01.11.2012 - 01.11.2012
Finally, all the doubts that I had in Phnom Penh had been answerd as I reached Vietnam from Cambodia through the Oyadaw International Border Checkpoint, Rattanakiri province in Cambodia. The immigration office on the Vietnamese side is the Le Thanh Border Checkpoint in the Gia Lai province. I should have probably spend more time to exlore Banlung's stunning waterfalls, lake and villages but time is running against me. I hope that I would be able to return to Banlung given the opportunity to go out and see what Banlung has to offer, which I believe there are lots of them. The has been a major different between the immigration office of Oyadaw in Cambodia and that of Le Thanh in Vietnam. Oyadaw Border Checkpoint is surrounded by lush trees and bushes with thick surrounding forrest, which actually made this immigration border crossing unique by itself due to the untouch nature around the border area. The main immigration checkpoint office is a mid-sized wooden red hut with a worn-out mobile steel gate. A big rope is tied in between the 2 mobile gates stop vehicles and for checking purpose. The road after the Oyadaw checkpoint in Cambodia prior to arrival at the Le Thanh border checkpoint is untarred with red laterite road all the way to the control post on the vietnamese side, which has an arch to signals the vietnamese border. From this arch, it is about 100m of walk to the huge concrete building of the Le Thanh Immigration Border Checkpoint. The building looked contemporary and much to the suprise of the surrounding area at this Cambodia/Vietnam border as most of the area are massively covered with trees and bushes. Over at the Vietnamese border, an immigration officer would be guarding the post at the border arch to check the passport before allowing to proceed to the main building. The crowds seemed to be less crowded during the early morning crossings with most of them consists of vietnamese who returned to their home country from business or work in Cambodia. Take note that at such border crossings, you may be subjected to very stringent luggage check by the immigration authorities over at the vietnamese side despite the availability of scanners. But the officers here can also be distinctively friendly from their airport's counterpart. This is where I encountered a very courteous officer who had been going to the extent of putting on his head cap noticing there was foreigner other than vietnamese. He even gave a very warm welcome smile and extend well wishes as he returned the passport having get it stamped. Such good example is what can be isolated among immigration officers these days not only Vietnam but also elsewhere out of Vietnam which should be given credit. After the immigration clearance, the minivan that I board from Banlung in Cambodia waited to continue the journey from the immigration checkpoint. As the ticket mentioned Pleiku, I had thought that this minivan would be going directly to the latter but instead, after driving out from the immigration office area for about 800m to 1 km, I was told that I need to change to the vietnamese minivan destined for Pleiku city. The vietnamese taxi would have a signboard Gia Lai at the front dashboard, where Pleiku is the city located in Gia Lai province. However, no additional fees to be paid for the border of Le Thanh to Pleiku city route. So, I was glad that despite the communication issues, both the Cambodian and the Vietnamese taximen have been very honest and truthful. However, the Gia Lai minivan would not be departing right away from Le Thanh border as it would wait until all the seats are filled up before it departs for Pleiku city. Apart from passengers, it also transport goods from various shops around this border town to Pleiku city. While waited for passengers, the driver was kind enough to offer drinks as probably it would need to wait for about 30 minutes or more to get the van full.
After having filled up his vehicle with good number of passengers as well as had some goods being loaded into the van, the driver left for Pleiku city after a wait of about an hour. As he drives through a narrow 2 laned road, he honk his vehicle as if to signals there is a van taxi service to the city. Just as in any parts of Vietnam, the attitude of honking horns is a norm and without exceptions here in Gia Lai, Vietnam. Though the road from Le Thanh border to Pleiku city is not busy, where most of the users are individual motorbikes travelling from one village to another or to Pleiku city, drivers still honk their vehicles just as they were to passed through the motorbikes or vehicles in front of them. The scenes along the Le Thanh to Pleiku city is just as awesome as the one from Banlung to Oyadaw border, with much of the landscape being massive highlands as well as green valleys. Being in the region of the Central Highland, it is not a surprise that Gia Lai province is surrounded by lush green valleys and massive mountains. The road condition between Le Thanh border and Pleiku city has been good with all the road section being tarred, not bumpy nor dusty though some sections are undergoing construction. The government of Vietnam or perhaps the local government should be commended for their great effort to ensure the safety of the people of Vietnam in general and travellers by providing a good road infrastructure despite this being a remote part of Vietnam. In some developed country neighboring Indochina region, even such basic infrastructure cannot be provided. This is how I was humbled by the political will of the local or Vietnamese government. Getting out from the village road, on reaching the city of Pleiku, the road infrastruture gets even better and in good shape. In my opinion, the city of Pleiku is being planned in such a great detail just as other cities in Vietnam I had been to in particular Hue, Danang, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh city and even Hanoi. The city's infrastructure indeed is surprisingly contemporary and the size of it match that of a city status and not just by name seriously.Over at Pleiku, massive buildings such as the Hoang An Gia Lai Hotel (HAGL), Vietcom Bank building, shops and other office structures can bee seen around the city and the road and traffic system in place are stunningly organised. Streets are also clean and there has been no issue of double parking or even road side parking that would distort the smooth traffic condition of the road. In some parts of developed South East Asia country, neighbouring Indochina countries, bad traffic management and poor enforcement has led to massive traffic congestions on the road but not at a city such as Pleiku. Again, credit must be given to the Vietnamese government for good governance.
I was dropped off at the Duc Long Bus station on reaching Pleiku city from Le Thanh border. Duc Long Bus Station is not a small bus station as the station could accomodate a good number of tour bus sized vehicles. Over at this bus station, there are motorbike taxi service to downtown as well as the Mai Linh taxi, which you would not missed with the green corporate colour of this huge transport company in Vietnam. Tickets from elsewhere can be purchased from this massive bus station and the Mai Linh Express serve destinations within the cental of Vietnam including Quy Nhon, Buon Ma Thout, Danang, Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh city and to Pakse, Lao PDR. There are also other bus company that offer other destinations within Veitnam. Arriving at this bus station, the very 1st problem that I encountered was language issue. Never did I anticipate that english is never a language used in Pleiku. I was first approached by one of the motorbike drivers, where I told him that I need to go to downtown to look for guesthouse and I asked him how much. Despite repeating my times of "how much dong?", he still couldn't understand me. Another fellow driver then came, and I asked again how much dong, yet he couldn't read what I said neither could I read on what he said. So, he has to show me the dong notes in his wallet before I agreed to go with him. I thought VND50,000 (USD1 = VND20,850)should not be expensive for a ride to the city and to move around looking for accomodations. Later, I found out that motorbike taxi should not costs anything more than VND20,000 for a town ride. Anyhow, I have no qualms about the fare as I thought it is fair anough to pay a little bit extra for the service provided to move from one place to another looking for right place to stay. As we move around city of Pleiku to search for the right guesthouse, I stumped across a travel company, by the name of Pleiku Tourist. I aksed for the motorbike taxi to stop for me to get some tour informations to Kontum. There were no one at the shop but perhaps the owner came out from behind the shop upon noticing That I came and she was a middle age woman who has been pleasant extending her smiles. She couldn not converse in english when I spoke to her so she called out for her daughter who then came out obliging her mother's call for help. This young girl could speak slight english and asked for assistance to give a call to one Mr Nguyen Minh Dinh Tuan, which appears as the director of Pleiku Tourist on the business cards. She offers her kind help by calling Mr Nguyen and I spoke to Mr Nguyen to enquire about the village and Rong House tour as well as the wooden church tour. Mr Nguyen needs to know where I stay for pick up purpose and I told him I was still looking for one and will get in touch with him onece I found a place to stay. I thanked the lady and her daughter for their kind assistance and then we head out to look for a right guesthouse. After some brief search, I finally put up at Vinh Hoi Hotel located in the city area of Pleiku and the room with air-cond and window costs VND280,000 a night, which considered reasonable. After settling down at the hotel, I aksed for the hotel staff at the reception to get in touch with Mr Nguyen of Pleiku Tourist and without reservations, he extend his assistance immediately without any question. Such is the great attitude of the people of Pleiku I came across not only at Vinh Hoi Hotel but also over at The Pleiku Tourist office. Again, I spoke to Mr Nguyen and told him where I stayed. After agreeing to a fees of USD35 which include the motorbike from Pleiku to Kontum, a guide and a permit to visit the villages in Kontum, My Nguyen confirmed that he would be at the hotel for pick up at 8am the next day.
Things looked to have settled down with the arrangement of the tour to Kontum, so I set on foot to explore Pleiku city. The city as mentioned earlier is not a small one and its not just a city by name. It is indeed an organised and well structured cith with public infrastructures being well in place. The traffic system is indeed well managed with good road conditions and systematic traffic lights. No any signs of traffic congestions as compared to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city and in general the traffic volume is much lighter over here in Pleiku. The weather is also plesant with cool winds blowing in the early morning as well as late afternoons making the walking tour being very pleasant. There is a wet market within the city and even massive building such as Hoang An Gia Lai Hotel is seen standing proudly in this city of Vietnam central highland region. The city is also filled up with my shophouses where businesses cater mostly on bulk or wholesale basis. The fact that Pleiku city is located startegically in Vietnam between Cambodia and Lao PDR, this city plays a very important role when it comes to inter trade between the 3 countries. With the readily available road transport from Cambodia to Vietnam to Laos and onwards to Thailand, Pleiku city is the major transport hub for the Indochina commerce activity. Another great activity over at Pleiku city is sit back and relax while having a good cup of traditionally brewed Vietnamese coffee over at a street cafe. Coffee is yet another very crucial trade in Pleiku city as major coffee production in Vietnam originated from the Central Highland in Buon Ma Thout, where this is closely located to Pleiku city. Other than coffee, because of its close proximity to Hue, Pleiku city has several Hue specialties available around the streets including the Bun Bo Hue, a noodle soup served in spicy and sour soup as well as slices of good taste beef meat. Across from the road on the right side of Vinh Hoi Hotel, Pleiku city, there is a side stall that serve very great taste of Bun Bo Hue. There is also a kiosk in from of this makeshift stall that sells the Bun Mi or vietnamese french bread sandwhich which is the similar version of the one available in Cambodia as well as Lao PDR. Costs of a bowl of Bun Bo Hue is VND25,000 while a small size Bun Mi is VND14,000.
The next morning, I was ready for the Kontum village, traditional Rong House and wooden church tour with Mr Nguyen. Mr Nguyen arrived at Vinh Hoi Hotel 15 minutes prior to 8am. He had promised to meet at 8am but instead arrived early to ensure that things are on the right track. Yet another great example that I noticed on the people of Pleiku. Mr Nguyen is an average built man with an all time smile on his face making him a very easy going person and easy to talk to. The fact that he speaks good level of english also help to keep the conversation going. The fact is, Pleiku receives very few foreign tourists or travellers apart from those who arrived here and Kontum from different major tourist cities within Vietnam such as Hue, Danang, Hoi An and Nha Trang. Those who are here in Pleiku mainly Vietnamese who are on a stopover for trade or business purpose and the hotels or guesthouses cater mostly to business travellers such as these. So, the hospitality industry still plays a crucial role in a city such as Pleiku though it is out of the tourist circles. I later found out that Mr Nguyen would not be my tour guide for the day to Kontum. Instead, he has got a staff to bring me to Kontum on a motorbike tour. Mr Nguyen formerly was with Gia Lai Tourist under a partnership business venture but he has since withdrawn himself from this tour business and set up his own tour company under Pleiku Tourist. After a brief conversation with Mr Nguyen, his staff finally arrived at 8am. I was introduced to this bespectacled man of 32 years old, whom Mr Nguyen said he could speak dual language of english and french. After introducing each other, its time to start the journey to Kontum and I thanked Mr Nguyen for the arrangements that he had managed for me. A fee of USD20 was paid to him as a deposit. While travelling on the motobike, the driver said that he was actually not too well versed in english but instead he is more fluent in french. Anyhow, since he could understand some english, I hope that the entire tour will be fine. For as long as he undertood what I said, then I believe that should get things move on. The 1st stop, we went to this beautiful, awesome and stunning massive lake which is situated not far from Pleiku city. The entrace to this lake is marked with a chinese style white arch and while entering the lake boundary, the small road leading to the lake is marvelously lined with pine trees surrounded with lush greeneries. Most of the area within the boundary of the lake are covered with massive number of pine trees. And the road leading to the lake is not to distance away from the entrance point. Reaching the end of the road, there is a watching tower for visitors to have a strategic view on the lake as well as its surrounding landscape. Not many locals were seen there though it was a Sunday morning. Probably, it still early in the morning. Most of them were there to have a good photograph sessions due to the great view of the lake and its lanscape around was marvelous. Going up to the lake, I could witness how beautiful nature could be as it really brought one so close to it with such a wonderful gift from God. Being here is also akin to being in heaven and one would thought that setting up a home and having a farm would be provide such a perfect living in a great combination of life and nature. I had the opportunity to enjoy such a fresh nature, breathing clean and cool air, calm lake water, beautiful mountains and awesome pine trees surrounded the lake. This is the most superb lake view that I had witnessed apart from those in New Zealand.
From the lake tour, we moved on for about 50km distance bike drive to Kontum from Pleiku city. The road to Kontum from Pleiku is a village road and some parts of the road were not in good condition, making it bumpy, some parts were damaged while some are undergoing construction. The road consist of 2 laned narrow road and many houses can be seen dotting along the road. The views on the way from Pleiku to Kontum is just as great with massive mountains, green valleys and trees landscape view. There are also coffee plantations seen along the way and it is to be noted that coffee is one of the major trade over at this central highland of Vietnam, which consist of Buon Ma Thout, Pleiku, Kontum and Quy Nhon. One of the biggest coffee producer, Trung Nguyen, has its coffee sourced from Buon Ma Thout. And at Pleiku, coffee also plays its importance as a source of income for the villagers. As we moved on the road, I could see that many village homes have the coffee beans being placed right in front of their home courtyard to let these coffee beans dry up. Some also would have coffee farm next to their home. We stopped by briefly at the shoulder of the road to take a close look at the coffee berries, which had yet to dry up completely. As we continue our journey, I believe that the central region of Vietnam such as Pleiku, Kontum, Buon Ma Thout amd Quy Nhon would be the most blessed area with beautiful mountain lanscapes. The photos that I managed to take would have easily mistakenly this place in perhaps New Zealand. But this is Pleiku.
As we leave the village area and reached the city of Kontum, the road condition gets much better and more concrete buildings can be seen as we enter the city. Kontum is a much quieter city in comparison to Pleiku city and being here on a very 1st time, I was caught by surprise that the traffic situation here is distinctively different from other cities of towns of Vietnam that I had been to. The city is overwhelmingly peaceful with no heavy traffics noticed on the road due to the fact that more people seen walking and cycling around the city than motorbikes and cars or other vehicles plying the road of Kontum. This is so much different for country like Vietnam! And I thought, how could this be possible? The fact is, there is some form of restrictions imposed over here at Kontum, where due to some kind of uprising movement by the villagers of Kontum in the early 90's, foreigners visiting Kontum would require a permit or permission to roam around Kontum or the villages around this city. According to Mr Nguyen, this permit is in the form of informing the nearest police station, possibly he arranged that in Pleiku, that some one who is not a Vietnamese is coming for a tour or visit around town. I don't really know how this works but that was what Mr Nguyen said and the permit fee that he mentioned is for such arrangement. The city infrastructure of Kontum look to be organised and in a very systematic condition and most parts of the city looks clean as well. The road is basically flat which makes its very perfect for cycling. The 1st stop over at Kontum is the wooden church. There are in fact many churches around Kontum. Do not be surprise that Kontum city could have been the city with most church than anywhere else in Vietnam. I was really caught off guard by that, seriously and as I move around the city, I believe that such is the fact. What makes that wooden church unique and distinctive are the fact that the structure of the church building is made from wood. When I arrived at the church, I was stunned by how beautiful the church could be. It stands over at where it is in so elegantly awesome with a front building architecture resembled a traditional old castle. Inside the church, the area is wide and I felt the peacefulness once I stepped my foot there. There are multiple windows on the left and right side of the chruch building, some with decorative paintings. Right at the front end of the church near the stage, a large photo of Jesus hangs on top of the wall with a smaller photograph of Father Stephano who started the spread of christianity faith in Kontum on the lower part. Outside the church, it has a big garden surrounded by lush trees.Across this wooden church, is yet another church which offer place of stay for those whom are homeless and senior folks. At the rear of this church, it has a 3 storey red-coloured building which is a hostel that accomodates these less fortunate folks and those senior citizens who have no homes or anyone to take care of. There is also a 2 storey L shape red building that operates as a factory for those who stay at the home of the church to sew silk items for purpose of producing them as souveniers for sale to support their living.
From here, we moved on to the Rong House exhibition centre, where a sole Rong House is on display for purpose of tourist visit as well as cultural show. The Rong House is actually a traditional house of the villagers in Kontum, where most of them are farmers who work on rice fields, vegetable farms, rear pigs and cows as well as farming in the sugar cane and banana plantations. These are some of the traditional trade in Kontum apart from the coffee plantation. Many bananas can be seen sold in most part of the Kontum city and the market. Sugar cane is also another major production in Kontum and there are quite a number of the sugar cane juice trader seen on the street of Kontum which used the traditional machine to squeeze out the juice out from the cane. The Rong House is a gigantic traditional house with the structure of the house built mainly from wood. This house is a tall house where there is a few metres of gap between the base of the and the ground supported with several huge rounded wood pillars. To get up to the main area of the house, usually, there would be 2 staircase, made from a huge rounded log wood and carved to transformed into multiple steps for easy climbing. The wall of the house is made from the screw-pine leaves. The log wood staircase would leads up to a small courtyard where there would be a sliding entry door which is also made from screw-pine leaves. Inside the house is a wide space and supported by several pillars of huge log wood. The roof structure is supported by many of mid-size long wood sticks. The roof of the house if made from the dry paddy leaves. Over at this exhibition Rong House, a photo of Ho Chi Minh is being placed right at the front of the entry to this traditional house. As we moved on from here, I could see schoolchildren in their traditional village style uniform roaming the streets, where most of them can been seen walking home from schools. Vast changes had taken place over the years with many houses within the villages now transformed into concrete houses instead of the traditional houses. I had the opportunity to had traditional coffee at one of the most unique coffee house cum bar in Kontum. The name of this place is Eva Coffee. This is a very unique coffee house as the owner according to my guide is a trained graphic designer. As such, he had transformed his facility into a very interesting and artistic coffee house. This is not a big or contemporary coffee house and the atmosphere inside the coffee house is more of a theme that gets patron close to nature as most of the items and accessories including the furnitures are made from wood. The entrance to the coffee house itself is a triangle shape arch with leaves covered the roof of the arch. Inside the coffee house area, there are few of the huts where patrons could occupy to enjoy their cup of coffee. The cashier area is the frontage of the owner's house. On the right hand from the entrance there is a 2 storey building where there are some tables and chairs made from wood and patrons could also sit on to have chat over great coffee. Each level has its own balcony where patrons could sit out to enjoy their brew. As I walked further in from this 2 storey building, there is a bar behind this buiding and the structure of the bar including the walls and the long bar tables are all made in wood. The furnitures over here are also made from wood. There are also few swings at the rear of the coffee house near the bar area. The boundary of the coffee house is lush surrounded with trees and plants, which indeed made this place so special in Kontum. From the coffee house, my guide then brought me to 2 other villages to take a look at their daily life and the traditional Rong House which is being placed on display at the entrance area to each of these villages. Basically, the structure and the design and materials used to built the Rong House do not differ between each villages. The major industry among the villagers in Kontum basically revolves around agriculture which include rice cultivation, banana and sugar cane plantation, vegetable farming as well as pig and cow trade. I had the opportunity with see how the villagers hackle a stubborn hog into the lorry, how they used natural water to wash clothes, vegetable farming and women taking care of children at home while children playing around with friends and siblings as I toured the villages. Some of the nice views from these villages include mountains, rivers and rice fields. All the roads inside the villages in laterite condition which makes it very dusty and would also filled with cow dungs almost everywhere. So one need to exercise caution while talking a walk on these villages. The weather was extremely hot in Kontum during mid-day so different from Pleiku and a cup of ice cold sugar cane juice with lime on the street of Kontum would help to quench thirst. An of course a bowl of Pho Ga or chicken rice noodle soup should be included during lunch here in Kontum.
The very last place that I visited in Kontum is the Seminary Museum. The museum building is another unique building that can be found in Kontum with a chapel located on the ground floor. Parts of the structure of this museum is made from wood including the doors, window panels and the walkways. The chapel has a very large wooden doors but the entrace is through the side door as I found the main door was locked during my visit. It is a mid-size chapel with a sculpture of Lord Jesus on top of the front end of the chapel. The on the 1st floor display many items including the coffin made from wood, drums, gongs, bible collections, replicas of Kontum city and the churches around it, replicas of Rong House and Kontum map, the photos of the fathers since the beginning of the spread of christianity in Kontum until present day. There are also some classrooms available for children for education purpose. There are 2 large gardens in these museum area seperated by a small road in the middle from the entrance gate which is line with trees, making this place yet another beautiful facility that can be seen in Kontum. At the end of it, I was more than satisfied and happy with the whole trip to Kontum. What I could summed up here is, this is a place which would be very good for peaceful and relaxing life. We then set to leave for Pleiku after a day tour over in Kontum and as the sun sets down, the weather seemed to turned cooler as we head back to Pleiku city. My guide told me he had a restaurant business in downtown Pleiku city and asked if I was interested to have dinner there. Since he has been such a nice guide, I told him I wouldn't mind, so we went to his shop and had 3 dishes comprising of spicy small fish, deep fried springrolls and a vegetable soup with rice. That was a great dinner treat and I thanked him for being such a great guide. So many great people and the trip over in Pleiku and Kontum had been so great and unforgettable and I must give my salutation to all those people that I had encountered and offered their unreserved assistance during my Pleiku and Kontum travel. Thank you to the people such as Mr Nguyen and the hotel staffs in Vinh Hoi hotel who had set a very distinctive service to help the development of tourism industry in Pleiku and Kontum.