Kon Tum’s relaxed ambience, river setting and relatively traffic-free streets make it a worthwhile stop for travellers intent on exploring the surrounding hill-tribe villages, of which there are 700 dotting the area. You’ll also find a few intriguing sights in town, and the accommodation options are good. If you’ve the choice, Kon Tum is a far better base than Pleiku or Buon Ma Thuot for exploring this part of the highlands.
The region saw its share of combat during the American War. A major battle between the South and North Vietnamese took place in and around Kon Tum in the spring of 1972, when the area was devastated by hundreds of American B-52 raids.
More recently, in the 2004 protests against government policies in the highlands, hill tribes in Kon Tum province clashed with police and soldiers. On the surface things have cooled off, but relations between the hill tribes and the authorities remain fraught.
There are several clusters of Bahnar villages on the periphery of Kon Tum. Village life here centres on the traditional rong house (nha rong), a tall thatched-roof community house built on stilts. The stilts were originally there to provide protection from elephants, tigers and other animals.
East of town Kon Tum Konam and Kon Tum Kopong each have rong houses. To the south is the village Kon Harachot and there are others to the west.
Generally the local people welcome tourists and it’s fine to wander around the village. But ask permission before pointing a camera into people’s faces or homes. You also probably won’t see people in traditional garb unless they’re on their way to Mass in the Bahnar language, held on Sunday nights at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral.
Guided day trips to villages are available from about 400,000d for a guide/motorbike driver, depending on the places visited. Permits are no longer required, but be on the safe side by checking in with Kon Tum Tourist before venturing off.
If you have time to spend several days here, Kon Tum Tourist can arrange village homestays. Because the guides are careful not to intrude too frequently on any one village, visitors are always welcomed and traditions remain intact.
(Ð Nguyen Hue) Built entirely from wood, this stunning cathedral from the French era has a dark frontage, sky-blue trim and wide terraces. Inside it’s light, airy and elegant, with incredible interlocking beams. Seating on all four sides faces a central altar. The heart of the 160-year-old Kon Tum diocese, it primarily serves the ethnic minority community, and the altar is bedecked in traditional woven fabrics.
Seminary & Hill-Tribe Museum MUSEUM
(Ð Tran Hung Dao; 8-11am & 2-4pm Mon-Sat) This lovely old Catholic seminary wouldn’t look out of place in a provincial French town. Built in 1934, it has a chapel with beautiful wood carvings and a ‘traditional room’ upstairs that functions as an unofficial museum of hill-tribe life and the Kon Tum diocese. You may have to ask one of the seminary residents to unlock the museum for you.
Family Hotel HOTEL $
( 060-386 2448; [email protected]; 55 & 61 Ð Tran Hung Dao; s/d US$15/18) The sign behind reception says ‘home sweet home’ and that’s a fitting summary of this excellent, family owned place. Bungalow-style rooms face a lovely garden at the rear.
( 060-224 0247; 160 Ð Nguyen Hue; s with fan 150,000d, r with air-con 200,000-300,000d) An excellent, family-run minihotel for dong-sensitive travellers. Rooms are very clean and have attractive furnishings, a fridge and TV. Staff speak a few words of English.
( 060-386 3335; www.indochinehotel.vn; 30 Ð Bạch Đằng; r 630,000-1,260,000đ) Right on the riverbank, this large concrete hotel’s spacious rooms have great views and all the mod cons. Prices include a breakfast buffet.
(168 Ð Nguyen Hue; mains 40,000-100,000d; 8am-10pm) Half-museum, half-restaurant, this atmospheric place has good Vietnamese and Western menus that include plenty of vegetarian choices. Its walls are festooned with tribal artefacts (masks, drums, gongs).
(58 Ð Phan Chu Trinh; hotpot 90,000d; 11am-9pm) All goat, all the time. Try it steamed (de hap), grilled (de nuong), sautéed (de xao lan), curried (de cari) or opt for the ever-popular hotpot (lau de).
(1 Ð Phan Chu Trinh; 7am-9pm) Very quirky neighbourhood cafe with lots of seating in log-cabin-like and treehouse-style spaces with tribal masks overhead. A nice place to unwind with a beer or coffee, as local couples have established.
Indochine Coffee CAFE, BAR
(30 Ð Bach Dang; 7am-10pm) A highly unexpected find in deepest Kon Tum province, this modernist cafe – concrete flooring shaded by artistically arranged bamboo pillars and roofing – is where the hipsters hang. Join them for a tea, coffee or beer.
BIDV ATM (1 Ð Tran Phu)
Highlands Eco Tours ( 060-391 2788; www.vietnamhighlands.com; 41 Ð Ho Tung Mau) Independently run travel company specialising in minority village trips, homestays in off-the-beaten-track communities, trekking and battlefield visits. From US$35 per day.
Kon Tum Tourist ( 060-386 1626; [email protected]; 2 Ð Phan Dinh Phung) Staff here can arrange tours to Bahnar and Jarai villages, including homestays.
Getting to the border The Bo Y/Phou Keau border crossing lies 86km northwest of Kon Tum and 119km northeast of Attapeu (Laos). From Pleiku bus station, Mai Linh buses leave daily at 6.30am for Attapeu (250,000d, seven hours), continuing to Pakse (420,000d, 11½ hours). Kon Tum Tourist can arrange for you to join the bus when it passes through Kon Tum at around 8.15am.
Crossing the border independently can be a challenge. On the Vietnam side, the nearest major town is Ngoc Hoi, which can be reached by bus from Kon Tum (34,000d, 1½ hours). You’ll have to catch a minibus from Ngoc Hoi to the border (12,000d, 30 minutes). On the Laos side, things are even quieter and you’ll be at the mercy of passing traffic to hitch a ride onwards.
At the border Vietnamese visas aren’t available at this border, but Lao visas are available for most nationalities (between US$30 and US$40).
Moving on Buses from Pleiku arrive in Attapeu around 1.30pm, where a free lunch is included as part of your fare if you’re travelling with Mai Linh. You’ll arrive in Pakse around 6pm.
Kon Tum’s bus station (279 Ð Phan Dinh Phung) has hustlers eager to sell you overpriced tickets, many working with bus conductors. There are very regular services to Pleiku (20,000d, one hour, every 30 minutes). For Danang (130,000d, seven hours, seven daily) try to catch one of the Mai Linh buses (at 7.30am and 3pm), which are well-maintained and don’t overcharge foreigners.
Kon Tum is easy to traverse on foot, but xe om (20,000d for a short ride) are in ready supply.