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Dalat.jpg Vietnam’s mountainous midriff isn’t the region of the country that most tourists thick to visit. And yet, after a hot and sticky stint labouringly across the coastal plains, the central highlands, with their host of ethnic minorities, mist-laden mountains and thundering waterfalls, can provide an enjoyable contrast to the tropics. Getting around is at times a challenge: travel can be slow with some roads impassable after a downpour. In addition, local tourist authorities may raise a fuss about tourists traveling independently, and there are no really heart-stopping sights. But the highlands allure lies in such simple pleasures as inhaling their invigoratingly chill airs, and walking or cycling with a spray of mist on your face. And, cocooned in woolly jumpers, scarves and bobble hats, the highlanders exude warmth unsurpassed elsewhere in the country, making a trip here doubly appealing.

Bounded to the west by the Cambodian border, and spreading out over the lofty peaks and broad plateau of the Truong Son Mountain, the central highlands stretch from the base of Highway 1 right up to the bottleneck of land that squeezes past Da Nang towards Hanoi and the north. The region’s fertile red soils yield considerable natural resources – among them coffee, tea, rubber, silk and hardwood. Not all of the highlands, though, have been sacrificed to plantation- style economies of scale – pockets of primeval forest still thrive, where wildlife including elephants, bears and gibbons somehow survived the days when the region was a hunting ground for Saigon’s idle rich and Hue’s idle royalty.

For most visitors who ascend to these altitudes, the main target is Da Lat, an erstwhile French mountain retreat that can appear very romantic when the mists roll over its pine-crested hilltops, thought some find it disappointing close-up with its dreary architecture and tacky tourist trappings. Yes the city is not without its charms, among them a bracing climate, some beguiling colonial building, picturesque bike rides and a market overflowing with delectable fruits and vegetables.

It’s a picturesque journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat by road, though it takes about six hours and buses can be cramped, so it’s worth considering taking a plane. From Dalat, it’s possible to drop down to the coast at Phan Rang or Nha Trang, or continue northwards over the hills, passing pretty Lak Lake on the way to a series of gritty highland towns whose reputations rest less on tourist sights than on the villages and open terrain that ring them. Sensitive to the minority rights issue, the Vietnamese authorities only opened this region to foreigners in 1993, and still few visitors venture to its main towns, Buon Ma Thout, Plei Ku and Kon Tum. North of Buon Ma Thuot, highway 14 makes a beeline across the Dalat Plateau to Plei Ku, and then continues to Kon Tum, a journey of less than an hour. Since restrictions on independent travel are less stringent in Kon Tum than around Plei Ku or Buon Ma Thuot, and as there are several nearby minority villages that feature towering Rong where home-stays are possible, the town has started to attract adventurous travelers. From Kom Tum you can travel 8okm northwest to Bo Y and cross the new international border to Laos, or head straight for the coats at QuangNgai, or even go north along the route of the new Ho Chi Minh Highway.

Your highland experience will vary enormously depending upon when you visit. The dry season runs from November through to April. To see the region at its atmospheric best. It’s better to go in the wet season, May to October; although at this time the rain can make some outlying villages inaccessible.

Da Lat
Originally built by the French colonists, Da Lat still bears a passing resemblance to a French town, an impression that is diminishing as Vietnamese-style buildings proliferate. Western visitors come to seek a refuge from the heat and humidity of the Mekong and the coastal plain as equable climate usually remaining between 10º C and 20º C throughout the year.

Dak Lak Province
Buon Ma Thuot lies about 190 km inland from Nha Trang. It is warmer and more humid than Da Lat, with a rainy season from April to November. Attractions include the excellent Gia Long, Dray Nur waterfalls and ancient forest‚ Emperor Bao Dai used to hunt there. Serene Lak Lake, offering travel in a dugout canoe across the lake to ride working elephants and meet their mahouts, Nam Ka forest and dozens of ethnic villages, some with homestay facilities, are other attractions.

Gia Lai Province
Visitors can see the striking Phu Cuong waterfall, visit Plei Bloum village (Jarai ethnic people) overlooking a broad, slow-moving river. The sunset across the valley from the veranda of an ethnic homestay is a joy! The sweeping thatched roofs of the traditional Rong,communal houses of the Ba Na people, and the strange wooden statues around the tombs if the Jarai village cemeteries are fascinating, as is the huge Bien Ho (Sea Lake), the flooded crater of an ancient volcano where the water level hardly varies at all.

Kon Tum Province
Visitors can stroll through ethnic communities, meet the people and experience their daily life. Trekking and homestays are available. Further away to the northwest is Yok Don, Viet Nam, largest national park, quite taxing, but the forests are striking and there are many species of flora and fauna, some very rare. Homestays are possible.


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