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.
Buon Ma Thuot spreads out from its central roundabout where a large victory monument and a replica of a tank are on display. It makes sense to base yourself in the roundabout area, where services, cafes, and basic eats are within easy walking distance.
The town is well-serviced with numerous 24-hour ATMs that accept most major credit and debit cards. The Agribank on Quang Trung Street is good for exchanging USD only. To cash traveller's cheques you'll have to head to the Vietcom Bank on Tran Hung Dao Street. To receive VND they charge a 0.5% comission or 1.1 USD, whichever is greater, and to receive USD the commission is 1% or 2.2 USD. The also buy a wide range of popular currencies, and sell some of the major ones as well.
The post office is a few hundred metres south of the roundabout on Le Duan -- it's open daily from 06:00 to 21:00. Long distance phone services are available here in the 10- to 15,000 VND per minute range depending on the country.
The provincial hospital (Benh Vien Da Khoa) is also located on Mai Hac De St, about 1km down from the roundabout. Take Le Duan south for about 800m, turn right on Nguyen Du (past the museum,) then the first left and it's on the right. 24-hour emergency service is available: (095) 591 7375 but very little English is spoken.
Internet is surprisingly hard to find -- Internet Games is obviously placed on Ly Thuong Kiet where most of the accommodation is, but we found it was always full of kids playing games. The post office used to offer internet, but doesn't anymore. There are three places on Hong Phong Street, between Phan Boi Chau and Hoang Dieu streets, which are good backups. Of the three, a place called 'O2, down the side alley on the east side of the street, usually turned out to be the best bet. Cheap rates of 3- to 5,000 VND per hour are standard.
The main bus terminal is 3km east of town on Nguyen Tat Thanh, just past the waterpark on the left. Regional service is quite frequent and you can just show up and catch a bus for most destinations. Longer trips depart once a day, or sometimes every other day, so advanced planning is needed.
The airport is about 5km outside town to the southeast on Nguyen Luong Bang Street -- a metered taxi should cost about 100,000 VND -- you can do it by mototaxi for 40 to 50,000, but it's a rough trip with a full pack and groups of two or more won't save any money. For air tickets, stop by Vietnam Airlines on 19 No Thang Long.
Agribank: 40-42 Quang Trung, Buon Ma Thuot. T: (050) 852 781, F: (0500 859 867, 810 737. Hours: 7:30 to 11:30 and 13:30 to 18:00 weekdays
Main Post Office: 6 Le Duan St, Buon Ma Thuot. T: (050)852 612, F: (050) 852 262. Hours: 06:30 to 21:00 daily
Vietcom Bank: 06 Tran Hung Dao, Buon Ma Thuot. T: (050) 855 039, F: (050) 855 038. Hours: 07:30 to 11:00 and 13:30 to 16:30 weekdays
Vietnam Airlines: 19 No Trang Long, Buon Ma Thuot. T: (050) 954 442, F: (050) 952 591 Hours: 07:30 to 11:00 and 13:30 to 16:30 weekdays, 08:00 to 11:00 and 13:30 to 16:00 Saturdays.
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Text and/or map last updated on 24th November, 2015.
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