Exploring Kon Tum
What we say:
So you're in Kon Tum with a bit of time to burn, but you're not interested in throw-backs to the French period, nor another deserted battlefield that was picked clear by scavengers a decade ago. That's good, because Kon Tum offers some of the least-known but possibly most rewarding trekking in Vietnam.
There's a limited amount of sight-seeing you can do on your own just by walking around Kon Tum, with or without a guide -- mostly it's all about the vestiges of the French colonial period, and efforts to put 'local culture' on display. There's the Wooden Church with its adjacent rong house (you'll see a lot of those), the Seminary with its hill tribe museum, and the cave church. All of this falls soundly under the category of, 'if you have nothing better to do'. To see the hill tribe museum, you'll have to hook up with a guide who will call in advance, and they'll open it up for your visit.
A lot of tour groups sign up for the 'town tour' without knowing what they are getting into, and the inside scoop is, they often find it pretty under-whelming. It seems a little silly to visit a hill tribe museum when you are in an area surrounded by over 500 actual hill tribes.
So, if you skip the town tour, you might be tempted by the war tour. As in other parts of Vietnam, tourists arrive seeking to see whatever evidence is left of the war with America and the French. Several famous battles were waged in the area, and in Kon Tum proper. But, as elsewhere in Vietnam, almost all the remnants of the war have been salvaged for scrap, battlefields are now rice fields, and in their place the government has built monuments that fall far short of stirring up visions of the horrors and sacrifices of the war.
On offer are a few spots: Skull Hill, the Dak To Victory Monument with two tanks on display, and the site of an army base for southern forces known as Charlie Hill (which you can't actually visit, just view from a distance). The 47km trip to Dak To by motorcycle is time consuming, somewhat gruelling, and not very scenic -- if you really want to see the war stuff, the best strategy is to overnight in Dak To, but doing it out of Kon Tum is not recommended.
So if you skip the town tour, and the war tour, what's left?
A much better touring strategy for Kon Tum is to see a good selection of the local villages with a local guide -- motorcycle tours are the best way to go, but other vehicles are available. Options include visiting a Jarai Cemetery, taking part in a Bahnar dance and wine-drinking ceremony, listening to traditional music played on traditional instruments, or just touring the villages to soak up the local culture and learn about the significance their customs. If at all possible, plan in advance, ask a lot of questions, and don't be afraid to tailor your tour to suit your interests.
The Kon Tum tour scene has a 'star guide' named Nguyen Do Huynh, AKA Mr. Huynh. Given his personal sense of humour, charisma, and mastery of several tribal languages in addition to excellent English and French, it's easy to see why he's become 'the man to see' when booking a tour in Kon Tum. He also has a staff of guides that do a great job as well. But, Mr. Huynh had a request for us when we visited: travel writers should stop writing about him and start writing about the 564 tribal villages, representing eight different ethnic minorities, surrounding Kon Tum -- villages which almost no one ever visits.
This constitutes what's probably the best strategy of all to make the most of your Kon Tum tour -- get out of town altogether. Two and three-day treks of the villages farther afield can be arranged with a bit of advanced planning. They're not cheap -- you may be looking at US$100 to 200 per person -- but you can bring down the price by gathering a group of up to eight people together before you even get to Kon Tum. There aren't enough tourists passing through here to enable you to muster up a group once you get to town, so you'll have a find people interested in travelling to Kon Tum specifically for a trek.
These tours will take you to places that have been visited more by western anthropologists than by western tourists -- some villages have never been visited at all, except by the Vietnamese. The tours involve a lot of tough trekking, of course, and you'll have to sleep rough, but if you're finding the tours elsewhere in Vietnam a bit too 'pre-packaged' and predictable, we reckon this is just what you're looking for.
You can also contact Mr. Huynh directly at:
Kon Tum Travel Service Centre: 02 Phan Dinh Phung Rd, Kon Tum. T: (060) 861 626;(090) 511 2037. huynhguide @ yahoo.com
More details02 Phan Dinh Phung Rd, Kon Tum
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