which has been nice.
Hoi An is only 25km from Da Nang, and whilst I had considered maybe coming back to Da Nang to see be shown around by Sonny, when I arrived in Hoi An’s, An Bang beach, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere else.
After stopping at An Bang beach, it was a short 4km ride into Hoi An, where, over the next 2 weeks I'd meet some incredible people, have some incredible experiences and excitedly await the arrival of my Auntie, Uncle and cousins who were passing through on holiday.