The Central Highlands Travel Guide

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Vietnam’s central highlands are fragrant with flowers for much of the year, and home to thundering waterfalls, immense longhouses and umpteen minority cultures, so it’s something of a surprise that they’re among the least-visited parts of the country. 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 in northern Vietnam. True, the central highlands score lower for scenic beauty, and the area’s minority groups may be less colourful, but there’s still a lot to see here. With the exceptions of majestic Da Lat and enjoyably intimate Kon Tum, the appeal of the area lies outside its urban pockets: there are two national parks to choose between, a wealth of minority home-stay options and barely a tourist in sight. Discover all you need to know for your visit with our Vietnam central highlands travel guide

What to see in Vietnam’s central highlands

Bounded to the west by the Cambodian and Lao borders, the central highlands’ 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 primaeval forest still thrive, where wildlife including elephants, bears and gibbons somehow survived the days when the region was a hunting ground for Saigon’s rich and Hue’s royalty.

Most visitors who ascend to these altitudes set their sights on Da Lat, an erstwhile French mountain retreat that appears very romantic from afar, especially when the mists roll over its pine-crested peaks. Some find it disappointing close-up, with its dreary architecture and tacky tourist trappings, but 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 northwest 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 visitors, the surrounding waterfalls and E De minority villages certainly do, and 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 visit several other minority groups farther afield. Read about the best places to visit and things to see in our Vietnam central highlands travel guide.

Best time to visit Vietnam’s central highlands

Your highland experience will vary enormously depending on when you visit. The dry season runs from November through to April. The best time to visit the central highlands to see the region at its atmospheric best, is during the wet season between May to October. Bear in mind that the rain can make some outlying villages inaccessible during this time.

Best hotels in Vietnam’s Central Highlands

Ca Tien National Park

Green Bamboo Lodge

The best of the small array of decent lodges clustered across the river from the park entrance. Rooms are set in a series of cute “bungalows” approximating local ethnic designs; they

Da Lat

Tulip

This is a nice, new option with partial lake views and lovely rooms – it’s excellent value for money. Staff speak little English, but they’re willing to please and keep the place spick and span. The popularity of this hotel means it’s now part of a small chain of three.

Dalat Palace Heritage

Da Lat’s most magnificent colonial pile sits amid manicured grounds, still radiating 1920s splendour. All rooms are lavishly appointed and decked out with period furnishings, including chunky telephones and massive bathtubs. It’s gorgeous, but can feel a little empty at times – though this can be a positive thing. Book online for the best deals.

Du Parc

This sympathetically restored colonial edifice would be an ideal place to stay if your budget won’t stretch to a room at the nearby Dalat Palace. The cage-lift creaks up to pleasant, well-ventilated rooms with elegant interiors and polished wooden floors. Outside peak season, it’s possible to get some superb deals via their website.

Buon Ma Thuot

Saigon-Ban Me

The most salubrious place to stay in the city, and with a wonderfully central location to boot. Lifts whisk guests up from the neat lobby to even neater rooms, while elsewhere on the complex you’ll find a decent restaurant, a fitness centre and a sauna.

Pleiku

HAGL

This is by far the most comfortable option around, with spacious rooms that are well equipped with desks and bathtubs – those on the upper floors also have nice views across the countryside. Good value, and a lovely place to treat yourself if you’ve been on a central highland slog. It’s about 1km east of the town centre.

Top cultural attractions in the central highlands

The seven best things to see and do on your visit to the central highlands.

  1. Dambri Waterfalls

    The most impressive waterfalls in the highlands – stand right below them and feel the spray on your face.

  2. Da Lat

    Abseil down a waterfall, pose for pictures on a pony or just enjoy some cooler nights in this popular hill city.

  3. Ride the rails

    Chug your way through highland scenery on the short train ride to Trai Mat village, 7km east of Da Lat.

  4. Lak Lake

    Paddle around Lak Lake in a dugout canoe at dawn and watch the sunrise sweep across its surface.

  5. Coffee country

    Enjoy a cup of fresh coffee in Vietnam’s capital of caffeine, Buon Ma Thuot.

  6. Kon Tum

    Kick back in the small, agreeable town of Kon Tum, which deserves more tourists on account of the minority villages on its doorstep.

  7. Bahnar villages

    Overnight in a dramatically tall communal rong in a Bahnar village near Kon Tum.

Bao Loc and around

The vast majority of travellers pass straight from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Lat, but buses sometimes screech to a brief halt on the causeway traversing La Nga Lake, from where the houseboats cast adrift on the water are only a zoom lens away. Locals use foot-powered rowing boats to access their homes, which also double as fish farms.

Eventually the hills yield to the tea, coffee and mulberry plantations of the Bao Loc Plateau. Here, 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 the Dambri Waterfalls. Though there are no sights of interest in the town itself, the undulating hills nearby provide fertile soil for the cultivation of tea and coffee, and locals also grow the mulberry bushes that silkworms are fond of. Those with their own transport will be able to scoot around this highly attractive area; alternatively, rent a taxi or xe om for half a day.

Dambri Waterfalls

Surrounded as they are by dense forest, the Dambri Waterfalls 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 with 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 whitewater tumbles 80m. From here, you can descend to the base of the falls by the steep steps or take a lift. A second path, to the left by the restaurant, leads down a steep stairway amid towering trees to a superb view of the falls from the front. A bridge links the two paths over the river, and here you’re likely to get drenched by the spray even during the dry season. The path continues downstream to a smaller cascade, Dasara Falls, but the trail can be slippery after rain.

Cat Tien National Park

The area’s outstanding attraction is Cat Tien National Park, a protected area situated 150km north of Ho Chi Minh City and about 50km west of Bao Loc. The park covers the largest lowland tropical rainforest in south Vietnam, and hosts nearly 350 species of bird, over 450 species of butterfly and over one hundred mammals, including wild cats, elephants, monkeys and the rare Javan rhinoceros. Don’t bank on seeing a rhino, as the few residing here are in a secluded reserve that’s closed to visitors. Crocs are a different story, since a clutch resides in an area around 12km from the park entrance (8km by boat, 4km on foot).

Da Lat

Vietnam’s premier hill station, Da Lat, sits tucked into the mountain folds of the Lang Bian Plateau at an altitude of around 1500m. A beguiling amalgam of winding streets, picturesque churches, bounteous vegetable gardens and crashing waterfalls, this quaint colonial curio is a great place to chill out, literally and metaphorically; if it's cool air gets you in the mood for action, you could try trekking to minority villages, mountain-biking and rock-climbing. Find out more about Da Lat.

Lak Lake

A hundred and fifty kilometres northwest 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 are not 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.

Where to stay around Lak Lake

The accommodation situation around Lak Lake is pretty dire, and staff at the following will likely speak little English. You will be able to book through Dak Lak tourist office, which operates several establishments and organizes village stays.

Buon Ma Thuot

To the Vietnamese, Buon Ma Thuot means only one thing: coffee. Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of the bean, and this is where most of its best stuff is grown. There’s an almost mind-boggling profusion of cafés here, and though no venues are particularly memorable, it would be a pity to leave town without sampling some of its most famous product for yourself.

All this said, and despite the highland location, first impressions of Buon Ma Thuot are unlikely to be all that favourable. A city with a population of around half a million, its sprawl of modern buildings are splayed across a grid of grubby, characterless streets, and there’s little to keep you occupied in the way of attractions. However, a range of good accommodation means that, if you’re on your way through the highlands, this is a logical place to hunker down for a day or two – some even end up developing an affinity for the place, and staying longer than they’d intended.

Where to stay in Buon Ma Thuot

There are plenty of places to stay in Buon Ma Thuot, catering for most budgets, though few of them have much character. Most of the cheaper options are clustered along Ly Thuong Kiet, while mid-range hotels are scattered around town.

Eating and drinking in Buon Ma Thuot

Dining in Buon Ma Thuot is unlikely to get the pulse racing, though there are a few quirky options here and there. For budget evening fare, try the stalls on Y Jut and surrounding roads. More importantly, it would also be a crime to visit the heart of Vietnam’s coffee industry without tasting the product itself, and there are plenty of opportunities in the city’s cafés. You’ll find them scattered all over town, but there’s a particular concentration along the south end of Le Thanh Tong, known to locals as “Coffee Street”.

Around Buon Ma Thuot

The main draw of Buon Ma Thuot is what can be found surrounding it: traditional minority communities (mostly E De people) at Ako Dhong and in the surrounding countryside at Ban Don; 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.

Waterfalls around Buon Ma Thuot

Several waterfalls near Buon Ma Thuot are worth visiting, especially in the wet season, though you should be selective unless you’re a real falls fan. Dray Sap and Dray Nur, situated side-by-side, are the most impressive and most popular.

Yok Don National Park

Vietnam’s largest wildlife preserve, Yok Don National Park covers over a thousand square kilometres of land between the hinge of the Cambodian border and the Serepok River, about 45km from Buon Ma Thuot. Much of it comprises deciduous forest, though the place can seem surprisingly dry for most of the year. 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 animal, including tigers, leopards and bears, and more than 450 types of bird, populate the park; most, however, reside deep in the interior. Of all its wildlife, elephants are what Yok Don is best known for; the tomb of the most famous 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.

Activities in Yok Don National Park

There are a number of activities on offer in Yok Don, an increasingly switched-on national park. Basic hiking is the most popular, though you’ll need a guide; the area in the vicinity of the park office is not terribly interesting, though heading further afield increases the chance of animal sightings considerably. One interesting variation is a guided night hike – at certain times of year, you can shine a torch into the darkness and see the eyes of thousands of frogs staring back at you. Crocodile sightings are another exciting possibility. During daylight hours, it’s also possible to take a short boat ride along the Serepok or join an elephant-trekking tour, though the latter is not recommended owing to the use of metal cages atop the animals.

Pleiku

The city of Pleiku shouldn’t be at the top of your list of places to visit in Vietnam’s central highlands. Most visitors use it as a convenient stop-over when heading to or from Laos or Cambodia. That said, there are many fascinating minority villages to explore in the surrounding area, and the town itself is slowly being polished. Some highlights of Pleiku include the Ho Chi Minh museum, the Gia Lai museum and the Minh Thanh Temple. Find out more about Pleiku.

Kon Tum

Sitting on the edge of the Dakbla River, the sleepy, friendly town of KON TUM could market itself as the Sapa of the South – except the mountains are hills, the weather stays warm and locals don’t wear traditional dress. It is, however, the best base in the central highlands for those wanting to understand minority culture, and 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 lovely 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.

Minority villages around Kon Tum

There are dozens of Bahnar villages encircling Kon Tum (as well as some in the town itself). 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. Prices are often a little lower at Eva Café, whose knowledgeable staff speak excellent English.

All Bahnar villages have a longhouse at their centre known as a rong. They’re built on sturdy stilts with a platform and entrance at either end (or sometimes in the middle), and 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 – anyone found guilty of a tribal offence has to ritually kill a pig and a chicken, and must apologize in front of the village.

Kon Kotu

About 5km to the east of Kon Tum is the most frequently visited of the Bahnar villages, Kon Kotu. Though this place is now linked to Kon Tum by a surfaced road, the route there involves a pleasant walk along 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. The rong also doubles as an occasional overnight stop for local trekking tours organized by Kon Tum Tourist, in either a simple guesthouse, or the longhouse itself.

Plei Thonghia and Kon Hongo

The villages of Plei Thonghia 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 – head north from the Dakbla bridge, turn left at Ba Trieu and just keep going (don’t be tempted to walk or cycle along the riverbank, since it’s a hard slog, mostly the wrong way). Kon Hongo is within cycling distance but a little tricky to find – it’s easier to take a xe om there and work your way back on foot.

Yachim

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.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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