Lakes, waterfalls and an inactive volcano count among the hidden charms of lesser-known Central Highlands destination Gia Lai.
I headed for Gia Lai, the heart of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, with little idea of what lay ahead since I had never been to the region.
Gia Lai is one of the country’s largest provinces, sharing borders with Kon Tum Province to the north, Dak Lak Province to the south, the coastal provinces of Quang Ngai, Binh Dinh and Phu Yen to the east, and Cambodia to the west.
I departed from Binh Dinh Province at 10 am, and on both sides of the straight roads were mesmerizing pine forests with the sun’s rays highlighting the kitchen smoke coming from wooden houses.
I reached the Phuot Pleiku Coffee – Homestay in Pleiku Town at 5 p.m. The place was interesting, with backpacking-style decorations, which greatly entertained me for the next few days.
As night fell I set to discover the town’s nightlife. Brightly lit streets were filled with food stalls representing the essence of the Central Highlands’ unique culinary heritage. I filled my stomach with all the snacks I could find, all exceptionally cheap. A bowl of fresh fruits cost only VND15,000 ($0.6).
I woke up the next morning with a slight breeze reminding me of early winter in the north. As I got out of bed, I remembered having a friend in Gia Lai and called him. He volunteered to be my travel guide for the day. He took me out first thing in the morning for a splendid breakfast of dry noodles (pho kho).
Our first destination for the day was T’Nung Lake northwest of Pleiku, dubbed ‘ocean lake’ for its vast size. It is also hailed for its beauty and was famously likened to the eyes of a beautiful woman by songwriter Nguyen Cuong.
We reached the lake, also called ‘Bien Ho’, seven kilometres from the town, early in the morning. There was one small boat far away and a little further away were two peaks, partially covered by a thin layer of clouds. It was quiet and tranquil.
A thought crossed my mind: maybe I should move here for a few months.
My friend took me on his motorbike through roads with tall trees on both sides. I joked he had brought me to South Korea since such scenery could only exist in South Korean serials.
The early morning air was refreshing and filled me with energy. We passed through rows of tea farms to reach Buu Minh Pagoda near the lake.
Established in the 1930s by Thich Tu Van, a monk from the Bac Ai Kon Tum Pagoda, Buu Minh is famed for its collection of three idols of the Buddha and 10 sculptures of an infant Buddha.
I heard its bell ringing from afar, which created a great sense of peace in me.
We later left the pagoda for Chu Dang Ya mountain, meaning “wild ginger” in the Gia Rai language, in Chu Pah District. The mountain was volcanic millions of years ago.
As it was the rice ripening season, the road to the mountain was dyed yellow. Behind the fields were green hills and mountains with a touch of white clouds.
As we approached the top, my friend pointed to a different shade of yellow. There were wild sunflowers, brought here by the French in the early 20th century and since then an integral part of the beauty of Gia Lai. Bushes with the beautiful flowers stood next to majestic Gia Rai houses.
We stopped the vehicle and walked 10 minutes to the peak of the inactive volcano. Inside the crater was sweet potatoes and wild sunflower plants that created a colorful mosaic.
The scene was breathtakingly beautiful.
I stood there the whole day watching the flowers as if I could never see them again. As time passed the late afternoon sun painted an irresistible picture. Oh, how I longed to stay there!
The following days I went to Phu Cuong Waterfall in Chu Se District, an hour’s drive from Pleiku, and on a tour of Op Village of the ethnic E De in Pleiku, and Stor Village in Kbang District – the birthplace of Dinh Nup (hero Nup), a Central Highlands revolutionary hero, and saw the Central Highlands Gong Festival, the region’s most important cultural event.
I made a promise to myself to return in the future, not once, but many times.
Gia Lai still had many mysteries to be discovered.
*Before traveling to Gia Lai
-Motorcycles: Ideal way to enjoy the scenery on both sides of the road. Motorcycles are available for rent in both Hanoi and HCMC. The Ho Chi Minh Highway should be much less crowded than National Highway 1A. But be careful on sharp mountain turns, which could be dangerous. Also, once you reach the Central Highlands, as roads cross many steep ravines, slowing down is a good idea.
-Coaches: A good way if you do not enjoy traveling by motorbike. From Sai Gon, you can take buses operated by Thuan Tien, Phong Phu, and Phuong Thu. The fare is VND400,000 ($17) for the 12-hour trip. From Hanoi, the most popular buses are Thuan Y, Thien Trung, Van Nam, and Long Van, and they charge VND600,000 ($26) for the 26-hour journey.
There are many hotels here, but few homestays. I would recommend the Phuot Pleiku Coffee – Homestay, for some authentic living experiences with locals.
The food in Gia Lai is splendid, with many specialties such as dry noodles, bamboo-shaft rice, and dried beef. It is the coffee capital of Vietnam, and so it is heaven if you are a coffee lover.
You can expect consistently cool weather in Gia Lai Province. Carrying a light jacket is recommended since it could get cold in the early morning.
The ideal time for a visit
Gia Lai is beautiful year-round. But the best time is possibly October to December, with the rice and wild sunflower plants in bloom. February-March is also very beautiful as coffee flowers bloom throughout Gia Lai. The months in between are best avoided if you do not like tropical storms.
How many days?
One should stay here for three to five days since the long distances take significant traveling time.
Gia Lai has many ethnic festivals. You can see the Central Highlands Gong Festival, which usually takes place at the end of November to promote the region’s Gong culture, a UNESCO-recognised heritage.
There is a long list of amazing destinations in Gia Lai. Some places I did not have the opportunity to visit are Thac Ba Lake, Ham Rong Mountain, Xung Khoeng Waterfall, Kon Jang Rang National Reserve, Kon Ka Kinh National Park, and Minh Thanh Pagoda.
*Xu Kien, 28, is from the central province of Quang Ngai and lives in Saigon. She travels around Vietnam and writes books and a travel blog. https://e.vnexpress.net/news/travel/places/gia-lai-little-known-gem-of-central-highlands-4062926.html