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The Small-Town Charms of Gia Nghia, Vietnam's Youngest Provincial Capital

Set amongst softly undulating hills covered in scenic farmland and coffee trees that slowly give rise to massive, densely forested mountains is a quiet city far off both the domestic and international tourist tracks.

Gia Nghia, the capital of Dak Nong Province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, is not frequented by a large number of outside visitors. Tourism infrastructure is quite limited, and there isn’t much in the way of famous attractions in town to arrange a sightseeing tour around. In fact, at first glance, it may seem that there’s not anything to do here at all, and the average traveler, quick to become impatient, might not stick around for too long. However, this is perhaps a benefit rather than a drawback, and why it feels like an oasis compared to the over-development seen in many of Vietnam’s most attractive and famous locations.

Until recently, Gia Nghia was Vietnam’s only provincial capital town, and Dak Nong Province was the last of Vietnam’s 63 provinces to be without a city in its jurisdiction. But in December 2019, Thị xã Gia Nghĩa (Gia Nghia Township) was reborn as Thành phố Gia Nghĩa (Gia Nghĩa City), possibly taking a small point of pride away from those who call the area home, but also acknowledging the growth that has occurred in a place that some believe could someday become a smaller, more carefully developed version of its mega-famous Central Highlands neighbor, Da Lat.

The hilly outskirts of Gia Nghia.

Of course, such a future is still quite a long way off, but the region is growing quickly; as a key link between Ho Chi Minh City and the rest of the Central Highlands nestled along the border with Cambodia, the population of Dak Nong Province has increased about twenty-fold in the past half-century from about 30,000, made up of mostly ethnic minorities living in the region prior to Vietnam’s reunification, to well over 600,000 today, with some 80,000 or so residing in Gia Nghia itself. And with a giant of Vietnam’s tourism industry lying just a stunning one hour drive away from the city, it’s only a matter of time before the area becomes incredibly popular.

For the moment, though, Gia Nghia still feels much more like a charming small town than the economic center of a rapidly growing province. Life here doesn’t seem to move at the same frenetic pace as it does in much of the rest of Vietnam. Colorful flowers paint the hillsides in a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors, motorbikes slowly meander through the steeply winding streets of the city center, and the sun shimmers playfully off the city’s several reservoirs. It’s simply a blissful place to spend time unwinding from the stresses of everyday life, and the surrounding countryside is certainly well worth exploring too.

One of several street arches dedicated to the province and city.

I’ve had the privilege of spending some time in Gia Nghia this year, and the following photos were all taken within Gia Nghia city limits in early October 2020. For anyone wishing to visit the city themselves, Ho Chi Minh City is just a four-five hour bus or motorbike ride away; flying into Buon Ma Thuot and taking a bus from there would theoretically be feasible as well, but much more expensive.

Left: Gia Nghia's urban landscape. Right: The backside of the reservoirs are full of life and vibrancy.

These yellow flowers can be found clinging to hillsides throughout the city.

Many shades of yellow and green.

The Martyr's Cemetary of Dak Nong overlooking a small pond.

One of the city's many reservoirs.

View from the crest of a reservoir's dam.

The city is built into a multitude of small hills and valleys.

Houses hiding among the trees.

The eastern entrance to the city.

Gia Nghia Catholic Church.

Scenes from one of the rural communes that make up the outer boundary of the city.

Classic Central Highlands landscapes heading east out of Gia Nghia.

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