Kon Tum in the northern part of the Central Highlands in Vietnam has started to build a reputation amongst independant travellers as a good place for hiking and visiting minority villages. The big advantage at the moment is the lack of tourism, the area still has a very rural atmosphere, and is not overrun by tourists like Sapa or other places in the north of Vietnam. This alone makes it very appealing as a destination to visit. However, I must admit that while the scenery hewre is beautoful, it cannot compare to the more dramatic scenery in Sapa.
As a result of the low key the infrastructure is not well developed, and there are not many agencies that offer treks. However, one guide manaed to build a very strong reputation already thanks for trekking with aiuthors of Loney Planet and Rough Guide. Now Mr Huynh is seen on several travel sites as the absolute expert for this area. And he offers now various treks in the surrouding area of Kon Tum via his agency Highland Eco Tour. He offers several day trips and multiple day trips including homestays in minority villages. When he is not available he will send his business partner Le Van Manh who is also a very good guide, and I can only highly recommend them. Their website is www.vietnamhighlands.com.
Due to some time constraints (none of the two were available for my first day in Kon Tum) I choose a day trek with a homestay, and getting back to the hotel the next morning so I could catch my flight to HCMC.
I got picked up by Le Van Manh just after 8:30 and the two of us were on his scooter and heading over the bridge towards the homestay. 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. Make sure you talk about this before the trek starts.
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 at 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 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 during the Vietnam war. 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 iot 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.
Before dinner I thought it would be a good idea to quickly walk to the shop in the village 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 really was a memorable experience.
Dinner at the homestay was great, which was served for me and another guest from Australia. Le Van Manh had to go back to Kon Tum unfortantely. They served various dishes from spring rolls to barbequed pork . It was plentiful and tasty. After diiner and when all the lights were switched off I saw another benefit of this area – no light pollution. The sky was clear and provided a great view of the moon and thousands of stars. It was just perfect.
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, not too difficult (the heat made it not easy though) and with changing scenery. I admit that the scenery is not as stunning as in the far north, but the lack of touts trying to sell you anything, meeting curious locals who have hardly seen any foreigners, and of course the homestay, made it a perfect place to visit. For me, it was more enjoyable than Sapa if I am honest.
So if you are looking for a place with an off-the-beaten-path feel for a nice trek and being able to stay in a minority village and interact with the locals, Kon Tum might be the right place for you. If you do, contact Highland Eco Tour on their website vietnamhighlands.com