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Da Nang, waterfall, Vietnam

I think I’ve found my favorite spot in all of Da Nang, if not Vietnam. A beautiful clean cold waterfall half an hour by motorbike from the city, and half an hour hike from the road.

The day started rather badly. I felt sick and threw up in the morning for no reason and had to rest in bed for a bit before we could leave. We got to the end of the paved road and would have to continue on a steep dirt hill with very narrow track as most of it had been washed off by the rain, creating a ravine full of limestone rocks. The construction guys whom I’d asked for directions from were all doubtful about my ability to make it up on my bike, but my overconfidence pushed me forward. And I almost did make it. But I stopped too soon, lost the gas and the footing, and fell right into the ravine and ate the dirt. I was shaken. Couldn’t even get up right away, just rolled over on my back and let my heart calm itself down. But all in all, I was lucky to get off lightly with only bruises and no fractures.

trail to waterfall, Da Nang trail to waterfall, Da Nangtrail to waterfall, Da Nang     overgrown trail

We continued to hike on foot, under the relentless heat of noon at over 40 degrees C. The sound of a waterfall nearby became clearer and more inviting with each step. Knowing that it was not the original destination we’d planned for, we still couldn’t resist its calling and took off on a side trail in search of its blissful coolness. The trail down, though shaded, turned out quite challenging given my condition. The dirt was slippery under all the loose leaves. There were very few natural footholds and since I couldn’t put any weight on my left arm and very little on my right knee, I had quite a few close slips.

We couldn’t have asked for a better prize for all the trouble. Not only was the waterfall beautiful and the water icy cold, but the place was empty. Completely. Very rarely could I use that word to describe a place in Vietnam. To our right, there’s another stream coming down to join the waterfall. Its upstream must be where we had wanted to go. The tall straight granite wall lining along the stream reminded me of the canyons at the Narrows in Zion. We’d already cooled off a lot from the breeze just sitting by the stream. Living in Vietnam, you get used to crowds 24/7, and here we were, stumbling upon a place that we could have all to ourselves. It’s hard to describe that feeling of relief and joy; your body and soul being compressed for so long finally having all the space to decompress. No curious eyes. No questions.

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From Pleiku, we continued south into Buôn Ma Thuột, Dak Lak province – the coffee capital of Vietnam. Coffee was first introduced in the country following the French arrival in the late 1800s. A century later, it is still the omnipresent colonial legacy. The whole population is hooked. Especially from Hue southward, coffee reigns supreme. No matter how small the town, there will be a cafe that local people take pride in. Hosts would take out-of-town guests to their favorite coffee hang-outs as if they were some must-visit landmarks. It is courteous to show appreciation to both the style of the shops, and the taste of the coffee available. You can get into lengthy nitpicking discussions on which house has the best roast and the best blend, the pros and cons of a chrome vs. aluminum slow-drip filter, etc. The indisputable is that Dak Lak gives the country the most superior beans. Many claim that it is the basalt-rich red soil that imparts a flavor hardly perceptible but impossible to replicate elsewhere.

Slightly north of town center is Ako Dhong (buôn Cô Thôn in Vietnamese) – a wealthy Ede village with rows of beautifully preserved long houses. The houses seem to be of little daily use nowadays as families have built new American suburbia-style residences right behind. The architecture and construction would leave many city folks envious, not to mention the clean streets. The small settlement – it takes only about 20 minutes to circle around – is among the prettiest and wealthiest I’ve seen in the whole country.

Dak Lak, Buôn Ma Thuột, Ako Dhong, buôn Cô Thôn, ethnic minorities, longhouses, nhà dài, Ede ethnic, dân tộc Ê-đê

Dak Lak, Buôn Ma Thuột, Ako Dhong, buôn Cô Thôn, ethnic minorities, longhouses, nhà dài, Ede ethnic, dân tộc Ê-đê Read the rest of this entry »

Our first stop, the sleepy town of Kontum, had little to offer, besides a beautiful wooden church, and the best chicken rice I’ve ever had in the whole country at the very reasonable price of VND50,000 ($2.5). The steamed chicken was firm, flavorful, and juicy, hard to find these days even in restaurants that serve the so-called free-range “walking/running chicken.”

wooden church, Kontum, Vietnam, Central Highlands, nhà thờ gỗ

After the mandatory walk around town, we rented a scooter and hit the road.
Kontum, Vietnam, Central Highlands

I was expecting ethnic minorities hanging out on the porch of stilt houses, and ahem, if lucky, maybe I could catch some local ethnic celebration with joyful dancing, singing, and gong playing. The more I saw, the more ridiculous I felt about myself. I felt like one of those people who go to Hawaii expecting girls wearing grass skirts hula-ing on the beach. The few stilt houses that we saw were all falling apart and looked like they belong to the poorest in the community, who haven’t saved enough money to transition into concrete boxes so common everywhere else in Vietnam. I was even more disheartened seeing rong houses (communal house) with metal roof. The construction was so sloppy; it didn’t reflect any communal pride in this alleged symbol of their culture.

rong house, communal house, Kontum, Central Highlands, ethnic minorities, Vietnam

rubber plantations, Kontum, Central Highlands, VietnamWhat lived up to my expectation was kms of rubber. We’ve entered the plantation land.

Things picked up when we got to Pleiku. I met up with 3 friends from my day in Hale Manoa, Hawai’i, including Hril – a local half Jarai, half Bahnar. Hril took us to visit the village he grew up in, which boasts a beautiful rong house, and a traditional graveyard.
Read the rest of this entry »

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…

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My 3 months stay in Da Nang came to an end today. I’ve been a hermit for the most part, and here are the top 3 spots where I go to soak up solitude in the open air:

– Non Nuoc beach: about 7 kms south of town. Practically no tourists ever set foot here, especially after the last b&b was demolished to make way for future resorts. The crowd is exclusively local from the nearby Marble Mountains neighborhood, and they all go to the beach 5-7am and 4:30-6:30 pm. If you go anytime outside of these slots, good chance that you’ll have the whole beach to yourself.

– Marble Mountains: very popular with Vietnamese tour groups, but later in the afternoon and it’s much less crowded.  It’s lovely with marble stairs carved right out from the mountain leading to temples and caves reflecting a long Buddhist and Champa (Hindu) tradition. Climbing up to the top, you’ll be rewarded with the cooling ocean breeze and a beautiful panoramic view. The whole place would take at least 2 hours to explore. If you go after 4:30 you don’t even have to pay (ticket people have gone home).

– Linh Ung pagoda: From the beach, you’ll see a big white Guayin (Kannon) statute up in the mountains to the north. One of the biggest temples in central Vietnam, it’s a destination for locals and visitors alike. It gets quiet in the evening (the temple is open till 9pm) and that’s usually when I come to wander around. There are convenient benches where you can sit and enjoy a pretty view of the ocean sparsely lit up with squid fishing boats, and further away of the city blinking with neon lights stretching all the way Hoi An. Remember to check the lunar calendar to make sure it’s not the 1st or 15th of the month, or else you’d find yourself among a crowd of hundreds.

Linh Ung pagoda, Da Nang skyline at night

In Lăng Cô, we “splurged” and stayed at a government-owned resort. The price is very reasonable $30/night for a large room right by the pool. Government facilities are well-known for their lack of service, but we didn’t need much and found the place nice and quiet (except for when a large group of Vietnamese got dropped off at night and made quite a commotion in the lobby, and except for the lawn mowing at 7 in the morning right outside of our door).

It was still drizzling by the time we checked in at 6p.m. The pool was surprisingly warm. I insisted on going for a swim so as not a waste any chance to enjoy the place.

Dinner was at a floating seafood restaurant, at the end of a dark alley opposite the resort. On a lagoon, it’s connected to land by 2 nicely lit-up bridges. Rather limited options, and cheap, though not as cheap as I’d expected. There’s a strange dragon boat extension to one side of the restaurant.

Lang Co floating seafood restaurant, Hue, Vietnam

Lang Co floating seafood restaurant, Hue, Vietnam

For my birthday, the weather cleared up nicely. We went down to swim right in front of the resort. It was quite empty as Lăng Cô receives mostly Vietnamese tourists and vacationers and Vietnamese don’t like swimming during the day. The small town and the limited development definitely helped the water quality. And the backdrop of Bach Ma national park mountains was gorgeous.

Lang Co empty beach, Hue, Vietnam Read the rest of this entry »

I’m 25!

I decided on the spur to spend a night in Lăng Cô for my birthday. Called to book a room at 3p.m. while Col was out taking a walk. He got back at 4p.m. and we left right away to avoid riding in the dark. It’s only 40kms north of Da Nang, but the road winds up and down a scenic pass, the famous Hải Vân, which divides the north and south of Vietnam.

We saw ominous clouds forming as we left the house, and felt big drops of rain by the time we approached the foot of the mountains. As the wind gusted, I started regretting. I should have asked whether it was raining when I called to book the hotel. The bad weather would defeat the whole purpose of this beach and exploration getaway. If Col had said a word of caution and doubt at that moment, I’d have turned back right then. The rain dropped faster and heavier; I wanted to stop and buy raincoats, but Col said to press ahead, that the longer we took, the wetter we would be. The clouds grew darker and lower as we climbed up the mountain, and everyone that came down from the other direction had a wet raincoat on. It obviously rained on the other side. Up and up we went. The rain lightened to a sprinkle as this side of the mountain was actually quite shielded.

Hải Vân pass has a very special place on my heart. It used to be my favorite of the North-South train journey that I took every summer as a kid. From the window, we could see the train curving around the mountain with the ocean below. We would go through a tunnel; the darkness and the echo were always so exciting. This is where the mountain goes all the way out to meet the ocean right in the middle of the country. The pass is 20 kms long but the highest point is only 500m.

These are the photos we took on the way back the next day:

Hải Vân pass, đèo Hải Vân, Vietnam, abandoned bunker, abandoned check pointabandoned bunker and ancient check point at the top of Hải Vân pass

Hải Vân pass, đèo Hải Vân, Vietnam, Đà Nẵngview to the south over Đà Nẵng from the top

Hải Vân pass, đèo Hải Vân, Vietnam, Huế, Lăng Côview to the north over Lăng Cô, Huế from the top

When we got to the top and crossed to Thua Thien Hue province, it was obvious that we actually lucked out. It had rained on that side very recently: the road was soaked and the water was still running off. We got there just in time for the dwindling sprinkle. Now I was so happy that I didn’t ask about the weather, or else I’d have stayed home.

to be continued…

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