The coffee and culture are equally as rich
Located in the romanticised central highlands region (Tây Nguyên in Vietnamese), Dak Lak Province is a very special place for the Vietnamese people. It’s home to 44 different ethnic groups, dozens of thundering waterfalls, crystal clear streams, towering mountains and rich red soil but it’s most famed for its elephants and countless coffee plantations.
In previous years, Dak Lak was not the easiest place to travel to, but as tourism has grown in Vietnam, so to have the services. This means some great opportunities for the keen traveller who now wants to visit this fast becoming popular destination, still somewhat off the tourist trail.
Before the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 few Viet Kinh (Vietnam’s Ethnic Majority) actually lived in the highland areas and were mainly populated by Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups, in particular the Ede, M’nong and Thai people. Now days they live side by side in harmony and many unique communes are found scattered throughout the province – but usually away from the main roads and towns.
With two seasons, Dak Lak is a place with vast contrasts and both are great in their own remarkable ways. The wet season (May-Nov) will be much more humid with consistent afternoon downpours (so more impressive waterfalls!), greener scenery and more crops. The dry season (Dec-Apr) will have cooler nights, seemingly hotter days, dustier roads and less water (but this mean many of the streams can safely be swam in!). Life is tougher in the dry season, but still good!
Often, the best way to see Dak Lak is with a hired tour guide and any hotel in Buon Ma Thuot City can arrange one for you at a reasonable price. If you’re experienced and feeling up to it, motorbikes can also be rented in town or there is also an extensive local bus service, able to send you off to all the important places.
Buon Ma Thuot City
The provincial capital of Buon Ma Thuot is a likeable city and a perfect base for exploration of the area. It’s also a great place just to relax at any number of unique cafes but really has little to keep you interested for a long time. If you have time, I’d say the informative and well organised Dak Lak Museum is worth a visit. It helps give an understanding of the province’s people, history and industries past and present.
Referred to as Vietnam’s ‘Coffee Capital’, Buon Ma Thuot City and the hills surrounding are famed for some of the best coffee in the world. Trung Nguyen Coffee humbly began here in 1996 and has become synonymous with coffee throughout the country and soon the world! To discover and taste the most famous coffee in Vietnam in this city, I’d suggest a visit to the ‘Trung Nguyen Coffee Village’.
Waterfalls – Dray Nur
Second to it’s coffee, Dak Lak is known for its dozens of breathtaking waterfalls and the best and most famous falls are both located within an hour of Buon Ma Thuot. Dray Nur waterfall is stunning places in either the wet or dry seasons and are only separated by a short hike. Have a swim in the crystal clear waters, enjoy a picnic and take photos with the friendly locals who love to gather here and enjoy their free time with family and friends.
Lak Lake, Lak District –
The jewel in the crown of Dak Lak, Lak Lake is one of the most scenic and truly peaceful spots in Vietnam. In the middle of an expansive, fertile valley the Lake shrinks significantly in the dry season, but still has plenty of wildlife to enjoy and M’nong villages nearby to discover. Access is somewhat easier when the lake is lower, but don’t worry, if you don’t want to get you feet wet there are traditional long boat and elephant rides year round.
From Da Lat to Buon Ma Thuot city the highway wraps itself around the picturesque lake and it’s quite easy to see why the area’s becoming quite popular with tourists. I’d urge you to stay or at least a stop at the Van Long Guesthouse where Mr. Long and the friendly staff will make sure your time at Lak Lake is an enjoyable one.
Yok Don National Park, Buon Don District–
Close to the Cambodian border and about 60km from Buon Ma Thuot, Yok Don is one of the biggest National Parks in Vietnam and is the most popular place to ride elephants. There are two tourist complex’s along the Serepok River which are also great places for lunch.
The people of Buon Don have long been famed for their elephant taming and practical use of them although the use of elephants in farming these days is minimal. A great achievement in recent years is that we’ve now begun to see a rise in the local wild elephant population. After years of deforestation and poaching had seen their numbers dwindle this is definitely something they should be proud of and a positive sign for the future.
The Vietnamese love a good party and the people of Dak Lak are no different but keep in mind the festival dates can actually vary year to year because they usually follow the lunar calendar. The Gong Festival made up with members of several of the regions ethnic groups, is listed as a ‘masterpiece of humanity’ by UNESCO heritage. Other noteworthy events are the amazing elephant races in Buon Don; new rice ceremony; buffalo stabbing festival held at Lunar New Year and grave-abandoning ceremonies.
Every second March, Buon Ma Thuot hosts the Biennial Coffee Fest – Dak Lak’s newest festival. It showcases the regions products, machinery, local farming techniques while promoting tourism and sustainability.
Getting there –
Dak Lak is fairly straight forward to get to from the major cities in Vietnam. Flights leave from HCMC, Da Nang and Ha Noi regularly and tickets are usually relatively cheap right up until the last minute. Vietjet Air or Vietnam Airlines are the carriers you’ll need to contact.
Road travel is slow in Vietnam and a bus will take approximately 9 hours from Ho Chi Minh City’s Mien Dong bus station. The best thing is that most of these buses will be overnight ‘sleepers’ with small beds instead of seats. Buon Ma Thuot City is within 4 hours travel from other popular tourist spots – Da Lat and Nha Trang.