Vast, tranquil and fringed by rolling hills, Lak Lake is the Central Highland’s largest natural freshwater lake. It is home to the Mnong, a tribe that relies on the lake for their livelihood and they can be seen fishing in traditional dugout canoes. Fifty-two kilometres south of Buon Ma Thuot, on the road to Da Lat, Lak Lake is a fantastic daytrip but the peaceful atmosphere and homestay opportunities make a case to linger. The drive there, through idyllic rural scenery, is stunning to boot.
Fed by the Krong Ana River and runoff from the surrounding mountains, Lak Lake is a peaceful respite. The surface reflects like a mirror on calm days and fortunately, it remains relatively undeveloped and there are no tourist swan boats for hire – a rarity in Vietnam.
Lak Lake is beautiful and venturing to the water’s edge at Lak Resort is a great spot to take it all in. It’s free to park and walk down. Mnong villages are located on the southern and western banks but anywhere on the water you’ll find men in wooden boats fishing with baskets and nets, and women and children on the shore knee deep collecting snails, crayfishes, crabs and small fish. We met one 22 year old fisherman who was collecting lotus buds; he would earn 10,000 dong for seven.
Some have run of the mill wooden boats while others still use traditional dugout canoes so valuable that one is worth as much as a buffalo. We asked several fishermen if we could hire them to take us out onto the water but all refused, afraid of getting in trouble for taking a foreigner out. Boat trips arranged through Lak Lake Resort cost 400,000 dong for a motorboat, 250,000 dong for a dugout canoe (max two passengers). Duc Mai Coffee tour agency offers the canoe boat for 150,000 dong. All tourist boats should have lifejackets.
You can find Duc Mai Coffee tour agency on the water’s edge in between Buon Le and Buon Jun village. From Lien Son town, take Y Jut Street to the water. In addition to boat trips, Mr Duc offers a waterfall trek. It’s a seven-kilometre drive to the start and a two-hour challenging hike through the jungle. We’re told you can swim at the falls. The cost for a group of one to four people is 600,000 dong per person. Mr Duc can also arrange for a fishing trip at one of the lake’s fishing villages. Learn from the locals who will help you cook what you catch. Trip is from 16:30-18:00, costs 200,000 dong per person. T: (0905) 371 633, (0500) 3586 280; firstname.lastname@example.org; laklaketravel.com
We spent all afternoon hanging with the locals in Buon Le, a Mnong village living very traditional lives. They are accustomed to the occasional Easy Rider trip coming through but were a bit surprised that we took such an interest in their daily chores and were very welcoming in letting us observe as women made rice wine, sorted snails they collected from the lake to sell at the market, cooked a river snake and cleaned the precious wine jars. There are 30,000 Mnong in Vietnam, primarily located in the Central Highlands. Their language is Austro-Asiatic/Mon-Khmer, the majority are Christian and it’s a matriarchal society — after marriage the man lives with the wife’s family. Spending time and having a guide/translator certainly helps you get the most in learning about their culture.
Homestays are available in Buon Le and Boun Jun village and you’re free to just show up, walk around and arrange it on the spot, though no English is usually spoken. Alternatively, families allowed to do homestays have signs in front of their homes with the contact number of an agency. Going through a middleman will cost more but the agent should be able to speak English and can arrange for a guide.
Some homes are modern concrete, others still have the traditional longhouse on stilts. In Buon Le, we spent some time with the lovely family at 62 Y Jut who have an equally lovely longhouse for guests. If you show up at their door, it’s 100,000 dong per person, and it includes a mattress, blanket and mosquito net. Food is not included – they were afraid foreigners would not like their cooking. There’s a few eateries at the lake or it’s a very short walk to town. If you want to book their homestay through an agency, contact Mrs H’Doanh (09) 4611 7676.
Traditional music and gong shows have become a tourist commodity, with every organised tour including some sort of performance. Music is an essential part of Mnong rituals and ceremonies, and gongs are the most valuable instruments, believed to have supernatural power that can communicate messages to the superior God, Yang. In fact, “the area of gong culture in the Central Highlands of Vietnam” was recognised by UNESCO in 2005 as a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity. If you are interested in a one-hour performance, the patriarch of the family at 62 Y Jut can arrange for one at the house for 800,000 dong. He’ll lead a band of no less than 10 girls and boys. When you arrive, you can show them “Toi muon xem cong chieng toi nay” which means “I want to book the traditional music show” or have someone who speaks Vietnamese call Mr Huong at T: 0166 717 5613. Otherwise you can book through the agent Mrs H’Doanh — it will be 900,000 dong.
Duc Mai Coffee tour agency can also arrange for homestays in Buon Jun village with the same kind of arrangement. It is 100,000 dong per person, with a mattress, blanket and mosquito net included, in your choice of a traditional wooden or modern concrete house. The host family can prepare a meal for you, or Mr Duc can bring one for 100,000 dong.
If you’re looking for more conventional accommodation, a few blocks down Y Jut at the water’s edge is Van Long Motel. Choose from a normal bricks and mortar room or a bed in their traditional longhouse. The standard rooms are modern and comfortable, and have tile floor, air-con, TV, windows and an attached hot water bathroom. A standard is 250,000 dong, while a VIP room which has a lake view is 350,000 dong. Breakfast is not included. A bed with mosquito net in the enormous raised wooden longhouse, which has an ensuite shared bathroom, is 100,000 dong per person. N3 Y Jut Street, Le Village, Lien Son Town; T: (0500) 3585 659; email@example.com; dulichvanlong.com.
Lak Resort is expensive and lacklustre. Their charmless cottages have musty rooms and dated furniture. Only a few of them have views of the water. The small swimming pool was also starting to look a bit like Lak Lake water. A double room costs 750,000 dong, including breakfast and WiFi. A stay in their traditional longhouse is 280,000 dong per person. 30 Au Co Street, Lien Son Town, Lak District; T: (0500) 3586 184, (0500) 3856 184; firstname.lastname@example.org; daklaktourist.com.vn.
Bao Dai Villa deserves only a small footnote though gets top billing in write-ups about Lak Lake. Perched on top of a hill, the building was one of the emperor’s many, many holiday homes in the Central Highlands, a region he frequented to indulge in one of his favourite pastimes, hunting. Managed by Daklak Tourist, the same company that runs Lak Resort, the villa has seen better days and it doubles as tourist site (admission 10,000 dong) and restaurant/hotel – if there are hotel guests, the interior is closed to tourists. We’d definitely give it a skip – the view of the lake is mostly obstructed by trees. But if you’re really desperate to sleep in the less than royal looking “King’s Room”, it’s 650,000 dong a night.
One of the joys of the lake is getting there. Whether you come from Da Lat or Buon Ma Thuot, expect a stunning drive. From Buon Ma Thuot, head south on QL27 for 50 kilometres. Along the way, about 30 kilometres from the city, just before you cross the bridge over the Krong Ana River, see the ruins of a French colonial era catholic church. Also keep your eye out for one of the province’s main industries. Every year tens of millions of tons of clay and kaolin are mined to make bricks and tiles. You’ll see brick factories in this district.
Eight kilometres further on, stop at the red and white stone marker “H4/32”. Directly left of this stone marker is a dirt path that leads to Elephant Rock, an enormous stone hill that offers a fantastic panoramic view. Only the locals know about this spot (well, not any more) and the top is a popular spot for the village youth to hang out. It is a steep. Walking up is no problem, the surface is rough providing good grip on your soles but heading down requires steadiness. There’s no shame inching downhill on your bum.
From then on it’s lovely scenery as the smooth paved road cuts through a valley full of wet rice paddies with mountains in the near distance. The main concentration of civilisation is clustered on the small town Lien Son on the south side of the lake.
Hotels in Buon Ma Thuot rent motorbikes. All agencies offer a one-day Lak Lake program which usually includes lunch, elephant riding and a boat trip. Dak Lak Tourist costs 750,000 dong per person. Find them at 51 Ly Thuong Kiet Street; T: (0500) 385 2108; email@example.com; http://daklaktourist.com.vn/
Dak Viet Travel also have guided tours but flexible transportation options – you can choose car, motorbike or public bus and it’s priced accordingly. By motorbike, it’s 750,000 dong per person, based on two people. Alternatively, they can arrange for private car (no guide) to the lake roundtrip from Buon Ma Thuot for 850,000 dong. Their office is at 32 No Trang Long Street; T: (0500) 383 9398; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.dakviettravel.com/
For cheap and slow, the local bus picks up at Buon Ma Thuot’s central roundabout, on Nguyen Tat Thanh Street across from the church. The blue and white bus No 12 runs from 06:00-17:00. We were told it runs once an hour but we noticed it ran more frequently than that. It’s the luck of the draw, just like the fare: if the bus happens to be air-conditioned it’s 35,000 dong, no air-con it’s 25,000 dong.
If you are travelling from Da Lat to Buon Mat Thuot, simply get off the bus! Via the shortest route, Lak Lake is 140 kilometres northwest of Da Lat.
By Cindy Fan.
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