THE CENTRAL HIGHLANDS || KON TUM
The sleepy, friendly town of KON TUM sits on the edge of the Dakbla River, and is one of the best bases in the central highlands – unlike busy Buon Ma Thuot and concrete-heavy Pleiku, this provincial capital makes a highly pleasant place to stay. It also has a few sights of its own, including some sterling colonial-era architecture – some of the most beautiful buildings in the country. However, most are here to use Kon Tum as a springboard for jaunts to outlying villages of the Bahnar and other minorities such as the Sedang, Gieh Trieng and Rongao. There are about 650 minority villages in the province, of which only a few have been visited by foreigners, so the scope for adventure here is broad.
Kon Tum’s riverside promenade along the Dakbla River is a fine place for a stroll – especially on fair-weather evenings, when it seems as if half the town stops by. It would also be the perfect place for a beer, but only the bars on the other side of the road seem to sell bottles – and even then, they’re usually warm and only for on-site drinking.
Visiting the minority villages
There are dozens of Bahnar villages encircling Kon Tum. As most are free from the official restrictions that hang over Pleiku, you’re at liberty to explore this area at will, although for overnight stays it’s best to check first with the tourist office; if you opt for their guided tours it’ll work out at around $25 per person per day.
All Bahnar villages have at their centre a longhouse known as a rong. Built on sturdy stilts with a platform and entrance at either end (or sometimes in the middle); the interior is generally made of split bamboo and protected by a towering thatched roof, usually about 15m high. The rong is used as a venue for festivals and village meetings, and as a village court at which anyone found guilty of a tribal offence has to ritually kill a pig and a chicken, and must apologize in front of the village.
Within Kon Tum
One good thing about Kon Tum is that you don’t have to go far to get a feel of a minority village, as there are a couple of Bahnar villages within the town itself. First comes Kon Harachot, whose immaculate rong faces a football field – if you’re lucky, you may even get to see an all-Bahnar game. To get there, head east along Nguyen Hué, and take any right turn up until Hoang Dieu; Ly Thai To will bring you straight to the rong. Following Nguyen Hué to its eastern end brings you to Kon Tum Konam, while following Tran Hung Dao to the east takes you directly to Kon Tum Kopong, where there is another wonderful example of a rong. Villagers at Kon Tum Kopong are big on basket-weaving, and you might chance upon locals cutting bamboo into thin strips and crafting them into sturdy baskets, which they sell very cheaply in the local market.
Plei Thonghia and Kon Hongo
The villages of Plei Thongia and Kon Hongo, respectively 1km and 4km west of Kon Tum, are inhabited by members of the Rongao, one of the smaller minority groups in the region. Women are often busy weaving in the shade of their simple, wooden huts, ox carts trundle along the dusty road and children splash about in the Dakbla River down below. It’s possible to walk to Plei Tonghia – heading north from the Dakbla bridge, turn left at Ba Trieu and just keep going. Kon Hongo is within cycling distance but a little tricky to find – it’s easier to take a xe om there (20,000đ) and work your way back on foot.
About 5km to the east of Kon Tum is the most frequently visited of Bahnar villages, Kon Kotu. Though now linked to Kon Tum by a surfaced road, it makes a pleasant walk to go there by country paths (contact the local tourist office for details) and it’s possible to overnight in the village rong. To get there by road, follow Tran Hung Dao east out of town until you reach a suspension bridge over the river at Kon Klor. Turn left 200m beyond the bridge and follow the road to Kon Kotu. Though the village church is absolutely huge, and fairly pretty to boot, it’s still the immaculate rong that commands the most attention. No nails were used in the construction of the bamboo walls, floor and the impossibly tall thatch roof of this lofty communal hall. It also doubles as an occasional overnight stop and for local trekking.
About 17km southwest of Kon Tum is the village of Ya Chim, where there are a few Jarai cemeteries that can be visited, though it’s best to go with a guide from Kon Tum Tourist as they are tricky to find. Wooden posts, some of them carved in the form of mourning figures, surround the graves and personal possessions such as a bicycle or TV are placed inside. The graves are carefully tended for a period of three to five years after death and offerings are brought to the site daily. At the end of this period a buffalo is sacrificed to make a feast for the villagers and the grave is abandoned in the belief that the spirit of the deceased has now departed.