One of the least densely populated provinces of the country, Gia Lai sits in the centre of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, perched atop a large plateau surrounded by mountains and valleys formed from volcanic activity 25-30 million years ago.
Sandwiched between Dak Lak and Kon Tum provinces, the provincial capital Pleiku lies at the junction of Routes 14 and 19, making it the crossroads of Highland exploration. Most travellers who find themselves here tend to be on the way to somewhere else, including the nearby Cambodia and Lao border crossing. At first glance little entices foreigners to linger as the redevelopment of the city after it was torched at the end of the Vietnam War has created a sprawling, charmless, nondescript town. By contrast, quaint Kon Tum, just 45 kilometres north of Pleiku, is far more welcoming to the small trickle of travellers that do make it to northern part of the Central Highlands. While both boast the same ethnic diversity, interesting culture and traditions worthy of exploration, Kon Tum has developed to make it accessible to visitors.
However, before you give Pleiku a skip, it has some spectacularly beautiful countryside and unexpected natural wonders — wonders that have been left natural, too, which is a rarity in Vietnam — like Phu Cuong Waterfall, truly breathtaking and completely off the radar. There’s also no boat rides or concrete animals on the pine-fringed blue waters of Bien Ho Lake, a flooded volcanic crater close to town.
Like Dak Lak and Kon Tum provinces, Gia Lai produces a lot of coffee, rubber and hydroelectricity and the area outside the urban centre is rich with farmland and an astounding amount of ethnic diversity for a province of just over a million people. The minority groups are the cause of government restrictions on foreigners. Anti-government protests in 2001 and 2004 in Buon Ma Thuot and Pleiku over indigenous land rights and autonomy by Montagnards were brutally suppressed by the government and ever since, travellers wishing to visit minority villages must have a guide and permit. This is unfortunate since this means visitors are directed towards set tours to approved villages. Gai Lai Eco Tourist offers guided Bahnar village visits and trekking. These are certainly real villages, but it removes most hope of any sort of spontaneity and seeing a fuller picture.
That doesn’t mean you can’t see Gia Lai’s sights on your own. If you love riding through stunning scenery and being off the beaten tourist track, this motorbike ride is for you. It just means that you should exercise some caution in order to avoid attention from the local authorities. All villages have at least one official or policeman and it’s wise not to be barging into people’s homes with cameras, handing out gifts or lingering long enough to gather suspicion.
If travelling to Pleiku by bus, note that Pleiku is often referred to as Gia Lai — it’s pronounced “yah lai”.
Free WiFi is a standard amenity in hotels. Banks and ATMs with international networks are found throughout. The post office is located near the corner of Hung Vuong and Tran Hung Dao Street and is open from 07:00 to 21:00 daily.
There’s a large grocery store Vinatextmart and a smaller shop across the street. Find them at 114 Hai Ba Trung.
The Central Highlands has two seasons: the dry season is from November to April, rainy season lasts from May to October. Bear in mind that Pleiku boasts the highest rainfall in the Central Highlands.
By Cindy Fan. Last updated on 13th October, 2016.