Sunday, April 26, 2015

Odyssey through Central Vietnam

With the dunes of Mui Ne behind me, my journey through 'Nam continued.

As long as you're not travelling next to Vietnam's eastern coast, the only affordable option to get around is by bus. As I later found out, there's still another much better way to travel in Vietnam, but I'll save that up for later.

A few hundred kilometers further north of Saigon the terrain begins climb and gets more rough and remote. With another travel coach full with Vietnamese I kept ascending to the Vietnamese Central Highlands, a geographic plateau famous for its coffee plantations and mountainous countryside.
A typical landscape that characterizes the Vietnamese Central Highlands

In most parts of the Highlands the flora and climate is completely different to the Mekong Delta. In Da Lat for instance the temperatures can sink down to 10° C, which almost can be considered as arctic condition among South East Asians. Therefore it's pretty common to find pine trees and coffee plantations in this region of Vietnam.

The most common way to travel through the Highlands...
My itinerary through Central Vietnam

This section of my Vietnam trip turned out to be the most far-streched and time consuming, spending a lot of hours sitting in buses, passing through green landscapes and same-looking towns. But in comparison with Northern Laos the Vietnamese Highlands are still quite well accessible and I thought the roads were not bad at all.

My first stop after Mui Ne was Da Lat, one of the most visited cities in the Central Highlands. Da Lat is mostly famous for its coffee plantations and interesting climate, making it looking rather alpine than tropical.

A typical coffee plantation near Da Lat - also note the pine trees in the background!
As the Central Highlands are pretty much the main source of all kinds of coffee in Vietnam, the selection of different coffee variants are overwhelming. I'm not really a connoisseur of that world-wide caffeinated cult drink, but I sure learned to appreciate litres of «Ca Phe Su Da». Some manufacturing methods of coffee were quite obscure indeed...

Fancy to try the «weasel coffee»,...

... which is made from pooped out coffee beans?

The so called «weasel coffee» is actually made from pooped out coffee beans, that were fed before to local weasels (they are actually rather civets than weasels). The local legend says that the digested beans provide the coffee with an exquisite note and flavour. While I couldn't really taste a difference while sipping from a good cup, I can't deny it was bad though. :P

A few kilometers away from Da Lat it's also possible to visit an interesting and rather traditional part of Vietnam's huge textile industry. The Cuong Hoan silk farm interestingly breeds thousands of silkworms, which first are fed for a couple of weeks before they metarmorph into silk cocoons. It's eventually from these cocoons that the workers make the high quality silk from.

The traditional silk factory near Da Lat

The silk here is taken directly...

...from inhouse cultured silk worms.

The so called Elephant Falls near the silk factory
Even though I stayed roughly one and a half day in Dalat it proved to be smooth place anyway. Fascinating surroundings, fresh mountain air and indeed interesting people of which I still think about now and then.

From Dalat on I travelled on north, heading to the touristic Nha Trang on the coast. After a long and exciting visit at Pleiku in the Central Highlands, I then proceeded by bus to Quang Ngai, where I took the «Reunification Express» (Vietnam's most important railroad along the coast) to Danang. Then eventually I took a bus to the nearby town of Hoi An, one of Vietnam's most impressive examples of classic Chinese-influenced architecture.

But from here on I rather prefer to let this video speak.

As you could see I've experienced quite some culture, landscapes, food, interesting architecture and even some history. It's needless to say that all these temples and pagodas like those in Nha Trang, Pleiku, Danang or Hoi An are very different to the Buddhist counterparts in Thailand, Laos or Cambodia. The Chinese influence is pretty much omnipresent, be it on architecture, mural writings or decoration.

From this part of Central Vietnam I guess I enjoyed Pleiku and Danang most, while especially Nha Trang was way too touristic for my personal taste. I was really surprised how different the locals in Pleiku were compared to the city dwellers from the big coastal cities like Nha Trang. While in Nha Trang most Vietnamese people don't really seem to care for foreigners (apart from lurking them or trying to sell stuff to them) in Pleiku the people were really welcoming and warm-hearted. Especially young people were always eager to talk with me and to try out their English. I guess this can be explained quite simply, since Pleiku isn't really hit by mass-tourism...

A good example happened to me during an exploration of Pleiku's vast countryside. At about 12 AM I got hungry after dashing around the whole morning on my rented scooter, so I decided to pay a visit to a very remote roadside restaurant about 25 kilometers outside of Pleiku. The owners of the place were so happy to have a foreign guest in their humble restaurant, so they promptly invited me to a good bowl of Phở and even drinks. Although there was obviously a language barrier between us, they spared no effort to make me feel welcome. To be honest, these are the moments I think travel are worth for!

On the other side I found that Danang was an excellent location too, although it actually lies on the «beaten path». Not too many tourists, an excellent beach, cool restaurants, really beautiful surroundings (like the Son Tra peninsula) and really friendly people. At this point, I'd like to recommend the excellent Funtastic Hostel, seriously one of the best hostels I stayed at in Vietnam so far! Many good memories are connected to this place...

Hoi An with its nearby My Son ruins wasn't too bad either, although quite touristic. Even if you normally don't enjoy too much heavily touristic destinations like Bangkok, Siem Reap or Sihanoukville, I must admit that a visit to Hoi An still is more than acceptable. From Hoi An there are many possibilites to explore the surrounding areas and to visit nearby, more authentic places.

At the end of my stay in Hoi An I decided to take the service of a so called «Easy Rider», basically motorcyclists who take backpackers from one place to another. Often these Easy Riders also serve as guides who can introduce you into more obscure places and the local people.

With the owner of this particular bike I therefore was about to ride to my next destination, the old Royal city of Hue.

«Easy Rider» services - a great way to travel around in Vietnam and discovering the country!
In the next blog post I will evaluate on the city of Hue and the nearby former DMZ, a region of particular interest for travellers interested in history and the Vietnam War. Stay tuned!

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