name Pleiku is usually associated with the American war
as one of the main theatres of operations. It was a North
Vietnam Army attack on Pleiku that prompted Lyndon Johnson
to authorise the ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, a campaign
of sustained heavy bombing. It was also the site of the
war’s first conventional battle. When Buon Ma Thuot fell
to the North Vietnam Army, the South Vietnam Army abandoned
Pleiku, leaving it little more than a ruin.
After the war,
it was rebuilt with USSR assistance, so it’s hardly surprising
that it has all the charm of a Soviet gulag.
On the positive
side, it has attractive countryside and some delightful homestay
Pleiku is the
provincial capital of Gia Lai province, about 50km south of
Kon Tum and approximately 200km from Quy Nhon and is linked
to Ho Chi Minh City by regular Vietnam Airline flights. There’s
a decent local hotel and some reasonable restaurants, but
don’t expect an international menu.
Away from the
town, visitors can see the striking Phu Cuong waterfall, a
single torrent plunging vertically into a seething cauldron
of water and spray at its base. In complete contrast, Plei
Bloum village is a quiet settlement overlooking a broad, slow-moving
river. The sunset across the valley from the veranda of an
ethnic homestay is a joy!
interesting feature of the Gia Rai villages are their cemeteries.
The tombs take the form of mini-houses surrounded by carved
wooden effigies, often humorous and sometimes graphic depictions
of stages of procreation. Plei Phun cemetery is a good example.
Life is gentle
in the villages. You’ll be welcomed on all sides, and invited
to join in local ceremonies and activities. As with the rest
of the plateaux area, you’ll find the Gia Rai ethnic people
of Plei Phun remarkably friendly, generous and undemanding.
thatched roofs of the traditional ‘rong’ communal houses of
the Ba Na people are one of the most distinguishing features
of the Central Highlands. Standing inside and looking up,
you’ll be amazed by the intricate lattice of supports that
enable the roof to withstand strong winds.
The huge Bien
Ho (Sea Lake) is the flooded crater of an ancient volcano.
Although it’s an attractive location, it warrants only a brief
visit because there’s not much else to do apart from looking
at the view. You might pause a little while to wonder why
the water level hardly varies at all, despite the prolonged
desiccating droughts that reduce the plateau to a dustbowl
It’s not worth
bothering with the much-touted Yaly Falls. Once one of Vietnam’s
most spectacular waterfalls, nearly all the water has been
diverted to a hydro-electric power plant. It’s tempting to
grumble about conservation, but it’s important to remember
that Gia Lai is one of the poorest and sparsely populated
provinces in the country, mainly because of its inadequate
infrastructure. Electrification is bringing jobs and m