If you’d like to get off the beaten track in Vietnam, this is the place to do it. The bulk of travellers shoot along the coast to the east, and even those who prefer mountains to beaches usually head to the larger, more spectacular ranges to the north of the country. The central highlands can’t quite match the northern mountains for scenic beauty, and its minority groups are far less colourful, but there’s a lot to see here – thundering waterfalls, mist-laden mountains, immense longhouses and barely a tourist in sight. Bounded to the west by the Cambodian border, and spreading out over the lofty peaks and broad plateaux of the Truong Son Mountains, the central highlands stretch from the base of Highway 1 right up to the bottleneck of land that squeezes past Da Nang towards Hanoi and the north. The region’s fertile red soils yield considerable natural resources – among them coffee, tea, rubber, silk and hardwood. Not all of the highlands, though, have been sacrificed to plantation-style economies of scale – pockets of primeval forest still thrive, where wildlife including elephants, bears and gibbons somehow survived the days when the region was a hunting ground for Saigon’s idle rich and Hué’s idle royalty.
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For most visitors who ascend to these altitudes, the main target is Da Lat, an erstwhile French mountain retreat that appears very romantic from afar, when the mists roll over its pine-crested hilltops, though some find it disappointing close-up, with its dreary architecture and tacky tourist trappings. The city itself is not without its charms, among them a bracing climate, some beguiling colonial buildings, picturesque bike rides and a market overflowing with delectable fruits and vegetables.
Heading north from Da Lat, you’ll pass pretty Lak Lake, an attractive body of water surrounded by minority villages. Then comes a series of gritty highland towns whose reputations rest less on tourist sights than on the villages and open terrain that ring them. First comes Buon Ma Thuot, a surprisingly busy place considering its far-flung location. While the city itself has little to detain the visitor, the surrounding waterfalls and E De minority villages certainly do; it’s also the gateway for treks into Yok Don National Park.
Pleiku to the north is another less-than-lovely city, though again encircled with a ring of delightful minority villages – this time Jarai and Bahnar. Further north again is Kon Tum, by far the most attractive and relaxing of these three provincial capitals; you’ll be able to take in three Bahnar villages on an afternoon’s walk from the city centre, and mop up a few other minority groups farther afield.
Ethnic minority villages
The Jarai and Bahnar are merely the major chunks of the highlands’ patchwork of ethnic minorities. Cocooned in woolly jumpers, scarves and bobble hats, the highlanders exude a warmth unsurpassed elsewhere in the country, and are the undoubted highlight of a trip through the area. However, many groups are struggling to maintain their identities in the face of persistent pressure from Hanoi to assimilate – a number of rather large protests have taken place since the turn of the 21st century, with the central government’s reactions widely criticised by international governments and human rights groups (see Post–reunification). Sensitive to the minority rights issue, the Vietnamese authorities only opened this region to foreigners in 1993, and while you’re free to travel independently between the major cities, visiting one of the highlands’ many minority villages independently can be difficult: in most cases you’ll need to go through a local tourist office (and pay handsomely for the privilege). In each area, it’s best to double-check the current regulations, especially concerning overnight stays in villages.
Best time to visit Vietnam Central Highlands
Your highland experience will vary enormously depending upon when you visit. The dry season runs from November through to April. To see the region at its atmospheric best, it’s better to go in the wet season, May to October, although at this time the rain can make some outlying villages inaccessible.
The northern central highlands
From Kon Tum, travellers have the choice of heading for the Laos border at Bo Y, down to the coast at Quang Ngai on Highway 24 or continuing north on the picturesque Highway 14, also know as the Ho Chi Minh Highway, which is a pleasure to travel on.
The southern central highlands
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.
Surrounded as they are by dense forest, Dambri Falls are much more attractive than any of those in the vicinity of Da Lat, and the only ones worth visiting in the dry season. The road to the falls, which branches north from Highway 20 just east of Bao Loc, bisects rolling countryside carpeted by coffee, tea and pineapple plantations. Once you arrive, there are two paths leading to the falls. The main one to the right leads to the top of the falls, where some ugly fencing stands between you and a precipice over which a torrent of white water tumbles over the 80m drop. From here, you can descend to the base of the falls by steep steps, or if you’re feeling lazy, there’s a lift available. A second path, to the left by a restaurant, leads down a steep stairway among towering trees to a superb view of the falls from in front. The two paths are linked by a bridge over the river, where you’re likely to get drenched in spray, even during the dry season. The path continues downstream to a smaller cascade, Dasara Falls, but the trail can be slippery after rain.
A hundred and fifty kilometres north of Da Lat and 40km south of Buon Ma Thuot, Highway 27 passes serene Lak Lake, a charming spot that has become very popular with tourists. Five thousand people, mostly from the Mnong community, once lived on the lake itself, but have since moved into distinctive longhouses in shoreside villages. There are a number of (slightly cheesy) activities available here, including musical gong performances and elephant rides; note that the latter can no longer be recommended, since you’ll be sitting atop a metal cage that’s doubtless extremely painful for the poor pachyderm. Still, the lake itself is a glorious place, as once attested by Emperor Bao Dai himself – he grabbed some of the best sites in southern Vietnam for his many palaces, so it comes as no surprise to learn that he had one here, in a prime spot on a small hill overlooking the lake. The palace is long gone, but the site is now home to a small hotel.
Buon Ma Thuot and around
The city of Buon Ma Thuot itself has little to offer, its central sprawl of modern buildings being splayed across a grid of characterless streets. With a jeep protruding from its central column, the town’s dramatic Victory Monument on Le Duan is the hub from which all the town’s main roads radiate. The town grew big on coffee and rubber, and is surprisingly affluent with a spate of buildings under construction and flash cars buzzing around its streets. However, in a neat reversal of the norm, urban renewal is occurring from the outside in, and the centre is still appealingly grubby.
The main draw of Buon Ma Thuot is what can be found in its environs: nearby minority villages with longhouses; traditional minority communities (mostly E De people) at Ako Dhong on the northern outskirts of town and in the surrounding countryside at Ban Don near Yok Don National Park; and some wonderful waterfalls. Between April and July you’ll see the city surrounded by millions of lemon-coloured butterflies, wafting through the air like yellow petals.
Brief history of Buon Ma Thuot
During French colonial times, the town developed on the back of the coffee, tea, rubber and hardwood crops that grew in its fertile red soil, and was the focal point for the plantations that smothered the surrounding countryside: plantation owners and other colons would amuse themselves by picking off the elephants, leopards and tigers once prevalent in the area. In later years Americans superseded the French, but they were long gone by the time the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) swept through in March 1975, making Buon Ma Thuot the first “domino” to fall in the Ho Chi Minh Campaign.
Elephant Race Festival
If you’re in town in spring, don’t miss the Elephant Race Festival, which takes place on the banks of the Serepok River near Ban Don. It’s usually held in the third lunar month but preparations take place for weeks beforehand – those who own elephants in the area spend time fattening up their beasts on local fruit and crops. The race itself is usually brief but blazing, the elephants encouraged (or distracted) by the loud drumming of gongs. Ask at Dak Lak Tourist for dates and details.
Yok Don National Park
Vietnam’s largest wildlife preserve, Yok Don National Park, stretches 115,000 hectares between the hinge of the Cambodian border and the Serepok River. If you start off early in the morning you might see E De and other minority peoples leaving their split-bamboo thatch houses for work in the fields, carrying their tools in raffia backpacks. In addition, over sixty species of animals, including tigers, leopards and bears, and more than 450 types of birds, populate the park; most, however, reside deep in the interior. Of all its exotic animals, elephants are what Yok Don is best known for; the tomb of the greatest elephant hunter of them all – Y Thu Knu (1850–1924), who had a lifetime tally of 244 – is located beyond the final hamlet from the park entrance.
There are a number of activities on offer in Ban Don, an increasingly switched-on national park. Basic hiking is the most popular, though you’ll need a guide ($40 full-day; $20 half-day). One interesting variation is a night hike ($10; seven-person minimum); at certain times of year, shine a torch into the darkness and you’ll see the eyes of thousands and thousands of frogs staring back at you. During daylight hours, it’s also possible to take a short boat-ride along the Serepok ($20 per boat), or have an elephant trekking tour; the latter cannot be recommended due to the unfriendly metal cages plonked atop the beasts.
The three sub-hamlets that comprise the village of Ban Don lie a few kilometres beyond Yok Don’s park HQ, on the bank of the crocodile-infested Serepok River. Khmer, Thai, Lao, Jarai and Mnong live in the vicinity, though it’s the E De that make up the majority. They adhere to a matriarchal social system, whereby a groom takes his bride’s name, lives with her family and, should his wife die subsequently, marries one of her sisters so that her family retains a male workforce. Houses around the village, a few of which are longhouses, are built on stilts, and some are decorated with ornate woodwork.
However, village life in Ban Don has become overwhelmingly commercial as the Ban Don Tourist Centre has organized its residents into a tourist-welcoming taskforce. It’s possible to spend the night here, though you’ll only truly appreciate Yok Don by heading further into the park; one exception is during March, when the annual elephant festival is held.
The sleepy, friendly town of Kon Tum sits on the edge of the Dakbla River, and is one of the best bases in the central highlands – unlike busy Buon Ma Thuot and concrete-heavy Pleiku, this provincial capital makes a highly pleasant place to stay. It also has a few sights of its own, including some sterling colonial-era architecture – some of the most beautiful buildings in the country. However, most are here to use Kon Tum as a springboard for jaunts to outlying villages of the Bahnar and other minorities such as the Sedang, Gieh Trieng and Rongao. There are about 650 minority villages in the province, of which only a few have been visited by foreigners, so the scope for adventure here is broad.
Kon Tum’s riverside promenade along the Dakbla River is a fine place for a stroll – especially on fair-weather evenings, when it seems as if half the town stops by. It would also be the perfect place for a beer, but only the bars on the other side of the road seem to sell bottles – and even then, they’re usually warm and only for on-site drinking.
Visiting the minority villages
There are dozens of Bahnar villages encircling Kon Tum. As most are free from the official restrictions that hang over Pleiku, you’re at liberty to explore this area at will, although for overnight stays it’s best to check first with the tourist office; if you opt for their guided tours it’ll work out at around $25 per person per day.
All Bahnar villages have at their centre a longhouse known as a rong. Built on sturdy stilts with a platform and entrance at either end (or sometimes in the middle); the interior is generally made of split bamboo and protected by a towering thatched roof, usually about 15m high. The rong is used as a venue for festivals and village meetings, and as a village court at which anyone found guilty of a tribal offence has to ritually kill a pig and a chicken, and must apologize in front of the village.
Within Kon Tum
One good thing about Kon Tum is that you don’t have to go far to get a feel of a minority village, as there are a couple of Bahnar villages within the town itself. First comes Kon Harachot, whose immaculate rong faces a football field – if you’re lucky, you may even get to see an all-Bahnar game. To get there, head east along Nguyen Hué, and take any right turn up until Hoang Dieu; Ly Thai To will bring you straight to the rong. Following Nguyen Hué to its eastern end brings you to Kon Tum Konam, while following Tran Hung Dao to the east takes you directly to Kon Tum Kopong, where there is another wonderful example of a rong. Villagers at Kon Tum Kopong are big on basket-weaving, and you might chance upon locals cutting bamboo into thin strips and crafting them into sturdy baskets, which they sell very cheaply in the local market.
Plei Thonghia and Kon Hongo
The villages of Plei Thongia and Kon Hongo, respectively 1km and 4km west of Kon Tum, are inhabited by members of the Rongao, one of the smaller minority groups in the region. Women are often busy weaving in the shade of their simple, wooden huts, ox carts trundle along the dusty road and children splash about in the Dakbla River down below. It’s possible to walk to Plei Tonghia – heading north from the Dakbla bridge, turn left at Ba Trieu and just keep going. Kon Hongo is within cycling distance but a little tricky to find – it’s easier to take a xe om there (20,000đ) and work your way back on foot.
About 5km to the east of Kon Tum is the most frequently visited of Bahnar villages, Kon Kotu. Though now linked to Kon Tum by a surfaced road, it makes a pleasant walk to go there by country paths (contact the local tourist office for details) and it’s possible to overnight in the village rong. To get there by road, follow Tran Hung Dao east out of town until you reach a suspension bridge over the river at Kon Klor. Turn left 200m beyond the bridge and follow the road to Kon Kotu. Though the village church is absolutely huge, and fairly pretty to boot, it’s still the immaculate rong that commands the most attention. No nails were used in the construction of the bamboo walls, floor and the impossibly tall thatch roof of this lofty communal hall. It also doubles as an occasional overnight stop for local trekking tours organized by Kon Tum Tourist, either in a simple guesthouse ($12 per person), or the longhouse itself ($10).
About 17km southwest of Kon Tum is the village of Ya Chim, where there are a few Jarai cemeteries that can be visited, though it’s best to go with a guide from Kon Tum Tourist as they are tricky to find. Wooden posts, some of them carved in the form of mourning figures, surround the graves and personal possessions such as a bicycle or TV are placed inside. The graves are carefully tended for a period of three to five years after death and offerings are brought to the site daily. At the end of this period a buffalo is sacrificed to make a feast for the villagers and the grave is abandoned in the belief that the spirit of the deceased has now departed.