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  • Writer's pictureSandy Snyder

Vietnam's Western Highlands


During our first visit to Vietnam in 2008, we did not visit the Central Highlands, so added the area to this trip. For several reasons, mostly political, the government requires that tourists travel with both a permit and a guide – and you can’t have the same guide for the whole trip. This keeps most travelers moving up the coast rather than going west.

The central highlands are really in the west of the country, right along the Cambodian border. The people are not ethnically Vietnamese, but rather “mountain people”, named “Montagnards” by the French colonial rulers, and have lived in this area on and across the border with Cambodia, and have rejected rule by Vietnamese governments for centuries. During the Vietnamese/American war, they helped American troops (more on that below), and Tom remembers meeting men the Navy guys called “Yards” when he was stationed at DaNang. It quickly became clear that the people of this area still have little use for what they call the “central government”, and little government infrastructure money is being spent there. We flew from Saigon to Pleiku and were met at the airport by our guide, Banh, and a driver and driven to the town of Kontum. It was late, and we walked the streets for a while, looking for water and beer (of course). The town had closed up for the night, but one store was half-open, with a dimly lit light and (success!) warm beer behind a glass counter. When we went in and asked in our best Vietnamese for beer (pronounced “beer” in Vietnamese), the young man looked at us and asked, “American?” We said, “Yes,” and he pulled a manila envelope out from under the counter to show us a photo-copy of his mother’s ID badge from when she worked for the US Army during the war. That was our first taste of the area’s pride in its assistance to America – and our shame. We learned so much during those weeks.

The following morning, our first day, we were picked up on motorbikes by our guides, two charming young women, Banh and Pris. (No last names are used by these indigenous people.) They drove us all over the area, concentrating on what are called ethnic minority villages.

These are the rural homes and village meeting houses of indigenous peoples, loosely called the Montagnards. The name is generic and covers many different tribes and groups. The land is legally owned by the Vietnamese or Cambodian governments, but the people live where their tribes have lived for centuries, crossing the borders between Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos through the forests without regard for the relatively new political boundaries. There are conflicts, sometimes open, with the Vietnamese central government, which has been criticized for its indifference to human rights here. An estimated 61,000 Montagnards helped the American troops during the 20-year war, and the impacts of their involvement can still be seen.

Banh and Pris took us to many Banar and Ja Rai tribal villages, showed us how people live, introduced us to many, and treated us to an authentic Montagnard lunch. This was a huge platter of different leaves and herbs that you fold together and wrap around pieces of meat or fish, hot peppers, and several different sauces – definitely the way you would eat if you were in the forest with much greenery around you, but not much meat.

The two young women also took us to the homes of friends, where we were offered MORE food, to a home for lepers, and to a home where members of several French charitable organizations were meeting to discuss their various projects to help the people.

I’d bought a book full of colorful children’s stickers to give away, and we used almost all of them that day. We almost caused a riot.

This area was home to many American soldiers during the war. The good news: we’re called “mi” – meaning uncle (wonder where THAT came from?) and the people were very happy to see us. When we’d enter a little village, our guides would say something to one of the people, and we’d hear the word being passed: “Mi, mi, mi" – and everyone would come out to say hello. They were very open about their liking for Americans and their polite disdain for the central Vietnamese government.

We met an 87-year-old man who had fought in Vietnam’s wars since 1942. He played a bamboo instrument like a marimba and was thrilled almost to tears when Tom gave him $10.

This is the other side: they are VERY poor and are still feeling the impacts of our time there. The French people (and some Americans) are working to help the 700 orphans (700 orphans In a town of 140,000 people???) who are largely the products of relationships between Vietnamese women and western men. You can see some unexpected freckles or streaks of blond hair everywhere. All the western workers encouraged any and everyone to come and volunteer – there are so many things that need to be done, regardless of one’s age or abilities. A suggestion from them – see the film, “Dust of Life”.

The next morning, we were met by our new guide, a young man whose name showed up as both “Tom” and “Sam” – we learned that if you combine the two, you pronounce it correctly – Tsam. We were his first tourists and he was learning fast. We also had an experienced driver who made the trip relaxing and no-stress: Nguyen Van Hai. He was great! We drove all day from Kontum to the town of Buon ma Thuot.

Kontum had almost no tourists, but Buon ma Thuot is the coffee capital of Vietnam and teemed with tourists: Europeans, Koreans, and Japanese. (This is funny, because I’m writing this in 2021 about our 2012 trip and the current (2021) travel guides note how nice, quiet and untouristy the town is.) It has about a half-million people and is the capital of the Central Highlands.

We watched a young couple having their wedding pictures taken and watched a bicycle tour group get under way. They were riding the same hills we drove in our very comfortable Chevy Sentra. We were both glad to be riding, not biking.

As usual, Tom made friends everywhere. Here, we were walking through an area where a home was being repaired and the men had stopped for a break. With our guide translating, Tom chatted with the guys and they offered him a hit on their tobacco pipe.

In this area, it’s easy to see the lingering effects on the forest of the defoliants used during the war – although the crops look healthy, the older trees are yellowed and withered. We went to Yok Don National Park where we had a very good one-hour elephant ride. The mahout basically let the elephant wander and browse for food, guiding him back to the start point and letting us get off at a raised platform. I told Tom that if I could have an elephant for a pet, I would. Tsam, our guide, told us that the tribal people do not consider elephants to be animals, but rather humans. I agree.

We were able to see other minority villages, as well as the crops of the highlands: coffee, black pepper, cashews, cacao, cassava, bananas, rubber, etc.

These pictures show where pepper really comes from – it wasn’t born in a shaker!

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