A road less travelled

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April 6th 2009
Published: April 6th 2009
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Buon Ma Thout and the Central Highlands 27th - 31st March 2009
Buon Ma Thout and Kon Tum

When we arranged the bus tickets from Saigon to Buon Ma Thout we had forgotten it was a Friday and hence we quickly realized we’d left it too late to catch a local bus. They were all full. Even though it would take marginally longer and cost more money, we decided to catch a night bus back to Dalat which would arrive at 5am, and from there we planned to catch a local bus to Buon Ma Thout.

Vietnam, like China, has invested a lot of money in tourism and like China they try very hard to make you stick to a well trodden tourist trail. Try to veer away from it, the infrastructure suddenly disappears and things become very difficult and expensive. Buon Ma Thout is pretty much only visited by people on ‘Easy Riders’ motorbike trips from what I could gather hence there is practically no information about the place, and the only way to get there is by local bus. From Dalat we found the correct bus station, but had to wait around 2 hours for the bus to depart. All the other buses in the compound were big and modern, whilst the only bus to Buon Me (as the locals call it) looked old and haggard, and like it probably had a top speed of 15kmh. Why do we always manage to catch the market bus I was thinking? Our fears were quickly allayed though as the market bus driver actually hammered it the whole journey and we arrived safely in Buon Me four hours later.

After walking 3km into town fully laden we were rewarded for our efforts by managing to find by far the nicest room we’ve stayed in during our trip though Vietnam, and for the same price as every other too. The room was the size of an apartment and was decorated beautifully for such a cheap place. It also had the best working internet of anywhere too!

Communism and Culture

Why is it that every communist or former communist country in the world has gone to great lengths to eradicate their traditional culture? I think about China where every ethnic minority is only entitled to be educated in Chinese language instead of their traditional language, about the ‘cultural revolution’ which could aptly be described as the ‘cultural decimation’, and in Russia where ethnic minorities were forced to assimilate into Russian culture, abandon their traditions, beliefs and dress sense and I come here to Vietnam and witness more of the same again.

Buon Ma Thout is surrounded by supposed ‘ethnic minority’ villages that foreigners aren’t allowed to visit unless they have special government permission. Are they trying to say they’re ashamed? Are they trying to say they’re doing something they don’t want us to see? Or are they trying to protect them from us? I don’t know for sure, but from what I’ve read many of these villages have now been assimilated into Vietnamese culture. They live in Vietnamese houses, wear Vietnamese clothes, eat Vietnamese food and follow Vietnamese traditions and culture after a concerted government effort to achieve this objective. I’ve read the communist manifesto and I don’t remember it saying anything about a need to eradicate culture or even anything that could be construed into that message. It’s strange but recurring pattern I’ve observed but which I don’t really have an answer for - a travesty none the less.

The only ‘minority village’ that foreigners are allowed to visit in this area without permission is on the edge of Buon Ma Thout, and well - let’s just say we didn’t even know we had arrived when we did. It isn’t a minority village anymore.

Buon Ma Thout

The first day we just read books, caught up on some needed sleep and in the evening had a wonder around the town. It’s a sparse place pretty much built spanning the main road which passes through the middle and it doesn’t immediately have a great deal of charm or character. I guess non-descript would accurately describe it because there really isn’t anything to note from a glance.

The market and the streets surrounding were vaguely reminiscent of Cambodian towns we’ve previously visited with lots of market stalls set up along the road sides, mostly selling fruit and vegetables, and the place was quite badly littered and slightly foul smelling on occasion. This town was also the first place in Vietnam we’d seen unpaved roads in great abundance and it instantly seemed poorer than all other parts we’d visited thus far.

The second day we hired a motorbike to explore some of the surrounding waterfalls we’d heard about went to visit Dray Sap about 30km south of Buon Me. The motorbike we’d hired was expensive and shoddy, but I guess the people were just taking advantage of the fact they were offering something nobody else in town was, so they knew we had no option.

The standard of motorcycle riding in Buon Me is without a doubt the worst I’ve ever experienced. The people don’t even glance, let alone look when they are riding. People just ride straight out in front of you, barely giving enough time for an emergency stop and following that ride away, absolutely oblivious to the trouble they’ve just caused. On the rare occasion you approach a junction and someone is looking, they’ll just look you in the eye as they force you into an emergence evasive manoeuvre as if it’s perfectly ok to do so. Caroline was quite scared on the back and wished we hadn’t hired a bike at all, but we persisted and eventually found the place we were looking for after a few wrong turnings.

Dray Sap and Gia Long Waterfalls

We were initially thrilled with the sight of such a beautiful waterfall, a curving semi-circular line perhaps a full hundred meters from one side to the other and gushing white water falling vertically into the sublime green plunge pool below. The sight must be incredible in the rainy season to see the waterfall in full glory.

This was Dray Sap waterfall; supposedly the largest and grandest, however just as I was changing into my trunks for a heavily anticipated swim, we noticed a ‘no swimming’ sign. It quickly became apparent why as we caught sight of a hole system of fishing devices strung across the plunge pool in all directions, with a small plastic bottle to mark the position of each rig. I was initially angry that for the sake of a few sprats they had ruined a spot of such natural beauty by turning it into a working mess of fishing devices. It occurred to me after though; who am I to question their motives. It’s in a poor part of a poor country so perhaps it’s ignorant of me to assume they should leave it in its perfect natural state for infrequent tourists like me, who fleetingly pass through every now and again, when the landscape can be put to use.

Dray Sap, Dray Nur and Gia Long waterfalls are all in the same lushly green national park which only requires one ticket for all. The park redeemed itself as the Dray Nur waterfall, whilst not as impressive as Dray Sap was completely free of fishing lines and hence perfect for cooling off during the mid-day heat. The sheer drop looked like it may be possible to jump from as it was perhaps 15-20m high (~50-65ft), however since none of the locals were doing this I decided it would be safer not to bother trying and maybe find out the water’s too shallow at the cost of two broken legs or worse! It was however a pleasant place to spend a few hours relaxing and swimming.

Finding the final waterfall of the national park involved a 5km ride through the most stunning of countryside, after which we arrived at a dead end where the waterfalls were located. They were absolutely the most beautiful of any we’d yet seen in Vietnam. They weren’t the biggest or the most popular, but for me they were special because at one point, a fast flowing yet slightly sloped waterfall converged with two other steeper and larger waterfalls, both of which were cascading out from the thickly overgrown jungle to form a sight just breathtaking. I can understand why they aren’t as popular in the sense that they’re hard to get to, and even when you arrive by road, you have to trek through the jungle and down some very steep paths to reach the bottom. At the bottom you’re still not in the middle of it, and have to clamber across rocks to reach the water and you can’t really swim in the plunge pool because the water flows far too fast - altogether this would probably disappoint a lot of people visiting, but I loved this waterfall for just how natural and un-sculpted by man it was and how the surrounding landscape hadn’t been altered for human or tourist needs. Such a beautiful setting and well worth visiting.

We ended the day with some fantastic food which we’d been told about. I would describe them as spring roll type things, except you make them your selves - sorry I forget the name. If you ask for this dish they’ll bring you a whole selection of vegetables, and meat if you want it, and give you a selection of dipping sauces. You also get some sheets of rice paper and together you make your own spring roll. Absolutely great food! It’s kind of similar to si wa wa, a speciality of Guiyang in China, except nicer and better tasting. A great end to a great day!

Kon Tum

We arrived in Kon Tum somewhat angry as the bus driver simply refused to stop as we were passing through town (having stopped for every local person who asked) and continued to drive on to the bus station some three kilometres out of town. This meant we started our day with a trek across town in the midday heat only to arrive at our overpriced and dingy hotel disgustingly hot and sweaty. Nice!

The town itself is fairly large and noted only for its well preserved wooden French colonial churches, and an orphanage, which we didn’t visit. It’s situated on a large river which is excellent to watch the sunset from, although all in sum the town isn’t really much to note other than it’s a more authentic view of Vietnam if that’s what you’re looking for.

Following close examination of a map we’d managed to find of the area, we decided to hire a motorbike the next day and try and make our way to Ho YaLy which looked like a huge dammed lake on the map. This park of Vietnam is situated right on the crux of the borders between Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and was also the scene of heavy fighting in the Vietnam war, so we asked lots of different people if it was ok to visit this area or whether we could get into trouble with the police. They all said it was fine and that there were no restrictions they knew of so we decided to give it a go.

We quickly hit problems when we punctured about 10km from town and had to wheel the bike a couple of kilometres to the nearest village for it to be repaired. On closer inspection we realised the whole rear tyre was threadbare and needed replacing. Perhaps we should have seen this as a bad omen for the day! We decided against replacing the tyre, to the dismay of the repair man who clearly believed we were foolish for trying to continue with a tyre in such a bad state of repair. We should have listened. It punctured again within another 10km. Repeat scenario. Except this time we did replace the tyre, and just hoped the hostel would reimburse us when we returned (which they did!)

The lake wasn’t too hard to find and after a 60km ride, making a few wrong turns along the way, we eventually passed through two tribal villages where people lived an incredibly rustic lifestyle and children ran around naked, playing with complete freedom and women walked around topless. This area of Vietnam is on no tourist routes or maps and I’d swear from the looks and stares from the local people as we passed through we might have been the first foreigners to pass that way since the Vietnam War. The landscape was absolutely incredible, so green and hilly and undisturbed by modernity. Sublime peace and quiet.

The lake itself wasn’t much of a sight - nothing more than a working fishing lake, devoid of civilisation and deforested on all banks surrounding. The ride there had been worth it though.

Fast forward 10 minutes and it started to go pear shaped in the form of an unexpected and unwanted visitor with ill intensions. We should have listened to the bad omens from previously…….


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