This section from Kon Tum to Yang Reh via Buon Ma Thuot is the nineteenth instalment of my bicycle ride from Yunnan to Cambodia – if all goes according to plan. Titled “Slap the Belgian!”, it is simultaneously published on, where you’ll find a map with the itinerary and many other bicycle diaries by me and others. I hope you’ll enjoy.

We’d spent an entire rest-day in Kontum recovering and getting fat on coffees, wraps, snacks, buns, banhs and whatever other snacks caught our attention. Kontum’s a lovely small town with a few interesting sights.

Climate-wise it feels a bit like Kunming: due to its relatively high altitude, it gets chilly at night or when the sun disappears, but as long as that bright ball beams bravely from the blue sky, the climate is warm yet dry.

Coc fruit
A pile of cóc fruit, in Kontum seedless and very sour. Excellent with spicy salt.

Coffee seems to be the main staple here but this being Vietnam, there’s all sorts of other fruit on sale. Green mango, of course, but also a fruit that is new to me: cóc. It’s egg-shaped like a plum but hard.

When it grows mature, it develops a wiry kernel which will hurt the gum if bitten, but here in Kontum it is sold before it ripens: sour and without kernel. It’s eaten like green mango: by dipping it into a blend of sea-salt and fresh chilli peppers. It leaves my face numb and tingling.

Forest ginseng, apparently extremely bitter
Forest ginseng, apparently extremely bitter

Tamarind and coconut also grow on trees throughout the city. It’s probably a good thing to watch out for ripe coconuts coming down, as they will almost certainly kill you if they land on your head.

The city is home to a nice riverside street, full of cafes, and two churches. One is closed off, but the wooden church, which blends Tây Nguyên and Christian architecture, is a real sight. It’s very ornamental and the burned glass windows all depict simple but colourful scenes from the bible.

The wooden church at Kontum
The wooden church at Kontum

Other than that, there seem to be quite a lot of foreigners staying at Kontum, most of them elderly. Scandalmongers say they come looking for the beauty of local, dark-skinned minority girls, but they may just as well be married here.

From Tu I learn that Kontum and the entire Tây Nguyên (西原, western highlands) region are being populated as part of a government effort to develop the interior regions of the country, a strategy very similar to China’s “Go West” programme. Dwellers of the overcrowded coastal regions get financial incentives to set up shop inland.

Snails for sale
This man is selling all kinds of snails, crayfish and other shell-creatures

On our second day, we get tickets for the bus to Buon Ma Thuot, as we’d heard from an Easy Rider (tour guides on motorbikes) that the road south out of Kontum was pretty terrible because of construction work, intenser traffic and really narrow lanes. This way we skip 250 km and I feel a bit sad because I had relatively fond memories from this part. But we’d rather be safe and my visa time is running out anyway.

Clouds in my ice in my coffee
Clouds in my ice in my coffee

The bus is in fact a minivan packed with people and a guy going heyeyeyeyeyey at everyone who’s in our way, all the while trying to recruit more passengers for the ride to Buon Ma Thuot or any place on the way. The car horn wails incessantly.

Thanks to Tu I become aware of a darker piece of Vietnamese society. The traffic police who have been waving so gently at me whenever I bike past them, are actually corrupt pigs, whose real only reason to be out there is to collect bribes. Sure, you can choose not to pay, but then they will delay your progress by inspecting your hold. Companies that live off getting passengers to and fro quickly almost always have a little paper folder with cash between the pages on the dashboard. We are not hindered by any further police after that.

Buon Ma Thuot's best Banh Mi
Buon Ma Thuot’s best Banh Mi

The road after Pleiku actually looks nice. Construction has stopped and I’m slapping myself for not riding this piece, but done is done. At Buon Ma Thuot, Tu ensures me she can ride another 30-40 km today, so we decide to venture out to Yang Reh, the place where bedbugs ate me three years back.

We have a coffee and a delicious banh mi for strength and then start what turns out to be a harder-than-expected battle against the wind. Our mood sours but finally we arrive at the destination, get a hopefully bedbug-free room, brush out a stray bee queen and go for dinner.

Very Christmassy crib at Yang Reh
Very Christmassy crib at Yang Reh

The room is 100,000 VND but only because other foreigners (“backpackers”) have checked in before us. The real room price should be around 80,000-90,000, but it being the only hotel in town, we didn’t have much bargaining leverage.

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