The road to Dalat is a shoelace — slender and impossibly twisted, rising up through the clouds to a city of crisp, pale skies and feathery flowers.
This place is famous for a reason. Originally a French settlement, Dalat has the kind of delicate elegance that you might expect from the South of France, but with Vietnam’s signature tang of time and culture. It sits around Xuan Huong Lake, spreading its arms out over the hills around it. Quaint, pastel-coloured houses cling to the hillside among the coffee plantations, and the air is sweet with flowers and pine. It tastes fresh, and impossibly clean.
There are two roads leading out of Dalat towards Dak Lak. They join together about 28km from the city, bumping noses at national highway QL27 and spinning back up into the mountains. Over mounds of deepest green, the road soon opens out into a wide bridge. A time-wrinkled woman stands at its edge, gazing into the water below, a patterned cloth around her soft, curling hair. K’mot is a cow herder. She cannot remember her age, and as she pads along the damp tarmac her eyes tell more stories than the stars. “It’s going to rain,” she smiles.
The road to Lak Lake is like a story. It winds past big gated houses, brick box cottages and rustic wooden cabins sitting next to each other in a somehow harmonious paradox, a little way back from the tarmac. People squat outside, their lives bared to whoever is driving past. Farmland rolls with the hills, dipping into the leafy forest around it as though someone had shaved off a chunk of the mountain and planted crops on its scalp. Dust-footed children watch, eyes wide.
Eventually, QL27 falls down from the hills, pausing at a quiet, lakeside mountain town. The Lak Lake community sits around its namesake, a famous expanse of shimmering water dotted with reeds and blurry-eyed fishermen. The lake is covered in soft, gentle mist in the mornings, and turns to gold with the sun. Ethnic Jun Village sits a little to the north. It’s a tourist hotspot, and as you weave through the beautiful wooden stilt houses you can’t help but wonder what it would be like to live your whole life on show.
Diary Entry #1: The Village
We’ve almost reached Lak Lake, taking a break over a fresh, flowing river before we move on. A village of people have built their homes to float on the water, patching their lives together from whatever they could find. Poverty is harsh when you can’t even afford a patch of land to live on. We talk to a man on the hill beside our bridge. He is lugging long strips of bamboo down to the river bank, lifting one and standing hunched on his bare feet to throw it downhill before turning back for another. He is building a new river house. We watch his wife adjust her worn, pink jumper and pull up the bottoms of her leggings, see his little twig-like son play in the muddy river reeds, and wonder what life would be like on water, with nothing but each other.
Day 2: Lak Lake to Pleiku
Leaving Lak Lake for Pleiku, QL27 runs next to the water for a while, snaking over green-gold rice paddies. Giang Re, another big body of still water backed by pock-marked hills, lies about 16km from Lak Lake. Just after Ea Krong Ana, an old broken Catholic Church sits back from the road, forgotten, lying in a field of gold. Sit under the bronzed stone pillars and dream of the stories in its cold, wet stone.
From here the highway is a lot straighter. A red clay track spits off from the main road at Ea M’T’A, skirting the edge of Buon Ma Thuot. Lanky pepper trees line the road and gangly young boys rip past on mopeds, loose hair rippling in the wind. The road here is full of scars and holes, the air is strangely fragrant, almost bitter, and all is wet with the promise of rain. Soon the red blends to grey again, turning right onto the AH17. The land here is quite bland. Giant, imposing quarries line the road like gashes of blood-orange in the mountain’s green. Drive on, to Pleiku.
Compared to its lush surroundings, the bustling town of Pleiku is a fairly characterless place. Just before you reach the town, climb the wide track to the top of Nui Ham Rong — the gateway to Pleiku. Get up to see the sun rise. In wet weather the mountain is smothered in mist, swallowing the track as it stretches out its fingers, feeling for its way.
Diary Entry #2: Sunrise at the Lake
We get up before the sun and head down to the lake — we want to see the sunrise. As we drive along the bank of that vast stretch of crystal grey, groups of Lak Lake locals power walk past in early-morning exercise gear. Fishermen glide through the water in their long, slender crafts, rubbing the sleep from their eyes. There is such a beautiful paradox of people here — a mother in pretty new jogging shoes guides her son on the smooth tarmac, while a wife squats in the dust beside the lake to clean the fish her husband caught, and a sister walks barefoot beside the road wearing bright, ethnic colours on her golden brown skin. The sun shifts but stays hidden behind the billowing clouds that have followed from Dalat. It will rain today.
Day 3: Pleiku to Kon Tum
Drive through Pleiku on AH17 — the road to Kon Tum is broad and smooth. Bien Ho sits on the right of the highway, hidden down a forest track. The trees thin with the road and the magnificent breadth of water behind them winks through the leaves, showing its face at the Bien Ho lookout.
As you reach Phu Hoa, about one third into your journey, turn left on the TL673 and follow it up to Ya Ly. This massive expanse of water, larger than Kon Tum city, looks incredible on the map, but unfortunately access by main road is denied unless you are driving a car. The lake is, however, surrounded by dirt tracks that link a network of ethnic farming communities. Making a careful triangle back to the main road, turn left onto a dirt track about 6km back down the TL673 and follow its curves and sharp twists back to AH17.
The hills lie like snakes as you enter Kon Tum, wrapping around golden green rice paddies and tickling the road with their noses. This city is truly charming. It’s home to an almost impossible number of churches, while just outside it there are more ethnic groups living totally separate lives, preserving their beautiful language and culture. Drive through Kon K’lor and Kon Knam, smile with the people and share life with them for a day.
Diary Entry #3: The Reservoir
We take a detour from Pleiku to Kon Tum, slipping off the main road for a glimpse of the vast Yaly Reservoir. We are stopped at the gate — we can’t go in. As we head back to AH17, we turn left. Twisting and turning in dusty abandon, the country track that joins the highway beyond Yaly Lake is possibly one of the most exquisite parts of our journey yet. Our poor city bike struggles on the mottled clay track, now slick with the rain that has just slapped the highlands. We fall, slide into the mud. Around us is an expanse of incredible green and gold, rice fields, pepper plains and rich, dense paddocks of coffee, and rusty wooden cabins dot the road. An ethnic village unfolds. Pretty eyed cows walk with us, and their surprised herders watch us with wide eyes as we scrape the mud from our wheels.
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