In spite of breathtaking mountain landscape and a rich diversity of hill tribe culturesThe central highlands of Vietnam remain one of the least „tourized” areas in Southeast Asia.
This region of pine forests, waterfalls, and coffee plantations is a far cry from the coastal beach resorts where most of the tourists congregate, and that seclusion is part of its charm.
The narrow, winding roads of the highlands are littered with potholes, some so deep and wide that they fall onto the asphalt one at a time from different heights in a grotesque experiment. An equally poor bus system and lack of railways make exploring on more agile motorcycles the best option.
Related read: Motorcycling in Vietnam
A guide to exploring the central highlands of Vietnam by motorcycle
Here is my experience of exploring the hill tribes of the Vietnam Central Highlands by motorcycle.
This adventure begins in the coastal town of Phan Thiet, although the mountains can be accessed from any adjacent city between Ho Chi Minh on the south and Danang on the central coast. The road from Phan Thiet winds through Hindu Cham villages and mountain rainforests before arriving in Dalat town.
The K’ho of Dalat
Dr. Alexandre Yersin (the well-known researcher and scientist who discovered the cause of the bubonic plague) is traditionally considered the founder of the Dalat. The hill station, sanatorium, and later resorts, which developed more than 100 years ago, have endowed Vietnam with one of the best concentrations of French colonial architecture in Indochina.
The city was named after the Lat clan, a subgroup of the K’ho tribe who inhabited much of Lam Dong Province. Although the K’ho have been assimilated by the predominant Vietnamese culture of the modern day Dalat, their thatched bamboo stilt houses can still be seen on top of hills in remote areas.
A one day motorcycle tour from Dalat takes you to Lak Lake. The shores of the lake are inhabited by displaced members of the M’nong tribe who were moved here by the government from the north.
On my road trip, I spent the night in huge wooden M’Nong longhouses. After a morning of elephant rides and canoe tours, I drove to Ede in the Dak Lak province.
The Ede of Buon Ma Thuat
The provincial center of Buon Ma Thuat is the seat of the Vietnamese coffee growing empire, the capacity of which is second only to Brazil. Due to tension between the government and local hill tribes, the ability to travel without special permits can be limiting. It is to be expected that travelers are only allowed to travel between Buon Mat Thuat with some large waterfalls like Drey S and Drey Nur and the Yuk Don National Park.
The Jai Rai of Pleiku
As you travel north through Gia Lai Province, you will cross the Jai Rai area, known for its ornate wooden funeral homes guarded by erotic totems. The capital, Pleiku, was a notorious battlefield in the war with America. Politics in the area are complicated and it is necessary to hire a government licensed guide to visit Jai Rai villages and the nearby waterfalls. However, travelers can visit the flooded Ho Bien volcanic crater on their own.
The Bahnar from Kon Tum
Only a few hours further north, the city of Kon Tum and the surrounding province of the same name are home to the greatest cultural treasures of the central highlands. The city is populated by ethnic Bahnar who differ most from the other minorities of Vietnam by the thatched communal lodges that tower over the villages surrounding the city. As with many hill tribes, common cultural icons include musical gongs, “buffalo piercing festivals” and ruou can (rice wine brewed in large ceramic vases).
Out to the coast
The last leg of the journey has almost as many options as the beginning. Roads lead north over the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail to Danang or to coastal cities like Hoi An or Qui Nhon. I opted for a secluded route to Quang Ngai through villages of the indigo-clad H’re and then loaded my motorcycle on a train back to Phan Thiet.
Motorcycle tour in the logistics of Vietnam Central Highlands
Under Vietnamese law, all foreign drivers must have a Vietnamese driver’s license. Vietnam does not recognize international driving licenses despite ongoing claims by the agencies that issue them. Applicants need a driver’s license from their home country with a motorcycle ID, a translated and notarized copy, a validation form from the relevant embassy, a local health check, and pay a small fee at a Vietnam Ministry of Transport branch in any city.
The process takes at least a week. Without prior approval of the motorcycle, applicants are required to take a simple driving test, which can result in a delay of several weeks. In truth, most foreign drivers do not have a Vietnamese driver’s license, and the traffic police in the central highlands of Vietnam have regularly chosen not to enforce this rule. However, be aware that your Travel insurance is not valid if you do not have a legal driver’s license.
Motorcycles can be rented from many travel agencies and inns for $ 5 to $ 10 per day. A deposit equal to the motorcycle’s value may be required for multi-day trips.
Alternatively, the above-mentioned trip can also be undertaken with a hired motorcyclist / guide, generally referred to here as „Easy Riders”.
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