Road tripping through the hill tribe towns of Vietnam's Central Highlands

Road tripping through the hill tribe towns of Vietnam's Central Highlands

Exploring Vietnam's Central Highland's pine tree forests, waterfalls and coffee plantations by motorbike
stilt house
The entire K’ho family, including grandparents and extended family, all sleep together in a single-room nha sang, or stilt house. Cooking is done directly on the floor, without benefit of a chimney. The smoke preserves the structure and repels insects.

Despite breathtaking mountain scenery and a rich diversity of hill tribe cultures, Vietnam’s Central Highlands remain one of the least 'tourorized' areas of Southeast Asia. This region of pine tree forests, waterfalls and coffee plantations is far from the coastal beach resorts where most tourists flock, and this remoteness is all part of the charm.

The narrow, winding roads of the highlands are strewn with potholes, some so deep and wide it appears as if elephants were dropped on the tarmac successively from various heights in some grotesque experiment. An equally poor bus system and lack of railways make exploration by more maneuverable motorbikes the best option.

Venturing Inland

This adventure starts in the coastal town of Phan Thiet, though the mountains can be approached from any adjacent city between Ho Chi Minh in the south and Danang on the central coast. The road from Phan Thiet winds through Hindu Cham villages and mountain rainforests before arriving in the town of Dalat.

The K’ho of Dalat

Dr Alexandre Yersin (the noted explorer and scientist who discovered the cause of the bubonic plague) is traditionally considered the founder of the Dalat. The hill station, sanatorium and eventual resorts that developed more than 100 years ago have blessed Vietnam with one of the finest concentrations of French Colonial architecture in Indochina.

The city was named after the Lat clan, a subgroup of the K’ho tribe who inhabit much of Lam Dong Province. Though the K’ho have been assimilated by the dominant Vietnamese culture of modern Dalat, their bamboo stilt houses with thatched roofs can still be seen dotting hillsides in remote areas.

Ede girl An Ede girl in traditional dress weaves textiles in her shop in Dak Lak Province.The M’Nong of Lak Lake

A day’s motorbike journey from Dalat will reach Lak Lake; the lake's shores are inhabited by displaced members of the M’nong tribe, relocated here from the north by the government. On my road trip, I spent the night in immense, wooden M’Nong longhouses. After a morning of elephant rides and canoe trips I drove to Ede territory in Dak Lak Province.

The Ede of Buon Ma Thuat

The Provincial capital of Buon Ma Thuat is the seat of Vietnam’s coffee-growing empire, its capacity now second only to Brazil. Due to tensions between the government and local hill tribes, the ability to travel without special permits can be restrictive. Travellers can be expected to only be allowed to travel between Buon Mat Thuat, which has a few major waterfalls like Drey Sap and Drey Nur, and Yuk Don National Park.

The Jai Rai of Pleiku

Heading north through Gia Lai Province traverses the territory of the Jai Rai, famous for their elaborate wooden funeral houses guarded by erotic totems. The capital city of Pleiku was an infamous battleground in the war with America. Politics in the area is complicated, and hiring a government-licensed guide is required to visit Jai Rai villages and nearby waterfalls, though travellers are free to visit the flooded volcanic crater known as Ho Bien on their own.

The Bahnar of Kon Tum

Just a few hours further to the North, the city of Kon Tum, and the surrounding province by the same name, holds the greatest cultural treasures of the central highlands. The town is populated by ethnic Bahnar, most differentiated from Vietnam’s other minority groups by the thatched communal lodges that tower above the villages surrounding the city. Like many hill tribes however, common cultural icons include musical gongs, “buffalo stabbing festivals” and ruou can (rice wine brewed in large ceramic vases.)

Out to the Coast

The final leg of the journey has almost as many options as the beginning. Roads lead north to Danang via the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail, or out to coastal towns like Hoi An or Qui Nhon. I chose a remote route to Quang Ngai through villages of the indigo-clothed H’re, then loaded my motorbike on a train back to Phan Thiet.

Driving logistics

According to Vietnamese law, all foreign drivers must possess a Vietnamese driver’s license. Vietnam does not honor International Driving Permits, despite persistent claims by the agencies that issue them. Applicants need a driving license from their home country with a motorcycle endorsement, a translated and notarized copy, a validation form from the applicable embassy, a local health exam, and must pay a small fee at a Vietnam Department of Transportation branch in any city.

The process will take a minimum of one week. Without a prior motorcycle endorsement applicants must take a simple driving test, which could add a delay of several weeks. In truth, most foreign drivers do not have Vietnamese licenses and traffic police in the Central Highlands have regularly chosen not to enforce this regulation.

Motorbikes can be rented from many tour offices and guesthouses for US$5 - US$10 per day. Multi-day trips may require a deposit equal to the value of the motorbike.

Alternatively, the above trip can also be ventured with a hired motorcycle driver/guide, here commonly referred to as “Easy Riders.”  Two I have used in the past are:

  • Mr. Binh, Sahara Tour, 81 Huynh Thuc Khang, Ham Tien, Phan Thiet, tel: +84 (0) 989 297 648,
  • Mr. Hai, Highland Holiday Tour, 49 Truong Cong Dinh Street, Dalat, tel: +84 (0) 902 848 967, email:


Sofitel Dalat Palace
For luxurious comfort and a sense of history, Dalat’s original colonial hotel is the only choice.
Address: 12 Tran Phu Street, Dalat
Tel: +84 (0) 63 382 5444
Price: Starting at around US$252

Lak Resort, Ho Lak, Dak Lak
Stay in a somewhat modern Ede family longhouse on an islet in Lak Lake.
Tel: +84 (0) 050 385 2246
Price: Starting at around US$10

Damsan Hotel
A solid three-star choice with a lovely swimming pool and tennis courts.
Address: 212 Nguyen Cong Tru Street, Buon Ma Thuat
Tel: +84 (0) 500 385 1234
Price: Starting at around US$35

Hoang Anh Gia Lai Hotel
The best and perhaps only place in town for 4-star class and comfort.
Address: 1 Phu Dong Square, Pleiku
Tel: +84 (0) 59 3 718 459
Price: Starting at around US$30

Duc Binh Hotel
In the absence of any upscale accommodations in town, this sensible budget option on the main drag provides all the basic comforts.
Address: 122 Phan Dinh Phung, Kon Tum
Tel: +84 (0) 60 386 2019
Price: Starting at around US$9

Adam Bray has contributed to more than 15 guidebooks to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, and has written (and in many cases provided photography) for publishers such as DK Eyewitness, Insight Guides, Thomas Cook, ThingsAsian, Berlitz and Time Out. He is fluent in Vietnamese and speaks a smattering of other local languages, including Cham and Khmer.

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