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Vietnamese student recalls way back home from Covid-19 hotspot


On March 8, Ngoc Linh’s brother called and convinced her to return to Vietnam, which she had been hesitating to do. When the lockdown was announced and northern Italy was isolated, she started feeling very apprehensive.

She immediately booked a ticket through Dubai for $740, double the usual price. “I had not planned to leave initially because I believed I could protect myself. But I returned because I wanted to put my family at ease.”

During her 36 hours en route she was filled with trepidation and wore two masks, replacing them every six hours. She cleaned her hands with sanitizer every 15 minutes, and each time she went to the restroom she washed three times with soap.

On board the aircraft, she disinfected every inch around her seat, never took off her masks and skipped meals.

When she transited in Dubai, a medical officer took a nose swab from her to test for the novel coronavirus, and she had mixed feelings, both worried about getting stuck in the UAE and knowing she did not want to carry Covid-19 to Vietnam.

She had to wait for 21 hours for her test result. No one called out her name on the public address system, and she was allowed to board.

When they set foot in Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport, Linh and the nine other passengers on board were whisked away for a health examination because they had come from Italy, a Covid-19 hotspot.

After that, they were all allowed to eat.

“Oh my god, the banh mi with egg and pork was so good that I thought food from any three-star Michelin restaurant owned by Gordon Ramsay could not compare with it.”

Before returning she had been worried she would face a stigma about coming from a pandemic hotspot, but she was wrong: Everybody was caring, making her feel she was on a 14-day vacation when being in the quarantine.

Linh is preserving memories of that “vacation” by taking photos inside her quarantine facility and drawing on them.

In them she describes her time in the quarantine. When she is hungry, she can ask someone to buy food from the outside. 

Every morning a man wearing a blue shirt comes to her room, wakes her up and asks her if she feels alright, Linh said.

The quarantine facility where Linh is staying. Photo courtesy of Ngoc Lnh.

The facility where Linh is quarantined. Photo courtesy of Ngoc Linh.

“If you have any problem, I’ll come right away…,” he has told her. He is a medical officer responsible for keeping a watchful eye on people in the quarantine.

Linh plays games and works on some online courses at her university. It will be another week before Linh is allowed to return home to her family. 

Vietnam has had 91 patients so far, of whom 74 are undergoing treatment and the remaining 17 have recovered.

In Italy, the death toll has climbed to over 4,000, more than in China, and morgues are running out of space.





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When sardines dot a beach in central Vietnam


Le Ngoc Hanh untangles the last few remaining fish from the net.

“The sardines season starts in February and lasts until May. My boat heads out around 4 a.m. and returns at 8 a.m. There are three of us and we manage to catch around 200 to 300 kg of sardines each day, earning VND4 million ($170),” said Hanh.





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Midnight mission: Passengers taken to Hanoi quarantine facility


Two buildings had been converted into quarantine zones with 500 rooms for around 4,000 people. In each building, the kitchen is placed on the 1st floor while the 2nd and 3rd serve as rooms for officers and staff. The remaining 16 floors with 252 rooms will be house quarantined residents.





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Worry, stress and fears: Vietnamese in Spain struggle with Covid-19


“I was extremely worried that my husband’s nephew was confirmed Covid-19 positive, though the doctor asked him to remain isolated at home,” Tran Thi Thu Thuy, a resident of Madrid, told VnExpress.

The 40-year-old nephew doesn’t live in the same house with Thuy’s family. He had his Covid-19 test carried out last week and worked normally while awaiting results.

Doctors in Spain said anyone showing mild symptoms of Covid-19 infection need only take paracetamol to reduce fever and follow general guidelines. The hospital was only for severe cases.

Spain was one of the worst-hit countries by the Covid-19 pandemic outside mainland China, with over 18,000 infections and 837 fatalities as of Friday. The country also became the second largest Covid-19 hub in Europe, after Italy, prompting the Spanish government to shut its land borders to contain the spread.

Since March 14, the country has been under lockdown after a state of emergency was declared. All residents must stay at home except when going out to buy food, medicine or attend work or visit hospital. All entertainment activities are suspended and those violating regulations could be fined hundreds of dollars.

Thuy believed the lockdown highlighted the seriousness of the disease.

Spanish eventually stood apart in public but rarely used face masks. However, the number of commuters taking the subway remained the same as usual. Most people still have to work.

Thuy registered to buy face masks and dry hand sanitizer several days ago, but remains waiting for her delivery.

She grew alarmed when learning criminals posing as Spanish Ministry of Health officials were entering homes with the purposes of robbing them.

Also stuck in Madrid, Nguyen Phuong Thao said she felt very stressed with the rapid spread of Covid-19, forcing the government to mobilize the army to apply its anti-epidemic campaign.

Thao said the increasing number of Covid-19 infections in Spain resulted in the gathering of crowds. 

Besides, people could easily travel from one Schengen state to another in the absence of borders. The Schengen area is a border control-free zone comprising 26 European countries

Thao observed the first cases in Spain were those traveling from Italy, the second largest outbreak hub in the world after mainland China and the largest in Europe.

Recently, supermarkets in Madrid became overcrowded, forcing Thao to queue up for ages in order to buy the bare necessities.

For many, the Covid-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on livelihoods.

Thuy’s nail salon is empty and had no customers. She spent most of her time looking after her children and kept her home clean, waiting for the threat to lessen.

“I didn’t go out to avoid infection. The lockdown is for that purpose,” Thuy said. She hopes the Spanish government would close all offices, allowing workers to work remotely to contain the disease.

Thao, who organizes tours, received many cancelations. The most recent case were three tours to Vietnam, including a delegation of 30 people. “My job is seriously affected but I have to accept it, because it’s a general situation,” she noted.

In Granada, the famous tourist city in southern Spain, Nguyen Tran Trung said he was quite surprised when the government imposed a nationwide blockade. “I didn’t think the disease would become so dangerous and serious.”

At the hotel where Trung is employed, bookings have been few and far between during a normally peak period. He worries the local economy “would crumble.”

Tourism, considered a major source of income, which helped Spain to cope with previous economic crises, is suffering heavy losses due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Beaches, shopping centers and outdoor leisure activities are all shut down.

Compared to some Vietnamese friends, Thao feels “more fortunate to be living inher husband’s house.” Some Vietnamese students lost part-time jobs because many restaurants closed, while still paying rent. Their health insurance does not cover costs related to the disease.

Meanwhile, immigrants waiting for an official residence card have been denied, although they had to work hard to complete the process, she added.

Thao said Spanish also faced many difficulties. People on long-term contracts can take paid leave, but seasonal workers are forced to find other jobs to cover living expenses. Many are still dealing with debts related to the 2008 crisis.

And for many Vietnamese in Spain, the journey back home is also a challenge since the European Union closed all borders for 30 days starting from Wednesday while Vietnam Airlines, the only carrier in Vietnam with direct flights to European countries like England, Germany and France, is set to suspend all international operations until the end of April.





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Restaurant employs drone delivery to enforce social distancing


A restaurant in Hanoi’s Thanh Xuan District, scored lots of attention recently for using drone food delivery.

Nguyen Duc Son, owner, said: “Due to the complicated development of the novel coronavirus, people are practicing social distancing when heading outside, especially at busy restaurants. So I came up with the idea of using a drone to deliver bread, hoping this would ease people’s anxiety when eating out.”





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Safety or livelihood? Coronavirus poses dilemma to bus, taxi drivers


Nguyen Kim Chi, a taxi driver in Ho Chi Minh City, had a passenger from Tan Son Nhat International Airport on March 18.

After getting into the car, she tried to keep a close eye on the passenger as she drove to a hotel in District 1.

The man was on his phone, leaning forward sometimes to talk.

She recalls: “I could not see his face clearly because he was wearing a mask. He coughed twice but looked healthy.”

Her rule now is that passengers have to sit in the back seat to reduce close contact.

Chi, 35, is one of thousands of taxi and bus drivers in Vietnam facing the risk of contracting the new coronavirus as they go about their livelihood.

A taxi driver waits for his customer in the coastal town of Nha Trang. Photo by Shutterstock/Busurmanov.

A taxi driver waits for his customer in the coastal town of Nha Trang. Photo by Shutterstock/Busurmanov.

Drivers are especially vulnerable since they are in close contact with strangers every day without knowing if they are carrying the deadly virus.

As the driver of a tourist bus between Hanoi and Ha Long Bay in northern Quang Ninh Province, Nguyen Thanh Tung meets and speaks with dozens of tourists every day, most of them foreigners.

Since the disease came to Vietnam, he has never been at ease and taken measures to protect himself from infection.

Last week when several tourists on a Vietnam Airlines flight who had been to Ha Long and later tested positive for the virus, Tung decided to stop transporting foreigners immediately.

“Who knows if the people I carry are infecting the virus.”

On March 7 a chauffeur in Hanoi was diagnosed with the virus after contracting it from his employer who was returning from Europe. Before testing positive, the driver had been to several places in Hanoi, and so dozens of people he met have had to be quarantined.

Many drivers feared they were on the frontlines of the pandemic. On a Facebook group for drivers of a ride-hailing service in Saigon, many have asked how to recognize a Covid-19 patient and how to protect themselves.

Hoang Thanh Hung, a taxi driver is Saigon, said, “I reuse my medical masks and I have stopped picking up passengers from the airport since the beginning of this week.”

When people are rushing into the shopping spree, many bus and taxi drivers cannot buy protective gear such as face masks and gloves, making it harder for them to avoid infection while at work.

Others clean and disinfect their vehicles more often to reduce the risk.

“A full-time bus driver like me can come into contact with hundreds of people every day,” Nguyen Trong Binh, a bus driver in Saigon’s District 12, said. He sprays sanitizers on his seat and steering wheel every hour, “which is never enough.”

Many drivers are also afraid of being quarantined in case they come into contact with a suspected patient since it would severely hit their livelihood.

Le Hai in Hanoi has experience of this. Most of his clients are flight attendants of a carrier with its headquarters just next to Hai’s house.

He said: “I got a call from one of my regular passengers last Friday saying a hostess had tested positive and the carrier’s flight attendants office was being disinfected. Most people I transport are from that place, so I could be F3.”

His company has advised him to stay at home instead of going to work for 14 days. “Two weeks without earnings … Self-quarantining is a burden,” he lamented.

Economic pain

As more and more cases of Covid-19 are being diagnosed, people have been advised to adopt social distancing to contain the spread of the virus.

Many people avoid going out due to fear of contracting the disease, taxi and bus drivers are also seeing a slump in demand for their services.

“I would typically have 30 trips a day before the pandemic, now it is less than 10,” taxi driver Truong Manh Cuong said while driving around Saigon’s District 10.

Apart from paying his bills, he also has to pay a monthly installment for his car.

According to the HCMC Taxi Association, the number of passengers in February was 3.6-4.5 million, a 50-60 percent year-on-year decline.

The taxi business in Hanoi has also been hit, according to Nguyen Cong Hung, deputy director of the Vietnam Auto Transport Association. Several transport firms have seen profits fall by half from same period last year while the number of passengers is falling by 15-18 percent every week.

Many are uncertain about whether to stick to their job or find an alternative one since the situation is worsening with authorities in Hanoi and HCMC ordering all amusement places to shut down.

“I have stopped working at night and will resume when everything is back to normal,” Cuong said.

Inter-provincial buses waiting for passengers at a station in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Anh Duy.

Inter-provincial buses waiting for passengers at a station in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Anh Duy.

The falling tourist numbers is leaving bus drivers like Nguyen Van Thuong in Hanoi high and dry. He plies on the route from Hanoi to the northern mountain town of Sapa, and said the number of daily passengers has dropped by up to 70 percent since the first novel coronavirus case was confirmed in the capital on March 6.

Trinh Hoai Nam, deputy director of Hanoi’s Nuoc Ngam Bus Station, said most operators have cut their trips from Hanoi to other northern localities by 30-50 percent, leaving drivers with low incomes.

The circumstances will remain since the number of foreign arrivals in the country in February fell 22 percent year-on-year to 1.2 million, and industry insiders expect things to worsen as Vietnam has suspended issuance of visas to all foreigners.

“Since last week no one wants to go to Sapa,” Thuong said, referring to a tourist to Sapa who was infected, causing people to cancel their trips in apprehension.





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Go nuts at this homestay in Vinh Long


Putting a twist on the original design, pillars, beams, doors, and furniture are all built of coconut wood. According to Giac, the house alone required 1,700 coconut trees out of the 4,000 used for the homestay. The trees were over 50 years old.

The Mekong Delta is one of the country’s largest coconut-growing areas.





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Covid-19 freezes Vietnamese showbiz – VnExpress International


In HCMC, all cinemas and theaters, among other public venues, will be closed until the end of March.

Representatives of cinema chains Galaxy, BHD and CGV have stated they would refund money, in cash or via online payment, to customers who have purchased advanced tickets.

Besides its cinema complexes in HCMC, South Korean CGV has also closed its Hanoi multiplex at Trang Tien Plaza, plus four others in northern Quang Ninh Province. Since March 17, the National Cinema Center in Hanoi has also been closed. 

In affected localities throughout Vietnam such as Hanoi, Hue, HCMC and Binh Thuan Province, authorities have shut down vulnerable public spaces and suspended entertainment activities.

Vietnam has recorded 85 Covid-19 cases across 15 cities and provinces, of this 69 has been confirmed since March 6 after the country going 22 days without a new infection.    

With public venues and activities curtailed, people working in entertainment are taking a hit.

For the past week, cinema visits have dropped, dragging down domestic box office revenues. At one premiere screening of Hollywood action flick “Bloodshot” starring Vin Diesel on March 10, audience turnout was just a third of what could have been expected without the new coronavirus.  

Audience turnout at Hanoi’s National Cinema Center in the first two months of this year dropped by about 40 percent and revenues, by 37 percent compared to the same period last year. At BHD muliplexes, revenues had also plummeted by 50-90 percent.    

After “Bi Mat Cua Gio” (Secrets of the Wind), the first Vietnamese movie to be postponed for screening in February, two other local films, “Chi Muoi Ba: Ba Ngay Sinh Tu” (Sister Thirteen: Three Deadly Days) and “Trang Ti” (Dr. Ti), have also been pulled from cinemas.  

With the exception of “Gai Gia Lam Chieu 3” (The Royal Bride), Vietnamese movies released during the Lunar New Year holiday (Tet) in late January also recorded modest revenues, unable to hit new box office heights as typical for this season.  

Worldwide, the movie industry is estimated to have lost at least $5 billion due to the  Covid-19 outbreak. In China, South Korea, Italy and India, cinemas have been closed and many entertainment events cancelled.

Global screenings of American blockbusters like “Fast & Furious 9”, “Mulan”, “A Quiet Place 2” and “No Time to Die” have all been rescheduled.

In Vietnam, the theater business isn’t doing any better. According to actor Thanh Loc from Idecaf Stage, the only drama troupe in HCMC still operational as of March 14, his venue closed down too, cancelling two plays, “Ac Nhan Coc” (The Cave of Evil) and “Muu Ba Tu” (Madam Tu’s Scheme) scheduled for the March 15th.

For Vietnamese artists, the novel coronavirus has taken a toll since Tet. “I’ve never seen such a meager turnout,” singer Thanh Duy recently told local media while referring to two Tet programs he took part in.

Though rigidly-scheduled contracted programs such as TV game shows still proceed as usual, many artists say music shows and plays have been either cancelled or re-scheduled.

Singer Thanh Duy, actress Cat Tuong and MC Quoc Binh say that basically, they haven’t been working since Tet.

For his part, singer Dan Truong had 12 shows cancelled in February, singer Erik had eight shows cancelled, and singer Bich Phuong had to delay her first live concert ever, scheduled for February 22.

For the past month, singer Quang Ha has had 21 shows cancelled, and bolero diva Le Quyen has also cancelled all of her March shows in the U.S.

According to singer Viet Tu, his income this season had dropped by as much as 90 percent compared to previous years. Artist Hoai Anh, director of a cultural event organizer, told local media since Tet, her company had ditched about 30 shows, losing tens of billions of dong (VND10 billion = $427,000).

An outpouring of frustration

Despite their willingness to slow down activities to help prevent the new coronavirus spread, many Vietnamese artists can’t help feeling sad and frustrated.

Vietnamese American artists such as southern folk opera singer Ngoc Huyen laments via her Facebook page how she missed rehearsing and prays for the outbreak to end.

For her part, singer Minh Tuyet writes that never before had she felt so nervous. If the show-less situation dragged on for the next several months, Minh Tuyet says she may have to sing at home and open a YouTube channel to earn her daily bread.

Here in Vietnam, singer Tuan Hung has also thought about performing online, posting a survey to ask if people are willing to pay a small fee to listen to his live streams. 

In a half-joking gesture, MC Quyen Linh, dubbed “Vietnam’s richest MC”, has even turned to selling cleaning products like hand and dish washing liquid online. 

Other artists have found more simple ways to fill up their time. Some have opted to stay indoors and record songs and shoot MVs to prepare for new releases when the outbreak subsides.

Others see these days as an opportunity to spend time on themselves and their families. Singer Thanh Duy for instance plans to carry out the personal plans he couldn’t execute earlier because of a hectic schedule.

Singer Nguyen Ngoc Anh finds joy in taking care of her two daughters, and singer Pham Phuong Thao, her orchard in the suburbs.





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Gia Lai charm of the Central Highlands


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.

It is famed for its long history and ancient culture that are closely intertwined with its ethnic minorities, especially Gia Rai and Ba Na.

A road lined with pine trees in Gia Lai. Photo by Ho Hai.

A road lined with pine trees in Gia Lai. Photo by Ho Hai.

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 stomache with all the snacks I could find, all exceptionally cheap. A bowl of fresh fruits cost only VND15,000 ($0.7).

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.

Ancient pagoda Buu Minh.

Ancient pagoda Buu Minh.

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.

An arial view of Chu Dang Ya volcano. Photo by Nguyen Tan Kan.

Wild sunflowers bloom on Chu Dang Ya mountain. Photo by Ho Hai.

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 Town, and Stơr Village in Kbang District, the birth place of 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.

Phu Cuong waterfall in Chu Se. Photo by Xu Kien.

Phu Cuong waterfall in Chu Se. Photo by Xu Kien.

*Before travelling to Gia Lai

Transport

-Motorcycles: Ideal way to enjoy the scenery on both sides of the road. Motorcycles are available for rented in both Hanoi and HCMC. The Ho Chi Minh Highway should be much less crowded than National Highway 1A. But be careful on sharp mountain turns, which could be dangerous. Also, once you reach the Central Highlands, as roads cross many steep ravines, slowing down is a good idea.

-Coaches: A good way if you do not enjoy traveling by motorbike. From Sai Gon, you can take buses operated by Thuan Tien, Phong Phu and Phuong Thu. The fare is VND400,000 ($17) for the 12-hour trip. From Hanoi, the most popular buses are Thuan Y, Thien Trung, Van Nam, and Long Van, and they charge VND600,000 ($26) for the 26-hour journey.

Lodging

There are many hotels here, but few homestays. I would recommend the Phuot Pleiku Coffee – Homestay, for some authentic living experiences with locals.

Food

The food in Gia Lai is splendid, with many specialties such as dry noodles, bamboo-shaft rice and dried beef. It is the coffee capital of Vietnam, and so it is heaven if you are a coffee lover.

Weather

You can expect consistently cool weather in Gia Lai Province. Carrying a light jacket is recommended since it could get cold in the early morning.

Ideal time for a visit

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 months in between are best avoided if you do not like tropical storms.

How many days?

One should stay here here for three to five days since the long distances take significant travelling time.

Festivals

Gia Lai has many ethnic festivals. You can see the Central Highlands Gong Festival, which usually takes place at the end of November to promote the region’s Gong culture, a UNESCO-recognised heritage.

Travel destinations

There is a long list of amazing destinations in Gia Lai. Some places I did not have the opportunity to visit are Thac Ba Lake, Ham Rong Mountain, Xung Khoeng Waterfall, Kon Jang Rang National Reserve, Kon Ka Kinh National Park, and Minh Thanh Pagoda.

*Xu Kien, 28, is from the central province of Quang Ngai and lives in Saigon. She travels around Vietnam and writes books and a travel blog.





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Gia Lai, little known gem of Central Highlands


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.

T’Nung Lake, 7 km northwest of Pleiku. Photo by Xu Kien.

T’Nung Lake, 7 km northwest of Pleiku. Photo by Xu Kien.

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.

A road lined with pine trees in Gia Lai. Photo by Ho Hai.

A road lined with pine trees in Gia Lai. Photo by Ho Hai.

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.

Ancient pagoda Buu Minh.

Ancient pagoda Buu Minh. Photo by Ho Hai.

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.

Phu Cuong waterfall in Chu Se. Photo by Xu Kien.

Phu Cuong waterfall in Chu Se District. Photo by Xu Kien.

*Before traveling to Gia Lai

Transport

-Motorcycles: Ideal way to enjoy the scenery on both sides of the road. Motorcycles are available for rented in both Hanoi and HCMC. The Ho Chi Minh Highway should be much less crowded than National Highway 1A. But be careful on sharp mountain turns, which could be dangerous. Also, once you reach the Central Highlands, as roads cross many steep ravines, slowing down is a good idea.

-Coaches: A good way if you do not enjoy traveling by motorbike. From Sai Gon, you can take buses operated by Thuan Tien, Phong Phu and Phuong Thu. The fare is VND400,000 ($17) for the 12-hour trip. From Hanoi, the most popular buses are Thuan Y, Thien Trung, Van Nam, and Long Van, and they charge VND600,000 ($26) for the 26-hour journey.

Lodging

There are many hotels here, but few homestays. I would recommend the Phuot Pleiku Coffee – Homestay, for some authentic living experiences with locals.

Food

The food in Gia Lai is splendid, with many specialties such as dry noodles, bamboo-shaft rice and dried beef. It is the coffee capital of Vietnam, and so it is heaven if you are a coffee lover.

Weather

You can expect consistently cool weather in Gia Lai Province. Carrying a light jacket is recommended since it could get cold in the early morning.

Ideal time for a visit

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 months in between are best avoided if you do not like tropical storms.

How many days?

One should stay here here for three to five days since the long distances take significant travelling time.

Festivals

Gia Lai has many ethnic festivals. You can see the Central Highlands Gong Festival, which usually takes place at the end of November to promote the region’s Gong culture, a UNESCO-recognised heritage.

Travel destinations

There is a long list of amazing destinations in Gia Lai. Some places I did not have the opportunity to visit are Thac Ba Lake, Ham Rong Mountain, Xung Khoeng Waterfall, Kon Jang Rang National Reserve, Kon Ka Kinh National Park, and Minh Thanh Pagoda.

*Xu Kien, 28, is from the central province of Quang Ngai and lives in Saigon. She travels around Vietnam and writes books and a travel blog.





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