DALAT AND THE CENTRAL AND WESTERN HIGHLANDS OF VIETNAM

CENTRAL AND WESTERN HIGHLANDS

CENTRAL AND WESTERN HIGHLANDS is an area that begins about 150 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City and is known for its ethnic minorities, relatively cool climate, waterfalls, scenic mountains, lakes, Vietnam War battlefields, and re-education camps. Situated around the lovely town of Dalat, it embraces the southern part of the Truong Son Mountains and was site of some of the heaviest fighting in the Vietnam War: Pleiku, Khe Sanh, Buan Ma Thuot and Kon Tum. Until the 1990s much of the region was off limits to foreigners because the government didn't want information to leak out about the re-education camps for unrepentant South Vietnamese located here.

The mountains in Vietnam, which have several high plateaus, are irregular in elevation and form. The southern portion has numerous spurs that divide the narrow coastal strip into a series of rooms. For centuries these topographical features not only rendered north-south communication difficult but also formed an effective natural barrier for the containment of the people living in the Mekong basin. *

Within the southern portion of Vietnam is a plateau known as the Central Highlands (Tay Nguyen), approximately 51,800 square kilometers of rugged mountain peaks, extensive forests, and rich soil. Comprising five relatively flat plateaus of basalt soil spread over the provinces of Dac Lac and Gia Lai-Kon Tom, the highlands accounts for 16 percent of the country's arable land and 22 percent of its total forested land. Before 1975 North Vietnam had maintained that the Central Highlands and the Giai Truong Son were strategic areas of paramount importance, essential to the domination not only of South Vietnam but also of the southern part of Indochina. Since 1975 the highlands have provided an area in which to relocate people from the densely populated lowlands. Dac Lac and Gia Lai Provinces make up Vietnam’s main coffee-growing region. In the rain forests on the borders of Cambodia and Laos you can still find tigers and elephants and maybe Javanese rhinoceros.

LAM DONG PROVINCE

LAM DONG PROVINCE (200 kilometers northeast of Ho Chi Minh City) covers 9,772.2 square kilometers and is home to 1,204,900 people (2010). The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Viet (Kinh), Co Ho, Ma and Nung. The capital is Dalat City. Administrative divisions: City: Bao Loc. Districts: Lac Duong, Don Duong, Duc Trong, Lam Ha, Bao Lam, Di Linh, Da Huoai, Da Teh, Cat Tien, Dam Rong.

Located in the Central Highlands region, Lam Dong is a mountainous province, and 70 percent of its area is covered in forest. To the north, it borders on Dak Lak and Dak Nong provinces, to the south-east, on Khanh Hoa, Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan provinces, and to the west, on Binh Phuoc and Dong Nai provinces. The remarkable characteristic of Lam Dong's topography is the fairly distinctive division of tiers from north to south.

The north of the province is high mountains, the Lang Bian plateau, with summits of altitudes between 1,300 meters - above 2,000 meters such as Bidoup (2,287 meters), Lang Bian (2,167 meters). The east and the west are mountains with modest altitudes (500 meters- 1,000 meters). The south is topographically the transition from the Di Linh- Bao Loc plateau to the semi-flat country.

Lam Dong province has a tropical, monsoon climate. Due to the complex topography, there is a difference in elevation and degree of vegetation covering. However, the weather of Lam Dong is relatively temperate and mild all the year round. The temperature varies distinctly with elevation. The range of the average annual temperature is 16 degrees C to 23 degrees C. The dry season is from December to March. The rainy season is from April to November. It is sunny almost everyday. The annual rainfall is not distributed equally in time and place. Its range is 1,600- 2,700 millimeters. Area on the windward side of mountains, facing the southwest wind get a lot of rain. Bao Loc City has a high annual rainfall amounting to 3,771 millimeters.

Sights In Lam Dong Province: There are many picturesque lakes, beautiful mountains, waterfalls, and pine forests. Some of the natural scenic spots include Xuan Huong Lake, Dan Kia- Suoi Vang Lake, Tuyen Lam Lake, Lake of Sighs, Valley of Love, Da Nhim Lake, Camly Falls, Datanla Falls, Prenn Falls, Pongour Falls, Dambri Falls, Bobla Falls, Liliang Falls, Voi (Elephant) Falls, Ponguar Falls, Golf Hills, and Lang Bian Mountain. Among the places of historical and cultural interest are some French style villas, Linh Son Pagoda, Linh Phong Pagoda, Truc Lam Zen Monastery, Dalat Cathedral and Cat Tien archaeological site.

The population is mainly composed of Kinh (Vietnamese), Co Ho, Ma, Hoa, Nung, Tay, and Chu Ru ethnic minorities. Starting from Dalat, tourists can visit villages of ethnic groups in the Central Highlands and discover their customs, festivities and original handicraft products. Local minority communities also hold a variety of festivals including the buffalo sacrifice festival and the gong performance festival.

DALAT

DALAT (300 kilometers northeast of Ho Chi Minh City) is noted for both it colonial atmosphere and natural beauty. Founded in 1893 as a French hill station and situated in a high plateau with a pleasant climate, Dalat is popular among foreign tourists and Vietnamese, and has traditional been a weekend retreat for people with money from Saigon on a honeymoon site for Vietnamese newlyweds.

Known during the French colonial period as Le Petit Paris, it contains the colonial mansions belonging to the French governor and the last Vietnamese emperor, Bao Dai, who lived here from 1949 to 1955 and reportedly chased a fair number of ladies during his stay. The villa is now a hotel. The old French Quarter is pretty much intact. Most of the buildings here were built between the 1880s and the 1920s. The lovely old Art Nouveau hotesl have recently been restored.

Less attractive than it was during colonial period, Dalat today is a small city with dilapidated colonial building, an Art Nouveau train station, new concrete hotels, dusty streets filled with motorbike, cool nights, charming cafes that serve strawberry wine, and Vietnam's first 18-hole golf course. There are a handful of industries in the area.

Stanley Karnow wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Parks and broad avenues are shaded by acacias, cedars, palms and mimosas. Jasmine, liana, hibiscus hedges and fragrant frangipani encircle pastel stucco, half-timbered French villas with wrought-iron balconies, brick chimneys, sloping ceramic-tile roofs and curved eaves—an incongruous though handsome hybrid of Oriental and Gallic styles sardonically dubbed “Norman pagoda.” The spire of a Romanesque Catholic cathedral looms over Buddhist temples; a secluded cemetery entangled in weeds and moss contains the neglected tombs of Dominican, Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries who came here to preach the Gospel. Afurther vestige of French influence is a roughly one-quarter-size replica of the Eiffel Tower. [Source: Stanley Karnow, Smithsonian magazine, August 2005]

Dalat City covers 390.5 square kilometers and is home to 197,000 people (2007). Administrative divisions: Wards:1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12; Communes: Xuan Tho, Xuan Truong, Ta Nung, Tram Hanh. The largest ethnic groups in the area are the M'nong, Ma, and Co Ho, Dalat is the capital of Lam Dong Province and is located at an elevation of 1,500 meters. Dalat has a cool climate. The annual average temperature is 18 degrees C. The area in and around it is famous for its lakes, waterfalls, pine-tree forests, vegetable gardens and flowers such as rhododendron, cherry, mimosa, hydrangea, rose, daisy, and dahlia. Dalat offers a harmonious combination of natural scenery and historical sites.

Getting to Dalat: Dalat is 110 kilometers from Phan Rang (Ninh Thuan), 200 kilometers from Buon Ma Thuot (Dak Lak), 205 kilometers from Nha Trang (Khanh Hoa), 293 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City, and 1,481 kilometers from Hanoi. Lien Khuong Airport is 30 kilometers south of Dalat. There are daily flights to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, and two flights a week to Danang. Flights to Dalat are sometimes delayed or even canceled.

Airport to City: US$ 3 (Taxi); Vietnam Airlines' sales agents: 40 Ho Tung Mau Street, Tel: 3831 368; Flights From Hanoi: Daily, Vietnam Airlines, 663, 1,067, 01h40'Daily, Air Mekong, 01h20'; Flights from Danang: 4 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 298, 480, 01h20'; Flights From Ho Chi Minh City: 14 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 133, 214, 00h50'Daily, Air Mekong, 00h45'.

HISTORY OF DALAT

Stanley Karnow wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Da Lat is resort that the French carved out of a misty, pine-covered plateau about 200 miles northeast of Saigon. Apart from a brief clash in 1968, the retreat was hardly affected by the fighting of the Vietnam War, since by tacit agreement both sides conveniently used it for rest and recreation. [Source: Stanley Karnow, Smithsonian magazine, August 2005]

“Rising to roughly 5,000 feet above sea level, the plateau was sparsely populated by hill tribes when, in 1893, Alexandre Yersin, a Swiss-born scientist with a taste for adventure, trekked into the region. (Yersin, who had conducted research at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, later went on to China, where he discovered the bubonic plague bacillus, then ravaging Asia and threatening the West.) The pristine beauty and salubrious weather so impressed Yersin that he persuaded the French colonial administration to develop the locale into a vacation spot. According to some accounts, an anonymous bureaucrat baptized it Da Lat, meaning roughly “the water source of the Lat people.” Then, someone with a classical education created an advertising slogan, an acronym constructed from the first letters of the Latin phrase dat aliis laetitiam aliis temperiem—“offering happiness for some, a comfortable climate for others.”

“Initially, the isolated area attracted only a handful of tea planters and hunters in quest of deer, elephants, wild oxen and boar. The vertiginous ascent from Saigon over a single rutted dirt road by car could take as much as a week; the only lodging was a rudimentary auberge. But French officials, optimistically calculating that a luxury hotel would beckon an affluent clientele, erected the sumptuous Palace, opened in 1922. A deluxe suite was 22 piastres a night, roughly $200 today. Da Lat’s distinguished guests included kings, maharajahs, princes, politicians, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham, whose novels and short stories vividly describe the European expatriate experience in Asia.

Imagining how they might have spent their days, I envisioned guests setting out on leisurely nature walks, riding horseback along forest trails or golfing on a course designed to amuse the adolescent Vietnamese emperor, Bao Dai, whom the French controlled as their puppet. In the evenings, the men dressed in black tie, their wives, or mistresses, in frilly gowns. They gossiped over aperitifs on the wide veranda and, after lavish dinners, played bridge in one of the salons or baccarat at the casino. There were piano or violin recitals and an orchestra for dances. A nearby bordello employed exquisite French, Vietnamese and Chinese prostitutes. But the resort, clobbered by the Depression in the 1930s, floundered; travelers found the hotel as empty as a mausoleum. On my visits during the Vietnam War, the Palace functioned but had virtually no guests.

“The Communists expropriated the resort following their victory in 1975, but lacked the skills or the inclination to run it. Besides, they abhorred it, or so they said, as a memento of “heinous imperialism.” Eventually Larry Hillblom, the founder of DHL, the global courier, bought it in a joint venture with the Vietnamese provincial government; Hillblom invested a fortune in its renovation. An eccentric Californian, he roamed Asia in T-shirts, shorts and sandals, fathering several illegitimate children by young women. He died at age 52 when his private plane crashed into the Pacific in 1995. Attorneys representing the four children—their paternity confirmed by DNA testing—induced the courts to award each $50 million or so from his stupendous estate.”

“In 1981, on my first trip back after the war, Vietnam was deeply mired in poverty and on the verge of collapse, partly as a result of the devastation left by the conflict and also because of the regime’s Marxist economic policies, which forbade any hint of capitalism. Peasants were compelled to deliver their crops to the state; agricultural output fell drastically. Merchants were subjected to onerous regulations; they defiantly closed their stores, and trade declined. But a coalition of moderate politicians, alarmed by deteriorating economic conditions, has promoted a measure of free enterprise: today, Da Lat’s thriving outdoor market reflects a new prosperity...Still, Da Lat is too distant from the coast to be inundated by day-trippers. So the happy prospect is that its capricious, anachronistic atmosphere will endure as a reminder of its distinctive history.” For information on Dalat's history read Barbara Crossete's Great Hill Stations of Asia .

DALAT TODAY

Stanley Karnow wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Parents and children crowd confectionery shops, ordering up milkshakes and ice-cream sundaes. I sauntered through a square where ersatz cowboys in ten-gallon hats steered toddlers around on ponies while a troupe of clowns, costumed as buffaloes, gorillas, zebras and lions, staged pantomimes. At the Valley of Love, an amusement park on the outskirts of town, honeymooners self-consciously posed for photographs under bowers of roses. [Source: Stanley Karnow, Smithsonian magazine, August 2005]

The railway to Da Lat has been defunct for decades, but the station, a dubious Art Deco effort reaching back to 1938, serves as the terminal for a dinky train and dilapidated locomotive that puffs around its tracks for 15 minutes, bells clanging and whistles shrieking. When I appeared for an excursion, a conductor in a starched uniform embellished with braided epaulets courteously apologized that it was broken and being repaired—as a mechanic divulged to me it chronically is.

A maze of arcades spills into adjacent alleys, thronged with gamblers, beggars, pickpockets, hustlers and peddlers. Elderly women and young girls clad in conic rattan hats and traditional ao dais—billowing pantaloons and long loose tunics slit to the waist—squat behind baskets, offering azaleas, chrysanthemums, geraniums, gladiolas and peonies brought in from suburban flower farms. Huge crates overflow with a dazzling array of fruit and vegetables: avocados, bananas, coconuts, durians, litchis, melons, asparagus, chilies, mustard greens, yams, tomatoes and water chestnuts.

Apothecaries carefully weigh out traditional remedies and elixirs by the ounce—powdered stag antlers, rhinoceros horns, ginseng. Sidling through the packed aisles, I observed scores of spices and herbs, ranging from basil, cardamom, cloves and coriander to sage, sesame, star anise and saffron. FisHmongers hover over bins of fresh-caught shrimp, squid, clams, oysters, crabs, tortoises, bass, perch and tuna. Cages of squawking chickens, geese and pigeons dangle from crampons above counters piled with slabs of pork, beef and veal. Other stands, catering to the superstitious, are heaped with mysterious amulets, talismans, fetishes and astrological charts.

The clothing section bulges with a jumble of knockoff Levi jeans, ensembles bearing Bill Blass logos, Adidas athletic shoes and denim jackets emblazoned with Harvard, Princeton or Stanford insignia—all manufactured in Vietnam or smuggled in from China, Taiwan, Thailand and South Korea. I had expected to see native handicrafts, but cubicles are crammed with cheap plastic toys, New York Yankees baseball caps, Mickey Mouse wristwatches, Madonna mugs, fake Zippo cigarette lighters engraved with the emblems of U.S. Army regiments, and souvenir banners inscribed with mawkish mottoes in English—“Regards to my Mother from Dalat.”

Not far from the royal mansion lies a mildewed cottage concealed in a bamboo grove; here, at the quirkily named Stop and Go Café, writers and artists gather to swap ideas and discuss works in progress. The proprietor, Duy Viet, cordially introduced me to his comrades who, presumably emulating Montparnasse boulevardiers, sport berets and scarves and wear their hair down to the shoulders. Sprawled across a sofa or seated on benches, they smoked Marlboros and sipped goblets of scalding artichoke tea, which reputedly calms the nerves. While Duy Viet strummed a guitar and crooned folk songs in a nasal twang, a poet recited in French an elegy dedicated to a deceased friend:

By contrast, another nearby studio seemed to thrive not on tranquillity but bedlam. Located on a dusty lane behind a tumbledown pagoda, it belongs to Vien Thuc, a Zen Buddhist priest. Attired in a coarse brown robe and cowl, he revels in his perhaps self-imposed sobriquet, “the mad monk.” No sooner did I step over his threshold than he grabbed a brush, dipped it into an ink pot and dashed off a haiku in ancient Vietnamese calligraphy on a paper scroll. “My inspiration is Van Gogh,” he proclaimed, charging around frantically and muttering, as he pointed to the dozens of sketches portraying his muse, full face and profile, with and without the ear.

SIGHTS IN DALAT

Dalat has many natural and artificial lakes such as Ho Xuan Huong, Than Tho, Da Thien, and Tuyen Lam bordered by lines of pine trees. Popular attractions include Duc Trong Pagoda, where you can see nuns-in-training making incense; a silkworm factory at Nha Trang;; and Lam Ty Ni Pagoda, the home of a hermit monk named Vien Thuc who is famous for his eccentricities and artistic skills. Near the Lake of Sighs is the Valley of Love, famous for its paddleboats. The temperate climate of Dalat is suitable for flowers such as orchids, roses, lilies, and camellias.

Dalat Cathedral is located on Tran Phu Road, near the Dalat Novotel Hotel. Built between 1931 and 1942, the cathedral was used by the French and other Europeans who used to live in Dalat or to spend holiday there. It looks like a European cathedral with its many stained glass windows and 47 meters tower. Masses are held from Monday to Saturday at 5:30am and 5:15pm, and Sunday at 5:30am, 7:00am, and 4:00pm. The Lam Dong Province Museum, on the top of a hill at 4 Hung Vuong St., about one kilometer from the Central Market, has local historical and traditional culture displays, and archaeological and ethnological artifacts.

Linh Son Pagoda is located on Nguyen Van Troi St., on a hill overlooking the center of Dalat. The headquarters of the Buddhism Managing Committee of Lam Dong Province, the pagoda has been managed by a succession of monks. The present monk, Thich Tu Man, has been residing in the pagoda since 1964. In the middle altar, there is a 1,250 kilograms bronze Buddha statue cast in 1952. In addition, there is a room in the pagoda where Buddhist books and souvenirs are sold.

Dalat Flower Park, at 2 Phu Dong Thien Vuong St., leads from Xuan Huong Lake to Dalat University, is famous for its diverse species of flowers. It is considered a natural museum that houses a fine collection of native and exotic flowers. The park consists of at least 300 different kinds of flowers, hundreds of which are in blossom all year round. The flower park is open daily from 7.30 am to 4:00pm.

The Summer Palace of Emperor Dao Dai has an interesting collection of art and objects. Stanley Karnow wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Guidebooks publicize the mansion where the country’s last emperor, Bao Dai, dallied with his favorite concubine until he was exiled to the Côte d’Azur in 1955 after the South Vietnamese republic, with help from the CIA, deposed him in a blatantly rigged election. I anticipated regal magnificence, knowing that the French had spared no extravagance to gratify his whims. But except for the lush gardens abounding in orchids, bougainvillea, dahlias and magnolias, I found the residence prosaic. The furniture resembles conventional Sears. Shelves cluttered with gifts from foreign dignitaries display a routine collection of gold plates, jewel-hilted sabers and commemorative medals. [Source: Stanley Karnow, Smithsonian magazine, August 2005]

CRAZY HOUSE

CRAZY HOUSE is preferred name of the Han Nga Guesthouse and ArtGallery, named for its proprietress, Dang Viet Nga. Stanley Karnow wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “It embodies a fusion of Surrealism and Dada gone berserk. The gate is guarded by two mammoth concrete giraffe sculptures, their necks interlocked to form an arch; the stomach of one constitutes a snack bar that dispenses cold Coke and Pepsi. Soaring above the patio is a giant concrete banyan tree, its twisted roots extended like slithering tentacles. An almost invisible filigree of wire spider webs is suspended from the branches. Tape-recorded calls of frogs croaking, monkeys chattering and birds twittering are piped through a loudspeaker, devised to foster the illusion of a bucolic setting. [Source: Stanley Karnow, Smithsonian magazine, August 2005]

The bizarre spectacle seemed amusingly zany until Madame Nga proposed that I inspect some of her ten rooms, supposedly representing various fauna and flora. Climbing a spiral staircase, we squeezed through narrow ramps to an aerie whose centerpiece is a gargantuan sculpted eagle, wings spread, talons bared, beak open. I also peered into the Kangaroo, Termite and Tiger rooms. In the subterranean Ant Room, swarms of slimy Bakelite insects infest a tree stump.

A petite woman in her 60s, Nga invited me into her parlor, offering cups of the inevitable artichoke tea. After studying architecture in Moscow during the 1960s, she rejected Soviet design orthodoxy and moved to Da Lat in hopes of establishing an experimental installation. “What I have achieved here,” she told me, “encapsulates the intimate relationship between humankind and nature.” I was astounded that the Communist Party, which rigorously insists on “socialist realism,” had authorized her weird project. But I understood why the minute I saw that the portraits on her walls depicted her father, Truong Chinh, who followed Ho Chi Minh as Vietnam’s president. Until his death in 1988, he had been one of the most sectarian Communist bosses. Clearly he had obtained the approval she needed—proof that in Vietnam, as elsewhere, kinship transcends ideology.

FAMOUS HOTELS AND RESTAURANTS IN DALAT

Sofitel Dalat Palace Hotel is Dalat’s premier hotel. Guests are sometimes welcomed with a flute of champagne.Stanley Karnow wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Meticulously remodeled and “majestically perched on a crest overlooking placid XuanHuongLake, the Palace commands a vista of verdant landscape. Evoking the hotel’s vanished past, a black 1955 Citroen sits in the driveway. The walls of carpeted corridors are hung with a hodgepodge of reproduction medieval tapestries and facsimiles of Cézannes, Dufy aquarelles, Renoirs, Manets, Matisses and Monets, turned out by an assembly line of talented Vietnamese copyists. Miniature bronze sculptures of nymphs and satyrs flank faux-antique porcelains. [Source: Stanley Karnow, Smithsonian magazine, August 2005]

“Enormous rooms, opening onto spacious terraces, feature fireplaces and are opulently furnished with massive oak armoires and elaborate lacquer cabinets, canopied beds, brocaded divans, ornate clocks and large, gilt-framed mirrors—all made by skilled local craftsmen. Inlaid with copies of delft tiles, the bathrooms are fitted with colossal tubs, Victorian-style faucets and unwieldy brass hand-showers. The tournament-quality par-72 golf course, complete with electric carts and cheerful female caddies, still operates for a fee of $85 a day.

Dalat Restaurants: Stanley Karnow wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “The French imperialists, waging a paternalistic crusade to bestow on their subjects the benefits of a superior civilization, bequeathed them a superb cuisine. Thus they endowed Vietnam with crisp baguettes, flaky croissants, chocolate éclairs and the most succulent crème caramel east of the Champs-Élysées. To savor this gastronomic heritage in Da Lat, no place surpasses Le Rabelais, the elegant restaurant in the Palace. Crystal chandeliers hang from molded ceilings; Edith Piaf ballads waft through a sound system. I dined on a cream of green pea soup with scallops, roast duck breasts in port wine, crêpe flambée au Calvados and a carafe of the house red—for $24. One of the Vietnamese chefs, a rotund, jolly woman, emerged from her kitchen in a jaunty toque to accept the compliments she merited. [Source: Stanley Karnow, Smithsonian magazine, August 2005]

“I prefer, however, unpretentious bistros like the Long Hoa and the Hoang Lan. The two family-run establishments serve such local specialties as chao gia, or spring rolls; prawns skewered on sugar cane; steamed grouper with ginger and scallions, caramelized pork and lemon grass chicken with garlic—all doused in nuoc mam, the sauce made from fermented fish that flavors virtually every Vietnamese dish. Tiny curbside stalls beckon, too, serving bowls of pho, the national soup, a mixture of beef or chicken, spring onions and rice noodles, in a broth seasoned with ginger, cloves, coriander—and most important, star anise. The mixture is then topped with soybean sprouts, basil, chilies, lime and mint. I squinted into one restaurant where the menu featured grilled bear paws, sautéed snake in sorghum liquor and porcupine stewed in a concoction labeled "chinese medicine," but I was too squeamish to sample the exotic fare.”

SIGHTS NEAR DALAT

Sights Near Dalat include beautiful countryside, lovely mountains, pine forests, waterfalls, ethnic villages and lakes. There about a dozen waterfalls within 30 miles of Dalat. The closest one is Lien Khang Falls (about 25 kilometers away), a group of four mini-walls, with a 15-meter drop, set in front a two-humped mountain and lush rice terraces.

Goulgah Falls (about 20 miles from Dalat) is lovely and has rocks which can be climbed. Pongour Falls (10 miles from Lien Khang) is a huge waterfall with dozens of individual cascades. There are some good waterholes for swimming here. It is possible to visit Lien Khang, Goulgah and Pongour waterfalls in one day. Avoid Pren Falls (a few miles from Dalat), which is overrun with tourists on organized tours brought in by the busload.

A few miles outside of town are the Montagnard (hill tribe) villages, which welcome visitors. Many members of the Lat and Cohor tribe live in the area. Tours often include demonstrations of "Vietnamese activities"—such as mushroom cultivating, incense making, silk manufacturing, sugar refining, silkworm breeding, and rice-cracker and rice-wine producing—in which visitors walk through people's homes and watch do their daily chores. Chicken village boasts a huge statue of a chicken.

Some tourists visit the area of Langbian Highland and the ethnic minorities there. Langbian Mountain's highest peak at 2,165 meters is very tempting for climbers. From Lom Bieng Klo pea has wonderful views. Many tours are organized in the area, including parachuting and climbing. Dambri Waterfall (18 kilometers from the center of Bao Loc Town) is one of the largest waterfalls in Lam Dong Province. On the way to Ho Chi Minh City, visitors can stop by Bao Loc, the land of tea, coffee and mulberry. Dambri Waterfall is surrounded by hills of mulberry, tea, and palm trees. Visitors can also enjoy a cruise on the clear lake.

Voi (Elephant) Waterfall (25 kilometers southwest of Da Lat), also called Lieng Rowoa Waterfall, is considered one the most beautiful and majestic waterfalls in the Central Highlands. It is more than 30 meters high, about 15 meters wide and fills the area around it with white spray. To some the waterfall appears as many elephants swimming together. Next to the waterfall is Gio (Wind) Cave. The road to enter the cave is narrow and goes between two cliffs, but inside the cave there are many wide spaces full of wind.

According to local legend, the name of the waterfall is derived from a folk story about a beautiful girl, the daughter of the head of a tribe in Joi Bieng mountain region, who had an excellent voice, when she sang the leaves seem to stop rustling and the birds stop singing to listen to her. She had promised to marry a handsome, brave and strong young man, the son of the head of a tribe in a neighboring region. But one day, the young man left to fighti in a battle. She waited for long time but the young man did not come back. She went to the place where they promised to marry and began singing in a mournful voice. The B'ling birds were moved by her voice. They flew far away to seek out information and then flew back to inform her that the young man had died in the battle. The girl did not accept this bitter truth and she sang her lover until she collapsed with exhaustion. A flock of elephants that had lied prostrate to listen to her turned into stone. The waterfall’s name, Lieng Rowoa Joi Bieng, means the “waterfall of elephants that lied prostrate turned into stone before the ardent and faithful love.”

Buon Ma Thuot (160 kilometers as the crow flies but 450 kilometers by road from Dalat) is town with 75,000 people in an area with assimilated Rhade, M'Nong and Bahnar hill tribes, coffee plantations, a hill tribe museum, a tank monument, waterfalls, lakes and elephant training center. It was the site of fierce fighting in the Vietnam War.

Buon Ma Thuot Domestic Airport: Airport to City transport: US$ 15 - 20 (Taxi); Vietnam Airlines Sales Office: 67 Nguyen Tat Thanh Street, Tel: 3855 055; Flights From Hanoi: 5 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 597, 961, 01h40'Daily, Air Mekong, 01h40'; Flights from Danang: 4 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 234, 377, 01h10'; Flights From Ho Chi Minh City: 23 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 162, 261, 01h00'14 flights/ week, Air Mekong, 00h50'.

PLEIKU

PLEIKU (450 kilometers from Buon Ma Thuot) lies on a 2,500-foot-high fertile plateau with volcanic soil, coffee and tea plantations, Bahnar, Daketu and Dekrel hill tribe villages, waterfalls, elephant rides, treks, and scenic mountains. One of the most savage battles of the Vietnam War was fought here so be careful with unexploded ordnance. The tourism industry is not very developed. As of the early 2000s, local officials required that tourists buy permits that take a week to get to visit ethnic minority villages. Local people are forbidden from talking to journalists. Americans were forbidden to enter the area until 1996.

In February 1965, the North Vietnamese attacked a U.S. military instillation in Pleiku, killing eight and wounding more than a 100. A few days later at Qui Nhon 23 Americans were killed and 21 were wounded. In response U.S. President Lyndon Johnson launched Operation Rolling Thunder and ordered bombing of North Vietnamese barracks and staging areas. The attacks, Johnson said, were "carefully limited military areas" and was "appropriate and fitting" because "we seek no wider war." A couple weeks later 3,500 U.S. Marines arrived at Danang. A few months after that the United States scored its first major victory at Chu Lai, where more than 5,000 U.S. troops defeated an estimated 2,000 Viet Kong.

According to History.com: February 10, 1965: "Viet Cong guerrillas blow up the U.S. barracks at Qui Nhon, 75 miles east of Pleiku on the central coast, with a 100-pound explosive charge under the building. A total of 23 U.S. personnel were killed, as well as two Viet Cong. In response to the attack, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a retaliatory air strike operation on North Vietnam called Flaming Dart II. This was the second in a series of retaliations launched because of communist attacks on U.S. installations in South Vietnam. Just 48 hours before, the Viet Cong struck Camp Holloway and the adjacent Pleiku airfield in the Central Highlands. This attack killed eight U.S. servicemen, wounded 109, and destroyed or damaged 20 aircraft. [Source: History.com **]

"With his advisors advocating a strong response, President Johnson gave the order to launch Operation Flaming Dart, retaliatory air raids on a barracks and staging areas at Dong Hoi, a guerrilla training camp 40 miles north of the 17th parallel in North Vietnam. Johnson hoped that quick and effective retaliation would persuade the North Vietnamese to cease their attacks in South Vietnam. Unfortunately, Operation Flaming Dart did not have the desired effect. The attack on Qui Nhon was only the latest in a series of communist attacks on U.S. installations, and Flaming Dart II had very little effect. **

Pleiku Domestic Airport : Airport to City transport: Vietnam Airlines Sales Office: 55 Quang Trung Street, Tel: 3823 058 / 3824 680; Fax: 3823 058; Flights From Hanoi: 4 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 141, 227, 00h50'; 4 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 506, 814, 02h10'Daily, Air Mekong, 01h35'; Flights From Ho Chi Minh City: 14 flights/ week, Vietnam Airline,s, 238, 383, 01h05'Daily, Air Mekong, 00h55'.

TUONG SONG RANGE

TUONG SONG RANGE runs along the border of Laos and Vietnam. Known in Laos as Saiphou Louang and the rest of the world as the Annamites, it is a region of rich biodversity and stunning scenery and a key part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Among the animals found here are the red-shanked douc langur, a striking creature that spends nearly all of its time in the trees; the Sichuan whipping frog; the rhinoceros snake as well as three new species of muntjac, a new species of rabbit, the Annamite striped rabbit, three new species of bird, 19 new species amphibians and 18 new species of reptile. Between 2000 and 2003 alone scientists found 29 new species of fish, 516 new species invertebrates and evidence of the Indochina warty pig, a primitive pig thought to have been extinct but was seen in the Tuong Song range.

One reason so many new species have been found here is that the area has been little explored until fairly recently. The strange thing about many of these animals is that their closest relatives are hundreds of miles away in southern China or in Sumatra and Java. The reason for this is related to rising and falling sea levels during the ice ages and the rough terrain they are found in and the way rivers, mountain ranges and seas have created biological islands where new species can develop.

NEW HO CHI MINH TRAIL

The Ho Chi Minh Trail is currently being converted into a major highway. Vietnam’s largest public works project since the end of the Vietnam War, the 1700-kilometer-long road, built largely along a ridge along its western border, will connect Saigon and Hanoi. Originally expected to take four years to build and cost $400 million, the road will be asphalt and have 314 bridges. Dozens of tunnels will be built and hills will be leveled. Unexploded bombs and mines will be defused. More than 50,000 soldiers and youth volunteers have been put to work building it. The new road is expected to be a huge boost to the economy. In addition to providing jobs it will also provide farmers, coffee producers and loggers with better access to their markest and tourist with better access to remote sites.

Bruce Stanley wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “The tangle of pathways and dirt roads known collectively as the Ho Chi Minh Trail was a logistical jugular vein for Communist forces during the Vietnam War. Saturation bombings and chemical defoliants failed to sever the legendary supply line, which meandered southward from Communist North Vietnam, fanned out into neighboring Laos and Cambodia and penetrated deep into the pro-American South. Now, an initial investment of $800 million and the sweat of 30,000 laborers is transforming the low-tech trail into Vietnam's best highway. More than a generation after the war ended in a Communist victory, the road -- named for the country's revolutionary hero, Bac "Uncle" Ho -- is opening up the remote highlands in central Vietnam to road trippers. [Source: Bruce Stanley, The Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2007 //\\ ]

“The Ho Chi Minh Highway resonates in the national imagination largely because it evokes the wartime trail -- an almost mythical symbol of sacrifice and triumph over awesome odds. To help legitimize the highway, the government is trying to portray it as a successor to the trail. Along many sections of the road, signs in red and yellow -- the colors of the national flag -- form gauntlets of revolutionary slogans. Vietnam languished for years as a Soviet-bloc backwater, but now it's making up for lost time. Its communist rulers have embraced market reforms, as in China, and normalized relations with the U.S., penetrated new markets with exports like shoes and shrimp, and joined the World Trade Organization. Designer brands, stock portfolios and driving lessons are the new status symbols. Vietnam is still largely a poor country but as exports boom and parts of the economy begin to prosper, the government is investing in massive public works projects such as the highway. //\\

The legendary trail is still celebrated in karaoke bars with songs of separation and hardship. David Lamb wrote in Smithsonian magazine, But “When the war ended in 1975, much of the Ho Chi Minh Trail was abandoned. The jungle pushed in to reclaim the supply depots, rickety bridges and earthen bunkers that stretched more than a thousand miles from a gorge known as Heaven's Gate outside Hanoi to the approaches of Saigon. Hamlets like Doi were left to languish, so remote they weren't even on maps. [Source: David Lamb, Smithsonian magazine, March 2008 <>]

“The project, started in 2000 and scheduled to take 20 years to complete, is turning much of the old trail into the Ho Chi Minh Highway, a paved multilane artery that will eventually run 1,980 miles from the Chinese border to the tip of the Mekong Delta. The transformation of trail to highway struck me as an apt metaphor for Vietnam's own journey from war to peace, especially since many of the young workers building the new road are the sons and daughters of soldiers who fought, and often died, on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. <>

“The new Ho Chi Minh Trail starts in Hoa Lac, 45 minutes southwest of Hanoi. No historical plaque marks the spot. There is only a blue-lettered sign: "Ensuring public safety makes everyone happy." Lamb wrote: “The new highway, which will not stray into Laos or Cambodia as the old trail did, will open up Vietnam's remote western interior to development. Government planners insist the highway will be an economic boon and attract large numbers of tourists. "We cut through the Truong Son jungles for national salvation. Now we cut through the Truong Son jungles for national industrialization and modernization," former Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet remarked, as construction began in April 2000. Most of the 865-mile stretch from Hanoi to Kon Tum in the Central Highlands has been completed. Traffic is light, and hotels, gas stations or rest stops are few. <>

Traveling on New Ho Chi Minh Trail South of Danang Bruce Stanley wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “For travelers, a trip on the highway is a chance to go beyond the obvious places, like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and see another side of Vietnam, from craggy mountains and forests to once-remote hamlets where most people rarely glimpse Westerners. There are few hotels or restaurants yet along the highway, but it's ideal for adventurous day trips between cities and away from the crowded coast. For a taste of the road in central Vietnam, travelers can start out from the old capital of Hue, where they can tour historic sites such as the imperial fortress and elaborate pagodas, or the coastal city of Da Nang, known for its white-sand beaches and luxury resorts. Language is an issue, so hiring a guide will help travelers who want to learn about local wildlife or meet ethnic minority people and barter with them for hand-woven baskets and other handicrafts. Eventually, the government hopes the road will stimulate cultural and eco-tourism throughout the Central Highlands. [Source: Bruce Stanley, The Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2007 //\\]

“I recently traveled for three days along a rugged section, driving south from around Da Nang. Although I worked in Vietnam as a reporter for three years in the early 1990s and married a Hanoi artist, I had never roamed this part of the country before. I was struck by its aboriginal isolation. The breakneck changes in the rest of Vietnam seem largely to have passed it by. The Ho Chi Minh Highway follows sections of the wartime trail for much of its length and weaves them together with many sections that are new. It winds for about 865 miles so far, from the town of Hoa Lac, near the capital Hanoi, to Kontum in the Central Highlands. By 2014, the highway will extend all the way from Vietnam's northern border to its southernmost tip, for a total cost of $2.6 billion. The government touts the two-lane highway as vital for developing tourism and the backward economy of sparsely settled regions along the country's rugged western frontier. Planners also justify the new road as important for national security, although officials won't say what the threats might be. //\\

“A jumble of one-room, wooden houses — many on stilts and most lacking paint -- straddles the road in Xoi Mot, a hamlet near the WWF's hoped-for saola sanctuary. The villagers here belong to the Co-tu minority; they speak their own language and are wary of outsiders. One woman scurries into a bamboo thicket when I greet her. Blieng Hong, a subsistence farmer and mother of five, is more chatty. She says she used to hike for seven hours to reach the nearest market, often carrying a rattan backpack filled with cassava roots. She'd barter the cassava for salt, clothing and other provisions and stuff them into her bag for the long trip home. Now, thanks to the highway, traders, most of them members of the ethnic Kinh majority, come directly to her. "Only the Kinh people know how to do business. We are learning from them -- but I haven't learned anything yet," Ms. Hong says. //\\

“As I continue south near the village of Ro, children on adults' bicycles careen back and forth across the highway ahead of me, navigating an obstacle course of buffalo dung on the blacktop. Rounding a blind curve, I almost collide with a pair of water buffalo ambling toward me in the middle of our -- their -- lane. Many of the dominant Kinh have long looked down on the minorities living in these remote highlands. Even today, Kinh people commonly refer to the highlanders as "moi," or "savages." The highway is compounding the pressures on these minorities to abandon their traditional lifestyles. Some critics worry that the highway could seal the fate of these unique mountain cultures, as ever more Kinh settle here and impose their rules, such as a ban on slash-and-burn agriculture. //\\

CHAM CULTURE IN NINH THUAN PROVINCE

NINH THUAN PROVINCE (110 kilometers from Dalat) covers 3,358 square kilometers and is home to 570,100 people (2010). The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Viet (Kinh), Cham, Ra Glai, Co Ho and Hoa. The capital is Phan Rang - Thap Cham City; Districts: Ninh Hai, Ninh Phuoc, Ninh Son, Bac Ai, Thuan Bac, Thuan Nam . Phan Rang- Thap Cham City is 105 kilometers from Nha Trang, 110 kilometers from Dalat, 350 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City and 1.382 kilometers from Hanoi. Phan Rang Town is on North- South Express Train, National Highway No.1A and National Highway No.27.

Located in South-Central Coast, Ninh Thuan shares border with Khanh Hoa Province on the north, Lam Dong Province on the west, Binh Thuan Province on the south and The South China Sea on the east. The terrain is a mixture of mountain, plain and seaside. Main rivers name Sat, Cai, Ong, Gia, Can, La, Quao. Mountains surround three faces of Ninh Thuan including Tha Nhonh, Chuan, Suong Mu, and Hon Dien mountains. Long seaside makes Da Vach, Thi, Ca Na capes and sea ports. The climate is a combination of the tropical monsoon and dry and windy weather. It is hot, dry, windy all of year. There are two seasons: the rainy season lasts from May to November, the dry season lasts from December to April. Annual average temperature is 27 degrees C.

Sights and Places of Interest: Ninh Thuan belongs to tourism triangles: Dalat- Nha Trang- Phan Rang. Tourists visit Ca Na Tourist Site, swim in Ninh Chu Beach and Vinh Hy Bay, climb to Da Trang Mountain, and observe natural animals in Phan Rang Reservation, or visit Pi Nang Tac Stone Trap. Ninh Thuan is regarded as the homeland of the Cham minority group. Cham culture and customs are still alive in the form of Cham dance, sculpture, pottery, and brocade. Visitors can visit the famous Cham towers name Po Klong Garai and Porome.

Cham temples feature fluted columns with lotus head-pedal bases. Hindu-influenced bas reliefs on Cham temples depict smiling elephants, dancing lions, Hindu gods such as Shiba, Ganesh and Garuda, and rows of topless women. The Cham people preserve their matriarchal system. Their special festivals include the Kate, Cha and Bun ceremonies, Royal Idiladha and the Ra Glai Tribe festivals and other ceremonies associated with digging irrigation ditches and planting and harvesting new rice.

Po Klong Garai Towers (nine kilometers northwest of Phan Rang - Thap Cham City near Thap Cham Railway Station) are 13th century Cham temples rebuilt in the 1990s with the help of East German archaeologists. The four structures lie on a cactus covered hill. Every year it hosts a Cham festival with dancing and music and appearances by the last Cham queen. The Po Klong Garai Tower Group is located on Trau Hill. The four towers are the remains of a group of six towers constructed in the late 13th century and early 14th century.

The towers were built to worship King Po Klong Garai, who did great service to the country and people (according to the legend, he suffered from leprosy). The king is hailed by the Cham people as the God of Water. The main tower is 20.5 meters high. Each of its base sides is 10 meters long and made into a square in conformity with traditional Cham architecture. Its interior is an east-west rectangular and the entrance looks east. Po Klong Garai is where the Cham people in Ninh Thuan Province do rituals during the annual Kate Festival. During excavation projects in the area, French archaeologists found a number of gold and silver bowls and jewellery.

Porome Tower is located in Bon Acho Hill in Hau Sanh Hamlet, Phuoc Huu Village, Ninh Phuoc District, Ninh Thuan Province. This tower worships the stone statue of King Porome, which takes the form of Mukha Linga and the stone statue of Queen Bia Thanh Chanh of E De origin. Porome Tower was built between the end of 16th century and the beginning of 17th century. Like many other typical Cham Towers, Porome Tower has a square shape with 4 stories and is eight meters high, with a nearly 8-meter wide base, and the door, which has the special style, faces to the East.

At present, there exists only the 19m-high main tower. The statue of the king is 1.2 meters high and made into a high relief. It is put in front of an arched tombstone decorated with small relief at the back. Behind the main tower is a small shrine dedicated to the stone statue of Queen Bia Thanh Chih of Cham origin. Though not big, the tower has a distinctive style. Porome Tower is one of very few Cham Towers which has remained virtually intact up to now, and is the place where Cham people often pray to King Porome on festival days.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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