Marie Lecocq et Janusz Groth - 2011-05-09
Northeast of Ho Chi Minh City and far from its frenzied lifestyle, the high plateaus where Vietnam’s coffee and tea are grown have not yet been overrun by the influx of tourists.
It trickles through an aluminium filter drop by drop. Light years from the cafés of Rome or Paris where it takes longer to order an espresso than to drink it, Vietnamese coffee takes its sweet time as it drips into little glass cups. The result is so intense that even an Italian might find it a bit too strong. Here, coffee is taken den (black with sugar), sua (with condensed milk) or da (iced - the favourite); or even a blend of all three! Whichever it is, this nectar with strong overtones of chocolate and vanilla is best savoured slowly.
The story of Vietnam and coffee was written beginning in the 19C on the majestic high plateaus of the centre. The cultivation of Robusta coffee was introduced by the French colonists of the era; Vietnam is now the world’s number one producer of this black gold. Reminiscent of jasmine, the delicious fragrance of flowering coffee shrubs follows the visitor along each stage of an unforgettable journey. And at every halt, Vietnam’s best teas are served with meals, offered freely like water.
Between the coffee plantations, pepper farms, jungles and natural waterfalls, there is a succession of small cities and villages. As expected in a socialist republic, the outskirts of the high plateau towns are often Soviet-inspired. But further towards the interior, there might be a splendid wooden church, such as that of Kontum. Or perhaps an enormous market like at Buon Ma Thuot, where colourful grains and spices are displayed with spare parts of American military engines on one side and traditional fabrics and clothing on the other. In the small cafés of Dalat, French pop music and Laughing Cow cheese are retro reminders of France’s cultural influence. With coconut trees bordering its rice paddies, Lak Lake, located on a plateau surrounded by low mountains, is another enchanting sight. And, as always, there is a remarkable diversity of flora and fauna.
Vietnam on a plateau
This is a unique region in a country which has only been open to tourism for twenty years or so. Doused with Agent Orange and traumatised by conflict, its different ethnic groups - many of which are Catholic - have tried to go ‘back to normal’ now that the tragic events of war are behind them. While the high plateaus attract fewer tourists than the enchanting Mekong Delta or the stunning mountains of the north, the highlands offer a very different and more genuine image of Vietnam, even if here and there inhabitants have begun playing the ‘colourful ethnic’ card to the detriment of authenticity. Still a sensitive subject here, the minority populations of the high plateaus have the potential to attract great crowds of tourists.
This could be a windfall for the authorities, as in theory, at least, foreigners are not permitted to own their own means of transport (e.g. to buy used cars or bikes) and it is difficult for them to obtain driving permits. But in fact, the police are surprisingly indulgent with maverick drivers. In Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi there is a lively trade in smaller used motorcycles. And fortunately, for those who would rather not spend their holiday in a Vietnamese coach, there are alternative modes of transport that are perfectly legal.
One guide, two riders, one seat
Dalat, the green belt of the highlands, is where you will find large numbers of the tour guides called easy riders. We couldn’t really say who invented this efficient system where a two-wheeler is hired with a guide, but it seems to have begun in the 1990s. Recognizable thanks to their sleeveless blue jackets, there are easy riders at every street corner, all eager for your business. This is one of the best ways to discover the region, either at the handlebars of the motorcycle you’ve hired - recommended for expert bikers only - or as a passenger riding shotgun behind your guide. The goal, naturally, is to be able to access places that are off the classic tourist map. In addition, to visit some villages you need to be accompanied by a state-certified guide and to pay an entry fee at the local police station. Having a friendly helper can make such formalities much easier. In any case, this is a journey for adventure-loving travellers!