The name Pleiku is usually associated with the American war as one of the main theatres of operations. It was a North Vietnam Army attack on Pleiku that prompted Lyndon Johnson to authorise the ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’, a campaign of sustained heavy bombing. It was also the site of the war’s first conventional battle. When Buon Ma Thuot fell to the North Vietnam Army, the South Vietnam Army abandoned Pleiku, leaving it little more than a ruin.
After the war, it was rebuilt with USSR assistance, so it’s hardly surprising that it has all the charm of a Soviet gulag.
On the positive side, it has attractive countryside and some delightful homestay locations.
Pleiku is the provincial capital of Gia Lai province, about 50km south of Kon Tum and approximately 200km Quy Nhon and is linked to Ho Chi Minh City by regular Vietnam Airline flights. There’s a decent local hotel and some reasonable restaurants, but don’t expect an international menu.
Away the town, visitors can see the striking Phu Cuong waterfall, a single torrent plunging vertically a seething cauldron of water and spray at its base. In complete contrast, Plei Bloum village is a quiet settlement overlooking a broad, slow-moving river. The sunset across the valley the veranda of an ethnic homestay is a joy!
An interesting feature of the Gia Rai villages are their cemeteries. The tombs take the form of mini-houses surrounded by carved wooden effigies, often humorous and sometimes graphic depictions of stages of procreation. Plei Phun cemetery is a good example.
Life is gentle in the villages. You’ll be welcomed on all sides, and invited to join in local ceremonies and activities. As with the rest of the plateaux area, you’ll find the Gia Rai ethnic people of Plei Phun remarkably friendly, generous and undemanding.
The sweeping thatched roofs of the traditional ‘rong’ communal houses of the Ba Na people are one of the most distinguishing features of the Central Highlands. Standing inside and looking up, you’ll be amazed by the intricate lattice of supports that enable the roof to withstand strong winds.
The huge Bien Ho (Sea Lake) is the flooded crater of an ancient volcano. Although it’s an attractive location, it warrants only a brief visit because there’s not much else to do apart looking at the view. You might pause a little while to wonder why the water level hardly varies at all, despite the prolonged desiccating droughts that reduce the plateau to a dustbowl each spring.
It’s not worth bothering with the much-touted Yaly Falls. Once one of Vietnam’s most spectacular waterfalls, nearly all the water has been diverted to a hydro-electric power plant. It’s tempting to grumble about conservation, but it’s important to remember that Gia Lai is one of the poorest and sparsely populated provinces in the country, mainly because of its inadequate infrastructure. Electrification is bringing jobs.