Geographically, the Central Highlands of Vietnam is an area of stunning natural beauty which extends from the Cat Tien National Park in the south as far as Quang Nam in the north. For practical purposes most visitors to the region will travel between Dalat in the south and Kon Tum in the north.
This region is not visited by many tourists so the transport options of the coastal route are not available. We hired a vehicle with driver to travel from Dalat to Hoi An over five days and these days were without doubt the highlight of our time in Vietnam.
Travelling through Vietnam via the magnificent Central Highlands is a fabulous alternative to the much trodden coastal route. To do so by public transport can prove quite challenging as local bus services are the only option. Also it is necessary for foreigners to carry permits in order to be allowed into parts of the Central Highlands.
We took this route as a 5 day private tour beginning in Dalat and ending in Hoi An. We travelled in a 9 seater Mercedes accompanied by a guide and driver. Each evening our guide, Phu, and driver, Tam, stayed at the same place as us and took us out to local restaurants that they knew and which would be impossible to go to without a local connection. This was a tremendous and most unexpected addition to what was the highlight of our time in Vietnam. If you’re travelling from the north you head inland from Hoi An and follow the route described in this section in reverse.
Below is a photo of Tam (in white) who was our driver and Phu, our guide. The other photo is of a couple of travellers using the services of the Dalat Easy Riders motorbike tours.
Easy Riders of Dalat
Another option from Dalat (for the more adventurous) is to team up with one of the Easy Riders who will carry you and your rucksack on the back of his motorbike. This will be the same tour as the one described below but in far less comfort. We met people travelling with Easy Riders most nights, it seems they were paying around $55US for two people, ie. two motorbikes with riders and a passenger on each. They all recommended this way of getting around.
Prices are rising in Vietnam but as an indication of the cost of such a trip we paid $45US per person per day to do this trip. There were just the two of us so the total for the 5 days/4 nights was $450US which was worth every cent. Accommodation cost about $10US per room per night and was extra as was food which was ridiculously cheap, examples with prices appear below.
The trip is cheaper with Easy Riders but we were happier with the comfort and safety of our vehicle.
We had arrived in Vietnam via Ho Chi Minh City and Dalat was our next stop before embarking on the Central Highlands adventure. If you arrive in Hanoi then just plan your journey through the centre in the opposite way to what follows.
Day 1: Dalat to Lak Lake
At 9am Phu and Tam collected us at our Dalat Hotel and started with a tour of local attractions. First of all they dropped us at a cable car which took us across a green vallley to Vietnam’s largest pagoda which stands on Paradise Lake.
Phu met us at the cable car arrival point and strolled around with us before joining Tam at the vehicle and driving to Chicken Village where a group of what he describes as ‘minority people’ live in severe poverty beneath an enormous concrete chicken.
We continued on beyond Dalat and visited a silk factory and were shown how the silkworm makes a cocoon which is then boiled and the remains of the cocoon provide the threads of silk which are turned into scarves, etc. Two beautiful silk scarves from the factory shop cost 40,000 Dong each (a mere $3US).
Elephant Falls was the next stop which is an impressive waterfall. We then followed small lanes through coffee plantations. As we were still within easy reach of Dalat we ran into travellers at every stop who were taking day excursions with Easy Riders. Every one of them raved about the experience. For lunch we stopped at a little shack overlooking stunning scenery. It was truly a local’s haunt with a great selection of stir fry dishes with vegetables and rice costing less than $2US per head. The hygiene of this place and many others we would visit later appeared questionable but neither of us were sick from dining at such places daily throughout our visit.
The beautiful rural scenery continued with buffalos playing in the rice fields and cow herds being led along the roads. We stopped at a tiny chopstick making concern and were shown how these utensils are created from bamboo.
Arriving at Lak Lake
At 5pm we entered the town next to Lak Lake where we were held up by a couple of elephants in the street. Not wild ones but ones owned by a local businessman hoping to offer rides to tourists. The Khu Dulich Holak holiday complex was our home for the night. It had long houses available which are like huge barns shared by any number of people and private rooms for just $10US per night. In the future this beautiful place right on the lake could well be renovated and turned into a luxury holiday complex charging ten times that amount so make the most of it while you can.
The complex has a restaurant which floats and is tied to the land by ropes. Occasionally it breaks free and has to be rescued and returned to its mooring spot. Great food but go easy on the rice wine!
Day 2: Lak Lake to Beyond Buon Ma Thuot
After a floating breakfast of fresh bread with sliced cheese and a cup of Liptons tea (yes, it’s everywhere) we headed off at 8.30am. First we stopped at a small palace that was built by the emperor Bao Dai and has now been turned into a very nice hotel. Well worth considering if you’re looking for something a little more upmarket than the basic accommodation at the holiday complex.
Continued on observing rural life stopping at a village market to buy some tropical fruits, none of which we’d ever seen in the west. The people in these markets very rarely see any foreigners so it’s a real novelty when any drop in. They’re very friendly and find it hilarious that I’m 6’5″ tall, almost double the height of many of them.
Buon Ma Thuot
We entered the town of Buon Ma Thuot which was a key location during the American War. It’s fall to the North Vietnamese was the stepping stone for an assault on Saigon. Today it is a busy market town with an important war memorial in its centre. We travelled a few kilometres beyond the town and pulled into another holiday complex where smart bungalows were available for $10US per night and the central bar/restaurant area offered a great range of Vietnamese food and ice cold Saigon Export beer.
Once we’d checked in we drove to the impressive Gia Long waterfall then walked back along the riverbank with Phu guiding us for about 7km through lush green forest. The route included more quite spectacular waterfalls and interesting vegetation including corn and cotton fields.
Tam was waiting for us with the vehicle and drove us back to our accommodation via a brick factory. As always the people working there were so friendly and were delighted to show us how they collected clay from the riverbank, compressed in a little machine which formed the brick shape and sliced it. The bricks are then dried in the sun before being hardened in a furnace. It’s hard, dirty work carried out all day long, day after day yet the people seemed so content with their lot.
Back at the bungalow area we applied our array of anti-mosquito creams and sprays as dusk approached, sprayed the room with insecticide and set mosquito coils burning. We’d decided not to take malaria pills so we were being ultra cautious yet we were pleasantly surprised to find that there seemed to be very few mosquitos around. Phu had told us in advance that there weren’t any mosquitos in the Central Highlands which certainly sounded like a sales pitch if ever I’d heard one yet he seemed to be right so far. He’s actually from Pleiku in the Highlands to the north and obviously malaria had never been an issue for him or his family.
The food tonight was excellent consisting mainly of a boiling pot of stock on the table kept hot with charcoal to which we added chunks of fish and leaf vegetables which we ate with noodles. Very nice but very tricky with chopsticks.
Day 3: Buon Ma Thuot to Kon Tum
This morning we went into Buon Ma Thuot to take a look at the Victory Monument which dominates the city centre. The fall of this town in 1975 triggered the collapse of all of South Vietnam. We visited the fascinating market with another amazing selection of never before seen tropical fruits then headed off on the 250km drive north towards Kon Tum. The journey included a stop at a war memorial then a trip through several minority villages and a visit to a rubber plantation where Phu showed us how rubber is extracted from the trees.
We stopped for lunch in Pleiku at a small café called My Tam. This was a place very much frequented by locals which we’d never have found without our guide and driver. As such we enjoyed more excellent local dishes costing practically nothing.
Sea Lake was our next stop where we had a freshly pressed sugar cane drink and bumped into a Dutch couple who were with an Easy Rider. We’d met them last night as they’d stayed at the same place as we had. They had a novel approach to Easy Riding as Mick and his girlfriend were on one motorbike whilst their Easy Rider was on another. They were heading to Hoi An this way then the Easy Rider would have the problem of getting two bikes back to Dalat. No doubt he’d find a traveller in Hoi An who’d take the journey back through the Highlands with him.
Just outside Pleiku we stopped at Phu’s home to meet his parents. Phu is the youngest of 16 children, most of the first half of the family died during the war. Last night Kirsty had sprained her ankle quite badly so Phu’s mother used a potent combination of medicinal herbs in massaging it which removed most of the swelling. She is well practiced in Chinese medicine.
The Children of Kon Tum
Our final destination today was Kon Tum where we checked into the Family Hotel and would spend two nights. No doubt the hotel was named as such because this town attracts childless couples from all over the world who come to adopt children from the local orphanages.
The people running the hotel made us very welcome but there are nicer places to stay in Kon Tum.
We took a stroll around town and were amazed at just how friendly everybody was, especially the local children who shout ‘hello’ to you as they pass on their bikes and wave to you with a huge smile on their face. Such a welcome change from the coast of Vietnam and Hanoi where we would find out later how tourism can destroy people and places as the locals can only see a foreigner as a dollar sign.
For dinner we went in the vehicle to a real local joint on the outskirts of town which I’d bet no foreigners have ever visited. There was a burning barbeque on our table and a case of Saigon Export beer next to us with a bucket of ice (beer doesn’t go in the fridge here for some reason).
We sampled all kinds of local meat dishes including wild pig, goat, porcupine and venison. The venison was certainly the best meat and the porcupine was a bit too “spikey” for my liking! The bill for four of us came to just 200,000 Dong (around $12US) for a fabulous meal with countless beers. Back opposite the Family Hotel there’s a bar which serves local rum. Be very careful or you’ll miss day 4 of the tour!
Day 4: Orphanages of Kon Tum
Today we wouldn’t be moving on but instead we planned to visit the two orphanages in Kon Tum and see some of the local minority villages. First stop after breakfast was at a toy shop where we picked up a load of footballs, skipping ropes and other toys for the children at the orphanages. Next stop was a stationers to get pens, pencils, exercise books, sharpeners, etc to leave with the teachers and then finally to a sweet shop at the market for bags full of “goodies”.
Vinh Son II Orphanage
Tam collected us and took us to the Vinh Son 2 orphanage, the poorer of the two in Kon Tum. At first I could have cried seeing how poor the children were yet they were happy and were being looked after by the volunteers here. The sister who ran the place is 68 years old and had been working there since she was 18. The children were very friendly and obviously enjoyed having visitors. They played football in the yard with us and all came onto the patio to sing a song.
The sister showed us around the very poor facilities including a garden area where they grow their own food. Last year a case of chicken flu was detected and all the birds were destroyed. The children take responsibility from a very early age, the boy baking the bread looked about seven years old but all the children look younger than they are so maybe he was about ten. My height was again a source of amusement to the girls in the kitchen (see photo below).
Just outside the orphanage is a minority village where we walked around handing sweets to the children. Interestingly no child would ever take a 2nd sweet when offered and always made sure that the children smaller than them had one and helped them remove the wrapping if they couldn’t manage. What a difference from the western world! Although these children had their families you could only think that they were worse off than the ones in the orphanage. In Vinh Son II there is education and hope whilst here there is no possible future for children and no likelihood of change.
Vinh Son I Orphanage
The Vinh Son I orphanage appears better off with nicer buildings and a wooden church but it is still very poor. Here we only saw baby orphans which is even more heartbreaking. Strangely the babies never seemed to cry presumably because their tears have never attracted any attention.
We visited another minority village where a man invited us onto his terrace where he played a traditional musical instrument for us. He seemed delighted that we’d dropped by. A final port of call today was Nguc Kon Tum, a park on the river which used to be a prison for captured VC soldiers. Prisoners who were released from there in 1975 were hailed as war heroes.
For dinner tonight Phu and Tam took us to another great local place for beef and tofu hotpot consumed to the toast of “yo” with every swig of Saigon beer. The banana fritters from a street seller on the way home were a great dessert.
Day 5: Kon Tum to Hoi An
Kon Tum had been our favourite town so far and we could easily have spent another couple of days just hanging around. Instead we proceeded with the final day of our tour departing at 7am en route to Hoi An.
Our first stop was at Dak To which had seen intense fighting shortly before the US withdrawal from Vietnam. We visited a war memorial which receives visits from American war veterans. A little further on we stopped at what was a major runway for US planes during the war which is today used as a stretch of land for drying sweet potato and coffee beans. In the distance Phu pointed out Charlie Hill where the South Vietnamese had held strong for six weeks during the war before the VC finally destroyed them on their march towards Saigon.
As we drove through a section of motorway construction it was strange to see workers carrying metal detectors which are still necessary in the likely event that they come across any of the 15 million tonnes of bombs that were dropped on Vietnam during the war.
Ho Chi Minh Trail
The scenery soon became quite stunning with lush, green vegetation and mountains rising in the distance. We joined the Ho Chi Minh Trail which had served as a supply route during the war which the VC used to send soldiers and arms to the south.
At Phuoc Son we stopped for our final lunch of the tour again enjoying some excellent Vietnamese dishes. The scenery became even more spectacular after lunch as waterfalls appeared and the rural landscape provided new driving hazards as buffalo, cows and chickens treated the roads as their own.
Around 3.30pm we arrived in Hoi An where the number of western faces walking the streets was quite alarming. Our adventure through the Central Highlands of Vietnam had come to and end and we were now back on the well trodden coastal route where tourism has inevitably corrupted the innocence of the locals as they seek to earn the tourist dollars.