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Central Highlands Travel

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About 120km east of Ho Chi Minh City, the country's main road artery Highway One becomes a narrow ribbon, winding along the coast between a range of mountains and the South China Sea. The range is called the Central Highlands and the foot¬hills here are covered with coffee and tea planta¬tions and towering conifer forests. From Dalat north to Kontum through Buon Me Thuot and Pleiku this is ideal trekking country. The area is transected by rock-filled rivers and streams, and the plateaus contain many picturesque lakes and reservoirs. The hills are highest around Dalat where the pine-clad slopes are reminiscent of the mountains of southern France — which probably explains why the French moved the centre of their colonial administration to the town. The villages around Dalat are well spread out, with at least a day's trek between them. Within a few kilometres of Dalat you can lose yourself on the myriad trails through the pine forest to remerge in a fertile valley farmed by a minority tribe. A guide is essential for anything longer than a day's stroll. In most areas, in fact the guide and permit are required by the authorities but both can be easily arranged at minimal cost by tourist agencies in town. The guides and permits are the legacy of the Vietnam War. The people of the minority hill tribes such as the Red Zao and Black Hmong – were used as guides by American Soldiers.

Treks can last up to a week four days is more common. Accommodation ranged either in mountain villages or tents. The rain around Buon Me Thuot, is flatter and more widely populated we 20 north you trek, the stricter the aurolm about enforcing the requirement that you have both guides and permits.

Dalat is also unique in being home to Vietnam's paragliding location. The treeless summit of Mount Lang Bian (2163m) is used for take-off and Ire area below, which is clear of overhead wires, offers a wide choice of paddy fields for soft landings. Piots have soared to heights of 3000m but modest most country flights are more usual. If you're a sully licensed enthusiast you can bring your own oaraglider and licence then pay a US$5 for an official permit, or hire one of Sikico's paragliders. Tandem flights are also available when Sikico's French owner is in town.

The best months for flying are November through to July. For hikers, it is worth knowing that the rainy season in the Central highlands —April to September is shorter than that in the south, and the tem¬peratures are cooler, frequently dropping below 20degC in December and January.

The central coast
The central portion of Vietnam's 3000km seaboard, a coastal strip that is narrowed by the imposing high¬lands, offers some stunning scenery: the road be¬tween Hue and Danang is justly described as one of the most spectacular in the country. Heading north up the coast, the beaches have a gentler slope mak¬ing surfing conditions significantly better. The two main centres of activity on the central coast are Nha Trang to the south and Danang to the north. Both towns offer a choice of accommodation from five star down to dormitory. Danang was a major R&R centre for US forces during the Vietnam War and home to their famous Surf Club at China Beach. The town itself is not very attractive, nor convenient for the beach, but hotels such as the Furama's five-star resort, which has recently opened on China Beach itself, are making access to this watersports playground much easier. Just south of Danang, the beautifully preserved old trading port of Hoi An, which also has a fine beach, could serve as a tranquil base for trips to the area.

It is possible to go diving from both Nha Trang and Danang. The dive sites accessed from Nha Trang are on the seaward side of five offshore islands. There's black and pink coral, and acropora tables at depth of 5m. Visibility averages 10m, and larger life includes moray, barracuda, rays and there are three dive operations in town: with instructor's tickets and one by a Vietnamese who is a qualified dive leader. There is also an oceanographic research ves¬sel, the Vasco, whose owner plans to convert the ship into a liveaboard once he can pursuade the authorities to give him a licence. In the mean¬time the vessel supplies gear to one of the local dive operators.

The regular dive site in Danang is offshore from Monkey Mountain. Depths vary from 3-10m, making it an ideal location for beginners and inexperienced divers. The German-run operation Diana Diving can supply all equipment and courses. Diana Diving is also expecting to be issued with a licence to dive Cham Island which lies off Danang. Because Cham is in a military zone, the island and surrounding coral have been protected from dynamite fishing and heavy traffic, and Diana Diving believes there is a strong possibility of discovering Japanese and US wreck¬age from the wars. Local fishermen also claim there is evidence of older Chinese shipwrecks in the area. There are coral gardens and a drop off to 60m. If the licence is issued — check in advance — discovery diving will be on the menu.

China Beach, host to the first — and so far only — professional surfing contest held in Vietnam in 1993, regularly gets 2-3m waves from August until mid December, especially when a typhoon is in the area. As yet there is nowhere to rent boards only bodyboards are available for hire and the surfing community is limited to a few expatriates. Watersports centres in Nha Trang and Danang have catamarans and dinghies for hire and the islands facing them are good destinations for day trips. Those who do not want to rely on the wind can arrange to take a ketch or speed-boat from Action and Adventure, based at the Ana Mandara Hotel, to one of the secluded is¬land beaches owned by the company. Action and Adventure offers a broad choice of activities, both at sea and on land. The enthusiastic Belgian manager runs a selection of local trips which are a little out of the ordinary, such as exploring the area's rivers equipped with little more than a hammock and mos¬quito net for a camp.

There is potential for boardsailing in Danang, though you'll have to bring your own gear. Nha Trang enjoys a regular afternoon onshore thermal which can get up to Force Six. Medium and long boards are available for hire, and lessons are offered by a French UCPA instructor at Rainbow Watersports in Nha Trang. Around Nha Trang, typhoons are most likely to arrive from October to December. In the area around Danang they can break in as early as July but rarely hit after November. Hue, the ancient capi¬tal of Vietnam, which could be taken as the dividing point between north and central Vietnam, is pretty much washed out between September and Decem¬ber. February to April is probably the best — and driest — time to visit this area.

The north
The countryside around the capital, Hanoi, is split by the Red River and its delta. But unlike the Mekong delta, which is relatively flat, the landscape here is dominated by spectacular karst pillars. In Halong Bay —which was recently declared a World Heritage Site —there are more than 3000 of them, stretching 30 Km ¬out to sea.

The northwest is home to Vietnam's wild landscapes, roughest roads and some of its most beautiful vistas of paddy fields nestling in mountain hollow.

A sea-kayaking trip round Halong Bay is an unforgettable experience; from the smiles and laughter of the children who live in the floating villages. to the sudden, towering limestone karst pinnacles sticking straight out of the water. Many of the rocky outcrops form islets within which lie enchanting lagoons accessible only by kayak

Mount Fansipan - which at 3134m is the highest peak in Vi¬etnam - can be climbed in a few days. You can stay in villages en route. And if the season is right - the best time is between April and July - the views can be spectacular. The main base for trekkers is Sapa, within easy strik¬ing distance of Fansipan. The town is another French colonial retreat-from-the-heat similar to Dalai - although it suffered heavy damage in the 1979 war with China. Each weekend, Sapa has a colourful market minorities' market which, since it has be¬come extremely popular with big-spending, camera-toting tour¬ists, has inspired similar makets in other nearby villages.

Trekking permit requirements are less strict here than in the Central Highlands, but to get the best out of even a small-scale expedition it is wise to hire a guide, especially if you intend to go out into remoter areas up by the Laotian and Chinese border. The local population is predominantly Montagnard, and arranging accommodation and food in the villages is not difficult. Guides can be found through Hanoi or Sapa tour operators. One delightful and incredibly informative character, who can be contacted via Exotissimo Travel in Hanoi, is a retired North Viet¬namese Army officer who spent 45 years fighting in¬vaders all over the country. Like any good soldier, he knows the ground. You will generally find that whichever agency you approach, they will be happy help you plan and execute a trip to less frequented areas - not least because they want to find out as much as possible for future tours.

From Hanoi it is possible to organize a jeep expedition along what has become know as the Dien Bien Phu loop, which sweeps around the northwest border region via the infamous battle¬field. This takes at least one week and includes passing through Sapa where you can give your legs a workout over the surrounding mountains. The road surface varies along the way from French-built tarmac to dirt track, and there are countless offshoots to explore. Self-drive is available or you can hire a driver with the car, but be prepared for a hard sell to have a translator join you as well. As one rental man¬ager in Hanoi put it: "None of my drivers can speak English, and none of my English speakers can drive. Take your pick"

Halong Bay
Legend has it that a pack of dragons once came down to the sea at the coast east of Hanoi to help fight off some northern invaders. To commemorate the event, the place was named Halong ("Descending Dragon") Bay and the 3000 karst islets dot¬ted around it are said to be all that remains of the mythical beasts. The limestone crags which rise out of the sea are one of the most spectacular sights in all Vietnam. From a hazy distance they seem to form a solid jagged coastline of low lying mountains. As you draw nearer, the spaces between the pillars materialize and suddenly you are in amongst a maze of water and rock, surrounded on all sides by the sentinels of the sea. Many of the karsts have been named by local residents who often cannot read charts, and navigate the bay entirely by memory. As you pass by rocks with names like "Buddha Praying", "Toad Islet" and "Fight¬ing Cock Rock", it is easy to see why.

Vietnam's 3000km-long coastline is dotted with beautiful, quiet beaches, bays and tiny islands.

Boats from nearby Bay Chai and Hong Gai run between the islands and can be chartered for independent trips There are sea cage entrances sudden at Toe foot of precipitous cliffs. and some of them 1ead, onto secret lagoons in the heart of the islands The cliffs are ideal for rock. An American group recently put up some routes the story was covered by National Geographic and there are hundred more to discover that can be reached by chartered boat.

As yet it is not possible to hire a kayak on the spot - you have to go as par, of a tour - but considering the logistics of getting out to the to interesting offshore sites would be better off joining a group for the trip. There are two operators currently offering commercial sea kayaking trips in Halong Bay. American operator Sobek Mountain Travel, with the help of Vietnam based Vidotours, organizes kayaking expeditions to the more distant and less frequented islands where sandy coves entice you ashore. With a support junk you can travel for days exploring the sea passages and grottoes among the islands. SeaCanoe also of¬fer regular four to 14-day trips around Halong Bay. starting from Hanoi. They also run sea kayaking trips combined with trekking around the Chinese border area.

One hundred kilometres south of Hanoi is the "Inland Halong Bay" at Ninh Binh where - reminis¬cent of Guilin in China - karst pillars rise out of the paddy fields. Again there are caves to be explored and good potential for rock climbing.

The timing of a trip to the north, like everywhere else in Vietnam is dictated, by the weather. The mate is defined by a cold, dry winter from November to March, and hot, wet summer until October. Bay tends to haze over in the winter.

Bicycling ... anywhere
Vietnam has become a very popular touring - partly because you always plenty of pedal-powered company. The whole country seems to move on two wheel although today petrol vehicles are becoming more popular. Many tour operators organize cycle tours, most commonly running between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The tedious leg between Hanoi and Hue is usually covered by train, then you ride down highway one from Hueto Ho Chi Minh (or the reverse) with sorties into the central Highlands. The stretch of raod from Hue to Danang has breathtaking views of sweeping beaches, and lagoons where fishing nets are suspended like coral tables above the water, ready to be dropped when the tide is right. Clouds shroud the forested shoulders of the coastal hills like epaulettes, or drift down the gullies like misty mountain streams. And wherever you go in Vietnam the road is lined with an immediate and ever changing tapestry of local life farmers knee deep in rice, boys searching for frogs in the paddy fields women chewing betel nut and gossiping on doorsteps.

Practicalities

Getting There
Its becoming much easier to fly to Vietnam, especially from the major cities of Southeast Asia. The choice of international carriers is increasing, as are the number of Vietnam Airlines flights, particularly from Hong Kong and Bangkok, which are the most common hubs. At the moment inbound flights only and at Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi, but it is quite possible that direct flights to Danang. will start soon. Overland crossings from China (two) and Laos and Cambodia (one each) are also open. However, when using them you must have a visa which speci¬fies your entry or exit point. It's now possible to take a four-day train journey from Hong Kong trough China to Vietnam.

Visas and paperwork
Tourist visas, valid for one month, are readily available from-embassies, consulates and through vizas official tourist agencies around the world. The worst cases they can take up to four weeks process. In Hong Kong or Bangkok they gener¬ally take one week. You must nominate your entry and exit point although exits can be altered for a fee once you are in Vietnam. On arrival you have to fill out a comprehensive entry/exit card and customs declaration. It is vital that you safeguard these during your stay because you will need to present them as you depart. It's also a good idea to carry photocopies of your passport and visa. All ho¬tels will want to keep your passport, or a copy, which can be awkward if you want to change money or hire a motorbike.

Getting around
Foreigners are charged a hefty premium on all forms of internal transport, from flights to cyclos. The only exception is metered taxis. Having said that domestic flights are not overly expensive and are easy to book with one days notice. Trains are slow and typhoons interrupt rail traffic near Hue. A cheap and easy way to get around is to use the minibuses arranged by the travellers cafes which you can find in all major cities and tourist soots. Four wheel drive vehicles and motor¬bikes are available for hire in major towns.

Accommodation
Only Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and the prime coastal resorts offer luxury accommodation, however budget accomodation in Vietnam is always clean. It is only recently that all hotels were allowed to ac¬cept foreigners, and a few may still refuse to take you in.

Money
The Vietnamese currency is the dong; currently 12,000 to US$1. A stock of small denomination US dollar bills comes in very handy for hotels and trans¬port, and saves you carrying bundles of dong. Apart from major hotels and travel agencies credit cards are not widely accepted.

Hazards
In spite of the fact that most of the country was a battlefield for 40 years, the danger of land-mines is limited. The only places where you really need to be wary are in the former "DMZ" battle sites such as Khe Sahn, or along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, most of which runs north to south across the borders of Laos and Cambodia.

When to go
Because Vietnam's seasons are climatically confused it is best to work out the main focal point of your trip and go when the weather is most suitable or move around the country with the good weather.

The Red River—the "red" colour is the result of heavy silt carried by the river — is the central waterway of the vast Red River Delta, home to 90 percent of the population of northern Vietnam

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