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The Central Highlands

The Central Highlands

Some weeks ago I received an email from a Spanish girl, she said she wanted to visit the Central Highlands, but there's a very little information about this region. The same questions have been asked many times on the TT. Only one thread about the Central Highlands still remains here: see this link, especially post #7 made by Murwill16.

From Da Nang or Sai Gon you can fly to Pleiku or Buon Me Thuot with Vietnam Airlines. Some people on TT also travelled by motorbike from Hoi An to Da Lat but it takes more time and it's more expensive.

I'm looking forward to more reports from TTers about this region, and I hope some information I post below will help you understand a little bit about traditional customs in this special region.


Tay Nguyen (the Central Highlands) consists of Lam Dong, Dak Lak, Kon Tum, Gia Lai and Dak Nong provinces. The region is home to many ethnic minorities, they include M’Nong, E De, Gie Trieng, J’rai and K’ho.

Thinking of ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands might evoke images of their more famous customs and traditions – their dresses, dances, epics, gong beating performances and festivals.

Here is some typical cultural features of the Central Highlands:

Nha Rong (the large community hall on stilts): The biggest Nha Rong is 21m tall, located in Kon Klor Commune, Kon Tum province.

Nha Mo (grave house): it’s considered to be a place where the souls of the deceased rest according to the group’s ancient customs.

After the burial, family members erect a hut on the new grave as a shelter for the dead person under the ground. The hut, covered with iron sheets, leaves or tiles, is usually stocked with the deceased person’s belongings, such as water bottles, hammocks, pots, “gui” (bamboo baskets) and even statues.

2 or 3 years later, family members remove the make-shift hut and build a new larger wooden house in a ritual called “le bo ma” (grave-leaving ceremony). The ceremony is usually organized in the spring and is considered a festive day. Villagers gather at the cemetery grounds, and the family members bring offerings of food. After the offerings are presented to the deceased, villagers sing songs, dance and enjoy the food and drinks taken from the altar in the belief that the deceased returns to join the feast with them.

One of the main rituals in “le bo ma” is carving wooden statues which are then placed in front of the grave house, with a fence surrounds. The various statues, often resembling humans or animals, especially birds, are seen as original sculpture work of the people in the Central Highlands. However, after the “le bo ma”, relatives of the deceased no longer care for the grave, many statues and graves decay. When visiting Dak Lak museum you can see many grave house’s statues, or make excursion to grave houses to learn about the local culture.

Ruou can (rice wine): this rice wine can be found in any village in the Central Highlands. Compared to regular rice wine, “ruou can” is quite mild, with an alcohol content of 20% or so. Dark reddish brown in color, the liquor has a sweet flavor and a slightly spicy scent.

To make “ruou can”, the Ede, Bana and K’ho people use rice, glutinous rice, cassava or corn. The ingredients mixed with a type of leaf used as yeast are kept in a terra-cotta jar known as a “che” and fermented for a month. Usually the jars are buried deep in the earth for as long as possible until the liquid turns dense and yellow like honey. The only exception is wine made of cassave, which turns sour if kept too long.

But the most striking difference between “ruou can” and ordinary rice wine is the way in which “ruou can” is drunk. Rather than pour the liquor into cups, people insert long curved reeds, known as “can” into the jar.

Another major difference between the drinking cultures of the highlands and lowlands is that “ruou can” should always be drunk as a group, while plain rice wine is usually more of a solitary affair. After the first few rounds of strong wine are drunk, the jar is filled with fresh water until it is much weaker. Then it becomes even more communal as only one straw is used. “Ruou can” can be served with “ca dang”, a type of wild eggplant, broiled veal, or grilled chicken with chili salt.

Cong chieng (gongs): The “cong” has a knob on the surface and produces single, uniform sound, while the “chieng” is featureless but produces a wider range of notes. Gongs are an integral part of ethnic life in Vietnam and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. In the Central Highlands, they are known by family names such as Mother, Father and Older Sister.

There’s a combination called the “cong chieng” that can be used as a single instrument or as a set of 2 to 13 pieces, even up to 20, and each set can act as a solo instrument or as an orchestra. In some ethnic groups, only men are allowed to play gongs while in others both men and women play them. The Bana, E De, J’rai, Sedang, K’ho, Ma and other minority people of the Central Highlands view gongs as sacred instruments for worshipping, bereavement, weddings, celebrating the new year, a new house or new crop, or praying for good fortune and health.

*Elephant ride: * One place worth seeing is “Buon Don” (the village of Don), which is 40km from Buon Ma Thuot, the capital of Dak Lak. Located between the 2 branches of the Serepok River, “Buon Don” is home to the M’Nong, J’rai, Ede and other ethnic minorities. For 2 centuries, the village has been renowned throughout South East Asia as a land of elephant hunters and trainers. Hidden in the immense Yok Don jungle, “Buon Don” was marked on the map by the French as “the kingdom of elephants in Vietnam.”

A big festival of elephant racing is held every spring (this year it was Mar 26). Elephant racing is simlar to horse racing in many ways. Before a race, the mahouts ride their charges in a line around the impromptu arena and greet the thronging spectators. When the starting horn blasts, the riders urge their elephants on for the 1 to 2 km to the finishing line amid the exciting sounds of drums, gongs and cheers. At the end of the race, the winner raises its trunk to salute the crowd, parades its success while gently flapping the ears, and gets sticks of sugarcane from the spectators as a reward.

But the racing and the crowd’s antics are not the only entertaiment. In the days leading up to the festival, and on raceday itself, there are many games to join in or simply watch like tug-of-war, pulling heavy loads, running races, elephant hunting shows, and crossing the Seprepoc, the river of legend among the ethnic folk. And then the buffalo fighting on the afternoon of raceday. The carefully selected and well trained beasts, which are fed separately from the common herd, pass through several rituals before being paired off to rush at each other with gusto while the spectators shout and urge them on. The buffalo fighting is attached to worshiping the God of Water but it also expresses a martial spirit. 

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9. Phu Quoc Travel Guide: useful information on Phu Quoc Island Vietnam
10. Travel Sapa Vietnam: tours, hotels, maps to Sapa Vietnam
11. Mekong Delta Tours: cruise, hotels, tours in Mekong, Saigon

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7. Hoi An Travel Guide: Tours, maps to Hoi An