Unexplored Vietnam Central Highlands

While on the pursuit of renewing our Vietnam travel visa, we got the chance to explore some parts of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Although the Central Highlands got a limited number of tourist attractions, it is still worth visiting.

The roundabout in Buon Ma Thuot. Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/zorrovisa/155498330/

From Dak Lak, we took a local bus to Buon Ma Thuot for 14,000 dong (US $.80). The 2 hour ride was a bit uncomfortable because the bus was too packed and smelly.

Our packed bus going to Buon Ma Thuot. Photo courtesy of Ming (mt_kang at Flickr)

We suspect that was where we lost an mp3 player too. The crowd of people standing on the  aisle made it difficult for us to see our bags stored at the back of the bus.

Busy market in Buon Ma Thuot. Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/16796900@N00/520945833/

From the bus terminal, we took a motorbike for 10,000 dong (US $.57) each to Ly Truong Kiat Street where several guest houses and hotels were located. We stayed in Cong Ty Duoc, a double room with fan, cable television and shared bathroom for 90,000 dong (US $5.14). In Vietnam, it is not difficult to find a cheap guest house or hotel under the US $5 to $10 range. It is very important for us though to always check the bathroom first whether it is clean or not and this one didn’t disappoint. We usually don’t mind sharing bathrooms as we always keep it clean after using and hope other guests would do the same.

In the morning, we realized we weren’t so lucky for finding that cheap hotel. As early as 7 in the morning, we woke up to the sound of Vietnamese teens running around, shouting and singing along a music video blaring on television, one floor above us. Oh well, we can’t have it all.

Since we were unable to extend our Vietnam visa in Buon Ma Thuot as I have told in my earlier post, we then proceeded to Kon Tum to try our luck. We booked a non-air conditioned local bus for 80,000 dong (US $4.57). The 4 hour ride on a non-air conditioned bus was pleasant enough since the weather is less humid compared to Saigon and besides, the fresh air on my face keeps me from feeling dizzy when the road start to zigzag.

Sleepy town of Kon Tum. This is a common sight in some developing towns around Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Ming (mt_kang on Flickr)

There are a few hotels and guest houses in Kon Tum. The Lonely Planet guidebook recommended bigger hotels which were all beyond our US $10 maximum budget for accommodation so we walked around the town with our heavy backpacks and chanced upon Viet Tram for US $6 per night. Oftentimes, hotels and guest houses in Vietnam accept US dollars as it is unsafe and inconvenient for most travelers to carry millions of dongs around. The rooms were spacious but not so clean. Also, we had to use the shared bathroom one level up from where we were staying because the owners of the hotel left their half done laundry in the bathroom beside our room. We didn’t bother to ask the owners to move the laundry out since we were too tired from the bus ride and just wanted to take the quickest shower possible and sleep.

The next day, after we found out there’s no Immigration office in Kon Tum, we explored the small town and the surrounding village by foot. The wooden church, which also have an orphanage behind it, is beautiful and unique. We were at the churchyard during a school meal break so there were a bunch of kids literally hanging around a small tree like monkeys to gather some fruits. They were throwing some of the fruit for us to try but I gave mine to some of the kids surrounding us that time.

Wooden Church in Kon Tum

The weather was so warm that we had to stop by several drink vendors to have some nuoc mia or sugarcane juice, tomato juice and coconut juice to keep us cool and hydrated.

A few meters further, we reached a small native village with unusual house structures. Some were made of mud with a huge roof. I found out the locals are from the same M’nong ethnic group in Dak Lak but they don’t live in long houses.

A house in Kon Tum local village

As we were curiously walking around the small village, the local children were also curious of us.  They were probably bored of their usual day that they followed us around while we take photos.

A typical day in a rural village in Kon Tum

It was unfortunate that we just breezed through the Central Highlands of Vietnam. With the visa extension issue hovering above us like a dark cloud, we didn’t fully enjoy exploring the place as usual since we were in a hurry to get to another bigger town to have the visa issue fixed. It was still a great experience though to see a different side of Vietnam which most travelers rarely see.

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A Stop at Lak Lake

Sunset at Lak Lake

Before heading to Buon Ma Thuot where we plan to extend our Vietnamese visa, we agreed to stop at Lak Lake for a few days. The Easy Riders in Dalat have shown us photos of the unique longhouses where some minority people of Vietnam live. We were curious so we booked a 2:30pm Mai Linh bus to the Lak Lake Resort for 80,000 dong each (US $4.57). Some Easy Riders would tell you that getting to Lak Lake is difficult so you would arrange a trip with them. However, it is possible by public transport.

You would also notice, when you start traveling the highlands of Vietnam, the presence of plastic bags hanging near the windows. It just means one thing: Be ready for an uncomfortable and dizzy ride. The road is winding and the bus a bit fast for me. I felt sick almost the entire 4 hour trip. Well, a local passenger felt the same way that we have to stop at least twice so she could have a breath of fresh air after vomiting at the side of the road.  The plastic bags would be really handy if the bus cannot make a stop right away.

We arrived the Lak Lake Resort at around 6pm. Not worth the US $10 rate. The room is dark, dirty and stuffy. The toilet stinks with a lot of mosquitoes. It was too late to head to the longhouses so we had no choice but to stay there for the night.

While having a make-your-own spring roll on one of the street stalls, we met Tran, who works at the resort as a chambermaid. So the hotel got a chambermaid?! Doesn’t looks like it. We chat with her for a while then she showed us how to combine the ingredients and make the perfect spring roll.

Not much cars but elephants roam around Lak lake

The next morning, we checked out of the horrible place and hiked to Jun Village. I recommend the iced milk coffee beside the Dak Lak Tourist Office. One of the best ones we’ve had, although it was a bit overpriced, almost twice the usual price.

Elephants carrying tourists around Jun Village

I was so happy to see 2 huge elephants walking along the road. Regardless of their humongous size, you can barely hear the elephants walking past because of their padded feet. We followed the elephants for a while before going to the Bao Dai Villa.

The Bao Dai Villa is located on a hill, overlooking the Lien Son town. I am not sure whether the place is available for tourists to stay overnight. It looked deserted and the restaurant doesn’t seem to be serving anything as well.

I wasn’t so happy with how some of the locals run their business around Lak Lake. They charge tourists more than the usual price and the worst thing is, they are not even discreet about it. We went to a restaurant with no name on the main street. It was a bit filthy. Used table napkins and some toothpicks scattered on the floor. We thought they were closing down for the day and clearing the tables thus the trash on the floor but 3 guys went in with us so we figured why not try the food there. We ordered what everyone else was having; a plate of rice with marinated pork, vegetables and hard-boiled egg. I noticed our portions were not as much as those guys. We even got the lousy vegetable parts. Oh well, I thought, they must have ordered more than the usual serving. Surprisingly, we were charged 30,000 dong (US $1.71) for each plate while the guys paid only 15,000 dong (US $.85) each! We tried to ask the woman operating the business but she don’t speak English. I know it’s just a small amount of money but it’s not a good feeling to be cheated that way. Lesson learned. Next time, I would just pay the amount everyone else paid whether the vendor argue with me or not. We did just that on the bus to Danang. More of that on future blog post.

Long house at Jun Village

Finally, the reason we were in Dak Lak, an experience to live on a native long house. Mr Duc of Duc Mai Cafe have several native long houses he rents out to tourists for US $5 per person. He had someone fetch us at Lak Lake Resort free of charge.

Another photo of a long house

I would say the long house is the most spacious guest house we have stayed in. At least 10 people can stay comfortably. That day, no one else stayed at the long house so we had the huge space all to ourselves. The place is clean and well-ventilated. The opposite of where we stayed the previous night. The amenities are basic; there are no beds just mattresses, mosquito nets are provided  and a small bathroom at the back of the long house.

Inside the spacious long house. For 2 backpackers, it is indeed spacious.. but in reality, several families live in one

Dinner at Duc Mai Cafe was special. They were serving traditional M’nong set dinner. We had barbecued pork, stir fried vegetables, soup, pork with tofu, and spring roll. A must-try for 40,000 dong (US $2.28) each person. It was the first time I ate a banana with a seed! At first I thought one of my orthodontic brackets fell off, but when I spit it out, it was a black seed from the banana.

Hiking around the rice fields in Jun Village

The next day, after a well rested sleep at the long house, we hiked around the village. Vast, green rice fields surround the area. We met some M’nong people. They weren’t the usual Vietnamese one would meet. They have dark skin, curly hair, thick lips and big eyes. They were very curious of tourists and were not shy to communicate with you so they can practice their English as well. I like the freshness of their being. They were friendly not because they want to sell something but instead they communicate with you so they may absorb something from you that they think would enrich them. They lead simple lives and I really admire that. I understood how tourists are always asked to be responsible with how they act or talk to people in remote villages. They have a certain innocence in them that is difficult to see in people today. Oftentimes, outside people doesn’t help in preserving that.

Rice fields around Jun Village

Elephant munching on banana trunk

Back in the village, we saw an elephant munching a banana trunk across our long house. Hold on a second.. did I say banana trunk? Yes, the elephant was eating a banana trunk for lunch. It was amazing to watch it crush the banana trunk like how a human munch on a garlic bread stick.

Yummy banana trunk! Imagine how we munch on garlic bread sticks!

It was a good decision to make a stop at Dak Lak despite the uncomfortable bus ride and the cheating food vendor. It was an experience to meet  some minority people of Vietnam;  felt their sincerity and friendship and understanding briefly how they have lived for years.