Nestled in Vietnam’s Central Highland Region, Pleiku is well-known amongst international travelers for once being the site of an American Air Force Base. Destroyed during the Vietnam War, the city was rebuilt in the years after the conflict, and the little culture that remains is fiercely protected by the Vietnamese government.
In the decades after the war, Pleiku has gained fame for being a gateway to the Central Highlands. Grand landscapes, history, and culture have become tourist attractions for travelers who are looking to learn more about Vietnam in its times of peace and tribulation.
Historic City in the Gia Lai Province
Situated at the junction of Route 19 and 14, two major highways in Vietnam, Pleiku is the capital of the Gia Lai Province. The city is in the northern part of the Central Highlands Region, wedged between green mountains and steep ravines. Historically significant for both its ethnic groups and the old Air Force Base, the city has become an educational tourist destination.
Nighttime in Pleiku City, Vietnam. Photo by: [Tycho].
Additionally, Pleiku’s proximity to the landscapes of the Central Highlands makes it a great base camp for wandering travelers. Somewhat isolated, Pleiku isn’t very close to any of Vietnam’s major cities. Located inland and away from the coast, cities like Nha Trang and Hoi An still require long hours in a car to reach.
Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the most famous city in Southern Vietnam, is about 500km (310 mi) to the west of Pleiku. Hanoi, the country’s capital, is even further away with the distance stretching 1,094km (680 mi). For travelers, covering this distance can be difficult and nearly impossible by car.
For travelers who are coming from outside of the Central Highland Region, the easiest way to get to the city is by flying. Flights leave daily from both HCMC and Hanoi to the Pleiku Airport. Servicing the region, travelers can fly into the airport and stay the night in Pleiku before exploring other areas like the Kon Tum Province, which is just to the north.
History in Pleiku is mostly divided between local and international knowledge. While locals have lived in the area for hundreds of years, the ethnic groups in Pleiku are not as famous as the city’s time spent as an Air Force Base, however, the two blend together in various ways.
During the Vietnam War in Pleiku City, Vietnam. Photo by: manhhai.
Before the war, Pleiku was home to the Bahnar and Jarai ethnic groups, sometimes called the Montagnards, who helped build the unique culture of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. During the war, these ethnic groups supported South Vietnamese and foreign forces. Additionally, Pleiku became the site of an Air Force Base that was established to fight Northern Vietnam forces.
Run by the Republic of Vietnam Air Force and a key part of the II Corps Tactical Zone of South Vietnam, the United States Air Force also joined in the fight using Pleiku as a base station. Originally, the base was a small airstrip used by locals. As war efforts grew, the base became a place where the United States housed various aircraft.
Perhaps most famous out of all the campaigns was Operation Rolling Thunder, which took place on March 2, 1965, with aircrafts departing for Northern Vietnam from Pleiku in response to an attack by the Viet Cong. The bombing campaign lasted for over three years.
Ultimately, with the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Pleiku was captured by the People’s Army of Vietnam and subsequently abandoned. Not much of Pleiku was left standing as most of the city had been bombed and it wasn’t until the 1980s that Pleiku was rebuilt. After years, the old base was eventually turned into the Pleiku Airport.
Pleiku Airforce Base during the Vietnam War in Pleiku, Vietnam. Photo by: manhhai.
- The professional football club, Hoàng Anh Gia Lai, is based in Pleiku.
- It is estimated that 458,742 people live in Pleiku as of 2019.
- Pleiku is pronounced as “Play Ku”.
While Pleiku was damaged by the war, the area has since become a tourist destination. Visitors will find various activities in the city and on its outskirts including cultural experiences, beautiful temples, and mountain landscapes. Pleiku’s main attractions are Sea Lake, Minh Thanh Pagoda, Ham Rong Peak, Kon Ka Kinh National Park, ethnic villages, and Kon Tum City.
Going by a few different names including Bien Ho, T’Nung, and La Nueng, Sea Lake is just 6 km (3.7 mi) north of Pleiku in the Bien Ho Commune. Formed by a volcano millions of years ago, the lake has become a popular holiday destination where visitors can boat, swim, and hike. Perfect for a romantic getaway, the lake is renowned for its mountain vistas and incredible sunsets.
Pagoda on the shore of Sea Lake in Pleiku, Vietnam. Photo by: Lawrence Sinclair.
Minh Thanh Pagoda
On a hill overlooking Pleiku City, just 2 km (1.2 mi) from the city center, the Minh Thanh Pagoda is a large complex devoted to the followers of Buddha. Built in 1964 by Thich Giac Dao, the pagoda has undergone a few restorations in the subsequent years. A large tower at the site is the main part of the temple, though the complex does include several buildings and a garden too.
Ham Rong Peak
Nicknamed the “Rooftop of Pleiku City” and best visited in the summer and fall months, Ham Rong Mountain was once an active volcano. Carpeted by a lush forest, the mountain is a popular destination for nature lovers and eco-tourists. Crescent-shaped, hikers can either trek around the base or attempt to make it to the summit.
Kon Ka Kinh National Park
Located in the Kon Tum Province, the Kon Ka Kinh National Park is a popular destination for tourists in Pleiku City. Travelers can head just north from Pleiku to visit the park, which features a blend of ethnic communes and natural protected zones. Popular activities in the park include taking hikes, wildlife tours, and cultural excursions.
Kon Ka Kinh National Park in Vietnam. Photo by: Gavin White.
Travelers who are headed to Kon Ka Kinh should consider hiring a local guide because of the remoteness of the national park.
Outside of Pleiku City, there are various ethnic minority villages where the local Bahnar, Jarai, and Kinh people live. Remote and secluded, the villages aren’t a common destination for visitors in Pleiku. However, those who do wish to learn more about the area’s ethnic culture can book a tour and visit some of these remote communities.
Travelers will have to book a tour and hire a local guide to visit the ethnic minority villages. Permits are required and visitors may not explore the villages solo.
Kon Tum City
Green park space in Kon Tum City, Vietnam. Photo by: ChrisGoldNY.
To the north of Pleiku, Kon Tum City is the capital of the Kon Tum Province. Though the city is in an entirely different province, Kon Tum is a popular destination for tourists in Pleiku. In part because the Pleiku Airport is the closest airport to Kon Tum City, but also because the Kon Tum Province is so remote. Traveling from Pleiku to Kon Tum can be arranged by car.
Due to Pleiku’s growth as a tourist destination, the city has multiple quality hotels where guests can stay the night. While most accommodations are on a smaller scale, tourists will still be able to enjoy modern amenities and comforts. The highest-rated hotels in Pleiku are the Elisa Hotel, Hani House, and Hoài Thuong Hotel.
Elisa Hotel – In the center of the city, Elisa Hotel delivers marvelous views of the area. Rooms at the hotel are elegant and come with AC, a TV, a fridge, and a private bathroom. Hotel services include a 24-hour front desk and shuttle transportation. Visitors will also have access to community spaces like the lounge and kitchen where they can meet other travelers.
Hani House. Photo: Hani House & More
Hani House – On a quiet street down the road from the Stadium, Hani House is a highly rated hotel in Pleiku City. Featuring gardens and terraces, the property provides guests with a quiet getaway. Amenities on-site include private parking, free Wi-Fi, a 24-hour front desk, and a shared kitchen. Guest rooms include a desk, private bathroom, TV, and linens.
Hoài Thuong Hotel – Pet and family-friendly, Hoài Thuong Hotel is a 2-star property that is outfitted with stunning gardens and multiple terraces. Rooms are bright, clean, and comfortable. Guests will be able to enjoy private rooms, free Wi-Fi, room service, currency exchange, and a 24-hour front desk.
Due to Pleiku’s remote location, international cuisine is still being developed. However, there are a few restaurants that have received high ratings, though tourists shouldn’t expect to find an abundance of eateries. Most restaurants serve local delicacies, you can find a few with a variety of options. The best restaurants in Pleiku are Cá Gô 81, Passata Bistro, and Nâm Restaurant.
Cá Gô 81 – Affordable and delicious, Cá Gô 81 is a small restaurant that has been highly rated amongst budget travelers. Serving local favorites in a cool atmosphere, Cá Gô 81 has a friendly staff and excellent service. For convenience, the restaurant offers dine-in, takeaway, and delivery options.
Passata Bistro – One restaurant that does boast an international menu is the Passata Bistro. With pizza, steak, and burgers, the bistro is popular amongst travelers who are craving a familiar taste. Inspired by Italy, pasta and salad are also favorites.
Passata Bistro. Photo: Passata Bistro
Nâm Restaurant – For vegetarians, Nâm Restaurant is the place to go. Most of the dishes on the menu are meat-free and use local ingredients for bold flavors. Fellow travelers have commented that serving sizes are generous, so it’s easy to share one or two dishes amongst friends.
Aside from the national holidays, local festivals in Pleiku are a time when everyone can come together in celebration. Pleiku’s most popular celebrations are the Golden Shower Festival and Wild Daisy Festival, which honor the local flora and fauna in the province.
Normally held in October when the leaves begin to change colors, the Golden Shower Festival is held in the Tay Ho Village outside of Pleiku City. At the festival, locals gather to showcase their crafts and share food. Visitors are encouraged to explore the festival and its events as well as venture to the nearby historic sites and Bau Can Waterfall.
Also at the end of the year is the Wild Daisy Festival. Called hoa da quy, wild daisies bloom in Pleiku in abundance in the last months of the year. At the Chu Dang Ya Communal House, the festival features gong performances, artist showcases, and ethnic culinary culture. Some of the more eclectic events at the festival include competitions for paragliders and trekkers.
Motorbikes in Pleiku. Photo: Jacques Beaulieu
Pleiku is a rather sizeable destination and travelers will find it difficult to walk everywhere. While it’s easy to get around the city center and within a range from some of the top tourist sites in Pleiku, getting to a few attractions may require tourists to arrange for alternative transportation.
Taxis are readily available throughout the city, and they offer affordable rates. Additionally, a few hotels will provide a shuttle service to their guests, or they can help travelers arrange to take a taxi or bus to get around Pleiku.
Pleiku is more popular during the dry season, which starts in November and ends in April. In addition to having less rain, the end of the year months is a time for big celebrations, which draw tourists to Pleiku. Fewer tourists will visit Pleiku from May to October because those months fall during the wet season and the temperatures will be at their highest.
Largely untouched and unexplored by tourists, Pleiku is one of Vietnam’s most unique destinations. Away from the busy crowds, tourists will have the chance to experience Vietnam’s rural landscapes and communities. Beautiful, secluded, and historic, Pleiku is one of Vietnam’s best up-and-coming holiday hotspots.
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