An All-Day Ride North of Kontum
Rent a motorbike (for the adventurous) or join a tour for this all-day ride around the picturesque hills north of little Kontum. Many follow this route with an Easy Rider motorbike guide and carry on to Danang or Hoi An.
From Kontum, head north on Phan Dinh Phung past the bus station on the outskirts of town. Concrete storefronts give way to curving roads along mountain tracks and into the hilly expanse that once was the stamping ground of legions of jolly green American giants and sandal-clad Vietnamese forces, a major battleground during the war. Sights up this way include Dak To, some 50km (31 miles) north. Centered around a model nha rong, a Bannar longhouse, the town of Dak To is quite well developed. Follow signs from here to nearby Charlie Hill, the famous battleground where so many gave their lives. Use this place as a reference point to the south of the road leading toward the Laos border; all that even the best guide can do is to tell of the valiant fighting that took place here and of the massive loss of life, especially among the last holdout South Vietnamese forces late in the war.
Continue on the Ho Chi Minh Trail through this area. Just recently, on September 2, 2004 (National Day), the ribbon was cut and Hwy. 14, also known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail Road, was opened. The highway follows a scenic path of the vital wartime supply line, and the road's completion was an act of national unity as much as a route for traffic and commerce. Starting all the way in Quang Tri Province, just south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) near Hue, the road runs the long ridge of the Central Highlands through Kontum, Pleiku, and Buon Ma Thuot. The section north of Kontum is particularly lovely, with rolling hills and quiet villages.
Past Dak To and Charlie Hill -- tour guides usually take you to a select few villages along the way -- you'll come to the crossroads in the town of Ngoc Hoi, some 60km (37 miles) out of Kontum. From Ngoc Hoi, a right turn on the Ho Chi Minh Trail (Hwy. 14) carries you to the north -- a left from the crossroads of Ngoc Hoi brings you to a checkpoint where you'll be turned back; carrying on straight brings you along some 20km (12 miles) of picturesque mountain road among little-visited villages leading up to the Indochina Corner, where the border of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam meet. You can find the point on a map, but short of the interesting ride through some beautiful mountain landscape, the Indochina Corner is a heavily guarded area and nationals of most Western nations are forbidden from crossing any of these borders, so expect a swift turnabout before a checkpoint -- but at least you can say you were there.
Konkoitu and the Villages East of Kontum -- Accessible by a long but worthwhile bike ride, this little village is a model of "enforced primitivism" -- the folks from government-run Dakbla Tourism even come out to monitor and assist with preparations for festivals in the village (really just to ensure that the busloads of tourists they bring out this way will be entertained). When I arrived, a large contingent of shifty-eyed government guys were milling about, and the local people busied themselves decorating long bamboo poles that would be erected for a ceremony. When the officials left, it was like the teacher walked out of the room. The craftsmen made a few jokes and everyone laughed; then they invited me over to chat with them -- many learned to speak English having served as guides and scouts for U.S. forces during the war.
Most ethnic hilltribes in the region are situated along a river -- much like villages in nearby Laos -- and Konkoitu overlooks a wide bend in the Dakbla (a good place to go dip your toes and meet with people swimming, bathing, and doing laundry). At the village center is the high-peaked Bannar Rong House (or nha rong), home to the community center, a temple, and government offices. A number of other Bannar communities are along the road -- all easily recognizable by their high-peaked nha rong. To get to Konkoitu, follow central Tran Hung Dao Street heading east out of Kontum. Stay straight, past one nha rong on the right, and cross the bridge over the Dakbla. From there, stay left and follow the curving riverside road a few clicks until you come to a large settlement, where you'll see the high roof on your left. Ask to take a photo. The people of Konkoitu are used to foreign visitors, and most are glad to pose for a frame or two, but always be sure to ask. Contact Kontum Tourist to inquire about festivals and tours to more far-reaching Bannar and Sedang villages.