The great escape to Central Highlands Vietnam
Vietnam’s central highlands are fragrant with flowers for much of the year, and home to thundering waterfalls, immense longhouses and umpteen minority cultures, so it’s something of a surprise that they’re among the least-visited parts of the country. Discover all you need to know for your visit with our Vietnam central highlands travel guide.
The Central Highlands of Vietnam consists of five provinces, which are Kon Tum, Gia Lai, Dak Lak, Dak Nong and Lam Dong (arranged from the north to the south). The natural area of the Highlands is 54, 474 square kilometers accounting for 16.8% the total area of the whole country. The Central Highlands combined with the South Central Coast to form the South Central region of Vietnam.
Buon Ma Thuot
To the Vietnamese, Buon Ma Thuot means only one thing: coffee. Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of the bean, and this is where most of its best stuff is grown. The main draw of Buon Ma Thuot is what can be found surrounding it: traditional minority communities (mostly E De people) at Ako Dhong and in the surrounding countryside at Ban Don; Yok Don National Park; and some wonderful waterfalls. Between April and July, you’ll see the city surrounded by millions of lemon-coloured butterflies, wafting through the air like yellow petals. Vietnam’s largest wildlife preserve, Yok Don National Park covers over a thousand square kilometres of land between the hinge of the Cambodian border and the Serepok River, about 45km from Buon Ma Thuot. Much of it comprises deciduous forest, though the place can seem surprisingly dry for most of the year. If you start off early in the morning you might see E De and other minority peoples leaving their split-bamboo thatch houses for work in the fields, carrying their tools in raffia backpacks. In addition, over sixty species of animal, including tigers, leopards and bears, and more than 450 types of bird, populate the park; most, however, reside deep in the interior. Of all its wildlife, elephants are what Yok Don is best known for; the tomb of the most famous elephant-hunter of them all – Y Thu Knu (1850–1924), who had a lifetime tally of 244 – is located beyond the final hamlet from the park entrance.
Pleiku, Gia Lai
Most visitors use the city of Pleiku as a convenient stop-over when heading to or from Laos or Cambodia. That said, there are many fascinating minority villages to explore in the surrounding area, and the town itself is slowly being polished. Some highlights of Pleiku include the Ho Chi Minh museum, the Gia Lai museum and the Minh Thanh Temple. When you are in Gia Lai, don’t forget to pay a visit to T’Nung Lake ̣(Bien Ho), Ham Rong Mountain (Dragon’s Jaw), Kon Chu Rang Nature Reserve, and the majestic Chu Dang Ya Mountain.
Sitting on the edge of the Dakbla River, the sleepy, friendly town of Kon Tum could market itself as the Sapa of the South – except the mountains are hills, the weather stays warm and locals don’t wear traditional dress. It is, however, the best base in the central highlands for those wanting to understand minority culture, and unlike busy Buon Ma Thuot and concrete-heavy Pleiku, this provincial capital makes a highly pleasant place to stay. Kon Tum also has a few sights of its own, including some lovely colonial-era architecture – some of the most beautiful buildings in the country. However, most are here to use Kon Tum as a springboard for jaunts to outlying villages of the Bahnar and other minorities such as the Sedang, Gieh Trieng and Rongao. There are about 650 minority villages in the province, of which only a few have been visited by foreigners, so the scope for adventure here is broad.
Seeking for places off the beaten track with new and different experiences, you are recommended to Dak Nong, located in Central Highlands of Vietnam. Exactly, Dak Nong lies to the southwest frontier of the country and at the end of Truong Son mountain range. In recent years, the authority of Dak Nong has taken its abundant human and natural resources as a favorable condition for its economic and tourism development. Just like other provinces of Central Highlands, Dak Nong brings visitors experiences related to culture of ethnic communities and enthralling natural landscapes, some of which are incredible waterfalls, such as Trinh Nu, Ngam, Dray Sap, Dak G’Lun, Gia Long, Luu Ly, and Trinh Nu. Do not forget to visit the Ta Dung Lake, which is also called “Ha Long Bay of Central Highlands”.
Bao Loc and around
Eventually the hills yield to the tea, coffee and mulberry plantations of the Bao Loc Plateau. Here, the town of Bao Loc is the best place for a pit stop between Ho Chi Minh City and Da Lat, and it’s also a jumping-off point for visits to nearby Cat Tien National Park and the Dambri Waterfalls. The area’s outstanding attraction is Cat Tien National Park, a protected area situated 150km north of Ho Chi Minh City and about 50km west of Bao Loc. The park covers the largest lowland tropical rainforest in south Vietnam, and hosts nearly 350 species of bird, over 450 species of butterfly and over one hundred mammals, including wild cats, elephants, monkeys and the rare Javan rhinoceros. Crocs are a different story, since a clutch resides in an area around 12km from the park entrance (8km by boat, 4km on foot). Surrounded as they are by dense forest, the Dambri Waterfalls are much more attractive than any of those in the vicinity of Da Lat, and the only ones worth visiting in the dry season. The road to the falls, which branches north from Highway 20 just east of Bao Loc, bisects rolling countryside carpeted with coffee, tea and pineapple plantations.
Da Lat, Lam Dong
Vietnam’s premier hill station, Da Lat, sits tucked into the mountain folds of the Lang Bian Plateau at an altitude of around 1500m. A beguiling amalgam of winding streets, picturesque churches, bounteous vegetable gardens and crashing waterfalls, this quaint colonial curio is a great place to chill out, literally and metaphorically; if it's cool air gets you in the mood for action, you could try trekking to minority villages, mountain-biking and rock-climbing.
Lak Lake, Dak Lak
A hundred and fifty kilometres northwest of Da Lat and 40km south of Buon Ma Thuot, Highway 27 passes serene Lak Lake, a charming spot that has become very popular with tourists. Five thousand people, mostly from the Mnong community, once lived on the lake itself, but have since moved into distinctive longhouses in shoreside villages. There are a number of activities available here, including musical gong performances and elephant rides; note that the latter are not recommended, since you’ll be sitting atop a metal cage that’s doubtless extremely painful for the poor pachyderm.
Best Time to Visit
The climate is divided into two seasons, rainy season from May to October and dry season from November to April. March and April are the hottest and driest time in a year. Due to the effects of altitude, the climate in plateaus in height of 400-500m is relatively cool and rainy, on the other hand, the weather in over 1000m plateaus is cool all year round as temperate regions. The best time to visit the central highlands to see the region at its atmospheric best, is during the wet season between May to October. Bear in mind that the rain can make some outlying villages inaccessible during this time.