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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 »

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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.
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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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