Dividing Vietnam—the Hải Văn Pass


In the narrow part of Central Vietnam, between Huế and Đà Nẵng, the Trường Sơn Mountain Range bends to the sea, ending at a spur jutting out from the coast 30 km north of Đà Nẵng. To cross this physical barrier required ascending nearly 500 meters to the Hải Văn Pass. Until the late 15th century the Hải Văn Pass served as a political-cultural boundary between the Vietnamese north of the pass and the Chăm south of it. It has also always been a climate boundary (Hải Văn means Sea Clouds), for the mountains block the cold winds bearing down from the northeast from November to March. It can be cold and rainy in Huế then, yet mild and sunny in Đà Nẵng.

No road existed back then and the pass was not fortified but covered in thick forest. When either side invaded the other, they sailed around it. Even after the Vietnamese vanquished the Chăm and expanded south of the pass, it was still a long time before the French colonialists finally built a road over the pass and a railway line that ran around the spur next to the coast. The Nguyễn Dynasty had erected a rudimentary lookout post there. The French, and later the South Vietnamese and the Americans built forts. Today these abandoned buildings still stand as ugly reminders of historical turbulence.

Nowadays vehicles pass through a tunnel bored through the hill under the pass. But it is still possible to go over the pass by road. On a clear day the view is certainly worth the extra traveling time. To the north, immediately below the mountain, is the seaside village of Lăng Cô, with fine white beaches and, behind it, a large lagoon, a source of oysters to supply the mother-of-pearl inlay craftsmen. To the south, past ponds full of big standing fishing nets, its buildings visible in the distance, is the city of Đà Nẵng. And if it’s winter, chances are, it will be sunnier from here on. Welcome to southern climate.

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