The Eternal Highlands of Vietnam

Within the Annamese Cordillera is a sub-region known as the Central Highlands. The Central Highlands are actually the southernmost segment of the cordillera. The Americans knew the Central Highlands as the mountainous region stretching from the 17th parallel south to the area around Da Lat. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, define the boundaries of the highlands differently. For them, the highlands encompass the mountains and plateaus stretching from Kontum Province southward to Lam Dong Province.

At several locations along the Vietnamese coast, the Central Highlands reach all the way to the South China Sea. Once there, the mountains fall precipitously to the water line. These imposing peaks, standing flush up against the sea, once hindered north-south overland travel within Vietnam. But in the early twentieth century, the French colonial government financed the construction of narrow, winding roads over all of the defiles.

By the middle of the twentieth century, National Route 1 cut a series of passes through each of the high, east-running ridgelines. The highest and most impressive of the passes is Hai Van, located north of the port city of Danang. A steep, curving two-lane road climbs from the crowded lowlands on the outskirts of Danang to Hai Van’s summit. On the heights of Hai Van, the flat, blue expanse of the South China Sea lies over sixteen hundred feet below.

During the First Indochina War, the French built a concrete pillbox and observation tower near the top of Hai Van Pass to deter Vietminh guerrillas from ambushing traffic at this strategic chokepoint. The remains of the bullet-riddled block house still stand next to the road – a reminder that this particular place, like so much of Vietnam, had once been violently contested.

Among those French and Americans who experienced firsthand the Central Highlands, the region brought on feelings of awe, as well as dread.

On clear, bright mornings, when the sun rose large and orange over the South China Sea, the jungle-covered highlands appeared a glowing, light green. At such times, the mountains, with their soft carpet of trees, looked picturesque and inviting. But during the months of the northeast monsoon, the highlands took on a very different appearance. Frequently hidden behind low-hanging clouds and soaked by light rains, the highlands appeared dark and moody, even threatening.

Journeying through Indochina in 1950, British travel writer Norman Lewis encountered the highlands during the monsoon season. He wrote, “The whole district of Dak Lac is seen as if through dark glasses. There is not a great deal of color. It is a study in smoky blues, greens and white…In the morning the mountains float above a cauldron of mist in which islands slowly materialize….”[1]

The Vietnamese believed ghosts haunted the highlands. And although the Americans didn’t believe in those ghosts, many still feared the place. Author Michael Herr wrote, “…the Highlands are spooky, unbearably spooky, spooky beyond belief.”[2]

The Central Highlands could appear heavy, large, and immovable. For centuries, the Vietnamese had viewed the highlands as Vietnam’s anchor, providing the country with a solidness not apparent along the wind-swept and wave-tossed coast. In the 1960s, when so much movement and violence enveloped Vietnam and its people, the highlands held firm. In the Vietnamese mind, the highlands symbolized Vietnam’s strength, its survival, and its eternal character.


[1] Norman Lewis, Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos, & Vietnam, (London: Eland Publishing, 2003), 103.

[2] Michael Herr, Dispatches, (New York: Vintage, 1991), 93.

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