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Day 44– January 13th: Lang Co to Da Nang: 45kms
I’d fallen asleep last night with nagging thoughts about today’s climb. Whether I was up for the job or not, I thought I would find out yesterday, but I really couldn’t say one way or the other. Those climbs were way shorter than what lies in front of me today. I was apprehensive, the build-up was over, and now I would climb Hai Van Pass, one way or another. All I was sure about was that it would test my physical and mental capacity to the limit.
I said goodbye to Sharyn, who would meet me at the top of the pass. She had organized a car to get her to Da Nang but would wait for me at the top of the climb in case I needed something. One thing was already in my favor. There was no rain.
Just down the road, after a few minutes, I stopped on the bridge over the entrance to the lagoon. Once again, the sky was cloudy and dull; the water was grey; I took a photo anyway.
Crossing the bridge, I followed the road around through a small village and under the highway, which led to the long duel tunnels, one of them brand new. On the side of the road were rows of hoses fastened to the ground, shooting streams of water into the air. They were just left to run. I passed by disinterested; my only concern was with what lay ahead.
Just past the hoses, the road bent left and went up sharply! A sign said 8%, but these signs have proved wrong in the past; it looked more like 10% to me. I stopped and drank some of my water, partly to hydrate and partly to lighten my load. I was hoping there’d be some gradual lead-up to the steeper sections well above me, but I was wrong. I now knew for sure this would be a tough day in the saddle. I would have to get up there any way I could, and if that meant a fair bit of walking the bike, then so be it.
As I crested the first rise and rounded another bend, I hoped the gradient would level out. I was wrong again! I stopped to conserve my energy and regain my focus. It was hard to see what was before me as the road kept winding around on itself, and trees lined both sides, hiding views of higher up the mountain.
By the time I was a quarter of the way up, it wasn’t just the gradient that was testing me. Not only was the road badly maintained, but there was also heaps of truck traffic. Trucks behind me were pretty slow and easy to let by, but the trucks coming down the mountain were taking up much of the width of the road. Twice trucks overtook each other on blind bends and sent me scrambling off the side of the road. Unfortunately, there were lots of bends, and nearly all of them were blind.
At one point, I stopped by a truck that had pulled over. It was making its way up the mountain like me. I asked the driver why so many trucks were using the pass while there were two perfectly good tunnels running through the mountain. I figured they didn’t want to pay the toll. Not speaking any English, he pointed to the “highly flammable” danger sign on the back of his tanker. Of course! They weren’t allowed to use the tunnel in case of a leak. Fair enough, I thought to myself. I wouldn’t want to be stuck in there when one of them exploded!
There were also a lot of trucks carrying live pigs. I know from experience not to get too close to these as they stink to high heaven. As they were all on their way down, I wasn’t bothered by them much.
Now it occurred to me what the hoses down the bottom were for. All the big trucks coming down the mountain were riding their brakes all the way down. You could smell the burning brake pads every now and then and see smoke coming out the side of some of the slower trucks. The trucks will pull over down the bottom and let the jets of water cool off their brakes – ingenious!
By now, I was only about half the way up and stopping every 200m. All of the switchbacks were around 10-12% gradient and hard work. There was nothing I could do except take my time and stop regularly. It was a grind, a long, slow grind, but my GPS showed me I was making ground, and the top was getting ever so much closer.
With 4kms to go, Sharyn pulled up behind me in a car. I was off the bike and taking a leak in the undergrowth on the side of the road. After checking to see if I was OK, she suggested I give her my rack pack, the bag on top of my panniers, and lighten the load a bit. I actually thought twice about this. Was it cheating? Should I have to carry my entire load up the mountain? By this stage, I was really exhausted, and I knew there was a long, steep climb of about 2kms to finish. I unbound the bag and handed it to her, and she put it in the car. Most of the weight was still in the panniers, but psychologically, I now felt fresher.
Ironically, the next 2kms started to flatten out a bit, which was great as it gave me a chance to recover before the final ascent. At a bridge on a hairpin bend, the road went up steeply, probably about 8-9%. I pulled over and took a break. I could see it went straight up for about a kilometer, then cut back on itself for the final kilometer up to the pass, which now appeared high above me. It was the first time I could see clearly what lay ahead of me.
After 500m, I went past a shrine dug into the side of the mountain slope. There were a number of worshippers who had stopped to say prayers there. I stopped again to rest and take a few pictures. The view from here was open and expansive but a bit hazy. With my breath back, I pushed on. At the top of the slope at the switchback, I pulled over once again. I could see the pass from here; it still seemed so far away somehow.
I had gotten up the last section quite well, I thought to myself, but the next section looked even steeper. I waited a few more minutes, drank some water, and headed off. It was indeed a bit steeper. My legs were now groaning, and my lungs were burning as they tried to suck as much air in as they could. A couple of trucks made the last bend interesting for me, but I didn’t have to dismount. I felt like stopping again, but I knew the pass was close and wanted to finish it.
It wasn’t till I was about 200m from the top that I could see Sharyn. She was videoing me with her phone. I was head-down over the handlebars inching closer and closer to the top, barely able to acknowledge her. My only thought was to get to the top and collapse with a cold, fizzy drink.
Two and a quarter hours later, I had reached the top of Hai Van Pass. I was spent. I parked the bike, and Sharyn got me a couple of drinks. I couldn’t even think straight; my mind was still focused on the road. I needed to rest, but at the same time, I couldn’t hang around and get cold. I was wet with sweat and cooling quickly; any celebratory thoughts would have to wait till I arrived in Da Nang.
Knowing I wasn’t even halfway to Da Nang got my mind back on the job. I refilled my water and got some biscuits to eat. Then put on my wind jacket and headed off down the mountain. The road on this side was immediately a hundred times better; it was practically brand new. It was also wider and lacked any forest on both sides. This meant that there were heaps of places to stop and take in the view that went all the way to Da Nang.
Suddenly able to roll, I flew down the mountain at about 40km/hr; I felt fantastic! My legs and my body were recovering as I took this wild, winding ride to the bottom. Even Sharyn’s car couldn’t lose me on the way down as I tagged behind them. I was feeling elated and really enjoying myself now, knowing I’d conquered the pass and was rewarded with this great downhill section of smooth road.
Finally, I ran out of downhill and lobbed onto the coast. I still had about 20 km to go to our hotel and some serious traffic to negotiate. Pushing on, I made my way around the coast on a large, wide esplanade that was obviously built to cater to more and more hotels and resorts that were planned for the area. Halfway down the esplanade, it struck me that it was so much warmer here on the other side of the pass. I made a quick stop to take off my wind jacket, relishing the sun on my skin again after what seemed an endless winter up north.
As I turned away from the esplanade and through the busy streets of Da Nang, the traffic was suddenly chaotic. I had one eye on my GPS and one on the road in front of me. The narrow streets were jammed with two-way traffic of all persuasions. I got myself behind a motorized cart and used it as a block. This proved a good tactic as he was going the same way as me. He finally turned a different way to me just near the river, and I was out by myself again.
At the river, I crossed a long bridge as the sun came out. I wanted to jump for joy, but the traffic on the bridge was thick and pressing me against the curb. It emptied onto a giant round-a-bout, and I finally got some breathing space on a long, wide boulevard leading to the beach. Sharyn was waiting for me at our hotel, the Sofiana My Khe, and had forewarned them that I had a bicycle to store. The manager let me put it in the downstairs garage, hidden behind some boxes. I was happy it was safe enough.
After getting cleaned up, we had lunch around the corner at a nice restaurant. I had a beer and, as a reward, I ordered the lamb shank. I hadn’t had one in years; it was everything I remembered. Thankfully it perked me up a bit as I was feeling a bit like a zombie by now. Later on, after a good rest, we headed up the street to the Section 30 Craft beer bar, where I killed the pain with a few Loose Rivet IPAs. It’d been a long but successful day!
Day 45 – January 14th: Da Nang
A well-earned sleep-in and a hearty breakfast set us up for a trip over to Seven Bridges Tap House and the night-time experience of the Dragon Bridge opposite. While much of the seafront of Da Nang is a construction site at the moment, the riverside is a different proposition. All along the river, brightly lit buildings reflect their colorful lights out over the water, doubling the effect in an explosion of neon. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the night for the dragon to breathe fire, but its ever-changing colors were something to see.
At Seven Bridges, we sat at the bar and ordered a flight of beers to try. It’s always the best way to find your favorite beer or beers from a new brewery. We thought the Imperial IPA was best, but a bit heavy to session on.
Read on to see what happens next: Ancient, Awesome, and Empty.