At this point, I don’t exactly have a plan. I am winging it.
Having passed over a horde of substandard Honda Dreams, Citis and Wave Alphas — motorbikes that would almost certainly leave me stranded on the Hai Van Pass if they didn’t break down sooner — there is now parked in front of me a gleaming new Yamaha Sirius. But the owner wants my passport.
I can’t explain to him that this is impossible, that I will need my passport to check into a hotel in Danang in a few hours time. That I plan to drive his bike 4 hours southeast of Hue, over the Hai Van Pass, into Danang , then to Hoi An and back would no doubt be a deal breaker.
So instead I tell him I cannot give him my passport. It is at my hotel. He asks for the hotel’s number. I tell him I need to switch hotels; mine is very bad. I tell him he can have my New York State driver’s license. He looks on the verge of giving me a yes. I tell him I’ll pay him up front for the three days’ rental.
I stop at my hotel, pick up my backpack, get back on the Sirius and just like that I’ve salvaged my trip from the brink of disaster. Just like that, I am headed out of town, bound for the Hai Van Pass.
The road out of Hue is almost exceedingly well marked, if a bit labyrinthine. Every few hundred metres, there’s another sign. This way. That way. Left. Right. Up. Down. Back the other way. It’s a cartoonish route, but it proves dependable and soon I’m on the open road heading west, driving past coastal paddies.
But then the rain starts up. The proceeding hours are a blur. I stop to reposition my rain jacket; multiple configurations lead to the same conclusion: it’s going to be a we ride. About an hour into the drive, my hands are frozen solid. I stop at two large markets to find gloves. No luck. All I get are inquisitive stares and giggles.
From there, things get hazy. I remember a backup where a bridge is being repaired. But other than that, I am just trying my best to make good time, trying to overtake the truck traffic. After a while, 70km per hour feels just fine on the slick roads. I start to accept the discomfort, the aching limbs and numb fingers. The sign to denote you’re leaving a hamlet — the crossed-out skyline — is my only comfort.
And then it happens. I’m just outside of the Hai Van Pass. The rain has reduced to a drizzle. The first ascent alone, steep and banking towards the ocean, assures me that the Hai Van Pass will dwarf the two smaller passes I’ve already driven. The experience, I begin to realize, will make all that’s come before worth it.
Thanks to a recently completed tunnel for truck traffic, the Hai Van Pass is nothing short of a motorcyclist’s dream come true. Lanes that likely made for tense trips by bus or truck provide latitude for motorbikes to bank and weave with relative safety. Around every corner, you imagine the summit must be near, but the road continues to climb, the South China Sea below growing more distant, the jungle foliage on the mountainside more verdant.
And then I reach the top. With the mist and cloud cover, the view is non-existant. No worries. I’m eager to get back on the bike. The drive down the mountain proves just as much fun — you’ve got to keep your hand on the break just to keep yourself in check. And not long into the descent, the rain abates altogether. The sun comes out. I take of the stifling raincoat, and continue down the mountain, the sun and wind drying my sodden clothes.
Next stop Danang.