The Central Highlands - Dalat, forests, waterfalls, lakes, and ethnic villages
Much of the Central Highlands is a series of flat plateaux, mainly inhabited by various ethnic groups. Apart from Da Lat, the tourist guide books are somewhat dismissive of the area. Many remarkable sights and attractions are not even mentioned, probably because they are too far off the regular tourist routes. This is a blessing for Haivenu travellers because it provides an opportunity to visit one of Vietnam’s most fascinating areas without bumping into groups of tourists.
At the southern extremity is the city of Da Lat. Originally built by the French colonists, Da Lat still bears a passing resemblance to a French town, an impression that is diminishing as Vietnamese-style buildings proliferate. ‘Discovered’ by Dr. Alexandre Yersin at the end of the 19th century, Dalat grew into a large hill station attracting Western visitors seeking a refuge from the heat and humidity of the Mekong and the coastal plain. Located high in the mountains nearly 1500m above sea level, Da Lat is popular with Vietnamese visitors because it has a cool and equable climate usually remaining between 10º C and 20º C throughout the year. This ‘eternal spring’ is responsible for its increasing importance as a fruit and flower growing area. First class blooms, soft fruits and vegetables are grown for export and airlifted all over Asia.
Dak Lak Province
Buon Ma Thuot lies about 190 km inland from Nha Trang. It is a large town in a coffee plantation area, but its main interest for visitors is the thirty or so ethnic groups in the area. It is warmer and more humid than Da Lat, with a rainy season from April to November. Attractions include the excellent Gia Long and Dray Nur waterfalls. Gia Long is adjacent to ancient forest – Emperor Bao Dai used to hunt there. The forest is spectacular – enormous trees, vines, and a profusion of insects. Nearby is a natural swimming pool, an almost rectangular basin with a sandy bottom. On the other bank are the remains of a bridge and lake built by Bao Dai and now being slowly strangled by the lush vegetation. Dray Nur is a complete contrast. Set in dry, arid land, its waters thunder over black volcanic rock. Its comparatively barren surroundings enhance the impact of the falls – standing at the bottom among the swirling mist, the noise is deafening.Serene Lak Lake, offering travel in a dugout canoe across the lake to ride working elephants and meet their mahouts, Nam Ka forest and dozens of ethnic villages, some with homestay facilities, are other attractions.
Gia Lai Province
Further north is Gia Lai Province and Pleiku town. Visitors can see the striking Phu Cuong waterfall, a single torrent plunging vertically into a seething cauldron of water and spray at its base. In complete contrast, Plei Bloum village (Jarai ethnic people) is a quiet settlement overlooking a broad, slow-moving river. The sunset across the valley from the veranda of an ethnic homestay is a joy! The sweeping thatched roofs of the traditional ‘Rong’ communal houses of the Ba Na people, and the strange wooden statues around the tombs if the Jarai village cemeteries are fascinating, as is the huge Bien Ho (Sea Lake), the flooded crater of an ancient volcano where the water level hardly varies at all.
Kon Tum Province
Another little-visited centre for ethnic groups is the area around Kon Tum, about 45km north of Gia Lai. Dozens of villages are home to a variety of ethnic groups. Visitors can stroll through ethnic communities, meet the people and experience their daily life. There are no beggars or other nuisances: even the children don’t cluster around or pester strangers. People are very friendly, and happy to welcome guests into their houses. Trekking and homestays are available.
‘Rafting’ down DakBla River in an inflatable dingy, a riverside picnic, swimming, dinner in the Rong house of a Ba Na village followed by wine and conversation with the locals typifies the experiences offered by this little-known area and its easygoing, good-natured people.
About thirteen miles from the town there is a settlement of ‘Ede’ people, who live in distinctive longhouses on stilts. Further away to the northwest is Yok Don, Viet Nam’s largest national park. Several ethnic groups live within it, notably the M’nong people who traditionally specialised in hunting and domesticating the wild elephants that roamed in the area. However, the effects of US bombing and defoliation, together with loss of habitat from agricultural encroachment have drastically reduced their numbers. The journey to Yok Don is quite taxing, but the forests are striking and there are many species of flora and fauna, some very rare. Homestays are possible.