Not long after arriving in Vietnam, I met a very intrepid American lady. She had an incredible talent for travel – charming locals with ease, wandering off into the unknown and returning with all sorts of discoveries. While many expats were living in hotels or newly-built apartments, she was in a simple Vietnamese house out in the jungle, with no running water and a sub-$50 monthly rent.
The farthest she got into Vietnam was Kon Tum, in the highlands of central Vietnam, and she told me it was the highlight of her trip. She had been travelling up the country for two or three weeks before she got there, which in my eyes was an awesome feat of perseverance and boldness. I doubted that I could ever do it myself.
Kon Tum is indeed pretty ‘deep’ into Vietnam. There isn’t much western influence and it seems like a frontier as far as English-speakers are concerned. This wikitravel page will give you an idea of what we know about the place. It was the 5th of April, and Kon Tum was where I was headed.
Before leaving Ea H’leo, I had to conquer the hotel pool. It’s a big pool, so it wasn’t exactly an in-and-out affair. But I was on my way shortly after lunch.
Kon Tum is sometimes called ‘Đà Lạt 2′ by Vietnamese people, but I found that it’s not as high as Đà Lạt (~500m vs 1500m) and it doesn’t seem to share its temperate climate or botanical variety. I would say it’s most notable as a meeting point between Vietnam and some indigenous ethnic groups, and also for some things that happened during the war.
I took an extra day in Kon Tum to check it out, and got in touch with a local tour guy who agreed to show me around. This guy was Mr An, who took me what I call a pretty wild ride.
Mr An has a café called ‘Eva’ which is quite beautiful. He does carvings in the style of the indigenous folks, and keeps some on display there. He has a calm, thoughtful personality and clearly has a strong interest in the indigenous people, though he is not one of them.
First we went to check out the local Catholic seminary, which contains in it a museum of the local peoples. The town itself seems very peaceful.
After this we went to see a Bahnar tribe that lived down the river. Their place was quite peaceful, and it was pleasant to wander through their town and say hi to the people there.
During this walk Mr An got off his phone and told me he had good news. A different tribe up the river was preparing a party – they had finished building a new ‘rong’ house, which is a big deal for them and always celebrated with a massive party. So after the usual tour we made our way up to the party.
The party was well underway when we arrived. These people, Jarai (Gia Rai in Vietnamese), presented a big contrast to the previous tribe. They were over-hospitable, giving me more rice wine and food than I could hold, and trying to talk to me even though they didn’t know English and I didn’t know their language. Mr An tried to interpret and to guide me in their customs, but he seemed to know from experience that there was no choice but to just go with the flow.
When these people party, they prepare lots of rice wine and food. There was even a DJ at one end of the house, and the floor was heaving with people. The wine is low-strength and sweet but must be constantly consumed out of bamboo sections, or straight from the barrel. They eat fried pork rind, which is tasty, but everyone just goes in with their hands. I learned that I’m more anal-retentive than I had thought. I was so worried about my cameras – and all of my stuff, really. After a week of guarding my possessions carefully, I was now convinced that if I set my bag down and turned around, it would just disappear. In hindsight, I could have relaxed and enjoyed myself a bit more. Perhaps if I had known what it would be like, I could have rolled more smoothly.
Luckily for me, there was a young lady, Tu, who was looking out for me. This tribe is matriarchal – I’m not sure what to call it actually, but any rate, the women are the bosses there. So it was good protection.
After about an hour and a half, I was covered in grease and rice wine, and sweat and dirt. Utterly filthy, with great big smears all over that I felt would never leave me. I thought for a moment that I should marry Tu and just accept this as my life hereafter. Instead, I broke away and took a walk down the road for a little while. I was on my way back when An found me – he had also made his escape.
All in all, the trip was worth doing despite the discomfort at the end. I learned a lot about the locals and something about myself, too. I think Mr An was a little worried about my reaction, but the experience was real and I’m happy for that.
Back at the hotel, I was now vexed about which direction I should go. At first I planned to head back to the coast, but on the other hand I’d learned about the Ho Chi Minh Highway West. This is a quiet highway that follows Vietnam’s western border, and you can read more about it from the same place I did – Vietnam Coracle (a fantastic resource for anyone who’s thinking about riding in Vietnam). Kon Tum happens to be an excellent place to pick up the trail, and I seriously thought about going that way.
In the end I decided to join the western highway later on, and to stick to the original plan for now. That’s what happened, and the western highway ended up being the best part of this whole venture. I think it was the best choice as you really need a day or two to prepare for those long, remote roads.