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Buon Ma Thuot

Travel Guide

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The Highland's Dak Lak province (also spelt Dac Lac) was the largest of Vietnam's Central Highland provinces until the new province of Dak Nong was sliced out of its's southwest. The remainder holds interesting natural attractions including lakes, waterfalls and national parks, which can be visited from the provincial capital of Buon Ma Thuot. The province is also well known for it's minority tribes whose relationship with Vietnam's central government is best described as uneasy.

The roots of this poor relationship rest in Dak Lak's history. It was originally a part of the Kingdom of Champa and was annexed by Vietnam in the 16th century. Until then the population was largely comprised of minority tribes but once annexed, the Vietnamese government pursued a policy of resettlement of ethnic Vietnamese into the region. Throughout this period the area saw considerable foment and rebellion against the central authorities and their policies. These troubles continued throughout French colonial rule, when large plantations, primarily coffee and rubber, were established.

Geographically, Dak Lak is a part of southern Vietnam, and during the American War, it was a part of the South Vietnam regime -- and saw considerable action throughout the campaign. The US military exploited the minority tribe's' antipathy for the central government and enlisted their assistance in the fight against the North Vietnamese. This was an involvement that cost the population dearly following the end of the war.

After the cessation of hostilities, the government's policy of assimilation was accelerated, and while today most minorities can speak Vietnamese, they retain a strong sense of their separate identity and considerable friction with the government remains.

The situation was complicated by minority tribes in Cambodia crossing into Vietnam illegally and matters came to a head in 2004 when large-scale protests took place in Dak Lak's capital, Buon Ma Thuot.

Following these protests, the government has been particularly paranoid about any westerners visiting the outlying minority villages -- essentially, every tourist is suspected of being a possible outside agitator looking to fund and foment further 'counter-revolutionary' dissent. This is unfortunate as it steers all but the most determined visitor away from the real attractions of the province.

Despite these challenges, the provincial capital, Buon Ma Thuot, can serve as a handy base for exploring what outlying attractions you are permitted to visit. Unlike Da Lat, Buon Ma Thuot is not a key destination in the Central Highlands. While it can be a bit warmer than Da Lat, it's also very windy and attracts a lot of cloud cover even in the dry season, which tends to cool things down.

The city itself isn't up to much -- it's a pleasant, busy little place, there are some decent places to stay, and some sites to see which are worthwhile, but not exactly first rate. It's often visited by westerners overnight while performing a multi-day loop out of Da Lat -- the Easy Rider outfit out there seems to be the most popular choice. It's also enjoyed by travellers who want to get away from the circus of tourism that characterises the more popular destinations in the region.

Most importantly, Buon Ma Thuot has some great coffee.

There's a heavy concentration of ethnic villages in the region, and while the Vietnamese government has been trying hard to encourage them to assimilate into mainstream society, their efforts have been only party successful. Most of the Montagnards now speak Vietnamese, but retain a strong sense of their separate identity, leading to an uneasy relationship with the powers that be. In 2004 they all made their way to Buon Ma Thuot and filled the streets in a mass demonstration against government policies.

Since then, the government has been particularly paranoid about any westerners visiting these villages. Without a permit, the only villages you can visit are the ones close to town, and Ban Don to the north, little more than a Potemkin's village giving tourists a taste of Ede culture while steering them away from the real thing.

Buon Ma Thuot is also referred to as Ban Me Thuot or Buon Me Thuot -- all the same place.

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Text and/or map last updated on 21st August, 2009.

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