Once a rustic backwater town and site of a decisive battle of the Vietnam War, Buon Ma Thuot has emerged from its war-torn roots and grown into the bustling, sprawling and relatively charmless capital city of Dak Lak province. It prospers from the spoils of the surrounding countryside, the fertile soil producing rubber, clay, minerals and coffee – lots and lots of coffee.
Initially introduced by the French in 1915, coffee is now the province’s leading commodity and you can’t walk down the street without being tempted by a cup. In 2009, Dak Lak produced 380,373 tons of coffee, mostly robusta. The city even has a coffee festival that takes place every March.
Though the city has little for visitors to see, Buon Ma Thuot is the base for exploring all 13,125 square kilometres of Dak Lak, which sits on a large plateau surrounded by mountains and valleys formed from volcanic activity 25-30 million years ago. The Krong Ana and Krong Kno rivers flow through, joining to become the Srepok River (locally known as Dak Krong), a major tributary of the Mekong River. The river gives life to Dray Nur and Dray Sap waterfalls, meanders through Yok Don, Vietnam’s biggest protected area, before flowing into northeastern Cambodia. National parks like Yok Don are necessary: Fifty per cent of the province is covered in forest, but natural resources and wildlife are rapidly disappearing due to excessive exploitation of timber and human degradation. Doing a trek or other park activity shows the locals, in a small way, that there is an alternative sustainable economy from tourism.
Who are the locals? If there is one great narrative that would explain present day Dak Lak, it would be the story of immigration. Several waves of immigration have shaped the region and resulted in the province having more than 40 ethnic groups, with immigrants forming 79.5% of Dak Lak’s population.
There are three indigenous people: the Ede (298,534), Mnong (40,344) and Jarai (16,129). Each group has its own characteristics but they all have a matriarchal structure, with large families traditionally living within one longhouse. Their cultural identity is expressed through their language, architecture, funeral rites, gong music, pottery and dependence on nature. A visit to the Ethnographic Museum gives an essential primer to these tribes, and Lak Lake is a good place to see it first hand. Not only is the lake beautiful, a homestay in one of the Mnong villages that dot the shore provides a window into their world.
During the French colonial period, Vietnamese (ethnic Kinh) were brought in as labourers and officials. The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 prompted a great migration of Catholic ethnic minorities from north to south, including the Muong, Thai, Kinh, Tau, Nung and Chinese. Between 1957 and 1972, Kinh from Central Southern provinces were forced to move to Dak Lak, and those who served the South Vietnam and American Army also came to this southern stronghold.
In March 1975, Buon Me Thuot fell to North Vietnam. Their decisive victory caused the final collapse and chaotic mass evacuation from the Central Highlands in what is now known as the “convoy of tears”, where 40,000 South Vietnam civilians and soldiers died in the exodus. Post 1975, many Viet from overpopulated regions were brought here to occupy land as part of a government acculturation plan. Northern hilltribes, including the Nung, Thai, Yao, Hmong and Tay, looking for a new place to live also immigrated here, resettling whole families and villages.
Of course, things haven’t been smooth with the ethnic minorities, also known as the Montagnards, a term coined by French colonialists meaning “mountain people”. When the Vietnam War erupted, the Montagnards, who really just wanted to be left alone, found themselves caught in between the Communist North and the South. Trapped between a rock and a hard place, they sided with the Americans. Colloquially known as the Yards, they were admired for their fighting skills, bravery and loyalty. The US withdrawal in 1972 and 1973 sealed their fate and the consequences of siding with the wrong team are still felt to this day. It doesn’t help that in a Communist country where religion is frowned upon, many Montagnards are Christian, a French colonial legacy that intensifies suspicions.
Fed up with big company plantations taking over ancestral land, in February 2001 peaceful anti-government protests in Buon Ma Thuot by 20,000 Montagnards were brutally suppressed by the military. A flare up a few years later in April 2004 was again met with extreme force. Government authorities, believing US-based opposition groups and other outsiders were fuelling the unrest, have restricted foreign visitors ever since. This is unfortunate as it steers all but the most determined visitor away from the real attractions of Dak Lak. Big Brother continues to keep a close eye on the Central Highlands.
What this means for travellers is that visitors will be nudged to pre-organised tours focused on set tourist sites or villages such as Ako Dhong, the Ede village in the northern edge of town. Any exploration of other villages would require a police permit. But that doesn’t mean you can’t rent a motorbike and visit the main sites like waterfalls, Ban Don, a rice paper village or coffee farms on your own. You can even arrange your own a homestay at Lak Lake without having to go through an agency. Exploring outlying areas in Dak Lak is not as relaxed as in Kon Tum, but we had no problems riding our motorbike through villages along the main roads, occasionally stopping to smile, say hello and take photos of the scenery. But we were wise not to go barging into people’s homes with cameras, hand out gifts like Santa Claus or linger long enough to gather attention or suspicion. Note that all villages have at least one official or policeman.
Despite all this paranoia, it’s unlikely that travellers will notice anything amiss. Journey out into the bucolic countryside and what’s clear is that people simply want to live their life.
Buon Ma Thuot is also referred to as Ban Me Thuot. Bus stations refer to it as Dak Lak. The city spreads out from a central roundabout where a victory monument and army tank are on display. The big main market is located just a couple blocks west from there. The roundabout has a large church, stand for the local bus, Saigon-Ban Me Hotel and the post office.
Post Office: 01-03 No Trang Long Street. T: (05003) 852 612; (05003) 686 868. Open Mon-Sat 07:00-18:30, Sun 07:00-18:00.
Five ATMs are lined up outside of the post office, including Sacombank and Techcom with international networks.
The best hospital in the city is the private Thien Hanh, on Nguyen Tat Thanh/National Route 14, in between the city centre and the bus station. You’ll also find the giant Coop Mart grocery store along this way, at the corner of Nguyen Tat Thanh and Ly Ty Trong Street.
There are two seasons: the dry season is from November to April, rainy season lasts from May to October.
By Cindy Fan. Last updated on 13th October, 2016.