Central Highlands of Vietnam: Unbounded Plateaus and Vivacious Folk

Central Highlands (Vietnamese spelling: Tây Nguyên) is in the central geographical region of Vietnam. It comprises not one but seven connecting plateaus surrounded by the southern Annamite Range in the east.

The year-round cool weather makes cities here perfect getaways from the heat for travellers in Vietnam. In addition, the rich ethnic and cultural diversity adds to a unique and often colorful experience.

Central Highlands Vietnam Map

Central Highlands Vietnam Map
[ image from ]

The Central Highlands of Vietnam covers 5 provinces including Kon Tum, Gia Lai, Đắk Lắk, Đắk Nông, and Lâm Đồng. With a total area of 54 700 km2, its western border meets Laos and Cambodia.

The plateaus are Kon Tum, Kon Plông – Kon Hà Nừng – Pleiku, M’Drăk, Buôn Ma Thuột, Mơ Nông, Lâm Viên, and Bảo Lộc – Di Linh. Their altitude ranges from 500 m to 1000 m.

Weather in the Central Highlands of Vietnam

Dugout Canoe on Lak Lake
[ image from Lak Tented Camp ]

The Central Highlands of Vietnam has a tropical savanna climate with three subclimates due to its expansive area. From May to October is the rainy season and from November to April is the dry season.

The weather is cool all year round even during the hottest months of March and April, especially at higher altitudes. Nonetheless, Meteoblue is a great tool for real-time weather forecasts in each city of the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

History of the Central Highlands of Vietnam

Pongour— One of Most Beautiful Waterfalls
[ by otrotrangian from Pixabay ]

Before the 15th century, the area that is the present-day Central Highlands of Vietnam was autonomous. Its population included ethnic groups like the Ede (Êđê), Jarai (Giarai), Ma (Mạ), and more.

Before the 19th Century

After the Dai Viet – Cham War in 1471, the northern Central Highlands became a protectorate of the Dai Viet Kingdom. During the reign of Nguyen Lords (1558-1802), they simply implemented a basic government over the Central Highlands of Vietnam. This was because the people in the area were scattered and Nguyen Lords wanted to prioritize the plains.

Records of the 16th and 17th centuries showed the existence of ethnic groups in the southern Central Highlands of today. They are Cor (Co), Bru, Katu (Cơ Tu), Pacoh (Pa Kô), Mnong (M’Nông), and H’re (Hrê) in addition to the three above.

During the Tay Son Dynasty (1771-1802), many people of Central Highlands ethnic groups were part of its army. One of the first bases was on An Khe Pass (đèo An Khê) in Gia Lai Province. Nguyễn Nhạc — founder of the Tay Son Dynasty also married a woman of the Bahnar ethnic group (Ba Na).

During the Nguyen Dynasty

Emperor Minh Mang officially recognized the Central Highlands as part of Vietnam in 1834. However, the land reclamation was still mainly in the plains. Thus, this pushed many ethnic nomads into the Central Highlands.

In 1863, Emperor Tu Duc established a defensive line to stabilize the mountainous areas of central Vietnam. This later became a trading line between the plains and the mountainous areas under the management of imperial officials.

However, the officials favored merchants from the plains instead of mountainous ethnic groups. This situation caused the mountain dwellers (người Thượng — Montagnard in old French texts) to ravage the plains for survival. This only changed after 1905 under the French colonial rule (1884-1945).

Under the French Colonial Rule

In 1891, the renowned physician Alexandre Yersin went on a mission to explore central Vietnam. He discovered for himself the present-day Lam Vien Plateau with the romantic Lang Biang Mountain. Thanks to the chilly weather and high altitude, the area became an ideal vacation spot for homesick French officials.

In 1899, the French persuaded the Imperial Court of Hue Citadel to hand over the management of the plateaus in central Vietnam. Afterward, the French Indochinese Governor-General Paul Doumer chose Dalat City to be a resort retreat.

During the succeeding years, the French strengthened their management by placing provinces and cities under legation. In 1946, the French established a protectorate for ethnic groups in the central plateaus to further divide Vietnam.

This lasted until 1955 when the Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam Ngô Đình Diệm abolished it. It was part of his attempt to eradicate French power over Vietnam and overthrow the Head of State Bảo Đại.

After the National Reunification in 1975, the Vietnamese Government officially established the Central Highlands covering three provinces. After some structural reorganization, the Central Highlands of Vietnam now officially has five provinces as of 2003.

Economy of the Central Highlands of Vietnam

Buon Ma Thuot Coffee
[ by Dang Cong from Unsplash ]

The Central Highlands of Vietnam is mostly red bazan soil. It’s highly suitable for industrial crops like coffee, tea, cocoa, peppercorn, mulberry, cashew, and rubber trees. The mulberry cultivation also connects to its strong silk production from silkworm cultivation.

The Central Highlands of Vietnam has over 2900 km2 — roughly 80% of the country’s total coffee-growing area. It’s one of the main reasons why Daklak Province currently ranks number one in world coffee production. In addition, Daklak’s Buon Ma Thuot City is the capital of Vietnamese coffee.

What’s more, the Central Highlands is rich in bauxite — currently the world’s main source of aluminum and gallium. However, it’s not being mined due to concerns about the impact on the local environment.

Thanks to the elevation and abundance of waterfalls, it’s also the ground for many hydroelectric power plants. However, the area is still quite under-developed due to the lack of field experts, infrastructure, as well as low living standards in general.

Nonetheless, the Central Highlands of Vietnam still has untapped potential in biodiversity, natural resources, and tourism. At the same time, it’s at risk of overexploitation, especially of forests, if headed in the wrong direction.

People of the Central Highlands of Vietnam

Buon Ma Thuot Origins
[ image from Facebook ]

In 1976, the population of the Central Highlands of Vietnam was 1 225 000 comprising 18 ethnic groups. That number increased to 5 800 000 in 2021 while further encompassing all 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam.

The Bahnar and Ede in the Central Highlands are two of the twenty-four ethnic groups in Vietnam with their own distinct written script. In particular, the Daklak Museum in Buon Ma Thuot City has exhibit descriptions in Ede, Vietnamese, French, and English.

Unorganized migration within the country throughout the years has led to a number of issues in the Central Highlands. They include ethnic discrimination, endangering ethnic cultural values, damaging of natural resources, and more.

Highlights in Literature — The Epic of Dam San

The Epic of Dam San
[ by Thanh vu cong from ArtStation ]

Cultural migration, however, has helped ethnic groups in the Central Highlands of Vietnam to share their intriguing folktales. In particular, the Ede folklore Epic of Dam San has been translated into English and French. The story follows the heroic chieftain Dam San and his fight against a depraved matriarchal custom concerning humans and gods.

Highlights in Performing Arts — Space of Gong Culture

Space of Gong Culture
[ by Xóm Nhiếp Ảnh from Facebook ]

The space of gong culture has been an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity since 2008. Covering all provinces of the Central Highlands of Vietnam, it belongs to 17 ethnic groups speaking Austro-Asian and Austronesian languages.

The Central Highlands gong culture stemmed from their customs of worshipping ancestors, shamanism, and animism. There’s a theory speculating that gong culture originated from the prehistoric bronze Dong Son Culture (800 – 200 BC).

Interestingly, people of the Central Highlands don’t make their own gongs. Instead, they buy the gongs from other places in Vietnam and even Laos and Cambodia, then do their own tuning.

The gongs range in size from 25 to 120 cm, each with a specific tone. Each village has its own master of gong tuning.

Meaning of the Central Highlands Gong Culture

In everyday life as well as special occasions, the gongs are spiritual links between humans, divinities, and the supernatural world. The gongs are essential to all ceremonies. This includes praying for good harvests, baby showers, marriage, housewarming, mourning, and more.

Their belief is that inside each gong is a spirit that grows stronger with the aging of the gong. Each household has at least one gong as a protective emblem and the number of gongs signifies wealth and power.

While gongs are not unique to Vietnam, the gong culture in the Central Highlands has a collective meaning. A gong orchestra includes both men and women, and each person is in charge of one out of 2 – 13 gongs.

Central Highlands Gong Culture — A Dying Art

In the constant flow of change, passing down the space of gong culture to new generations is getting harder. For one, the old craftsmen and knowledge keepers of the ceremonies are gradually passing away. Secondly, the younger generations of Central Highlands are slowly losing interest in the gong culture in the face of modernity.

In many places, the gong culture has lost its authenticity and the gongs become objects for recycling and trading. Fortunately, the government has been applying new policies to preserve the space of gong culture. One of them is to create job opportunities for people of Central Highlands regarding gong cultural performances.

Highlights in Architecture — Rong House

Architecture of Rong House
[ image from Facebook ]

The Rong house (nhà Rông) is a prominent piece of architecture of ethnic groups in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It’s a unique stilt house on 8 wooden poles and can be as tall as 18 m. You can spot a Rong house from far away with its strikingly tall and steep triangular roof of cogon grass.

Situated in the village center, the Rong house serves as the communal house similar to đình’ in Vietnamese rural villages. It’s where villagers gather for all meetings including news discussions, special celebrations, and ceremonies.

Interestingly, this is also the place for welcoming outside guests whether of a family or the whole village. It’s also where musical instruments, weapons, and the heads of animal offerings are on display.

Things to Do in Dalat City, Lam Dong Province

Things To Do in Dalat
[ by anhz27 from Pixabay ]

The plateau city of Dalat (Đà Lạt) is an ideal place to sit back, relax, and get in touch with nature. With a cool climate, pine forests, waterfalls, and lakes, Dalat has enjoyable things to do for all ages.

For sightseeing and taking photos, there’s Xuan Huong Lake, Tuyen Lam Lake, Dankia Lake, and Cau Dat Tea Farm. Furthermore, Dalat has some of the best waterfalls in Vietnam including Pongour, Elephant, and Datanla.

The famous Linh Phuong Pagoda, the iconic Chicken Church, and the pink Domaine de Marie Church are intriguing religious sites. If you’re interested in some more architecture, visit the Bao Dai Summer Palace or the Crazy House.

For the younger generations, trekking and camping Bidoup Nui Ba National Park or hiking Lang Biang Mountain hit the spot. Also, the central Dalat Market is a convenient place for all kinds of Vietnamese street food and window shopping.

While Dalat has great weather year-round, it’s best to avoid the rainy months of July, September, and October. To get to Dalat, you can easily get travel buses (coaches) from Ho Chi Minh City. You can also take domestic flights to Lien Khuong Airport in Lam Dong Province.

Conveniently, tours around Dalat can cover most activities in the city. They can also include destinations in Buon Ma Thuot as well as the entire Central Highlands of Vietnam.

Discover the Best Things to Do in Dalat

Find the Best Hotels in Dalat City

Things to Do in Buon Ma Thuot City, Daklak Province

Elephants of Buon Ma Thuot and Central Highlands
[ by Trần Hoài Nam Bmt from Facebook ]

Buon Ma Thuot (Buôn Ma Thuột) in Daklak Province is the largest city in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It’s a great city for experiencing living ethnic cultures and fun in nature. For coffee lovers, the Trung Nguyen Coffee Village and World Coffee Museum have everything coffee from beans and tools to brewing methods.

Visitors can engage with Ede people at Buon Don Village and M’nong people at Buon Jun Village. While you’re there, hang out with the elephants and get to know their cultural importance, too.

If you’re interested in trekking and also eco-tours, head to Yok Don National Park. In addition, the Yang Tao Elephant Rock, being the largest monolith in Vietnam, has some awesome panoramic views.

Dray Nur Waterfall is another beautiful destination with many engaging outdoor activities. For a romantic place to stay, choose the Lak Tented Camp by the Lak Lake surrounded by mountains.

Discover the Best Things to Do in Buon Ma Thuot

Things to Do in Gia Nghia City, Dak Nong Province

Dray Nur Waterfall
[ by vitieubao from Pixabay ]

Dak Nong Province is a hidden gem with a UNESCO Global Geopark housing archeological data from 140 million years ago. Travel destinations around Gia Nghia (Gia Nghĩa) City are usually included in extensive tours around the entire Central Highlands of Vietnam.

Partly, it’s because Dak Nong Province is adjacent to Daklak, right where Dray Nur Waterfall is. Another reason is that while Dak Nong has amazing natural scenery (especially waterfalls), its tourism infrastructure is not yet fully developed.

Perhaps the most popular here is the Ta Dung National Park (Vườn Quốc gia Tà Đùng). With the vast Ta Dung Lake surrounding islands, it’s known as the Halong Bay on land of the Central Highlands.

A new location on the rise is the Chu Bluk Cave System (Quần thể hang động Chư Bluk). It’s the newly discovered largest volcanic cave system in Southeast Asia.

A trekking and caving trip exploring the lava tubes and caves inside will require the help of a local guide. Even though there are Central Highlands tours that include it, there’s currently no official agency managing this place.

Things to Do in Pleiku City, Gia Lai Province

Things to Do in Pleiku City
[ by Phan Ngọc Hùng from Facebook ]

Pleiku City in Gia Lai Province is another place of bountiful nature in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Many people consider the lack of tourism development a plus when choosing Pleiku for their vacation.

The T’nung Lake, created from three volcanic craters, is an iconic landmark of Pleiku that you can spot from afar. It’s a freshwater lake so vast that locals call it the ‘Sea Lake’. Visitors can rent a wooden boat, drift along the water, and immerse into the scenery of T’nung Lake.

The inactive Chu Dang Ya Volcano (núi lửa Chư Đăng Ya) is a stunning place for a day of hiking. Its rich volcanic soil is ideal for growing not only crops but also fields of Mexican sunflowers and canna lilies. Don’t forget to take those Instagram-worthy photos along the way to the top.

View all locations in Pleiku City

Things to Do in Kon Tum City, Kon Tum Province

Kon Tum Cathedral
[ by vietnguyenbui from Pixabay ]

Kon Tum City in the same-named province has the most preserved ethnic cultural values in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. You can find the Konklor Rong house — the largest one in Central Highlands — near the city center. In addition, the Kon Tum Cathedral has a unique blend of Roman architecture and the Ba Na stilt house.

If you’re looking for a chill-out vacation, head to the town of Mang Den (Măng Đen) filled with pine trees. Dak Ke Lake (hồ Đắk Ke) and Pa Sy Waterfall (thác Pa Sỹ) are some ideal spots for picnics and family outings. All of these destinations and some more are included in tours around Kon Tum and the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

View all locations in Kon Tum City

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