Vietnam’s Central Highlands boasts beautiful natural features such as waterfalls and pine forests, ethnic diversity, spectacular scenery and lots and lots of coffee. The region has slowly opened up to tourists over the past decade after years of government-enforced travel restrictions. Today foreigners can explore the main centres of this region with ease but there are some areas that will require you to hire a guide when trying to explore further afield.
There are no restrictions to visiting perennially popular Da Lat. Perched 1,500 metres above sea level on the Lang Biang plateau, the quaint capital of Lam Dong province has earned the moniker “city of eternal spring”. Da Lat first became a popular holiday spot for French colonialists drawn to the city’s high altitude and temperate climate; now it’s the wedding and honeymoon capital of Vietnam. Remnants of bourgeois French colonial architecture can still be seen today and a scenic Easy Rider motorcycle trip will take you to waterfalls and exploring deeper into the region. The rock bottom prices for budget accommodation is also an enticing draw for backpackers.
Despite having airports and good road access from the coast, the rest of the Central Highlands attracts few travellers. The government has been uneasy about foreigners travelling to the region ever since protests erupted in early 2000s regarding indigenous land rights and autonomy — protests that were quickly suppressed by the government.
The Montagnards, a term coined by French colonialists meaning “mountain people”, are the indigenous ethnic minorities of the Central Highlands. Tensions between the Montagnards and the government stem back to before the war. Already on precarious footing, the Vietnam War erupted and the Montagnards found themselves caught in between the North and the South, before being recruited by the American Special Forces. They were colloquially known as the Yards, and were admired for their fighting skills, bravery and loyalty. When the US withdrew ground troops in 1972 an 1973, their situation was disastrous and with most of their villages destroyed or occupied, they became refugees.
The consequences of siding with the wrong team are still felt to this day. It doesn’t help that in a Communist country where religion is frowned upon, many Montagnards are Christian. Big Brother keeps a close eye on the Central Highlands.
What does this mean for travellers? In some parts, tourists will be nudged to set touristy sites and getting off the beaten track will require a tour company who will have to get a permit from police. But it also means this area is wonderfully unaffected by mass tourism and if you spend a little time and effort here and even better, hire the right guide, you’ll be rewarded by warm hospitality in remote and ethnically diverse villages.
Kon Tum is a true trekking destination and a great base for exploration and non-touristy village visits. Don’t be surprised to find yourself sharing a jar of homemade wine in a village belonging to one of the eight different ethnic minorities here, notably the Jarai, Bahnar and Sedang. Kon Tum is far more relaxed about permissions than Buon Ma Thuot and Pleiku, where wandering around villages can land you in hot water with local authorities. Here you’ll be fine to walk around villages so long as you remain courteous with your camera. But it’s well worth the time and money to hire a good guide who speaks the ethnic group’s language to take you to villages further away from town.
Northwest of Da Lat, travel in Buon Ma Thuot tend to be done by pre-organised tours focused on the city and some villages in the immediate surrounds. Both waterfalls and Lak Lake are well worth the look and can be done independently. Perhaps try a homestay in one of the villages at the lake.
Pleiku in Gia Lai province is a tougher nut to crack as the city, though small, is sprawling and charmless and the tourist infrastructure is limited. The point of Pleiku is really to get outside of it and explore the truly spectacular scenery. Hop on a motorbike and head to Ayunpa. The drive includes unbelievable Phu Cuong Waterfall (and even more unbelievable, there are no swan boats, restaurants or concrete animals) and a gorgeous drive past endless rice paddies.
In Buon Ma Thuot or Pleiku, we had no problems riding our motorbike through villages, occasionally stopping to smile, say hello and take photos of the scenery. But we were wise not to go barging into people’s homes, hand out gifts like Santa Claus or linger long enough to gather attention or suspicion. Note that all villages have at least one local official or policeman.