|Secrets of the Central Highlands: Bypassing the Same Old Road Trip|
Words and photos by Adam Bray
The Central Highlands Road Trip is one of the classic Asian adventurers. The Southern Anamites have something to suit every traveller, whether interests are historical, such as the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail; cultural, as the mountains are home to diverse minority groups; or scenic, landscapes include coffee and tea plantations, pine, bamboo and rain forests.
The problem with Dalat is that it’s on everyone’s Central Highlands itinerary. Whilst it’s a lovely city with a temperate climate providing respite from the city heat it can become overrun at times; there is much more to see in the Central Highlands.
There are many places to enter and exit the highlands. From the tourist beach city of Phan Thiet, there are four main routes through Binh Thuan Province directly into the Central Highlands. Highway 28, travels north from Phan Thiet and passes through villages of Cham, Rai, Nop, and K’ho minorities before it even reaches the mountains. The area was a major centre of Cham (and perhaps Funan) civilization more than one thousand years ago. The hillsides are dotted with sadly neglected temple ruins.
Eventually the road leads to Highway 20, which runs southwest to Saigon, or northeast to Dalat, the capital of Lam Dong Province. Highway 28 degrades into a dusty frontier track, winding through rainforests and rocky mountain slopes. Villages of K’ho and Ma cling to the roadside; you’ll see a few inhabitants outside their thatched houses still wearing semi-traditional indigo shirts and caps.
At its highest elevation, Highway 20 enters Dak Nong Province, a new province split off from Dak Lak in 2005. The capital city, Gia Nghia, is the only real destination here; a halfway point between Saigon and Buon Ma Thuat on Highway 14. The entire city of Gia Nghia is currently under construction, including a major new freeway through town, several multi-lane bridges, dozens of high-rise commercial and government buildings, and even a new lake at the city centre. When construction is finished (scheduled for the end of 2012), it appears Gia Nghia will be a smaller, warmer version of Dalat.
At present there are no notable points of interest around Gia Nghia other than a few pleasant cafes and a hard-to-find waterfall outside the city. Highway 14, which you’ll take to head out, is smoothly paved, rolling up and down the slopes of coffee plantations. Dak Nong and Dak Lak are Vietnam’s largest coffee-producing provinces and Vietnam is the world’s second-largest exporter. The highway skirts surprisingly close to the Cambodian border, at which point the towns on the Vietnamese side because amusingly patriotic, with Nationalist banners and party slogans on every lamp-post. The twin falls of Dray Sap and Dray Nur, just a little further, near the provincial border between Dak Nong and Dak Lak. Dray Sap is the star attraction of the Central Highlands.
Yuk Don National Park is a side trip from Buon Ma Thuot, near the Cambodian border. Unless you just want elephant rides led by Ede tribesmen near the park entrance, an overnight or single day visit isn’t worth the effort. To see any wildlife, you’ll need to trek (with a mandatory guide) deep into the heart of the park, and it’s apparently best to spend the night at a remote ranger station.
A little-known Cham tower sits hidden in a sacred forest glen off of Road 681, about two hours north of Yuk Don. The temple, though made of signature Cham red bricks has a sort of Angkor Wat mysteriousness and grandeur about it. Officially it’s said to be the only Cham tower in the highlands, but in reality there are Cham ruins and relics scattered throughout the mountains.
Buon Ma Thuot is a pleasant city sprawled across a flat plateau. A few Ede minority villages lay at the outskirts of town, but these are maintained for tourists and lack authenticity. The main interest in town, apart from some great cafes and shopping centres is the Ethnographic Museum.
At the corner of Le Duan and Y Nong Streets, the museum has one of the finest collections of Central Highlands hilltribe crafts and relics, outside the Hanoi Museum of Ethnology. The collection includes intricate costumes, rice wine jars, musical instruments and baskets of K’ho, Ede, Ma, Jarai, S’tieng and Bahnar (and their subgroups). An impressive new facility is under construction behind the present museum, and will hopefully open next year.
To the north, it doesn’t take long to discover Gia Rai province is a wasteland for independent travellers. Foreigners are not allowed to venture outside the capital Pleiku or off Highway 14 without signing up for an official bus tour, complete with permit and guide. Most foreigners passing through the Central Highlands won’t spend the night here unless they have an interest in the war-era history. Pleiku hosted an American military base and major battles were fought here.
Kon Tum is the provincial capital of the province by the same name, and the last city of the Central Highlands. The suburbs of Kon Tum are filled with stilt homes of ethnic Banhar and S’tieng; the thatched roofs of their communal rong houses towering above the villages. There are several points of interest in the city, besides the obvious cultural richness, including the beautiful wooden cathedral, French Seminary, and provincial museum which should be completed by the time of printing.
From Kon Tum, the obvious destinations outside the highlands are Da Nang and Hoi An via a segment of the infamous “Ho Chi Minh Trail” or Quang Ngai. The Quang Ngai route has much diversity in landscape and ethnic inhabitants (Bahnar, S’tieng, Jarai, K’too and H’re among others). Depart after breakfast and you’lll arrive at the beach by the afternoon.
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