Geographically, Vietnam is a country divided. The north is big, wide and mountainous, the south is big, wide and flat, but in the middle it narrows to a slender stretch between the mountains and the sea. Just north of Da Nang the mountains jut out and touch the ocean, creating a clear divide between north and south. The mountains are high and steep, and once served as a boundary for empires (though it is not the location of the DMZ).
Winding through these mountains is the Hai Van Pass. This road used to be the principle route between north and south. In 2005 a tunnel was constructed under the mountain, leaving the pass as a side route for motorbikes and flammable cargo. This means the Hai Van Pass is a relatively safe, easy, and extremely scenic ride. So in the morning I rent a scooter in Hoi An and set out over the pass toward Hue.
I stop in Da Nang, 20 km north of Hoi An, for gas (the scooter came nearly empty), coffee and an ATM. Almost as soon as I’m back on the road a brown-uniformed Vietnamese man wades out into traffic, points his baton at me and waves me over to his friends. Shit, the police. He explains in excellent English that they’re performing spot checks of foreigners, to ensure they have the proper documentation.
It is, of course, completely illegal for me to drive a motorbike in Vietnam. I do not have an international driver’s license, nor do I have a motorcycle endorsement. The cop looks at me sternly and begins to taking about the consequences: impound the bike, big fine, lengthy legal process. Adrenaline spikes; I begin to sweat. But this is a play with well defined roles, and so I say my line.
“Is there any way I can pay the fine now, in cash?”
Such “spot fines” are common in Vietnam, where the police are notoriously corrupt. Pay in cash and walk (or drive) away, no paperwork required. What happens to the money once I’m gone is none of my concern.
“Hold on, I need to talk to my captain”. Double shit – have I been pulled over by the only straight cops in Vietnam?
Nope. The captain pulls me aside, takes out a long, official looking form, and fills out exactly one line with a number: 2,000,000 VND. Just over $85. Thank goodness I stopped at the ATM. I hand over the cash and am free to go, just like that.
A huge wave of relief washes over me as I speed away. It worked! I stop at the next ATM and pull out a double helping of cash, just in case I’m stopped again.
The rest of the ride is smooth as silk. The pass itself is incredibly beautiful, the weather perfect and the road in great condition. I wind my way up and then back down, feasting my eyes on the view.
I stop for lunch at a little oceanside Cafe. Seafood tastes better to the sound of waves crashing on an endless, empty beach.
I continue to make my way north up the coast. I am in no hurry, and meander a bit. I explore side roads, sit on random beaches with a book, stop for a beer. The scenery is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
I find myself on a coastal road paralleling the main highway. Though Google Maps colors it orange like a major road, it is just a two lane track connecting the villages along a spar of land between the ocean and a bay. In some places it is not even paved. In all places it is spectacular.
In addition to the scenery, along the road there are hundreds of shrines. Some are small, some are sprawling, almost all are intricately decorated. I have no idea what they’re for.
Finally, with night falling, I make my way into Hue. Dodging through rush hour traffic is intense, but the flow makes sense and no one is going that terribly fast. I turn in the bike at the shop, get a ride to my hostel, and fall onto the bed, exhausted.
This was one of the best days I’ve had on this trip, even including the police encounter. At this point I’m seriously considering renting or buying a bike here and driving all the way to Hanoi along the Ho Chi Minh Road. The timing just about works out… stay tuned.