The southern section of the central highlands is its most-travelled region, though the vast majority pass straight through from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Lat, the only city in the area that appears on open-tour bus schedules. It’s also possible to fly into Da Lat, but there are actually a few sights on the overland route from Ho Chi Minh City. The route follows Highway 1 for about 70km before branching northeast on Highway 20, which starts a steady climb. The rubber trees corralling its traffic occasionally reveal tantalizing views of the valleys below. Buses sometimes screech to a brief halt on the causeway traversing La Nga Lake, from where the houseboats cast adrift on its waters are only a zoom lens away. Locals use foot-powered rowing boats to access their homes, which double as fish farms. East of La Nga, Highway 20 passes wooded slopes whose verdant greens are flecked occasionally by the red-tiled roofs of farmsteads and the roving figures of grazing cattle. Look out for unusual rock formations at the roadside in Dinh Quan, 112km from Ho Chi Minh City, where enormous smooth boulders are scattered beside the highway in the southern part of town, and volcanoes with symmetrical slopes and flat tops are visible from the road both south and north of town.
In time the hills yield to the tea, coffee and mulberry plantations of the Bao Loc Plateau. The town of Bao Loc is the best place for a pit stop between Ho Chi Minh City and Da Lat, and it’s also a jumping-off point for visits to nearby Cat Tien National Park and Dambri Waterfalls. Another 100km further northeast, Highway 20 switchbacks up the considerable climb to Da Lat at an altitude of just under 1500 metres.