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 Road tripping through the hill tribe towns of Vietnam's Central Highlands

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PostSubject: Road tripping through the hill tribe towns of Vietnam's Central Highlands   Sun May 23, 2010 1:56 pm

Something I found on Yahoo Travel

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Despite breathtaking mountain scenery and a rich diversity of hill tribe cultures, Vietnam's Central Highlands remain one of the least 'tourorized' areas of Southeast Asia. This region of pine tree forests, waterfalls and coffee plantations is far from the coastal beach resorts where most tourists flock, and this remoteness is all part of the charm.

The narrow, winding roads of the highlands are strewn with potholes, some so deep and wide it appears as if elephants were dropped on the tarmac successively from various heights in some grotesque experiment. An equally poor bus system and lack of railways make exploration by more maneuverable motorbikes the best option.

Venturing Inland
This adventure starts in the coastal town of Phan Thiet, though the mountains can be approached from any adjacent city between Ho Chi Minh in the south and Danang on the central coast. The road from Phan Thiet winds through Hindu Cham villages and mountain rainforests before arriving in the town of Dalat.

The K'ho of Dalat
Dr Alexandre Yersin (the noted explorer and scientist who discovered the cause of the bubonic plague) is traditionally considered the founder of the Dalat. The hill station, sanatorium and eventual resorts that developed more than 100 years ago have blessed Vietnam with one of the finest concentrations of French Colonial architecture in Indochina.

The city was named after the Lat clan, a subgroup of the K'ho tribe who inhabit much of Lam Dong Province. Though the K'ho have been assimilated by the dominant Vietnamese culture of modern Dalat, their bamboo stilt houses with thatched roofs can still be seen dotting hillsides in remote areas.

The M'Nong of Lak Lake
A day's motorbike journey from Dalat will reach Lak Lake; the lake's shores are inhabited by displaced members of the M'nong tribe, relocated here from the north by the government. On my road trip, I spent the night in immense, wooden M'Nong longhouses. After a morning of elephant rides and canoe trips I drove to Ede territory in Dak Lak Province.

The Ede of Buon Ma Thuat
The Provincial capital of Buon Ma Thuat is the seat of Vietnam's coffee-growing empire, its capacity now second only to Brazil. Due to tensions between the government and local hill tribes, the ability to travel without special permits can be restrictive. Travellers can be expected to only be allowed to travel between Buon Mat Thuat, which has a few major waterfalls like Drey Sap and Drey Nur, and Yuk Don National Park.

The Jai Rai of Pleiku
Heading north through Gia Lai Province traverses the territory of the Jai Rai, famous for their elaborate wooden funeral houses guarded by erotic totems. The capital city of Pleiku was an infamous battleground in the war with America. Politics in the area is complicated, and hiring a government-licensed guide is required to visit Jai Rai villages and nearby waterfalls, though travellers are free to visit the flooded volcanic crater known as Ho Bien on their own.

The Bahnar of Kon Tum
Just a few hours further to the North, the city of Kon Tum, and the surrounding province by the same name, holds the greatest cultural treasures of the central highlands. The town is populated by ethnic Bahnar, most differentiated from Vietnam's other minority groups by the thatched communal lodges that tower above the villages surrounding the city. Like many hill tribes however, common cultural icons include musical gongs, "buffalo stabbing festivals" and ruou can (rice wine brewed in large ceramic vases.)

Out to the Coast
The final leg of the journey has almost as many options as the beginning. Roads lead north to Danang via the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail, or out to coastal towns like Hoi An or Qui Nhon. I chose a remote route to Quang Ngai through villages of the indigo-clothed H're, then loaded my motorbike on a train back to Phan Thiet.

Hotels

Sofitel Dalat Palace
For luxurious comfort and a sense of history, Dalat's original colonial hotel is the only choice.
Website: sofitel.com/gb/hotel-1744-sofitel-dalat-palace/index.shtml
Address: 12 Tran Phu Street, Dalat
Tel: +84 (0) 63 382 5444
Price: Starting at around US$252

Lak Resort, Ho Lak, Dak Lak
Stay in a somewhat modern Ede family longhouse on an islet in Lak Lake.
Website: daklaktourist.com.vn
Tel: +84 (0) 050 385 2246
Price: Starting at around US$10

Damsan Hotel
A solid three-star choice with a lovely swimming pool and tennis courts.
Website: damsanhotel.com.vn
Address: 212 Nguyen Cong Tru Street, Buon Ma Thuat
Tel: +84 (0) 500 385 1234
Price: Starting at around US$35

Hoang Anh Gia Lai Hotel
The best and perhaps only place in town for 4-star class and comfort.
Website: hagl.com.vn/hotel_resort
Address: 1 Phu Dong Square, Pleiku
Tel: +84 (0) 59 3 718 459
Price: Starting at around US$30

Duc Binh Hotel
In the absence of any upscale accommodations in town, this sensible budget option on the main drag provides all the basic comforts.
Address: 122 Phan Dinh Phung, Kon Tum
Tel: +84 (0) 60 386 2019
Price: Starting at around US$9
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