|Wat-er view: Idyllic Dac Ke Lake surrounded by pine trees in Mang Den Ecotourism Site, Kon Tum Province. — VNS Photos Thien Ly
Home to a delicate blend of ethnic tribes, exotic wildlife and breathtaking scenery, Mang Den Ecotourism site in Kon Tum Province offers an unforgettable sensory experience as yet untouched by the outside world. Thien Ly reports.
Lush forests, alluring lakes and waterfalls, purple sunsets, misty sunrises... the Mang Den Ecotourism site has all this and much more 12 kilometres. 120 sharp bends.
That is 10 bends per kilometre. Or a bend every 100 metres.
The math worked itself out in my mind and faded as we drove through what locals call the Mang Den Pass to get to the Mang Den Ecotourism Site.
The sharp bends through the pine forest at a height of nearly 1,000m above sea level should have been thrilling, exciting, even a bit scary - at least enough to get some adrenalin flowing, but as adventurous as the ride was, I was strangely at ease.
It might have been the cool, fresh climate, the silver clouds, the green pine forest, the silence and the distance it seemed to put between my daily life and the present, but I arrived feeling rested and calm, and looking forward to more of the same.
The Mang Den Pass is the last part of National Road 24. It lies on the section that runs from the capital of Kon Tum Province to Kon Plong District where the Mang Den Ecotourism Site is located.
|Hidden treasure: Pa Sy waterfall lies deep in the Mang Den forest.
As we reached the top of the pass, the site came into view through the thin mist created by a mild drizzle that seemed to lighten a surprisingly violet hue that imbued the surroundings.
The small road that led to the centre of the site was lined by the ubiquitous pine trees and various wild flowers like the white daisy and purple ageratum conyzoides that seemed to grow with gay abandon.
Mang Den (meaning vast, flat) is cool all year round, with annual average temperatures below 20 degrees Celsius.
The site has primeval forests and vast stretches of age-old pine trees that are interspersed with magical lakes, waterfalls and springs.
Rare flora like red pine trees and the Fufian Cypress, medicinal plants like cinnamon and aquilaria, and the presence of pythons, chamois and other wildlife species make the Mang Den area significantly different from Da Lat in the Central Highlands Province of Lam Dong or Sa Pa in the north-western mountainous province of Lao Cai.
For the comfort of visitors, several dozen villas have been built in the midst of the pine tree forests by local authorities, who have said they will ensure that constructions in the site would have minimal impacts on the site's pristine nature.
Mang Den is not just a beautiful place. It is also sacred land. On the highest hill in the area stands the statue of "Our handless Blessed Mother Mang Den". The one-meter tall statue attracts more and more pilgrims every year.
At the foot of the statue I saw numerous stone and wood tablets of different sizes that said, "Thank You, Blessed Virgin Mary". I am not Catholic, but I felt a sense of gratitude as well as I contemplated the Mother and sought her blessings.
Rivers, lakes, waterfalls
The Dak So Nghe River and many small streams flow through Mang Den and it is also home to the Toong Dam, Toong Rpong, Dac Ke, Toong Zo Ri, and Toong Po lakes.
I took a walk around Dac Ke Lake, which must be one of the most beautiful spots in the Mang Den area. The lake calmly carried the reflection of pine-tree covered hills that surrounded it. It was possible, I discovered, for the mind to reflect on nothing in the presence of such natural beauty.
When my legs got tired, I stopped at a communal house on the lakeside and met up with some people from the local ethnic minority whose friendliness added to the charm of the place.
Mang Den's cup of beauty overflows with the Tu Rang, Nuoc Ka, Dac Ke and Pa Sy waterfalls and rapids.
After climbing around 100 steps that are somewhat steep, one can contemplate the wonder that waterfalls are. Watching the water, effortlessly, but with great power, cascade from a height of about 50 metres at the Pa Sy waterfall, I thought, this is really what "go with the flow" means.
Near the Pa Sy waterfall is a garden of about 100 statues made by ethnic artisans from six communities who reside in the area. The communities have the tradition of having statues carved from big tree trunks stand in front of their houses and tombs.
Another major spiritual landmark in the area is the Khanh Lam Pagoda, that was under construction when I went there. On the 10ha premises stands an 18-metre tall statue of the "Bodhisattva of Mercy", evoking in the devout a feeling of compassion for all sentient beings.
|Welcome additions: French-style villas dot the roads in Mang Den, reminding tourists of Da Lat.
The M'Nong, Xo Dang, K' Dong and Hre people, for whom Mang Den is home, have preserved well their traditional lifestyles and distinct culture and customs, not to mention their traditional crafts.
Adding to the joy of discovering Mang Den was meeting with the ethnic communities and admiring their creations - brocade made by the M'Nong, several handicraft items made by the Xo Dang with simple, ingenious production tools, and sophisticated metal products forged by the K'Dong.
Lucky visitors can also join the communities as they celebrate their traditional festivals including one that prays for rain and another that celebrates "happy new rice."
During the three days I spent in Mang Den, I felt I was living in a dreamland of purple sunsets, yellow fields at the foot of lush green mountains adorned by stilt houses enchanting lakes and waterfalls, and the pervasive fragrance of myriad wild flowers that grew in profusion in the cool climate.
|Divine destination: Mang Den offers its gifts of stunning natural beauty and tranquility to all.
How can such a dreamy place not have its own culinary delights?
While the several ethnic minorities residing in Mang Den have distinct food habits and dishes, they share some common features. The food is obtained from their surroundings, and there is a freshness about it that one can never tire of.
My first meal in Mang Den was a hot soup cooked with fresh sturgeon and many kinds of wild vegetables. The cool weather and darkness that surrounded me made the dish even more tasty.
Huynh Kim Phuong, a tourist guide in Mang Den, told me that wild vegetables cooked with sturgeon, wild banana inflorescence tossed in oil and vinegar, dried buffalo meat, bamboo rice and wild chicken baked with "e" leaves are Mang Den specialities that visitors should not miss.
"Mang Den cuisine is not complicated, but the dishes are delicious since they are prepared with the local forests' offerings," Phuong said.
Apart from the dishes, special wines like Sim, Cot Toai Bo, Sam Day, and Ghe, also carrying the distinct flavours of forest products, add a new high to the Mang Den experience.
Not surprisingly, the opening up of Mang Den has seen increasing numbers of people flock to enjoy its many pleasures. For now, most of the visitors are from surrounding localities.
"Mang Den has become increasingly well-known in recent years. In 2012, we received over 50,000 tourists, up 150 per cent over 2011, most of them from Can Tho, Vung Tau, HCM City, Binh Duong, Dong Nai, Quang Ngai and Gia Lai," said Nguyen Duc Tuy, a senior official of Kong Plong District.
Visitor Dang Le Lanh from Kon Tum City told me: "I have visited Mang Den three times. All the stress of working is washed off completely whenever I get here.
"I want to stay longer the next time, and will bring my family here during the summer holidays."
|Balancing act: A cable-suspension bridge with unequal fixings spans Mang Den. The bridge is the only one of its kind in the Tay Nguyen (Central Highlands).
The area casts its spell even on young people not looking for relief from stress. Tran Tat Thanh of Quang Ngai Province had spent four days with his friends in Mang Den.
"My first impression of Mang Den was that it is so quiet that it is only suitable for older people.
"However, over the last four days, I have discovered many interesting things, and I want to return here and enjoy this beauty again."
I also met Sebastian Cabot from France on the way to the Pa Sy waterfall. He could not stop talking about Mang Den.
"I have visited many places in Viet Nam. Your country is extremely charming but Mang Den may be the most attractive for me. I like the vast primeval forests, the fanciful sunsets, the mysterious roads running through the jungles, and the veil of mist at sunrise and sunset.
His work takes Phan Thien Nhan of Ha Noi to many localities around Viet Nam.
Nhan said the big difference between Mang Den and other similar areas is that the site has not been defaced by unplanned investments that seriously destroy the environment.
"With its natural advantages, ecotourism is a key strength for Mang Den. Since 2006, the Mang Den Eco-tourism area has been placed firmly on the national tourism map. The biggest advantage of Mang Den is its primeval forest, so we have tried to develop it as a very environmentally friendly eco-tourism area," Tuy said
Mang Den is a part of the "Green Road in Central Highlands" tourism route, connected to the "Central Heritage Road" and "Legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail" that make up the transnational "Indochina Heritage Road" linking world heritage sites in Viet Nam with those in Laos and Cambodia.
Tuy said that to fully tap Mang Den's potential, the Prime Minister early this year approved a master plan to turn it into a national park, nature reserve and tourism zone.
As I left, I felt both confident and hopeful that this dreamland will retain its magical qualities and unstintingly offer to all seekers its gifts of stunning natural beauty and natural peace and quiet. — VNS
How to get there
Flying from HCM City to the Gia Lai Province's Pleiku Airport
Return ticket @ VND2 million
Take a bus to Kon Tum City.
Return ticket costs VND50,000
Hire a taxi or a motorbike to Mang Den
Where to stay:
Hoa Hong, Hoa Sim, Doi Thong or Thanh Binh hotels at VND100,000-200,000