Today was a mix of some of the best driving and some of the most stressful situations. The road in the morning was small and flanked with deep sand on either side. Soon, this turned to single lane roads with gravel and construction blocking traffic and creating mass chaos. The trucks were acting unpredictably aggressive and every minute it seemed I was dodging around obstacles and cursing out all the drivers around me. A few days ago we met a retired Canadian man on a motorcycle and he had some accurate observations of the Vietnamese, “The people are wonderful, very friendly and hospitable. But I swear, the second they step behind the wheel of one of those trucks or buses, they’re the devil.”
I was in much need of a break from the road madness, so we stopped for a lunch of “bun cha” (noodles and barbecued pork nuggets) to regain patience for the road.
I was afraid that the battle with the trucks and buses would continue up the steep mountain road we were fast approaching. Thankfully, a tunnel was built in the last decade to provide a direct route cutting through the mountain, which weeded out a majority of the metal monsters. We pulled up to the base of the Hai Van Pass, and I prayed my bike would have enough power to carry me up the mountain. Blue Steel chugged along in second gear at a leisurely pace, as Byron, on his speedier bike, kept waiting up for me to ask if that was truly the fastest I could go. I was just happy the bike was actually taking me uphill, so I continued on at my turtle pace around sweeping bends overlooking the ocean beyond the cliff’s edge. We saw a huge number of tourists on scooters or on the back of a Vietnamese tour guide’s motorcycle due to the popularity of the drive between Hue and Hoi An. Not only were there bikes on the road, but whole herds of goats and a few cows dilly dallying in the middle of the road.
The Hai Van Pass is a distinct part of the geography that separates the north of Vietnam from the south due to the mountain’s ability to block the chilly Northern temperatures from drifting any further. For us, it felt wonderful to climb higher and higher up the winding road and know we were leaving behind the cold for good. At the peak of the pass, we shed our jackets and basked in the sunshine and warmth while glimpsing the white sandy beaches and inviting blue-green water at the bottom of the pass. In the far distance, we could just see the outline of skyscrapers along the beachfront–the city of Da Nang. We coasted all the way down the steep mountainside, and felt some relief at the bottom after putting our brakes to the test. At this intersection between north and south lies Nam O Beach–the first area US Combat troops landed in 1965. Also of historical importance is China Beach, running from the outskirts of Da Nang to Hoi An, as a place of relaxation for US soldiers to take a break from the fighting.
After spending much of our time in the north driving past teeny tiny villages with nothing more than a few humble houses, it felt odd to be cruising along the main beach road through Da Nang with towering hotels and resorts for scenery. I could have easily been in Miami or any other western beach city with the level of luxury and tourism this place had. We continued along the beachside road all the way to Hoi An, with the sun beating down as it sunk deeper into the sky and the wind whipping through my t-shirt. It felt incredible.
We ended up staying at a fairly upscale hotel (for a whopping $24 a night) because the backpackers hostel was booked full. The splurge was worth it after taking a dip in the pool and sitting out on our private balcony with a view overlooking the city. The hotel also offered bicycles to ride around town, so we cruised around the old section in search of some traditional Hoi An grub. The Lonely Planet suggested restaurant had all the specialties: White Rose (shrimp dumpling), Banh Xeo (crispy pancake with rice paper, pork and sprouts), and our favorite, Cau Lau (thick noodles with sprouts, greens, and sliced pork). We only ordered a few because Lonely Planet restaurants are never cheap, so we continued our search for more food. Amidst the stone cobbled streets lined with quaint historic buildings and strings of colorful lanterns, is the market. During the day, there’s fish, vegetables, utensils, fruits, baskets, and every other type of vendor you can imagine. In the center is a large warehouse with a “food court” of benches and stalls where most of the locals seemed to eat. We looked at the menu of one insistent woman’s stall and saw all the exact same specialty food we just paid triple for at the other restaurant. We ordered more food and were surprised to see that not only was it cheaper, but bigger portions and tasted better. Lesson learned: eat with the locals.
With full stomachs, we strolled along the charming streets with the company of hundreds of other tourists here to take in the romance, history, and quaintness of the city. Down at the river there were ladies selling paper lotus lanterns with a candle in the middle, their faces illuminated in a glow of color. Out on the water we could see several of these lanterns drifting along with the current, past the river boats full of tourists enjoying dinner and guitar players creating a wonderful atmosphere with their melodies.