Gia Lai is beautiful year round. But the best time is possibly October to December, with the rice and wild sunflower plants in bloom. February-March is also very beautiful as coffee flowers bloom throughout Gia Lai.
The hidden charms of lesser-known Central Highlands destination – Gia Lai:
Lakes, waterfalls and an inactive volcano count among the hidden charms of lesser-known Central Highlands destination Gia Lai.
I headed for Gia Lai, heart of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, with little idea of what lay ahead since I had never been to the region.
Gia Lai is one of the country’s largest provinces, sharing borders with Kon Tum Province to the north, Dak Lak Province to the south, the coastal provinces of Quang Ngai, Binh Dinh and Phu Yen to the east, and Cambodia to the west.
I departed from Binh Dinh Province at 10 am, and on both sides of the straight roads were mesmerizing pine forests with the sun’s rays highlighting the kitchen smoke coming from wooden houses.
I reached the Phuot Pleiku Coffee – Homestay in Pleiku Town at 5 p.m. The place was interesting, with backpacking-style decorations, which greatly entertained me for the next few days.
As night fell I set to discover the town’s nightlife. Brightly lit streets were filled with food stalls representing the essence of the Central Highlands’ unique culinary heritage. I filled my stomach with all the snacks I could find, all exceptionally cheap. A bowl of fresh fruits cost only VND15,000 ($0.6).
I woke up the next morning with a slight breeze reminding me of early winter in the north. As I got out of bed, I remembered having a friend in Gia Lai and called him. He volunteered to be my travel guide for the day. He took me out first thing in the morning for a splendid breakfast of dry noodles (pho kho).
Our first destination for the day was T’Nung Lake northwest of Pleiku, dubbed ‘ocean lake’ for its vast size. It is also hailed for its beauty, and was famously likened to the eyes of a beautiful woman by songwriter Nguyen Cuong.
We reached the lake, also called ‘Bien Ho’, seven kilometres from the town, early in the morning. There was one small boat far away and a little further away were two peaks, partially covered by a thin layer of clouds. It was quiet and tranquil.
A thought crossed my mind: maybe I should move here for a few months.
My friend took me on his motorbike through roads with tall trees on both sides. I joked he had brought me to South Korea since such scenery could only exist in South Korean serials.
The early morning air was refreshing and filled me with energy. We passed through rows of tea farms to reach Buu Minh Pagoda near the lake.
Established in the 1930s by Thich Tu Van, a monk from the Bac Ai Kon Tum Pagoda, Buu Minh is famed for its collection of three idols of the Buddha and 10 sculptures of an infant Buddha.
I heard its bell ringing from afar, which created a great sense of peace in me.
We later left the pagoda for Chu Dang Ya mountain, meaning “wild ginger” in the Gia Rai language, in Chu Pah District. The mountain was volcanic millions of years ago.
As it was the rice ripening season, the road to the mountain was dyed yellow. Behind the fields were green hills and mountains with a touch of white clouds.
As we approached the top, my friend pointed to a different shade of yellow. There were wild sunflowers, brought here by the French in the early 20th century and since then an integral part of the beauty of Gia Lai. Bushes with the beautiful flowers stood next to majestic Gia Rai houses.
We stopped the vehicle and walked 10 minutes to the peak of the inactive volcano. Inside the crater were sweet potatoes and wild sunflower plants that created a colorful mosaic.
The scene was breathtakingly beautiful.
I stood there the whole day watching the flowers as if I could never see them again. As time passed the late afternoon sun painted an irresistable picture. Oh, how I longed to stay there!
The following days I went to Phu Cuong Waterfall in Chu Se District, an hour’s drive from Pleiku, and on a tour of Op Village of the ethnic E De in Pleiku, and Stor Village in Kbang District – the birthplace of Dinh Nup (hero Nup), a Central Highlands revolutionary hero, and saw the Central Highlands Gong Festival, the region’s most important cultural event.
I made a promise to myself to return in future, not once, but many times.
Gia Lai still had many mysteries to be discovered.