Remote Kon Tum province is the northernmost region of Vietnam's Central Highlands. Quite mountainous, it attracts relatively few travellers when compared to the far more touristed province of Lam Dong (home to Da Lat) further south. The provincial capital, Kon Tum town, sits on the bank of the Dakbla River and can be used as a base for forays into the surrounding countryside.
Kon Tum is a small town with the surrounding area dotted with montagnard villages. The surrounding area was the site of considerable fighting during the conflict with the Americans, and even now, decaying weapons and shells abound.
Kon Tum is known for its montagnard villages -- some of them are right on the edge of town, even within walking distance of your hotel. They received the lions share of tourists, and are well-accustomed to the routine of presenting dance and music performances in traditional dress, along with wine drinking and healthy helping of local hospitality.
Such tours are cheap and worthwhile, as far as they go, especially if you're pressed for time, on a limited budget, or travelling in a large group. But further afield, there are over five hundred mountain villages in the surrounding area, representing eight different ethnic minority groups. Some of these places require a two- or three-day trek to reach, and have hosted more western anthropologists over the years than western tourists -- and precious few of the former at that.
If you're weary of the tourist centres and looking to embark on a journey into the relatively unexplored, outer reaches of Vietnam, Kon Tum provides an excellent staging area.
One draw back to Kon Tum is that the hills immediately surrounding the city are scarred by ugly, brown patches of deforestation, marring the views. It's true that Kon Tum saw a lot of action during the war with America, but the lack of vegetation has been caused more by slash-and-burn agriculture than anything else. Still, its a friendly, energetic town with a couple of good places to stay and eat, and a few sites worth taking in as you walk around town.
Kon Tum is situated along the northern edge of the Dakbla River as it flows from east to west. But when it comes to accommodation, only the pricey Indochine Hotel takes advantage of the river views. Most of the rest of the accommodation is clustered in south-western Kon Tum, within walking distance of the central market. It's a typical Vietnamese town market -- strewn with rubbish and crowded with people, where the merchandise on offer is primarily of interest to locals. One reason to head here is for the bun kho stall at the centre of the market -- a colourful dish based on glutinous rice that's as tasty as it is cheap.
Pretty much any direction you head out of town, you'll find one tribal village after another. Some are more picturesque than others, and each is marked by it's own rong house. A rong house is an A-frame structure, with a high, steeply-sloping roof traditionally made of thatch, but some modern version use corrugated tin and are aesthetic disasters. They are raised high off the ground on stilts, and usually reached by staircases made in the characteristic local fashion -- a series of steep steps cut into a single log of wood.
They're used as multipurpose rooms during the day, especially for feasts and festivals, but at night they have a different function: the interiors are divided down the middle by a long plank of wood, and, traditionally, adolescent boys and girls sleep within on either side of the plank. While it may seem like an invitation to disaster to throw boys and girls together just when their sexual curiosity is burgeoning, there is local wisdom in the practice. Sure, after the lights go out, boys or girls can sneak to the side reserved for the opposite sex, but the group dynamic keeps the activity G-rated. If a couple get carried away, everyone finds out soon enough. A sort of 'ceremony of apology' is quickly arranged, swiftly followed by a marriage.
To reach the villages closest to town, take the river road, Nguyen Hue, east, past a picturesque wooden church left over from French colonial times, to its terminus at the Bahnar village of Kon Tum Khon Nam. The next main road to the north, Tran Hung Dao, leads east to another village, Kon Tum Khon Pang. Two kilometres beyond that is the Kon Khor Suspension bridge, or, as the locals know it, the 'love bridge.' Here, on any given night, you'll find teenaged couples cuddling up to each other, precariously balanced on motorcycles parked along the bridge.
Beyond the bridge, more villages, such as Khon Ka Tu, where many of the dance, music and wine drinking performances are hosted for the benefit of tour groups. You can always just show up and visit these places, but a motorcycle tour can be arranged for as little as US$15 a day, including as many villages as you care to see, and a guide that speaks the local language and can fill you in on the cultural significance of what you're looking at -- well worth the expense. There are also some more villages worth seeking out six km to the west, along Ba Trieu Road, that are best reached with your own transport. These and other tours can be arranged through Kon Tum Travel near the Dakbla Hotel.
Internet is available, though not ubiquitous, throughout Kon Tum. If you don't run across a place wandering around, there's a good spot right next to the market, Huu Son.
Banking-wise, best head to the BIDV Bank (Open weekdays 07:00 to 16:30 T: (060) 862 164. F: (060) 863 593), on the corner of Nguyen Hue and Tran Phu Roads, walking distance from pretty much all the accommodation. Services are somewhat limited compared to what you might be used to elsewhere in the country: there's a 24-hour ATM outside, but only for debit and credit cards bearing a Visa logo. Mastercard credit cards, but not debit cards, are good for advances inside the bank during working hours, subject to a 3% commission charge. Dollars can be exchanged easily for Vietnamese dong, but everything else is either impossible or a major hassle.
The Post Office is located on the corner of Le Hong Phong and Ba Trieu Roads, open daily from 07:00 to 11:00 and 13:00 to 17:00. Kon Tum General Hospital is on the corner of Phan Dinh Phung and Ba Trieu Roads, T: (060) 862 573.
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Text and/or map last updated on 25th September, 2015.
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