In recent years, there’s been a marked uptick in the number of foreign visitors in Vietnam as the country has exploded in popularity as an international tourist destination. As the war for which the country is unfortunately most well-known drifts further back in the collective memory of both its citizens and the global community, Vietnam is becoming increasingly associated with its breathtaking landscapes and pristine beaches, its delicious cuisine and vibrant culture, and the immeasurable kindness of its people, rather than just its tragic history.
However, in a country far vaster than most realize, there are always going to be incredible destinations that get overlooked by the majority of tourists. Most trips to this diverse Southeast Asian nation center around visits to one (or both) of the major cities, the capital Hanoi in the north, and the always-bustling Ho Chi Minh City in the south. Of course, these trips usually include short-distance treks to popular nearby destinations such as Ha Long Bay or the Mekong River, or perhaps even a jaunt to Da Nang and Hoi An along the South Central Coast, but most visitors to Vietnam miss out on a plethora of stunning locations that even many domestic tourists never make their way to.
The Central Highlands of Vietnam, or Tây Nguyên in Vietnamese, are one of these often overlooked destinations. This region consists of 5 provinces — Đắk Lắk, Đắk Nông, Gia Lai, Kon Tum, and Lâm Đồng — that straddle the borders of Cambodia and far southeastern Laos in the south-central part of the country. With the exception of the extremely popular and touristy Da Lat in Lâm Đồng, these are some of the least-visited places in Vietnam by both foreign and domestic tourists, yet they harbor some of the most incredible landscapes and fascinating historic and cultural sites in the country.
The Central Highlands were originally inhabited by many of the recognized ethnic minorities of Vietnam, and today some of the largest populations of these groups still live in the area, creating a truly fascinating and diverse cultural landscape. Unfortunately, this has also led to controversy in the past, resulting in protests and riots that caused some of these provinces to be closed to foreign visitors for some time, but these closures have since been lifted as the situation has stabilized. Even so, it is important to perhaps be extra cautious and respectful in this region to avoid any potential trouble with officials or locals.
While there are many ways to get to the Central Highlands, the region is best explored by motorbike. To visit without experiencing the thrill of the wind whipping past your face as you drive through dense forests, over breathtaking mountain passes, and past sprawling farms and shimmering rice paddies, would be to do the region a disservice.
Coming from Ho Chi Minh City to the south, the drive to Gia Nghia, the charming provincial capital of Đắk Nông, only takes about 4–5 hours depending on weather and traffic conditions, and would be a fine starting point for any trip, but it’s also possible to take a bus or fly to Da Lat, Buon Ma Thuot (Đắk Lắk), or Pleiku (Gia Lai) and then rent motorbikes to begin exploring.
The Central Highlands region is home to two of Vietnam’s main north-to-south routes: the more well-known Ho Chi Minh Road, and its newer, less famous counterpart, the Đường Trường Sơn Đông (English: The Road East of the Long Mountains). The former straddles the westernmost interior of the country, linking the capitals of four of the regions provinces on its way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, whereas the latter, when totally finished, will link Da Lat to Quảng Nam province through some of the most stunning and remote areas the Central Highlands region has to offer (at the moment, most of the road has been completed, or is at least passable, with the exception of the southernmost section leading out of Da Lat).
The scenery along both routes is incredible, and for those interested, there are also historical monuments along the way marking the sites of some of the most significant events of the country’s wars with France and the United States, as this region was heavily involved in both conflicts.
While there is definitely plenty to see on both these routes, the less-explored areas of the region between the two also offer an incredible variety of sights and experiences, so perhaps the best route will combine sections of both roads while leaving time to explore some of the surrounding areas as well.
(Read more about the Ho Chi Minh Road here: https://www.vietnamcoracle.com/ho-chi-minh-road-the-best-bits/)
(Read more about the Road East of the Long Mountains here: https://www.vietnamcoracle.com/the-road-east-of-the-long-mountains/)
No matter where one ends up in the Central Highlands, astounding natural beauty and a pervading sense of peace and tranquility are sure to be found, along with some of the more fascinating cultural and historic sites the country has to offer. Whether as an addendum to a trip to some other part of the country, or as the main destination of one’s journey to Vietnam, this region is sure to leave visitors with a sense of awe and wonder, along with an irresistible desire to return as soon as possible.