Mission Impossible: Vietnam’s Central Highlands

HOW do you (re)visit almost every city you’ve already been to, reach almost none of the towns you wanted to go to, but find yourself in a host of places you’d never planned on seeing? Head for the Central Highlands town of Kon Tum, that’s how.

Kon Tum was supposed to be really pretty, remote and populated mainly by hilltribespeople, or Montagnards , “mountain people”, as the French called them during Colonial times.

On a map, the journey looked simple enough: backpacker bus to Dalat, local bus to the town of Buon Ma Thuot, stay a couple of days, then take a bus to another town, Pleiku, then one from there to Kon Tum.

However, getting to and around these parts was supposed to be not exactly easy, as they were regarded as “sensitive”. For a start, the Montagnards are predominantly Christian (a legacy of French Colonial times), and God is, of course, a challenge to the authority of the state. Plus, the Government had still not forgiven the people for being (largely) on the side of the Americans during the Vietnam War. And in addition there was supposed to be some sort of re-settlement programme going on, in which the people were being ‘encouraged’ to leave their traditional homes and ways of life for new ones in purpose-built towns. Dalat had only recently become more accessible, but some of these places were still, if not ‘closed’, certainly restricted. But I decided to give it a whirl anyway.

In Dalat, however, I was told that there was one bus a day to Buon Ma Thuot; it left at 2am and travelled along a really winding, mountainous road to its destination. Having borne in mind all the warnings about drivers, dodgy buses and non-existent ‘roads’, miles away from medical help, I decided not to take the bus, and was redirected instead to Nha Trang, as there were more buses from there and the roads were better.

So once again I found myself in Nha Trang, which, although OK, wasn’t one of my favourite places. The price list at the public bus station declared that tickets to Buon Ma Thuot cost 36,000 dong . “No, 36,000 for me, not you. You have to talk to the driver,” the woman behind the counter told me. Suddenly, the all-in Central Highlands tours advertised on posters around Nha Trang seemed very appealing.

One place had exactly the right tour for me. But it had left that morning and there were no more until after Tet, so I went for the second best option, which would take me around Buon Ma Thuot. And back to Da Lat. Still, Mr Vu, the tour company owner, said I could ride back from there to Nha Trang for free because he had to get the bus back to Nha Trang.

Bare mountains between Dalat and Nha trang, which could possibly have been deforested by Agent Orange.

Landscape between Dalat and Nha Trang, possibly deforested by Agent Orange?

Day One: lunch in Buon Ma Thuot, which was OK but not exactly worth a special trip. As two of our small party were knackered – they’d been partying at the Sailing Club in Nha Trang until ridiculous o’clock – we headed to our ‘camp’ for the night, some little bungalows near the Virgin Falls. The falls weren’t that impressive – more a weir than a waterfall – and there was nothing at the ‘campsite’ other than the bungalows. It didn’t seem possible to walk anywhere else, though, as the one escape route, a bridge over the falls, was patrolled by men demanding “nam nginn” or “muoi nam nginn” – basically 15,000VND, or a dollar – and it didn’t look finished anyway.

The highlight of the stay had to be the mosquito net in the bungalow; it was awesome: royal blue, adorned with satin ribbon roses, the heart of each contained a sequin. Too bad the electricity shut off at bed-time, and seeing as there was an electric pump for the water, that went too.

When I say there was nothing at the campsite other than the bungalows, that’s not exactly true. There was also a monkey in a cage (waaaah!) and two other cages, each containing one big snake and one duck. When we asked the guide, he said the ducks were the snakes’ food for the day. There was an awful lot of quacking about 10pm but I didn’t go to see what was happening; the ducks weren’t around the following morning.

That’s when we went to Draysap Falls. The scenery on the journey was stunning, and the falls themselves were worth seeing – around 100m wide, and rather pretty, although not as impressive as they would be at end of the rainy season.

Next stop was Yok Don National Park. It’s supposed to be home to tigers, rhinos, and all manner of exotic creatures, but the only jungle animals we saw were the elephants that took us for a one-hour ride around the park.

One hour didn’t sound like very much, but we discovered, firstly, that an animal as big as an elephant can cover a lot of ground in an hour, and, secondly, that the seats – proportioned as they were for Vietnamese people rather than hulking great Westerners – were so uncomfortable an hour perched in them was more than long enough. The 45-year-old elephant, however, seemed to have no problems carrying me, two American girls, C and E, our tour guide and a handler. It was incredible to look down from such a height, and also because we’d be going through the forest and the elephant would just stop and eye up a tree with a trunk around four inches in diameter, just curl its trunk round the tree and rip it up and carry on stomping through the forest with the ends of the tree sticking out of either side of its mouth.

That was the ‘good’ bit. The ‘bad’ was that the elephant’s tusks had been trimmed, and it was horrible the way the handler kept bashing it on the head with a stick. The handler also had an evil-looking spike on a pole, which we were told was for if the elephant started to run. I guess an elephant’s skin is so thick it would feel the spike less than many other animals would, but I was still relieved that the handler didn’t use it. [Note to readers in 2017: at the time I didn’t realise how cruel elephant rides are; nowadays there’s no way I would take one.]

The hours of darkness at the end of the day weren’t night, they were a nightmare. We stayed in a village near Lak Lake. We had a boat ride across the lake, which was lovely; we played ball with the village children, and then we had a stonking evening meal. But what a Rat-o-Rama! There was rubbish all over the place, the toilets were on the other side of the village from where we were staying, and the house was like my worst nightmare come true: a grass box on stilts, with rat-friendly holes all over the place and a big gap over the door. Still, C and E, who had made friends with all manner of wildlife during biology field trips in the Ecuadorean jungle, rather sportingly let me sleep between them, assuring me that any rat that did get in would curl up with either of them before it got to me.

C and E, though, had their own problems that night. They had left their passports in Saigon as they were getting visas for China, but they had brought with them photocopies of the pages containing their details and pictures, their Vietnam visas and entry stamps. Although everything had passed smoothly the previous night, the police around Lak Lake were less accommodating, and they gave our guide a really tough time. He spent all night going to and from the police station and had to make two trips the following morning.

The guide reckoned he wouldn’t have had half as much trouble if the girls hadn’t been American – you couldn’t even take Americans there a few months earlier, he said. In the end, the guide’s uncle, who lived in the province, coughed up a 2 million dong or so fine on his behalf and paid for all the beer the police drank while they were at the village negotiating with the guide. It’s interesting to note that this happened a couple of weeks before the financial drain that is Tet and that the guide said he had had a similar problem at the same time the previous year. Still, everything was resolved eventually, and it gave us something to talk about on the journey to Dalat.

I’d made it to BMT, and a host of other places as well, but I still hadn’t been to Kon Tum. I heard that there were minibuses to Kon Tum from Da Nang/Danang. Although it was going back on myself (it’s between Hué and Hoi An) it seemed like a good idea to head there. So, after my free ride back to Nha Trang, I caught a backpacker bus north again. This journey was interesting because so many of the passengers were Vietnamese, rather than tourists: although Hanoi is the capital, wages are higher in Saigon, so many people from the north migrate south for work. Now, of course, they all wanted to go home for Tet, so all public transport, from cheap to expensive, was full, meaning that Vietnamese people were using backpacker buses.

Smoking is still commonplace in Vietnam – enough to bring on a fit of the vapours in public health people at home. It’s banned on buses, but all that meant was that every time we stopped for even the slightest break, smokers would pile off the bus to light up. Including the times when we stopped to re-fuel. So there they were, stretching their legs by walking around the petrol station, puffing away on the fags in their mouths.

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