The Central Highlands encompasses beautiful natural features such as relatively untouched forests, waterfalls and spectacular scenery. These do contrast with some sites in the area that exhibit some savage scars of the War. The Central Highlands's population comprises a large number of ethnic minority groups who still live in their traditional lifestyles. These tribes can be visited around Kontum, Pleiku, Buon ma thuot, and Da lat.
During the monsoon season, the highland region becomes a torrent of water as this area is the subject of some of the heaviest rain fall in all of Vietnam. During the summer season, Dalat becomes a popular destination because of the fact that high altitude offers a slightly cooler temperature than the almost unbearable humid heat of the southern plains. This cool weather factor combined with its proximity to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) has made Dalat the epicenter of domestic tourism during that time of the year..
The Central Highlands is a good place to go for those who enjoy getting off the beaten track. It is quite easy to include this region as part of a circuit by way of leaving the coast leaving and returning through either Qui Nhon or Nha Trang. You can take a separate excursion to reach Dalat from either Phan Rang or Ho chi Minh City. You will need to allow enough time for traveling across the narrow and bumpy roads, especially between Buon Ma Thuot and Nha Trang If you want to fully visit all of the region and really get to know it and explore its significant historical meaning, it will take you two weeks. On the other hand, one week will allow you to familiarize yourself with the bare essentials of the region.
Kontum is a small town siting in the middle or in proximity of several ethnic villages. This town was also the site of some major battles during the conflict with the Americans. Even today, decaying weapons and shells abound. One of he places that you should visit is Pleiku. It has a large friendly indigenous population and can be visited on foot from Kontum. Because of the necessity to access this village on foot, as a result they have had limited exposure to tourism and they are still happy to see foreigners. On the road you will get a be able to see some of the traditional 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 opened up to tourism in mid 1994 and the police here can still be a bit touchy. If you are going to wander around the surrounding areas, better to do it with a guide as they will ensure that the police are aware and agree to your excursion. Another danger in walking in the countryside, away from a town, is that there is still a large amount of left over ordnance from the War. So be careful!
Walking tours of the area
The best thing to do if you should be in Kontum is to go for a walk or hike around the surrounding area. You can easily keep yourself busy for a day or two thoroughly enjoying the sights. 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 site 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 in the process of being renovated. This church has beautiful stained glass windows. Beside the large church is the Montaguard church, called a Rong House. This church is over 100 years old. It is easy to recognize by its extremely steep thatched roof, and is set about 2 m above the ground. The Montaguard church is entered by the tribe people only once a year. Also in town is a French Cathedral that is worth a visit. It is white in color but is streaked with black as if it had survived a fire.
Pleiku is a town with a large ethnic population. It sits at 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 the home of an American base. If you expect to be here during the monsoon season, you should know that Pleiku boasts the highest rainfall in the Central Highlands.
Jarai and Bahnar Tribes
One thing worth seeing in Pleiku, are the Jarai and Bahnar tribes that live close by. The Jarai built houses on stilts with an additional small hut at the front to store the much needed rice. The Bahnar also built their houses on stilts and have added large balconies to work on while at home. They have a community building called a Rong House where the elders meet for ceremonies and festivals. Inside the Rong House one can find gongs, wine, drums and all the precious ceremonial artifacts. 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 these tribes are also very interesting. By tradition little thatch wooden huts are set over the tomb in which the possessions of the deceased are placed. Around the tomb there are four wooden pillars. On top are wooden carvings of men or monkeys that stand guard in order to protect the body of the deceased. The burial ceremony is very expensive. If the family of the deceased cannot afford it at the time of the passing away, the funeral party can be postponed up to three years later.
When there is a burial ceremony, the entire village population spends three days at the burial site and a water buffalo is ceremonially sacrificed and subsequently used to feed the village population. 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 on the road to Kontum. You will come across a major intersection on 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 1st Cavalry Division base at Hon Chong (in An Khe district).
|The CENTRAL HIGHLAND of VIETNAM|