29.Central Highlands: Following the Ho Chi Minh Trail

23/01 – 26/01

After the lovely stay in Dalat it was time to leave. I have heard a lot about the scenery around the Central Highlands – what better way to really experience it than travelling on two wheels.

I arranged a tour with one of the Easy Riders outfits. It was a four day trip from Dalat to the town of Kon Tum on the northern part of the Central Highlands. I really wanted to spend a few days there as I heard that there are some nice trekking opportunities. The price was a bit more expensive than the trips I took in Ninh Binh and the Mekong Delta, but instead of a scooter they used a motorbike – which looked more comfortable. And again, I thought $80 per day was ok, as it included the driver, the bike, accommodation and entrance fees for some areas.

Not to disappoint my habit (and partly because of the longer than expected night out I still had to pack my bag) I was 30 minute late. My driver for the trip, Bao, was already waiting downstairs. I think he was slightly shocked to see my bags (well, I had a suit inside the big backpack), but after 15 minutes everything was securely stored behind my seat (with the added bonus of having a backrest), and I got my helmet (a full helmet – which was handy as I managed to loose my second pair of sunglasses in Dalat). We had a quick chat what was planned for today, and off we were.


We didn’t stop anywhere in Dalat as I saw most of it what was on the initial itinerary provided by Tuan. Instead we drove out of town, and I saw quickly some great views over some valleys while driving on some well maintained road along some cliffs and also passing quite a few flower farms. When seeing the amount of farms it becomes clear why Dalat seems to be the main place to grow plants. It also adds some colour. I also realised quickly that I could relax on the back as Bao was a very safe driver. I think that is a reason to book with one of the well know Easy Rider groups, as they make sure they don’t have any mavericks on the road.

The first stop was in an area that slightly surprised me. I knew that the Central Highlands was famous for the coffee plantation, but seeing the amount still amazed me. But then again Vietnam is the second biggest coffee export nations in the world.
We stopped at one plantation that seems to be quite popular for people travelling on motorbikes. One reason could be the cafe with this great view of the surrounding area, and the other reason could be that they offer Weasel coffee. So in other word they serve drinks from brans that was part of an animal’s poo (I try to reduce any swear words in the blog – hence I don’t say shit).


First Bao showed me around, explained a bit about the coffee beans, some difference. Despite the fact that I am an addict of cafe sua da, I am not a coffee drinker back home, so it was interesting to hear about. He then showed me the cages with the weasel. The cages are not the biggest, but I assume the owner want to protect their production.
It was then time to try this famous (and expensive) coffee. The location was just perfect for it, sitting on a terrace, overlooking a sea of coffee plantation, and having a black coffee in front of me. Not to ruin the taste I didn’t put milk or sugar or ice into it. Well, I am sure milk and sugar would have improved it. Everyone else liked it, so it was probably just me. But still, it was a nice first morning break. I also bought some Weasel coffee for back home, I am sure people there can appreciate it more than I did.

We were back on the bike, and passing quite a few plantations. it was impressive to see the amount of coffee. We soon drove through some villages and arrived at our second stop – a silk producer. Here I was shown the whole production line to produce the silk. From the breeding the silk worms to get their cocoons, using machines to remove the silk from the cocoon and move them into very thin threads. The remains of the cocoons were kept to use for fire, while some silk was used to create some silk in specific patterns. It all looked rather efficient, and it was good to see that this was a family business. Every process was lined up perfectly to the next stop. It was actually very interesting to see the process. Maybe it was because of the drinks the night before, but I rejected the offer to have some silk worms as a snack…

We were then off again for a short ride to get to the next stop – the Elephant Falls. This waterfall is a popular tourist attraction (including for day trips from Dalat), so we saw quite a few groups and other Easy Riders there already. Here one of the disadvantages of travelling alone with a driver was shown – Bao had to wait with the bike outside to look after my bags, so I had to get to the fall on my own.
You actually arrive at the top of the waterfall, and if you head close to the edge you get a nice view – just try not to fall down as it might hurt.

Heading down the little path was at some part interesting, but the view from the bottom of the fall was worth any hassle. Seeing the massive amount of water crashing down, getting constantly some of the cold water spray in your face, and hearing the noise of the water – it was great. I am sure having a little swim in the river down there would be very refreshing. While walking up again I followed a little path I spotted, and it lead to a little rock much closer to the falls. It was definitely wetter there, and it was quite slippery. I saw two people who followed me falling down (and this time I really didn’t laugh…)

Soon we stopped at a little food place in a village for lunch. It was nice to sit down in the shade after being burned a bit by the sun, and enjoying a cold drink and some tasty food – this time some barbequed meat. Throughout my journey I loved visiting these small places, as I always felt welcomed and get home made food. It really beats any Westernised food in restaurants.

We continued our journey, and soon enough we passed some absolute stunning scenery – mountains, valleys, coffee and other plantations everywhere – it was just stunning. At some point Bao must have thought I need some exercise (not everyone is impressed with my Happy Buddha look it seems), so I was kicked off the bike and told to walk for a bit. Well – I didn’t really complain, as it was nice to enjoy the scenery during the walk, and gave me ample opportunities to take a few pictures. Locals passing me in cars and bikes looked curious at me – probably wondering why a foreigner is walking along a street in the middle of nowhere. I just smiled and waved.

After being picked up again I could enjoy the view a bit more. One great thing about Bao was that he made sure that we have regular stops to either visit something, or just having a drink and relax a bit. There was no rushing, and the relaxing pace we travelled made it much more worthwhile.
So during the next few hours we stopped at some less touristy places:

– We visited a little coffee farm which had the ground in front of the little houses covered with coffee beans to dry. Bao also showed me how the local rice wine is produced. Well – the smell was not very pleasant – but at least I now I know how it is made.

– We had a lovely ice coffee in a little café on the top of a hill – they served their own coffee. Lying on a hammock, enjoying a lovely ice coffee and enjoying the peaceful environment was priceless.

– We stopped in a village with a street that was the home for people from one of the minority tribes. it was nice to walk along that street, seeing the kids playing – though they stopped as soon they saw me, and instead looked at me with some smiles. At one point I actually heard voices from a tree above me, and suddenly saw two girls waving at me. But I also saw something that put bits into perspective as well. I saw several women going through a pile of leftovers from farms, collecting any rice or corns that were left – while pigs were eating leftovers as well. It was just a reminder of the poverty of villages in rural Vietnam. As a tourist you can easily forget it when you see locals smiling at you, waving, and just give you a warm welcome.

– When we arrived at a rather large lake Bao was wondering if I was interested to take a boat ride (you could see some fisherman on their boats), but I just preferred just to walk a bit around and enjoying the view. The view over the lake was great, especially further up the mountain.

It was already late in the afternoon, the sun slightly started to get down, and I mentioned to Bao that I never seen a proper sun set over the rice fields. I think he kind of took it as a challenge as we started to pick up some pace – he tried to get me to some rice fields near our stop for the night – near Lak Lake. We passed quite a few rice paddies when we went down hill into a valley, and thought we would just stop here. But no – the places were not good enough for Bao. While the sun started to go down, we went off the main road, and were suddenly on a little unpaved road that led us through rice fields. And here we stopped – in the middle of so many rice fields. I was off the bike, followed a little path, and then actually walked into one of the rice fields, carefully balancing on the little wall that separates the individual fields, managing to keep my feet dry. And the reward was a brilliant view of the sun setting down, the colour of the fields changing, while some locals were still working on the fields. It was one of the most atmospheric and peaceful sunsets I have ever experienced. The race against to time to get here was absolute worth it.

After that great experience we continued into the centre of the town next to the lake. I had the option of staying in a longhouse or a hotel. Bao recommended the hotel as the longhouses can be very noisy. So the hotel it was. The room was spacious, and the bed was very comfortable. Instead of going out we got dinner outside of the hotel. The two of us were joined by two French girls and their driver, and with 6 people we had a great dinner, with the meat grilled on a little barbeque next to the table. After enjoying the tasty food beer and rice wine was shared between us (for some reason I was a bit more careful this time). It was a really enjoyable evening.

The next morning we were off for the second day. Before leaving Lak Lake Bao showed me around. First we went to a former home of the king – a beautiful house with a grandee view of the surrounding view. It is actually a hotel now, and the two main rooms I saw were quite impressive.


The next stop was the touristy area of Lak Lake, where the longhouses are based as well. The positive first, you have a great view over the lake. But the negative point was that we stopped where elephant rides were offered. I know that it is a popular activity for many tourists, and I know that there are many places that treat the elephants well. But since spending time at an elephant rescue area in Cambodia I could not do it. And my experience was probably the reason that I was actually close to tears when I saw how the elephants were treated by the mahouts. The tourists had to climb up a ladder, so they can easily get onto the elephant seats, and to direct the animals sticks were used. Again, this is not uncommon. But I was shocked to see the force the mahouts used to hit the elephants, in some instances using the hook to hit the elephant was just sick. I asked Bao to leave that place immediately. So I would recommend everyone to avoid that outfit at Lak Lake. This kind of animal cruelty shouldn’t be supported. So always make sure the elephants are treated well when riding an elephant (I wouldn’t dare to say never do it, I am not an hypocrite) – not every organisation is mistreating elephants. Obviously, nothing beats seeing an elephant roaming freely.

After that experience we were off on the road again, with constant stops so I could enjoy the view, taking pictures, and just enjoying the ride. On the way to Buon Ma Thuot we stopped at a place called elephant hill (not related at all with the elephant fall the day before). The name was given as the hill in this valley looked like an elephant lying on the ground.
The hill was much smaller than the mountains surrounding the valley – but walking closer to the hill it became clear that it was quite steep. I just walked up when a group of young Vietnamese were doing the same, and taking quite a few selfies. As soon they spotted me I was surrounded, and suddenly lots of cameras were given to the front, and quite a few pictures were taken of me and the group. It was actually very entertaining. After one round of pictures were taken, I walked a few metre up, before smaller groups wanted another pictures, or just some selfies with me. I felt like a rock star with the queries of photos. We all had a god laugh. In addition of the fun with the group, I was also rewarded with some spectacular view from the top. So the hard work getting up there was worth it…

For our pre-lunch coffee break Bao decided to stop at a special place. Well – it wasn’t special because of the coffee, but for the fact that the owner has two big pythons as pets. This meant that I only got a coffee if I carry one of the small snakes. Thankfully the put the baby snake around my neck – it was only 20 kg. The other one was apparently much heavier (and it was just fed). It was a strange sensation carrying such a large animal – especially when it moved its head. The whole time I hoped that it didn’t get hungry….
The ice coffee was even better after that – though being on an hammock helped to calm down as well (I loved the fact that so many cafes in the Central Highlands offered chairs and hammocks…it was like heaven!!!)

We soon arrived in Buon Ma Thuot, and it also meant it was time for having Pho Bo for lunch (and you guessed correctly – it was tasty…). I didn’t see a lot of this big city, one of the highlights in addition of the parks was a big roundabout with a statue and a tank in the middle of it. A bit unusual.
One of the reason we were in town was so Bao was able to show me how two local items are produced – incense candles and rice noodles.
For the first one we stopped in front of a little house in a little side alley. In front of the house were lots little sticks without the incense one. Walking inside the little house I was able to see how the local women used some machines to send the sticks through to add the incense. The pace they worked on was impressive – the “trainees” were in the room next door, and the pace was obviously much slower, but still much faster than what I could do.
We then headed to a few house further down the alley where the incense was made, using some parts of a local sticky tree. Here the produced incense candles were packed, either for Vietnamese or for the Chinese.
Surprisingly in both houses everyone was smiling seeing me walking around, watching them doing the hard work. I guess they wondered why a crazy tourists is coming there to see them.

Slightly outside of the town we headed to a neighbourhood where quite a few rice noodle producers are. Well – I would call them families who produce noodles at home. Driving along the street you could see noodles everywhere, drying in the sun. I already knew how they are produced, but seeing them in such amounts was impressive. There were noodles everywhere, in different shapes – even rice paper with sesame seed. It was impressive to see them work as well in the hot environment (it was so much hooter inside than outside!!!). It is definitely not easy work – and the margins are probably not very high either.

After these two stops we headed back south to get to Cu Jut – a park with a few waterfall and also a longhouse which was our accommodation for the night. Before heading to our accommodation we went to one of the waterfalls with the so-called fairy pool. Seeing the water from the hill above it was easy to understand why it was called that. The water had a beautiful blue colour, and with the rocks in the river and pool it looked very welcoming. However, here we realised a flow to the plan not going first to the long house – Bao had to stay with the bike and bags, so I had to walk down and find my way on my own. Initially I thought it shouldn’t be a problem, but arriving in a dead end next to the falls I couldn’t find the path down. Seeing a sign that you should head down didn’t really stop me, but even after trying different ways I was unable to get to the pool for a swim – and climbing down some of it looked unwise if you are on your own. Instead I could only watch some locals enjoying the cold water (they went down a different way).


I was told later that I had the right idea to start climbing down a tree that fell down the little path that existed, but again it wouldn’t be wise to do it when you are on your own. Should have thought about getting rid of the bags first.

So rather then swimming we headed to our accommodation – a traditional long house inside the natural park. As the name says it is a rather long house, and inside several beds were next to each other. Toilets and shower were inside as well, some fans as well two fire places. No private space, but I still liked it. There were a terrace on the back. The other guests were mainly Vietnamese, except of on German girl who was doing an Easy Rider trip as well.
There was a food place outside, and for some reason there was a zoo – a small one. Unfortunately they had three elephants in a small area, the chains (which is normal to prevent them raiding any nearby farms) were far too short. Not a nice sight. Though I must admit it was nice to hear the them from time to time.

To compensate for the missed fairy pool Bao and I headed down to another waterfall next to the longhouse. The current was rather strong, but the swim was very refreshing. A great place to relax after a long day on the bike. Though I must admit I was slightly worried when I saw a local woman attempting to cross the bridge over the river – the bridge didn’t look very stable, and it was actually closed. Thankfully she managed to cross it without falling into the water.

We had dinner at the little restaurant, with a small selection of some dishes. It was not bad food, and it was nice to have a chat with Bao and the other driver. I finished the day sitting on the terrace, enjoying the peaceful surrounding with no noise whatsoever. This place definitely beats staying in town…

 

The next morning I got up a little bit earlier to enjoy another stroll along the river to the waterfalls, but it was time again to be back on the bike. We had to get back to Buon Ma Thout, but on the way we stopped to watch the locals producing brick stones. With the appropriate machine the material turned quickly into bricks. I wish we had one of these during a volunteer stint in Peru where we had build bricks by hand. Life would have been much easier…

After that short stop we were back in Buon Ma Thuat, and surprise surprised we stopped for an early morning coffee in a café next to the minority museum – though I didn’t have any energy to visit the museum.
We then drove out of the town via one of the typical massively wide roads, and only briefly stopped to get a Banh Mi for breakfast. Once again – simple street but amazing flavour. I could have had easily one more of it…

At one point we just stopped at a little stall next to the main road, where you could buy fresh wild boar meat. I think you could only get it fresher if you would kill it. No need to go to a shop – just drive along the road and buy whatever you find. Nice way to do food shopping. I am sure that would never be allowed in Germany!!!

The next section of the journey was following the old infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. Not that you could see any signs of it (i.e. old tanks etc.), but the scenery was still nice. We once again started to ascend up a hill that offered some great view. To continue with our habit of regular stops we took a break to have a nice cold – no, not a ice coffee – but a freshly pressed sugar cane juice. With ice it is a very nice drink. I surely enjoyed it, while seeing the life passing by on the little road.


After the break the mountainous scenery continued, passing some farms with cashew nuts tree, two wedding parties, a big oven for stone bricks, and of course one or two cafe’s. The whole day was not about seeing something specific – it was about the scenery.
We also had only a light lunch in a café next to one of the highways. I enjoyed that place once again just because the hammock. The food contained mainly fruit, but that was very refreshing as it was quite hot.

Unfortunately later that afternoon we came to a stretch were the road condition was very bad. In some parts the road only consisted of dark stones – I have seen better dirt roads. That was bad because it was a) a bumpy ride, b) it was very dusty, and c) we had to drive very slowly.
We got a break from the bumpy ride by having just another coffee break (it seems Bao made sure we stopped places where I could find a hammock), situated next to a forest. The location must have inspired the owner for the bathroom – I was just pointed to some of the trees not too close to the café. Well – the saying nature calls was very appropriate here!!!

We also had another stop at a little town, where Bao showed me some houses with rather large pepper farms. There were quite a few in that region – just to make sure it was not just coffee, rice, sugar and rubber. It would have been boring anyway.

We continued our bumpy ride on the main road that was always separated by road construction and some sections of dirt road, but at least the scenery was not bad – though in some places you didn’t see any plantations, but just some rivers and hectare of green grass, and I was able to actually see Laos in the far distance.

And while the sun started to go down we had one last drink break in a little shop next to the road. It was hard to believe that this little shop had such a stunning surrounding of hills and fields. The sky turning red because of the sun added to this peaceful atmosphere.

The downside was of course that it was dark before we arrived in the little town of Chu Se – located south of Pleiku. I was actually glad when we arrived at the hotel (which was a standard hotel, nothing special). It was a very long day on the motorbike, partial on some dirt roads – which is not the best condition for your bum. While the scenery was nice, I think it was maybe my least favourite day – this one was mainly a route to get from A to B. Though, I wouldn’t say it was a bad day – just a very exhausting one.

After a short break and a chance to freshen up Bao invited me for dinner in a local food place near the hotel. Here we had a nice hotpot to share, and it was a nice relaxing evening with good food. It really helps if you get along with your driver, and this was the case with Bao. Talking to him was never boring, as he liked to explain a lot about the area, culture, or just about life. Hence I was never bored. After dinner I had an early night to get some rest.

 

The next morning we were off again on the road towards north. After an hour or so we arrived in Pleiku – one of the larger cities in the Central Highlands (and the home of the regional airport). Driving through the town I didn’t really felt it is a place I would like to spend too much time, but we had fond a nice café near a Catholic church. Why rushing when you can fully enjoy the great coffee culture Vietnam has to offer.

The first “real” stop was the Sea Lake, a lake that is inside a volcanic crater. With all the trees and the blue water it had a peaceful feel. There was a viewing platform on the shore, offering a good view of the surrounding area. We had a wee bit luck as a group just left when we arrived, so I had the area for myself. Very handy to enjoy this place.

We then followed the main road north towards Kon Tum, though we turned off the road for a little detour so I could see something different. Instead of coffee this time we passed a tea plantation. Always nice to see something different. We were back on the main road and around lunch time we arrived in a little village, or small town. It looked like the biggest place between Pleiku and Kon Tum. It was nicely settled next to a valley, and one part was just a big park full of trees that offered some shade in the heat. The main reason we stopped here for lunch was so Bao could meet a friend from back home. So after lunch in another small food place where got a nice noodle dish, we met him in a very nice café with a beautiful garden where you can enjoy some coffee. It was nice to speak to both, but decided to go for a little stroll to have a closer look at the park. I was sure that Bao and his friend had some catch up to do.
As his friend was living in that area, he was able to tell Bao that there was a new road in that area, that led pass some minority villages and end up in Kon Tum as well. So instead following the main road, we would ride on some back roads. No one needed to convince me that this was the far better option – even though Bao didn’t know the way.

However, the first part was familiar territory, as we drove towards a artificial lake, and the area was full of different minority villages. On the way we passed some big rubber plantation. Seeing lines of rubber trees next to each other in straight lines was quite impressive.
Soon we arrived at one of the larger minority villages, and it was interesting to see their traditional houses, and the famous house with the large roof. Firstly Bao showed me the traditional cemetery of the village. Like in other villages I have been they believe that the dead can take important items with them, so you can find items like tools or ceramic there.
I was then able to walk a bit around, and while I headed down a hill, passing some plantation with fully blossomed coffee trees, I got some great view of a valley full of rice fields, surrounded by hills. Seeing the different green shades was just stunning. Further down I witnessed how some of the plantations up the hill were actually irrigated. They took a pump down to a little stream, and the water came up via a hose. After seeing the different styles in north and south Vietnam, this was something different.

After that visit we were back on the bike, and were off into the unknown – exploring a new road. Well, I must say the word new didn’t apply on the condition of the road – it was mainly a dirt road. But nonetheless, it was an enjoyable ride. The scenery of fields, hills and villages was great. I thought it was rather entertaining when Bao had to ask for direction. I couldn’t believe it when he asked me if I remember what they told him. Yep – obviously I am able to understand Vietnamese. The only thing  Bao taught me was a rude hand gesture (which I thought was great).
I doubt many foreigners have come that way. Most kids and adults were waving at us, kids chasing us, laughing. Though at some point I thought I must have scared some kids. We stopped at a corner in a village so Bao was able to ask for direction, and a group of girls came towards us, and seeing me they walked to the opposite side of the road. I didn’t smell that bad…really

In the end we managed to go the right way, and the new road really led us to Kon Tum (though at some point I thought we would cross into Laos soon….), and I must say this detour was great. I drove the main road back to Pleiku a few days later, and it wouldn’t have been half of the fun.
The official part of the journey was over now.

 

Overall I had an absolute amazing time. The Central Highlands are absolute beautiful, with lots to see and do. Travelling by bus, or even car, would be a shame. It was a long journey, in some instances a very bumpy ride. but even a painful bum didn’t ruin the experience. Initially I thought that 4 days would be too much, but it allowed us to make some detours, and take enough breaks. Maybe some people wouldn’t like that, but having a break every hour or so for a walk, or just having a drink was fantastic. It made me feel that there was no need tor rush. For me that was the perfect pace. And most importantly, I once again was able to see more of the rural Vietnam that hasn’t been spoiled by tourists (except of Lak Lake). And even with the amount of Easy Riders offering that trip – it really feels being off the beaten track. Especially when we rode on the new road on the last day it was amazing how curious the locals were to see me. At one point we stopped near a rubber plantation, and one child saw me there. It went quickly into the house, and then suddenly came out again with two more kids and a few adults. They all were just watching me, smiling and waving. This is the kind of experience I will maybe remember longer than seeing a lake, a museum. it just makes me smile, and that is why I love travelling.
I am glad I changed my plan and that I didn’t miss this part of Vietnam. And having the right driver and guide is obviously important – and I am glad that I did this trip with Bao, who is a great guy, very friendly, knowledgeable about the area, and made sure I had a great time (though I think he enjoyed the longish breaks as much as I did!!!).

 

Accommodation:
The three places we stayed were all good. For the first night I got the choice between the hotel and a longhouse, but Bao suggested staying at the hotel as the longhouses there are popular with tourists and it can be quite noisy. The second night at the longhouse was great, especially as the national park was nice for a little stroll and swim.

Recommendation:
If anyone have the time, the four day trip to Kon Tum, or the even longer trip to Hoi An is worth it. It is a great way to experience the Central Highlands – and all its aspect: the scenery, the people, food, coffee, and the warm welcome. For some $80 per day might be a lot, but it is value for money.
Also, I would highly recommend getting in touch with Bao. I got in touch with him via one of the Easy Rider organisations in Dalat, but he has now set up his own website, so you could contact him directly. He is a very safe driver, and knows the area well. So I have no hesitation to recommend his service:
http://motorbiketripvietnam.net/

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