All Aboard! The Hải Vân Pass

Physically separating north and south Vietnam, the Annamite mountain range is a rugged barrier between Đà Nẵng and Thừa Thiên-Huế provinces. Where the mountains jut into the South China Sea, you’ll find the country’s most famous (and deadliest) mountain road, the 21-km long Hải Vân Pass.

In good weather, the trip across Hải Vân (literally Ocean Cloud) promises to be one of the most scenic journeys in all of Vietnam. 

By Car

Best is to experience Hải Vân by car, heading over the narrow ribbon of asphalt made famous by an episode of BBC’s Top Gear. The pass is also historically famous for the large number of deadly accidents that occur every year as drivers negotiate the hairpins in bad weather. Since the opening of the Hải Vân Tunnel in 2008 (Southeast Asia’s longest) the number of accidents have been drastically reduced. 

At the summit of the pass (peaking at 496m) are the remains of an old fortification and gate, a testament to the strategic importance of the area. When we arrived, the site was shrouded in cloud, a suitably moody atmosphere for these old ruins. 

The most dangerous thing here? Super aggressive souvenir shop owners vying for your business. 

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By Train

Another way to experience the rugged countryside is to take the train. From Huế to Đà Nẵng, the Hanoi-Saigon express follows the coastline, hugging the mountainside through a series of tunnels and viaducts. It’s a slow and relaxed way to see the Hải Vân Pass, albeit from below. Everywhere you’re surrounded by lush vegetation with the occasional village and rice paddy. 

Train travel in Vietnam is relatively inexpensive, even by “luxurious” sleeper cabins. Though if you’re a stickler for personal hygiene, you might want to stick with the soft seat tickets, or even the hard seats like most locals do. We found out the hard way that the cabins aren’t cleaned between stations…

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