To the Vietnamese imagination, the Central Highlands conjures up majestic forests and roaring waterfalls. The sad truth is that destruction of nature here, as elsewhere in the country, is close to complete. It is definitely one of those places that I wish were still fossilized in the past, untamed and undisturbed. I wish I had had a chance to visit years ago, before all the trees were logged and all the dams were built, when rivers ran wild and elephants roamed free.

In a sense, it is still the land of the untamed, home to a large population of ethnic groups that have always fought hard to retain their autonomy from surrounding kingdoms and governments, with the latest being the Vietnamese. Similarly to the Khmer in the Mekong Delta, protests here have their roots in land disputes, economic as well as cultural rights, but at a much more violent scale. In the least politically stable region of the country, access granted to outsiders has been much more restricted and efforts to promote tourism have been few and far in between.

20130611_120322Đà Nẵng to Kontum

In only a week, we moved across 4 provinces and hit the most major towns: Kontum – Pleiku – Buôn Ma Thuột – Đà Lạt. Both Kontum and Pleiku are small and quiet. I didn’t have the least idea of what Kontum has to offer. Pleiku is to me and many others most known for being the hometown of Hoàng Anh Gia Lai, the multi-industry giant that kicks up a lot of dust and drums in the nation’s soccer scene the past decade, and most recently was accused by Global Witness of land grabs and deforestation in Laos and Cambodia. Buôn Ma Thuột, the coffee capital of Vietnam, and Đà Lạt a major resort town since colonial town, are much more lively. Their respective provinces Dak Lak, and Lâm Đồng, are also a lot more diverse, in no small part due to the “new economy” program post-1975 where mass migration was orchestrated to channel the population and workforce from the north to “under-exploited” regions. Dak Lak province boasts 47 of 54 officially recognized ethnicities, the most diverse in the country. And in Lâm Đồng, just southwest of Đà Lạt is a district whose neighborhoods are named after outskirts areas of Hanoi.

to be continued…