30. Kon Tum – a worthy end for my Vietnam Trip

26/01 – 29/01

After a enjoyable 4 ride through the Central Highlands we arrived in Kon Tum. Finally. Kon Tum was always on my itinerary, but after changing my mind about Cambodia I didn’t head here before New Year. Overall, it was not a bad thing as the weather now was lovely.
Unfortunately the agency I wanted to use for a trek, Highland Eco Tour, was not available for the following day, so I had to delay the trek by a day. I really wanted to use them as the owner, Mr. Huynh, had a great reputation. My only concern was that I really wanted to stay overnight in a minority village, but the person on the phone ensured me we would be back in Kon Tum early enough so I could get a taxi to Pleiku airport for my flight at noon.

After Bao and I arrived in Kon Tum he recommended me to stay at the Konklor Hotel, which was at the outside of Kon Tum. Initially I thought it would be nice to stay in town itself, but when I saw the guesthouse I knew he was right. It was located in a quiet area, and it offered bungalows and several rooms in the main building. I took a double bedroom in the building, and the room was spacious, clean, with two doors leading to a balcony where you sit down and relax. The staff was also very nice, they offer laundry services and bike rental. For 250,000 it was good value for money.

After dumping my bag in my room were off again on the bike – Bao wanted to show me one of the minority villages nearby. After only two minutes we were already on a long suspension bridge, which was the end of Kon Tum, and the beginning of the area that is home of several minority villages. The bridge itself was quite impressive – quite long with some great views, and enough space for two cars to pass each other. A short ride on a dirt road, passing some hamlets and rice fields we arrived at the village. It was based on a little hill and offered a nice view of the surrounding area (a great setting with hills, rivers and fields. The village itself was built around the traditional Communal House, or Nha Rong. With its insanely high ceiling made from bamboo it has a unique look and is something I have never seen before. As it was so close to Kon Tum I assume that quite a few tourist get here, still, quite a few kids came out of their houses to watch me, some looking rather shy, others having a big grin in their face and waving. They seem once again interested in my camera, and after a few pictures taken of them, one of them was quickly shown how to handle the camera, so Bao and I got one picture of the two of us.
After the short visit we headed back to Kon Tum, but stopped along the river to watch the locals cleaning their cloth, kids paddling with little boat.

Just in time we got back to the bridge for the sunset. This time I took a stroll over the bridge, enjoying the view over the river, the fields and the surrounding hills, and the changing colour of the sky. I met an Australian couple who did the exact same thing, and after helping each other with pictures taken, it turned out that he was to start working as dive instructor in Hoi An – the one dive club based in the Dive Bar I spent Christmas Eve. He was also able to tell me that the bar manager JG’s wife also gave birth. Small world once again, but it was nice to hear such good news (met her on Christmas eve as well).

Bao decided to stay the night in Kon Tum before heading home, so it was my turn to invite him for dinner. Taking advantage of having the bike we headed back into town, and stopped at a local place that offers some nice barbeques. However, before we could sit down we got invited for a quick beer by two drivers and two Brits who arrived in Kon Tum earlier. Who could say no to a beer, even if the food has to wait a bit longer.
Dinner itself was nice. Bao ordered a selection of boar, pork and beef, and it was grilled on our table, served with some rice and salad. Like the hotpot the night before it was a great way to have a social able dinner.
Unfortunately that was it for us. Back at the guesthouse it was time to say goodbye as he was heading back home to Dalat early in the morning. Bao is a great guy, and I couldn’t ask for a nicer guy as a driver.
I finished the evening sitting on the balcony, enjoying a late night drink with some other tourists before heading to bed.

I decided to stay a bit longer in my very comfortable bed, but after 10am it was time to get ready. The plan was to explore Kon Tum by bike – a bicycle.
For the high price of 40,000 Dong I got a bike for the whole day from my guesthouse. And off I went. After 5 minutes in the heat I already regretted not to take a scooter, but with some stops to enjoy the view over the river I stopped at the main attraction of Kon Tum – the Wooden Church. Build entirely by wood in the 1910s is a beautiful building, both from the inside and outside. Knowing gothic buildings thanks to the little cathedral back home in Cologne, it was interesting to see some Gothic influence. You could have easily sit outside and just look at it for hours. Obviously I met the Australian couple again, and after a wee chat, and exploring the inside of the church, it was time to continue my ride.


I went back to the main road and cycled to the Tan Huong Church. This was a more traditional church, but still a very nice one. An unusual sight was the depiction of St George and the dragon on the wall. Unfortunately it was closed so I couldn’t walk in (it still surprised me that so many churches in Vietnam were closed outside the services).

It was then already time for lunch, and an elderly man in front of a food places diagonal opposite of the churched waved at me, so I stopped there. It was nice cool inside, and as an added plus they showed some tennis from the Australian Open. I ordered a noodle dish with some meat and vegetables, and used the time to have a break and enjoy a bit of the tennis, and obviously have good food.

After lunch I aimed to find another church that was mentioned on the map. For that I cycled towards the highway that leads to Pleiku, but instead of crossing the bridge I followed the road along the river. I passed a temple and lots of work construction, and only saw a church on the other side of the river. In that heat I didn’t fancy cycle all the way back to the bridge, and the follow the river again. Instead I went just to the bridge, and decided it was time for a little coffee break. The café was just great. It was near the main road, wil quite a lot of seats inside, with a kind of little canal system around the café, and it was so cool. A perfect place to sit back and having an ice cold coffee.
After that break I briefly stopped at a taxi rank and asked one of the Mailinh taxi drivers about the price for a ride to the airport. The taxi driver was happy to do that trip for only 200,000 Dong. A very very good price. he gave me his card, and we agreed to have a chat the following evening to arrange everything.
I then cycled around some little alleys to find the former French prison. However, first Only after cycling in some little alleys I found the remains of it – not a lot is left except of the structure and eight graves of revolutionary combatants.

I followed the main road, and for some gut feels I turned right and arrived at a nice park with the Bac Ai Pagoda next to it. It was nice to walk a bit around the park, seeing kids fishing in the little water hole, locals taking a break in the shade. It is a peaceful place to hear no traffic noise.
I was back on my bike, and on my way to the Cave Church I was in need of a bio break, but unfortunately some hotels were not too kind to travellers. Well, I used the excuse to find a little café near the market, and had a nice little break (cycling is exhausting).Soon I was back on the road and arrived soon at the Cave Church. The church itself was not as nice as the other two, but next to it there were two interesting sights. The first one were the stations of the cross told on 14 bronze signs outside. This was rather a rather impressive sight. The other reason to visit this church is a little altar next to it, which was inside the remains of an old building with several signs hanging on the wall. it was rather busy with locals sitting in prayers in front of the altar. So this would be the main reason to stop here.


From here I really realised that Kon Tum isn’t that big place, as I recognised the road heading off the road the Cave church is on – that road lead directly to the Wooden Church.
From there I decided to head back towards the road to Pleiku, but turned off the road towards the fields running alongside the river. Along that road locals were working on fields, watering them or just walking their cows. I spotted a little dirt path along the river, and just followed it. It was a nice little ride, passing more fields, and at some points was rewarded with some great sights from the surrounding area, in some instances the red colours of flowers providing a great contrast to the green fields. And no noise. It was amazing. I am sure you could cycle there for hours to explore the little paths in that area.
As it got a bit late I turned back, and on my way to town I met a family on the ox cart, and the kids were too happy to show off that they can handle the cart. I think they enjoyed to see the pictures of themselves, while I found the cart handling rather entertaining. Sitting on the ground in a field in the central highlands seeing such cart – you could hardly get a more perfect picture of rural Asia.

 

Well – maybe you could. To enjoy the start of the sunset I stopped at one the cafes along the road overlooking the fields and plantations. Having an ice coffee with a view of fields, hills and a water buffalo strolling through a water hole was a great way to finish the day.


In the end it was already dark when I finally cycled back to the guesthouse. I was tired when I arrived, but had a great day. However, not being in the centre had its disadvantages. There was no great choice of food places. The staff told me about a little food stall in a house on the main road.

With no other choice I went there. The owner a friend were sitting there having a chat. Obviously they couldn’t speak any English, but this didn’t stop us having a rather entertaining time. Firstly, the noodle soup I had was tasty. When I saw the owner preparing a different dish for someone guest, she saw my look, and started to prepare one dish for me. I didn’t miss the chance and to everyone amusement I took a video of her work.


The second portion was great, and with hand signs we all had a little chat. Somehow she realised  that I was also catholic, and she gave me one of her wooden bracelet with sign of a local saint as a gift. No wasn’t an option, so I accepted her gift. In addition she only charged me for one dish. I think she and her friend enjoyed that time as much as I did. But it was another reminder how welcoming and friendly the Vietnamese are.

To walk off a bit of the food I went to the suspension bridge and on my way back stopped at a little shop to buy some water. The whole family with two kids were sitting outside. As soon the daughter spotted me, she ran inside the house, and came back immediately with her little English school book. So obviously I had to spend a little time there pronouncing some of the words, and she was very happy when she was able to count up to 10. It was just great. As a thank for my time I was offered a glass of red liquid. It would have been rude so I drunk two of the drinks. Apparently it was a kind of rice wine.

After the long day and the detour for dinner I was glad to sit on the balcony, having a drink and enjoy the absolute peaceful quietness of the place and the clear sky with the stars and moon. It was an absolute fantastic time – Kon Tum is such a beautiful place with welcoming people.

 

Early in the morning I had to get ready, packing my bag and checking out, as my guide for the trek, Le Van Manh, picked me up just after 8:30. Unfortunately Mr Huynh was busy, so the business partner acted as my guide.
Thankfully I was able to leave my main bag at the hotel, and soon the two of us were on his scooter and heading over the bridge. When he realised I had no breakfast, we just stopped at one of the little food places of the minority villages to have one of the local noodle dish for breakfast. Having me around was a bit of an attraction, and the table got busier when kids and adults joined me on the table. Le Van Manh acted as a translator as the locals had several questions where I am from etc. The food and all the questions really woke me up.
After that unexpected break we had a 30 minute ride to the home village of Le Van Mah where I was spending my last night in Vietnam, and our trek started. It gave me a first sight of the little village, with a the traditional Communal House in the middle of the village, and a little wooden church as well. I was already looking forward for my night there.

But first the trek started. I had the choice of a heavy or medium trek – considering the heat I choose the medium one.
So off we were, following a unpaved road passing some houses, rice fields. Soon we left the path, and walked along rice paddies, and then the fun started. Le Van entered a little stream, and walked towards a little fall. Well, apparently it was time to get wet feet. I really didn’t expect it, but having no choice I followed him. The next part included walking in the stream, climbing up rocks, obviously slippery rocks. On a few occasions I was close to fall down into the water with my face down first. Graceful as I am I managed to keep my balance. It was actual a fun route to take. After walking inside the stream for a while it was time to get back to the dirt path.

I was just glad that I had fast drying hiking shoes.
Walking up a little hill the scenery has changed. From green rice fields to a more dusty fields of pineapples, rubber and other fruits. We took a small break a t a little camp side. Le Van told me there that many farmers actually didn’t return home after a long day working. To save time and energy they just stayed there on the hill, sleeping in these handmade tents. It was hard to believe that they wouldn’t return home but stay there for weeks. It also meant that other families in the village looked after their children during that time. And in some instances the kids actually came to the camp side to help the family. Life up there really isn’t easy.

We continued the walk, going further up the hills (which was nice as the view got better, but it become very hot as well walking in the sun without any shade). Throughout the trek Le Van told me stories about the area, pointed out some hills that were important bases for the US helicopters. At one point I thought this was the area where the US and North Vietnamese forces met for the first time – but I was wrong as this was south of Pleiku. We passed more of the simple camp sides, and the locals we saw were all smiling and waving, before returning to their hard work. For me it was hard to believe to work for the whole day in that temperature and conditions.

Around 12:30 we stopped at a little bamboo hut to join the owner of the hut – an elderly couple who stayed there to prepare food for their daughter and son in law and other family member. They only stayed up that hill to help their family. Talk about family dedication. Le Van provided me some fruits and sandwiches, and having lunch in the shade with that amazing view was fantastic. I was also glad to know that we were on the top of the hill – from now on it was only walking down….yay.


After the well deserved break we were off again. The further we went back to the valley the scenery changed once again – we passed more rice paddies again, and also one very large rubber tree plantation. And I was glad whenever we walked through some forest that offered some shade from the hot midday sun.

After another hour trek we finally arrived back at the river. The plan was to get the boat back for a 30 minute ride. Until the boat it was swimming time. It was great to be in the clean cool water – it was so refreshing. However, the current was very strong, so we had to be a bit careful. The time in the river was well used until the little boat arrived – which took us back to the valley. I must admit after the 4-5 hour trek I was glad to sit in the boat to enjoy the scenery instead of walking back. Not sure the guy paddling and steering the boat would have agreed.

Back in the village it was time to relax a bit at my homestay, which was in the home of Le Van relatives. The sleeping place was a single matrass in a long house above the floor  – I think there would be place for a few more visitors. In addition they have a separate bungalow. The bathroom was opposite of the longhouse – so you had to climb down some stairs, and walk up again – with no lights on. Dinner was served next to the longhouse. In addition they had some seating arrangement below the longhouse. Overall, it was a nice, but very basic set-up.

After a little break at the homestay I walked a bit around the village, watching the locals producing some cloth, preparing food, kids walking on sticks, and as usual posing when they saw me walking around. There was such a nice relaxing and peaceful atmosphere.
I then headed back to the river for a little stroll. Once again it was wonderful to watch the local life there. Women cleaning clothes, kids playing in the water and the boats. It was great to spend time there and also to enjoy the sunset.

Back at my homestay I met a fellow guest staying at the homestay – a girl from Australia. Sitting down with Le Van we had a nice chat. Before dinner I thought it would be a good idea to quickly walk to the shop for some drinks.
Buying everything was no problem, but as soon I walked out I was suddenly surrounded by quite a few kids. I had my camera with me, so I took a picture. As it was already dark the camera used automatically the flash. The kids were a bit surprised, and some shrieking followed. This attracted the attention of more kids who came out of the nearby houses. And suddenly I had to take quite a few pictures of the kids posing, climbing up trees, laughing. I also made some selfies. The kids had a great time, I enjoyed it, even the parents were laughing watching their kids. It only stopped when Le Van came out to look for me, as dinner was ready. This was one great last experience in Vietnam.

Dinner at the homestay was great – they served various dishes. It was plentiful and tasty. After dinner I had a chat with the girl, and to make my last evening in Vietnam even better – the sky was absolute clear and provided a great view of the moon and thousands of stars.
I think this was the perfect place for my last night in Vietnam. I couldn’t have asked for more!

The next morning a simple breakfast of baguette and egg was served, and Le Van was on time to pick me up and brought me back to Konklor Hotel. The tour provided by him was great. The trek was interesting, with some great views. The highlight was the night at the villages. It was a great experience to see the rural life there, and to interact with the locals.

Back at Konklor hotel I was able to use the shower to freshen up, and earlier than expected the Mailinh taxi arrived to pick me up. The whole arrangement worked well, including tip I paid only 250,000 Dong for the ride, and arrived  2 1/2 hours before the flight. So without any stress I was on my way back to Ho Chi Minh City – for the very last time for this trip.

 

Overall I loved Kon Tum. Despite the fact that it is a popular stop for people touring with the Easy Rider it has an absolute off-the-beaten-path feel. The main reason for that is probably that most people only stay one night there. And I must admit it is a mistake. it is a very compact town, with some interesting churches, some lovely colonial buildings, and surrounded by an absolute beautiful scenery. The locals are also very friendly and welcoming, and I could have stayed for that reason alone even longer.
The other reason to stay here are the trekking opportunities to explore the beautiful area, and also to see the different minority villages. Based on the one evening there, it is something that should be on the agenda when heading to Kon Tum. None of the other places I visited between Dalat and Kon Tum comes close to the this positive, charming and laidback atmosphere that Kon Tum offered. I was fully justified to ensure to visit this great gem of a town. I just loved it!!!

Accommodation:
The Konklor Hotel is a great option. Yes, it is not in the centre of Kon Tum, but the value of the room and the quiet area is a big plus. As it is a very compact town anyway, so you are quickly back in town for dinner. But it is nice to be at the hotel in the evening and enjoying the relaxed and quiet atmosphere. Great place.

Recommendation:
The most important one – stay more than just a day. it is so much more than just a transit town. it has far much more to offer. The Wooden Church is a must see, exploring the town by bike is great. Taking the time to enjoy the place – priceless.
Also, the trekking is great. It is not overrun by tourists, so you will not come across many tourists (I didn’t see a single one during my trek – only in the village). It was a complete different experience than Sapa, the view not as impressive, still nice though, but far more relaxed. It is a fantastic way to see the real rural life in Vietnam. The highland Eco Tour is an agency I would highly recommend, especially as the owner Mr Huynh has such a great reputation. They offer various trips to explore the great area of Kon Tum. Their website is vietnamhighlands.net/en.

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