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Visiting Hue & Driving the Hai Van Pass

The bus journey to Hue from Phong Nha was an unexpectedly long one, mainly because we were on a small mini bus, instead of the coaches we'd been on in Vietnam so far. Not to mention the blaring Vietnamese karaoke on the huge 30" tv screen at the front of the bus. Yes. Asia is a weird but wonderful place.

We quickly chucked our bags down in our guest house and headed out for some food, opting for more of a liquid dinner of draft Tiger beer and a few small plates, including some Hanoi style spring rolls which are still my favourite. We wandered around the town for a bit, getting to grips with the place. What really struck me was just how touristy Hue was, and not even just for backpackers. Hue is one of the main stops on the 'package tour' holidays due to the ancient city across the river, it's teaming with history so people flock there in their thousands, staying in the many high rise four star hotels.

By this point, we were positioned much closer to the centre of the country so the weather was thankfully getting warmer again (heaven knows how we'll cope when we actually do get back to the UK) so we set out for a day of sight seeing in the ancient city. There's lots to see here, we paid the entrance fee to go into the old royal palace and wandered around for a few hours. In all honesty, it's probably much more satisfying having a guide to tell you the facts and history of the place but because we were on a budget and being cheap, we decided against it. It was just nice walking around seeing all the old architecture and reading bits and bobs about what had happened. Sadly, a lot of the ancient city was lost through bombing during the war, but they've done a good job at keeping it all pristine and in good shape.

After a few hours in the ancient city, we headed back across the river for a bite to eat. We stopped in a couple of tour booking agencies on the way to enquire about a trip to the Demilitarized Zone, after which we did a lot of research into reviews of the tours and decided against it. For the money we would have paid, I think it was close to US$40 each, for a really long day of driving, it didn't really seem worth it - again coming down to budget.

However, we did decide that our next part of the journey we would do ourselves... Hue to Hoi An on bikes (scooters actually, because neither of us know how to ride a motorbike and weren't going to use the Vietnamese roads as practice...). After enquiring around town, we decided to go with the tour through our hotel, Hotel Stay, an excellent budget hotel, $15 a night for a double room, breakfast included and run by the friendliest bunch of staff and owners, two French brothers. Their Hue to Hoi An tour was great value for money at $25 each, we had bike rental for the day, helmets, maps and the company takes your big bags to Hoi An via car so you don't have to be massively uncomfortable riding with them all day. Perfect.

The day we set off, it was gloomy weather and starting to spit but we were in good spirits knowing we were about to do something really awesome. Having ridden bikes in Thailand, we had some good experience of how traffic flows in Asia, it was just the length of the journey we were facing... over 100km. We were hoping it would take a couple of hours, oh how wrong we were. The hotel told us how to get on the main road to Hoi An, 'turn right before the bridge then it is one straight road'. Yeah, something like that... We managed to get onto the main road and after about an hour of driving the weather was starting to get worse so we put on our anoraks, then very soon after we had to put on our plastic overalls because the rain wasn't letting up.

We were driving for a good 3-4 hours before we hit the Hai Van Pass - made famous by the Top Gear Vietnam Special and supposedly the best coastal views in the world. The road is barely used by locals anymore since a tunnel was built through the mountain to cut the journey time down by an hour or so; the only people who drive on the mountain road are tourists, and big massive oil trucks. No biggy. A quick stop for petrol and off we went. The rain wasn't really getting worse but it wasn't letting up, and it would have been worth it for the views had there been more than 10m of visibility for the WHOLE ride. We basically drove through a massive cloud and couldn't see a thing. It was freezing, we were soaking and we were still quite a way from Hoi An.

I don't have any pictures to show you just how mental this part of our journey was. At one point the visibility driving was so bad we pulled over to a cafe stopover thinking a woman was waving us down because it was unsafe to drive, because that's how it felt. Every sharp corner we took going up the mountain, we made sure to beep our horns because the massive oil and petrol tankers coming round the sharp corners towards us didn't have their lights on. So BANG out of nowhere there'd be a huge truck right in front of you with no warning.

When we got off the Hai Van Pass, it was purely motorways and dual carriage ways, and this is when the rain really hit. I'll never forget the utter terror of driving down the highway in Vietnam, only one hand steering because I was using my other hand to shield my eyes from the rain slapping and stinging me in the face. Great fun!

We eventually arrived in Hoi An, after about 6-7 hours of driving. Soaked to the bone and frozen through, with no fresh clothes to change into because our bags hadn't arrived yet. We only waited a short while for our bags in reality and thus we were able to become human again. In the end the whole journey was totally worth it, not just for the scenery, and the experience but also because of where we had finally ended up, the wonderful Hoi An.