Day 99: Dak Glei – Plei Kan (640m) 55km. 400m total climbing on rolling roads.
Day 100: Plei Kan – Kon Tum (500m) 77km. 730m total climbing on mixture of rolling seal and dirt (via highways 14c & 695)
Day 101: Kon Tum (rest day)
Day 102: Kon Tum – Chu Se (650m) 90km. 775m total climbing on rolling highway & busier traffic.
Day 103: Kon Tum – Buon Ma Thuot (495m) 150km. 1215m total climbing on rolling highway. Longest distance in a day so far.
Day 104: Buon Ma Thuot (rest day)
WARNING: content may disturb dog-lovers!
After our seven and a half hour ride getting to Dak Glei we took it easy the next day and cruised 55km into Plei Kan, a small regional town set among rolling hills. Our plan from there on was to try and get off the Ho Chi Minh Highway (HCMH) for a while and see some more out of the way villages. We’d originally considered taking highway 14c south for about 60 kilometres, before rejoining highway 14 (HCMH) to the east. This dirt road is very close to the Cambodian border though and parallels it through a remote and sparsely populated area. I’d love to get down that way, but we decided that without a guide or permit there was too much chance of getting turned back at a army post and with the weather being rainy it could turn out to be a total mud fest.
Another shorter and less risky option on our map looked tempting, but when we went to inspect the road on Google Maps we discovered that it didn’t actually exist!
In the end that left us with a brief 77km hiatus from the HCMH via part of highway 14c, which we then deviated from via some sometimes-rough dirt roads to join highway 695, rejoining HCMH at Kon Tum. The detour was well worth it.
From Kon Tum on to Buon Ma Thuot the road was bigger and busier and less scenic so we busted out a couple of big days to get ourselves closer to Dalat before our visas expired.
We spent a night in Plei Kan and the next morning started out on the backroad of highway 14c. After 12km we turned left and followed an even more minor road as it wove through rolling hills covered in rubber tree plantations. There was widespread fighting in this region during the war and consequently much of the original jungle and forest cover was destroyed, hence plantations like these are very common.
Our Vietnamese is very limited, but we have become adept at asking ‘Is this the road to … ?’ It always offers the chance for some fun interactions with locals too. At this point we were thankful that the overnight downpours had stopped.
Much of the road, even where sealed, was silted from monsoon downpours and burst creeks and rice paddies. Montagnard minorities are marginalised by the Vietnamese government (historically due to their allegiance with the South Vietnamese and US during the Vietnam War), consequently their communties receive little funding or support.
A very common sight on the road sides are propagandist billboards – and in the more ‘rebellious’ highlands they seemed to be everywhere. Socialist themes of union and equality are the voice, and military might, industry and peace are usually symbolised.
We took a rest day in Kon Tum, one of the bigger Central Highlands cities. The town retains some of its French influence in the form of this impressive Catholic seminary. There’s a beautiful wooden cathedral to check out in the city too, as well as a couple of traditional Montagnard villages on the city’s fringe.
Kon Tum is also where we came across meat of the canine variety for the first time. I believe it’s more common in the north. Still, this section of market had 4 stalls – all selling dismembered dogs, including the paws!
The larger town’s military bases are usually muralled with themes of the North Vietnamese Army’s toil and eventual victory over the south. I’d tried to photograph one the day before but the AK47-armed guard became very agitated and came out of his booth to tell me off. I was more successful sneaking off this shot the next day. It represents Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party and leader of the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War surrounded by loyal troops and supply trucks as they traverse the Truong Son Strategic Supply Route (aka the Ho Chi Minh Trail).
Street vendors in Chu Se. We stopped there for the night and checked into a hotel with decent wifi so we could catch Cadel Evans on streaming video as he crushed the Schleck brothers in the final time trial of the Tour De France.
After being quite busy between the previous big towns, traffic quietened on this section of highway. It was a Sunday and as we rode through the frequent villages, montagnard people were heading to church in their traditional garb.
Another of course, is coffee. Buon Ma Thuot is a major coffee growing region and some of what we buy back home in NZ comes from Vietnam. The beans here are roasted in butter though which imparts a distinctive sweetness to the roast and reduces bitterness. Coffee here is almost always served with a glass (or jug) of ice cold green tea too.