The COASTLINE of Vietnam and
The CENTRAL HIGHLAND of Vietnam
The Central Highlands of Vietnam boast beautiful natural features such as relatively untouched forests, waterfalls and spectacular scenery, which contrast with areas still bearing the savage scars of war. This are is inhabited by a large number of ethnic minority groups, still living the traditional lifestyle. These tribes can be visited around Kontum, Pleiku, Buon ma thuot, and Da lat
The highland region becomes a torrent of water in the monsoon season attaining some of the heaviest rain falls in all of Vietnam. During the summer season, Dalat becomes a popular destination as its high altitude offers a slightly cooler temperature than the almost unbearable humid heat of the southern plains. This combined with its proximity to Ho Chi Minh City has made of the epicentre of bizarre domestic tourism.
This section follows a route for those who enjoy getting off the beaten tracks. It is quite easy to include this detour as a circuit from the coast leaving and returning from either Qui Nhon or Nha Trang, with a separate excursion required to reach Dalat from Phan Rang or Ho chi Minh City. You will need to allow enough time for the roads that ca be quite a workout on the kidneys, especially from Buon Ma Thuot to Nha Trang. The hilly landscape is also an open invitation for the local buses to break down. Two weeks would allow ample time to explore this historically significant are of Vietnam, whilst one week will present you with the bare essentials of the region.
Buon Ma Thuot
Like Kontum and Pleiku, the main attraction of Buon Ma Thuot is not in the town itself but in the surrounding area. There are numerous ethnic minority villages and also some spectacular waterfalls, all of which are within day trip distances.
Although on the Central Highlands, Buon Ma Thuot is at a lower altitude than Dalat at 451 m, so does not necessarily offer the same escape from the hot weather.
Ede Minority Hilltribe
The Ede tribe (or Rhode) make the trip to Buon ma Thuot worthwhile. The tribe is primarily matriarchal. The women own the property and after marriage the man must move in with the woman's family whose house is extended to accommodate them. The houses of the Ede tribes are long (up to 30 m) and thin (4 m). Each time there is a wedding in the family, the houses is extended like carriages of a train. Each section can be closed off and has its own door and kitchen. The houses are also on stilts and under the house they store wood, food and even livestock.
The Ede tribe have a different ceremony for their dead from the Bahnar at Pleiku. They bury the deceased just below the surface of the ground so that the spirit can fly to the heavens. Around the grave they keep wooden carvings of elephant tusks and on four pillars built around the grave they have four birds to protect the dead. The Ede tribe practice animistic beliefs.
Hill tribe museum
There is a very interesting Hill Tribe museum at No. 1 Doc Lap street. It shows some of the local equipment the Ede tribe use to hunt elephants. The museum also gives valuable information about the culture of the tribe.
Lak Lake is situated 50 km south of Buon Ma Thuot. To see the lake you must get a permit that costs USD 20 for a group of people. It is also possible to sleep in the Ede houses there. In this village, you can take an elephant ride for about three hours around the area.
Kontum is a small town with the surrounding area littered with ethnic minority villages. This was also the site of some major battles during the conflict with the Americans, and even now, decaying weapons and shells abound. The large friendly indigenous population can be visited on a foot tour from Kontum and as a result of their limited exposure to tourism, they are still happy to see foreigners. The distance between Kontum and Pleiku is 46 km and on this road you will get a glimpse of the traditional minority houses built on stilts. There are also some waterfalls further out of the town that can be visited by motorbike.
The highland area was only completely opened up to tourism in mid 1994 and the police here can still be a bit touchy. If you are going to wander the surrounding areas, better to do it with a guide as they can then organize the police side of the excursion. Another danger of walking out of town is that there is still a large amount of left over ordnance from the war, so be careful. Who wants to get blown up on their holidays?
Walking tours of the area
The best thing to do in Kontum is to go for a wander around the surrounding area. You can easily keep yourself busy for a day or two thoroughly seeing the region. There are still many traditional hill tribe villages in and around Kontum, and the best way to visit these is with a guide. Kontum is still a fairly small town and is not too popular on the tourist trail.
One sight worth seeing in Kontum is the seminary. The seminary was built over 80 years ago and is still looked after by a small group of priests. The building is still in quite good condition and has a grove of cherry blossoms in the front yard.
On Nguyen Hue street, there is a large church which is over 120 years old and is now being renovated. This church has beautiful stained glass windows. Beside it is the Montaguards church, called a Rong House, which is over 100 years old. This is recognisable by an extremely steep thatched roof, and is set about 2 m above the ground. The Montaguard church is entered by the tribes people only once a year. Also in town is a French Cathedral that is worth a visit. It is white but is streaked with black as if it has survived a fire.
Pleiku is a town with a large ethnic minority. Pleiku marks the junction of roads leading to Kontum, Buon Ma Thuot and Qui Nhon. This town was almost totally destroyed during the Vietnam war as it was home to an American base. If you intend being here during the monsoon season, you should know that Pleiku boasts the highest rainfall in the Central Highlands.
Jarai and Bahnar Tribes
The one thing worth seeing in Pleiku is the Jarai and Bahnar tribes that live close by. The Jarai guild houses on stilts with a small hut out the front to keep their rice. The Bahnar also build their houses off the ground on stilts and have large balconies to work on. They have a community building called a Rong House where the elders meet for ceremonies and festivals. Inside they keep gongs, wine, drums and all the precious ceremonial artefacts. Shaman also use this large building for spiritual rituals such as the ‘prayer for rain'. The Rong House can only be entered by men.
The tombs of the tribes are also very interesting. They set up little thatch wooden huts over the tomb upon which they put the possessions of the deceased. Around the tomb there are four wooden pillars. On top are wooden carvings of men or monkeys that are guards to protect the body of the dead. The ceremony is very expensive so if the family of the deceased cannot afford it, the funeral party is held up to three years later.
The entire village population spends three days at the burial sight where a water buffalo is ceremonially sacrificed and subsequently used to feed the village. The head of the water buffalo is cut off and hung on the tomb, and the four hooves are cut off and placed on the four corners of the grave.
There is a waterfall that you can visit 15 km north of Peiku towards Kontum. You will come across a large junction in the road where you make a left turn and continue to the end of the road.
There are number of former battlegrounds which can be visited from Pleiku including Ham Rong Mount, Plei Me post and the former 1 st Cavalry Division base at Hon Chong (in An Khe district).