Photo: Big skies around Pleiku.

Scenic drive: Pleiku to Ayun Pa

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If you love scenic motorbike rides and getting off-the-beaten tourist track, this two-day journey is for you. From Pleiku (where?) to Ayun Pa (where?!?) expect an ocean of rice fields, big skies, one spectacular waterfall and nary another foreigner in sight.



Rice for daysssss.

Rice for daysssss.

Aside from Da Lat, the rest of the Central Highlands has been unaffected by mass tourism. This is especially true for Pleiku, a sprawling and charmless city with little to entice foreign travellers. But get outside and you’ll find an agrarian world rich in ethnic diversity and farmland.

Typical scenes on QL25.

Typical scenes on QL25.

The first stop is Phu Cuong waterfall or Tac Phu Cuong. From Pleiku, ride south on QL14 (same road to Buon Ma Thuot, Dak Lak) for 35 kilometres to Chu Se. At the fork in the middle of Chu Se, veer left to travel on QL25 and after about 6.5 kilometres, look for a narrow paved side road on the left hand side with a sign for a monastery, Tinh Xa Phu Cuong. Ride along, veering left, passing terraced rice paddies until you reach a gate – rouse the sleeping gate keeper to give him 10,000 dong – and continue to a bridge flanked by old, damaged rest huts. Slightly hidden on the left hand side is a set of rusty metal stairs and they lead down to an enormous boulder garden. Carefully make your way over the rocks to a get an unobstructed view of a dramatic single cascade that slides over red rock dripping with vegetation, tumbling down 38 metres. The sight is truly breath taking, and what’s even more impressive is that this waterfall is completely off the tourist radar – it remains natural, without the usual restaurants, shops and kitch that befall so many other sights in Vietnam.

We had this all to ourselves.

We had this all to ourselves.

Back on QL25, continue east. 20 kilometres along is the entrance to Lake Ayun Ha, an artificial lake formed by the damming of the Ayun Ha River. It’s really not worth the short detour and 10,000 dong to take a look – you’ll only see the very southern crook of the vast 37 square kilometres of water and a memorial to five people who died building the dam. More interesting is the one-hour boat trip that can only be arranged in advance.

Entrance to Lake Ayun Ha on QL25.

Entrance to Lake Ayun Ha on QL25.

A motorboat (with lifejackets) for up to 10 people costs 600,000 dong, more than 10 is 900,000 dong. Though we did not do the trip, we’re told the banks of this lake are wild and undeveloped, and it’s possible to stop at sand dunes for a swim or fishing if you bring your own equipment. The best time to go is in the morning, when it is less hot. It’s also possible to go in rainy season (when it’s not raining). Have someone who speaks Vietnamese call Mr Ngoan (T: (0963) 373 268) at least a day in advance. It may take some wrangling to arrange. Ms Hoang Anh of Gia Lai Eco Tourist can also create a tour, including a guide and picnic (215 Hung Vuong St, Pleiku; T: (059) 874 571; (059) 873 354; travelcenter@gialaitourist.com; www.gialaitourist.com.)

Ready for harvest.

Ready for harvest.

From here on, as you glide southeast along QL25’s nicely paved roads, you’ll be rewarded with unobstructed views to rice fields as far as the eye can see, with rolling hills in the distance. This 26 kilometre stretch to Ayun Pa is where terra firma meets the heavens. Because of the reservoir, rice can be grown three times a year and so there’s a good chance you’ll see the paddies at some interesting stage of cultivation: ploughing, planting, harvesting, scything, threshing. We journeyed past here in October at the end of rainy season, and half the surface of QL25 was covered in rice grains laid out to dry. Entire villages were out in the fields harvesting and gathering the straw to be sold for mulch. We darted down muddy country roads to observe the peaceful bucolic scenes and were met by smiley locals.

Nothing goes to waste, even the rice straw.

Nothing goes to waste, not even the rice straw.

The small, quiet town of Ayun Pa is a necessary overnight rest stop. There’s nothing of immediate interest here. The best local hotel is far from glamorous but it’s okay for a night. Ngoc Thien’s rooms have tiled floors, Smurf-blue walls, a window, firm mattress, a few bits of furniture and a decent bathroom with hot water shower. A double costs 220,000 dong, a single 220,000 dong. Find it at 25-28 Le Hong Phong St, T: (059) 385 2321; ngocthienhotel@gmail.com.

Rest stop.

Rest stop.

It’s all regional eats in Ayun Pa and locals took us to Muoi 48 for dinner. Located in a rural area just outside the town centre (anything outside the town is rural), in the backyard of a house, Muoi 48 cooks feast size portions of ethnic minority dishes. It’s definitely an interesting experience. Try ga nau la mi hoa du du, a stew of eggplant, cassava leaves, pineapple flower, chicken, served with an insanely large pile of chilli on top (scoop some off or brace yourself). There’s also traditional catfish and chilli in claypot (ca loc kho to) and bittermelon hot pot with beef (lau bo kho qua). Each dish is no more than 120,000 dong. The address is 48 Ngo Quyen, T: (0166 562 6509) — it is not easy to find. Ask a local to guide you there.

Not your average feast.

Not your average feast.

For breakfast, hit up Quan 53 at 53 Hoang Van Thu, serving up piping hot bowls of rice soup with eel, chao luon, only 20,000 dong. This place is so popular it sells out by 08:00.

Eel rice soup: fuel for motorbike riders.

Eel rice soup: fuel for motorbike riders.

For your onward journey, aside from heading back to Pleiku, you have a few choices. QL25 continues east to Tuy Hoa, which puts you close to Whale Island and north of Doc Let Beach and Nha Trang. You can also head southwest 115 kilometres to Buon Ma Thuot. We didn’t try this journey but we did the first 15 kilometres of it on TL668 and it was a treat. The narrow road was paved, though crumbled at the edges. Hills and quiet plantations flanked both sides and there were no vehicles except for the occasional motorbike. We hope to check this route out in the future – if you try it, let us know how it goes!

On TL668 - what’s around this bend?

What’s around this bend on TL668?


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Location map for Scenic drive: Pleiku to Ayun Pa


What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Pleiku.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda
 Read up on where to eat on Pleiku.
 Check out our listings of other things to do in and around Pleiku.
 Read up on how to get to Pleiku, or book your transport online with Baolau.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Pleiku? Please read this.
 Browse tours in Vietnam with Tourradar.




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