Central Highlands (Tay Nguyen) contains the five inland provinces of south-central Vietnam. Almost of this region is mountainous. While mostly inhabited by ethnic minorities, there are many Vietnamese living here.
A terrific off the beaten track region of Vietnam
Vietnam's Central Highlands region has slowly opened up to tourists over the past decade after years of government enforced travel restrictions and today foreigners can explore the main centres of this region with relative ease. Occasionally regulations will require you to use a guide when visiting the hinterland but for most places you'll be fine just on your own.
The Central Highlands boast beautiful natural features such as relatively untouched forests, waterfalls and spectacular scenery, which contrast with areas still bearing the savage scars of war. A large number of ethnic minority groups still live traditionally in the highlands, particularly around Kon Tum, Plei Ku, Buon Ma Thuot and Da Lat.
The highlands become a torrent of water in the monsoon season as they get the heaviest rain falls in all of Vietnam. During the summer season, Da Lat becomes a popular destination as its high altitude offers a slightly cooler temperature than the almost unbearable heat of the southern plains. This, combined with its proximity to Ho Chi Minh City and some great animal-shaped paddle boats plying its main lake, has made it the epicentre of domestic tourism.
For those who enjoy getting off the common tourist trail, the highlands are a great destination. It's quite easy to include a detour to this historically significant region as a circuit from the coast, leaving and returning from either Qui Nhon or Nha Trang, with a separate excursion required to reach Da Lat from Phan Rang or Ho Chi Minh City. Two weeks would allow ample time to explore, while in one week you would see the basics.
You'll have no problem finding both cash and travellers cheque exchange facilities along with international access ATMs in Da Lat, Buon Ma Thuot, Pleiku, Kon Tum and Dong Xoi. In Gia Nghia it's all a bit difficult and we'd suggest arriving there suitably cashed up.
Lam Dong hospital in Da Lat is your best bet in the Central Highlands for medical care. That said, for anything serious, get to Saigon as quickly as possible. Da Lat, Buon Ma Thuot and Pleiku all have airports with regular flights (though not daily in all cases) to Saigon.
In the more popular Central Highlands destinations, you should not encounter too many issues with the local authorities. If you're planning on heading to remote areas of Buon Ma Thuot, Pleiku or Kon Tum, ask around about the need for a permit or at least police "permission" - this is especially the case if you're headed out to the minority areas right by the Cambodian frontier. In both Binh Phuoc and Dak Nong, we were advised that some areas were off-limits. In Dak Nong we were pretty much advised that anywhere outside the provincial capital was a no-go. The authorities will not really say why you can't head to these places - perhaps a combination of paranoia about their border areas as well as a sensitivity to the downtrodden state of tribespeople being exposed to the outside world.
Visas and immigration
The border crossing with Laos at Bo Y in Kon Tum province is open for international travellers. There is no visa on arrival heading in either direction, meaning you'll need to get your visa in advance. For a detailed report on crossing this border, see the Border crossings FAQ.
Telecommunications & internet
All the provincial capitals have internet cafes, with affordable and reasonably reliable access. Kon Tum had the fewest cafes when we passed through, while Gia Nghia is loaded with them - perhaps a reflection on how little there is to actually do there.
The cool season in the Highlands runs between November and January, with temperatures averaging around 12 to 15 degress Celsius. In February, March and April the mercury surges into the 30s. Come late April, early May, the rains begin and the temperatures begin to drop a little, with the monsoon ending in October. July and August are the wettest months.
Due to the Highland's elevated altitude (it's not called the Highlands for nothing), year-round the weather is cooler than on Vietnam's coast. Even in the hot season, mornings and evenings can be chilly and downright cold late at night. If you're planning on travelling by motorbike, keep these conditions in mind when packing as those morning chills will slice through a T-shirt with ease at 60km/h.
Year-round the best time of year to visit the Highlands is between November and January, when the landscape is lush, the rain minimal and the weather temperate.
During the warming, dry months of February through April, the area can be parched and not particularly pleasant to travel in. By April, dust and haze are major issues, as can be bushfires (both intentional and natural). The rivers are low and the scenery isn't, well, as scenic, as the remainder of the year.
Across wet season, torrential rains can cause flash flooding. The dust turns to mud and getting around, particularly on the minor roads, slows down considerably. Through July and early August the rain can seem to be almost continual. If the rain and mud don't deter you, this is a good time of year to see the region at its lushest.
Trekking in the Central Highlands when compared to somewhere like northern Thailand is very undeveloped - especially in the more remote, little-visited provinces like Kon Tum and Pleiku. Per-person costs tend to be high and the frequency of tours low.
Da Lat is the most popular centre in the Highlands and the only place where you can pretty much guarantee to have trips running every day. These tend to be less "treks" and more "tours" - mainly taking in the sights and scenery surrounding Da Lat, with the longer trips heading out to Cat Tien National Park. Many people opt to pick up a trip with the Easy Riders, an informal motorcycle tour group, from here.
Buon Ma Thuot is the second most popular centre in the Highlands and the trips here tend to be done by pre-organised groups and are focused on city tours, some villages in the immediate surrounds and Yok Don National Park.
Out of Pleiku you can visit Banhar and Jarai minority villages, including a day-long trek that takes you through four Banhar villages. We found the city tour over-hyped and the veteran tours would really only be of interest to those with an active interest in the war. Tours into the surrounds take in waterfalls, elephant rides and folk-shows, but we'd suggest Buon Ma Thuot being a better base for this type of trip.
Kon Tum offers the best potential as a true trekking destination, with a selection of possibilities including multi-day trips involving sleeping rough and visiting very remote villages. These are the real deal, but there's a catch - it's expensive. Solo travellers can expect to have to pay US$100 to $200 to get going. However, the per-person price for groups drops, so try to rustle up more people to lower the cost. You'd be well advised to find like-minded travellers on Vietnam's coast and then head to Kon Tum together, as the chances of just showing up in Kon Tum and joining a group about to go trekking are as good as finding a hamburger with the works there.
How long in the Highlands?
Da Lat is the most popular province, followed by Buon Ma Thuot, Kon Tum and Pleiku. Very, very, very few people visit Binh Phuoc and Dak Nong. Most travellers, especially those on the Open Tour system, visit just Da Lat, but some opt for all four of the main destinations - Da Lat, Buon Ma Thuot, Pleiku and Kon Tum.
If you're planning on just visiting Da Lat, two to three days should be plenty of time to take in all the province has to offer. Add another day if you want to overnight in Cat Tien National Park. If you're not planning on doing any trips out of the other centres, then one to two nights in Buon Ma Thuot and Kon Tum and a night in Pleiku should be sufficient for most. Of course if you're planning on doing trips out of each, then you'll need to add more time accordingly. With two weeks in the Highlands you could take in much of what it has to offer. Anything less than a week to take in all four provincial capitals would be too rushed.
Da Lat, Buon Ma Thuot and Pleiku all have airports and are serviced daily by Vietnam Airlines. For detailed fare and timetable information, please see www.vietnamairlines.com.
All the provincial capitals have large bus and minibus connections with Mien Dong bus station in Ho Chi Minh City. See the individual sections for details on price and frequency.
The Open Tour bus system – where you buy a ticket that takes you from Saigon to Hanoi or vice versa with stops along the way in tourist buses – runs only to Da Lat. If you're planning on heading further into the Highlands, you will need to use local buses and get back onto the Open Tour when you get back onto the coast.
The Easy Riders
Based in Da Lat, Easy Riders started around 10 years ago with a group of unemployed local men from Da Lat, most of whom served in the South Vietnamese Army. In 1999, the Riders gained their first mention in a certain guide book and have never looked back, transforming from a glamourised xe om service to day tours throughout Da Lat's surrounds and more recently, across the Central Highlands. Now there are around 70 Easy Riders, they have their own uniforms and even a website through which you can arrange tours in advance. They cost around US$8-15 per day, depending on desired activities and distance travelled. See the Da Lat section for more information.