This section from Lang Co to Da Nang is the fourteenth instalment of my bicycle ride from Yunnan to Cambodia – if all goes according to plan. Titled “Slap the Belgian!”, it is simultaneously published on Crazyguyonabike.com, where you’ll find a map with the itinerary and many other bicycle diaries by me and others. I hope you’ll enjoy.

We’d had a moderately good sleep – as good as you can sleep when you have a window facing Vietnam’s busiest highway. A peek behind the curtain reveals a world no less dull and grey than yesterday’s but it’s dry. Dry means we have to get out and seize our chance of besting what is probably the biggest challenge of the entire ride: the 10 km climb up the Hai Van pass.

The Hai Van pass looming ahead
The Hai Van pass looming ahead

I’ve climbed the Hai Van before. With its 500m ascent and 10 km slope at an average grade of 7%, it’s actually much overhyped. Northern Vietnam and Yunnan both boast climbs that are up to five times longer and with much steeper grades. Yet, if it’s your first big climb as it was for Tu, it is a bit daunting indeed. The amazing views of the bays and lagoons below offer little solace when your every muscle and tendon are strained to the limit.

We rode our first few kilometres to the actual town of Lang Co, smelled the omnipresent eucalyptus oil on sale everywhere along the road, and had a local speciality called Banh Loc. It’s made of something that looks most like a blend between animal jelly and sticky rice cake with some sauce and shrimp inside, wrapped together in bamboo leaves for easier packaging. It’s actually quite delicious.

Tu and the train
Tu and the train

At Lang Co we have another meal consisting of fried wheat noodles with seafood and pork and more Banh Loc. Then we begin our long via Dolorosa towards the saddle in the mountains, separating the provinces of Hue and Da Nang. We catch a last glimpse of the pretty Lang Co bay, wait for a Da Nang-bound train to pass and are then left alone with our pain.

Lang Co town
Lang Co town from across the bay

You need few words to describe the ascent on a long hill. Your brain is mostly empty, trying to deal with pain, and all events and sights happen in slow-motion. On the other half of the road, time seems to move at an entirely different speed, as motorcycles carrying overloaded backpackers and the occasional Vietnamese cyclist come flashing down the hill. All of them cheer us on from across the time chasm, whereas most locals have mostly looks of disbelief for Tu and her bike.

Battling up the Hai Van pass
Battling up the Hai Van pass

It takes a lot of sweat, tears, water breaks, stretches, encouragement and physical will, but eventually Tu also reaches the top of the hill, where the touts instantly flock around us, trying to sell us all kinds of overpriced shit. We do as I did a few years ago: ignore and move on, but not before Tu was laden with praise from a busful of Korean tourists.

Rolling down the hill, we’re in a much better mood. We have plenty of time to stop for pictures, to play with shy grass and to take in the views. The nice thing about the Hai Van pass is that most traffic goes through a tunnel. Only motorcycles, trucks with dangerous cargo and tourists take the actual Hai Van.

Some Koreans think Tu's pretty cool
These Koreans think Tu’s pretty cool

We reach Da Nang without moving another muscle, but the city is big. We ride another 20 km to reach the city centre where we meed Linh, Tu’s cousin. Linh’s currently travelling in Da Nang with a neighbour and the neighbour’s son, a local, helps us find a hotel – by far the crappiest I’ve ever slept in for that price.

180.000 Dong for beds that seem to be made out of plastic bags, threadbare rags for towels, mosquitoes and noise everywhere and no option to sleep together in one bed. We learn that such is the law in Vietnam, that mixed Vietnamese-foreign couples are not allowed to sleep in one bed unless they provide a marriage certificate. Two separate beds is fine, as if that’s changing anything.

Same beach, with me
Same beach, with me

After changing clothes, we all go on a food binge that lasts all night. Fishball noodle soup at this shop, then smoothies and donuts with a river view at another, followed by Nem Lui and Banh Xeo (see pictures). More modern and with wider streets than Ha Noi and Ho Chi Minh, yet with no compromise when it comes to streetfood and street life, I find Da Nang an extremely likeable city. It has normally great weather, both mountains and beach nearby, great food, modest prices, rail and air connection to the country’s largest cities – I’d like to set up camp here some day!

The Nem Lui and Banh Xeo joint
The Nem Lui and Banh Xeo joint

We finish the day watching the Flying Dragon bridge spit fire and water as a symbol for the king (of the middle Vietnamese kingdom). The bridge was apparently completed only in July this year and on weekends at 9 pm, it provides this show for tourists and locals all alike.

Hustlers set out little chairs and sell drinks on the banks of the river below so everyone can watch the spectacle in comfort. We buy some additional green mango, beer and coconut juice and enjoy the scene of tourists running away when the dragon unexpectedly rains water over them.

Da Nang dragon bridge breathing fire
On weekends at 9 pm, it breathes fire…
Da Nang dragon bridge spraying water
… and then water over the unsuspecting tourists

That night, Linh and the neighbour all stay in our hotel room. We sleep a horrible sleep.

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