Looking at the map, we had high hopes of discovering hidden gems among the many mountains, waterfalls, and ethnic villages that dot one of Vietnam's newest provinces, Dak Nong and its capital Gia Nghia. Split off from Dak Lak in 2005, Dak Nong shares a long border with Cambodia, at the southern reach of Vietnam's Central Highlands, and we hoped for a slice of virgin territory to explore.
Unfortunately, it seems that most of what lies within, gems or no, is being jealously guarded by the local authorities. Independent travel by foreigners is off-limits except in the small district of Gia Ngia, home to the provincial capital of the same name, and along Route 14 as it heads north towards Dak Mil, and then east towards Buon Ma Thuot.
The provincial tourism authority is hard at work trying to raise funds and build infrastructure for future tourist development, some time within the next five to 10 years. But money and roads aren't the only hold-up -- recent discontent among minority tribes in the region has the government worried, and they've reacted by trying to cut off any outside influences that might foment further dissent. It also doesn't help that much of the province to the west abuts the sensitive Cambodian border zone. We can only speculate that it was the government's need for tighter control of the region that saw the new province created to begin with.
The capital, Gia Nghia (yaa ngee-uh) is nevertheless right along the route from Buon Ma Thuot to Saigon, so significant tourist traffic could be in the province's future, if and when they choose to open the region up.
We were quite taken with this quaint, friendly little town, set in a cool, verdant river valley surrounded by lakes. A small amusement park just east of the town's bridge has a roller coaster which gives the town a distinctive character. Gia Nghia felt much like Da Lat must have been like before it became, you know -- Da Lat.
During the war with America, South Vietnamese troops stationed here called it the end of nowhere -- no plumbing, no electricity, no phones, just cows and farmers. Now it's a bustling metropolis by comparison, but it still retains that disconnected feel. It's easy to see why it's slated as an up-and-coming tourist centre -- a prospect we view with mixed emotions.
Luckily, any real development is a while away. You won't be dazzled by bling in Gia Nghia, but those on a leisurely tour of the country won't regret a night or two of welcome decompression between tourist hot-spots.
The sight of a foreigner in Gia Nghia is still very, very novel -- expect tons of curious attention from the locals.
By Don Morgan.