Kon Tum’s relaxed ambience. River setting and relatively traffic-free streets make it a worthwhile stop for travellers intent on exfloring the surrounding hill-tribe villages, of which there are 700 or so dotting the area - mostly Bahnar, but also Sedang and Jarai. You will also fine a few intruguing sign in town, and Kon Tum is a far better base than Pleiku for delving into indigenous culture.
The region saw it’s share of combat during the American War. A major battle between the South and the North Vietnam took place in and aroud in Kon Tum in the spring of 1972, when the area was devastated hundreds of American B-51 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 ( nha rong), a tall thatched-roof community house built on stilts. The rong is the focal point for festivals and doubles as a village meeting house and court. Rong roof typically have decorations on top, or even woven into them. The stilts were originally there to provide protection from elephants, tigers and other animals. The traditional houeses are also on stilts, with livestock residing underneath.
Further away are the more isolated Sedang villages and Jarai villages; the later still practice traditional customs, such as the feeding of the dead in the traditional cemeteries, as do the ‘Hilltop” Bahnar. The rest have converted to Catholicism, only bury their dead once and don’t ‘feed’ them.
Generally the local people welcome tourists and it’s fine to explore the villages around Kon Tum under your own steam. But ask permission before pointing a camera into people’s faces or homes.
Guided day trips to villages are available from about 500,000d for a guide/motorbike driver, depending on the places visited. Permits are included in the price and your guide has to notify a local police if you wan to stay in the village overnight.
It you have time to spend several days here, An Nguyen, Highlands Eco Tours and 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 it’s possible to participate in daily activities.
Five kilometres southeast of Kon Tum village of Kon Ktu is reachable across the suspension bridge and along a potholed road. There’s a beautiful rong here, near the Catholic church, and you can watch locals transporting crops along the river in rafts make of tyres.
This Jarai village, 17km from Kon Tum, has traditional cemeteries complete with wooden mourning figures If you’re lucky, you’ll see villagers ‘feeding’ the dead by putting food down bamboo tubes leading into the graves.
Six kilometres east of Kon Tum, this village has a small rong and you can observe tranquil riverside activities.
This village is west of Kon Tum; you can watch local boys swimming with the castle from the pastureland across the river.
Near the suspension bridge across the river you will find the large, immaculate rong is the village of Kon Klor
Kon Harachot’s beautiful rong sits next to the football field.
Kon Tum Konam
Near Kon Harachot, this village has a large and appealing rong
Kon Tum Kopong
You may see villagers weaving baskets out of bamboo along the streets of Kon Tum Kopong.
Immaculate conception cathedral (Nguyen Hue st. Down-dusk)
Built entirely from wood, this stunning cathedral from the French era has a dark frontage, yellow trim and wide terraces. Inside it’s light, airy and elegant, with incredible interlocking beams. Seating on all four sides faces the central altar, the heart ò 160-year-old Kon Tum diocese, it primarily servers the ethnic minority community, and the altar is bedecked in traditional woven fabrics. Local newlyweds tend to pose for photos on the steps.
Seminary & Hill-Tribe Museum( Tran Hung Dao st. 7:30-11am, 2-5pm, Closed Tue)
This lovely old Catholic seminary was built in 1934 and is fronted by a sculpture of Mary and baby Jesus; notice that Mary is carrying a Bahnar-style backpack and is dressed in traditional tribal patterns. The ‘traditional room’ upstairs functions as an absorbing museum of hill-tribe life and the Kon Tum diocese, with English description of rites and excellent examples of funerial ‘sorrow sculptures’, Jarai coffins, traditional weavings, gongs and other musical instruments, and fishing and hunting paraphernalia.
Eating & Drinking
Nem Ninh Hoa: (15 Tran Phu st. 11am-8pm)
The only thing this informal little serves are delicious nem nuong - roll-your-own spring rolls that incorporate Vietnamese pork sausage, green banana, cucumber, star fruit, assorted fresh herbs and lettuce.
Dakbla’s restaurant ( Nguyen Hue st. 8am-10pm)
Half-museum and restaurant, this atmospheric place has good Vietnamese and Western menus that include plenty of vegetarian choices. For the anthropologically inclined, its walls are the real attraction, festooned as they are with (mostly) Bahnar artefacts and some superb photos.
Eva Cafe (1 Phan Dinh Phuong st. 7am-9pm)
This neighbourhood cafe is a garden complete with totem poles, sculptures, tree house-style spaces with gongs hanging overhead and tribal-style masks. A nice place to unwind with a beer, a coffee, or a salted lemonade as you admire the works of local sculptor An.
Indochine Coffee (Bach Dang st. 7am - 10pm)
A highly unexpected find in deepest Kon Tum province, this modernist cafe, shade by artistically arranged bamboo pillars and roofing, is where the hipsters hang. Join them for a tea, ca phe sua da or iced-cold Sai Gon.
If you collect indigenous artefact, Kon Tum and the surrounding villages are good places to shop. Items may be cheaper in the villages, ther’s a better selaction overall in Kon Tum.
Shop ( Phan Dinh Phung st. 10am-8pm)
This nameless shop next to Dak Lak Hotel stocks some choice Sedang and Bahnar hunter backpack, antique drums, crossbows and more.
Long Xanh (137a Nguyenhue st. 10am-7pm)
Amid touristy tat and replicas of rongk, you’ll also find some antique Sedang hunter backpack, gongs, fish traps, rattan containers and replica Bahnar funerial masks.
Getting There & Around
Busses to Pleiku depart from several locations including a car park on Nguyen Hue st.
Bus station (279 Phan Dinh Phung) Kon Tum’s main bus station has most long-distance services, including those to Laos.
Mai Linh (0260-395555) Reliable taxi service.
Kon Tum is easy to traverse by foot, but on xe om (20000d for a short ride) are in are in ready supply. Drivers hang out by the Daklak hotel,