There isn’t much to this little provincial capital, just a maze of busy streets surrounding the center Thang Loi (Victory) Monument, with its high arch and a statue of the first tank to enter the town during liberation in 1975.
Services in Buon Ma Thuot are basic and the few hotels with any oomph cater mostly to local coffee growers’ expatriate managers and folks (mostly Swiss) visiting the highlands on agricultural aid projects. The sleepy town has a few beat-up old museums hardly worth seeing, but Buon Ma Thuol is a good base for day trips out into the broad-reaching hill areas. Rolling hills covered with the ordered striations of row upon row of coffee plants bring you to far-flung ethnic minority villages of the Ede and the M’nong people. You can organize all kinds of trekking. Tours in town that include canoeing, hiking, and elephant riding, as well as some great options for overnights and home stays in rural villages, or visit Yok Don National Park just north of town. You can also visit a working coffee plantation. In town, expect little more than local souvenir shopping, mostly for good, fresh coffee and jars of locally brewed whiskey in fired pots of the M’nong people.
Note: This part of the highlands was more or less “off the map” for tourism until recent years, not for want of sights or natural beauty, but because the Vietnamese government still suspects subterfuge among ethnic minority groups. The local cadres are really pretty relentless. I met a young traveler putt-putting all around the region on his own rented motorbike out of Ho Chi Minh City; for his troubles, he was made persona mm grata in the provinces of Gia Lai and Dak Lak for traveling without a passport (he had a photocopy, which is usually okay because you often need to leave a passport at the rental office), and the poor guy had to endure lengthy interviews with a paranoid party member who thought he might be a spy. Spying for whom? Juan Valdez? Take care and avoid the men in uniform.
By Plane There are direct connections between Buon Ma Thuot and Ho Chi Minh City, and Buon Ma Thuot and Danang. The airport in Buon Ma Thuot is 10km (6/ miles) from the town center. The office of Vietnam Airlines is at 67 Nguyen Tat Thanh St (0500/395-4442 or 395-5055). Flight schedules vary, and you should book your flights to and from here in advance (possible from any Vietnam Airlines office countrywide).
By Car/Motorbike Probably the best way to arrange transport to Buon Ma Thuot is to hire your own vehicle. The town is a popular stop for the many adventurous travelers who saddle up on a motorbike with one of the highland area’s Easy Riders.
By Bus Local buses to or from Nha Trang leave at 7am. Onward travel to Pleiku and Kontum, or south to Dalat, leaves in the early morning as well. The public bus station in Buon Ma Thuot is on Nguyen Tat Thanh Street (an artery that originates at the large tank and traffic circle at the city center). Between the station and hotels in town.
By Car Contact DamsanTourist (0500/385-0123) or DaklakTourist (0500/ 385-2108) for rentals with drivers. Expect to pay about $50 per day. (For more information, see their listings in the section “Visitor Information & Tours,” below.) Also ask at any hotel front desk about rentals or shared vehicles for day trips.
By Motorbike You’ll pay about $10 per day for rental from your hotel. Best to go on a bike with driver and guide. Depending on where you plan to go. To Yok Don National Park, For Lak Lake, some 55km (34 miles) south, and for a combo trip including Dray Sap Waterfall. For a reliable and helpful driver, contact Mr. Tam Nguyen at 0932/474-242 (23 Nguyen Cong Tru St.).
Fast Facts Vietcombank has a branch at 6 Tran Hung Dao (0500/385-7899), and you’ll find a 24-hour ATM at Vietcombank ATM, located just west of the Victory Monument in front of the Thang Loi (Victory) Hotel. The Agricultural and Kural Development Bank at 37 Phan Boi Chau (0500/385-2433) can cash traveler’s checks, as can most hotel front desks.
Where To Dine
Quan Ngon Vietnamese A big, bright, flashy joint at night, this is the place locals drive by and say, “Expensive, ” before taking you to their favorite little place around the corner (at half the price). But by Western standards, Quan Ngon is cheap and serves good local fare, the usual stir-fries, rice and noodle dishes, and hot pots, as well as seafood brought in regularly from the coast and kept in tanks (I’d stick to land animals, thought). The place is always packed for lunch and dinner, and you might even catch a coffee plantation business lunch at this open-air, tin-roofed eatery. The restaurant is about a 5-minute walk east of the central square. The small attached coffee-and-liquor shop sells the local finest, as well as a funky collection of herbs and traditional medicines.
72-74 Ba Trieu. 0500/385-1909. No credit cards. Daily 10am-10pm.
Thanh Van’s Nem Nuong (Spring Rolls) Vietnamese A meal here is as cheap as it comes and it’s a tasty meal among locals. This shop is just one among about four on this little street just west of the Victory Monument, and right in the heart of the town’s most choice budget accommodations. Here’s the drill: Sit down and say “one” or just hold up a finger, and your table will be covered with dishes such as grilled pork and thin pork rind, white rice noodles, pickles, lettuce, a few sauces, and a plate of rice paper. You build ’em yourself, good fresh spring rolls. If you’ve never done it before and you struggle for a minute while everyone is watching and laughing someone will come over to show you how to do it. Lots of variations (keep an eye on techniques at adjacent tables), and the only way to do it wrong is to miss getting it in your mouth.
20 LyThuong Kiet, Buon Ma Thuot. 0500/385-9561 or 0914/093-990. No credit cards. Daily 8am-10pm.
The Ethnographic Museum The museum in a beat-up old colonial-style building adjoining a park and old administration buildings is hardly organized, but it show cases a good collection of the effects of local hill tribe peoples: the Ede, M’nong, Ra-glai Jarai, Bannar, and Cham. You’ll find an interesting array of traditional dress for each group and displays of everyday items such as the large M’nong whiskey jars, rattan back packs, wooden mortar and pestles for grinding grain, elaborate musical instruments and lots of farming and weaving implements. There’s a small model of a Rong House and a few interesting examples of the unique pillars used to mark graves, as well as various items of ritual statuary. One room features a hauda (a large, multi-person elephant saddle), elephant riding gear, and photos of local elephant culture. Sadly, there are few English explanations, but much is self-explanatory. This is the most interesting of the town’s three museums.
182 Nguyen Du St. 0500/385-0426. Daily 7: 30-11: 30am and 2-5pm
Revolutionary Museum For war buffs and history freaks, this faded collection of 253 photos is worth a visit if just for another chance to see the Vietnamese side of the story. You’ll find reproductions of classic images from the war, such as the “Girl in the Picture” or ” Crossing the River,” as well as more obscure shots of early U. S. advisors in the region and ethnic minority actions during the war years. The Hanoi government is still waging hard-fought and failing PR campaign to win hearts and minds of the ethnic minorities in the region, and images in this museum are heavy on the “local heroes,” or the hill tribe folks who supported the North during the revolution. The whole story of the revolution is told in the museum’s three rooms, and though there are few English signs (other than recognizable names), the clockwise progression through the museum is a good story and, as always, ends with faded glossies of the happy, fully functioning factories and farms of the present day. The nearby Historical Museum (18 Than Thuot St,) was under a major renovation at press time.
01 Le Duan St. 0500/385-2527. Daily 7: 30-11: 30am and 2-5pm
Sights Outside of Town
Originating in the high peaks deep inside the highlands’ long ridge, the Serepok River falls from on high, gouging dynamic ravines in layers of sediment and bedrock to form stunning falls before emptying into the wide, lazy Lak Lake to the far south. All of Buon Ma Thuot’s sights are along the river’s length. The best way to see the sights is to hire a motorbike on your own (from any hotel front desk) or arrange a tour with the town’s two tour agencies. Check the places below to create your day-trip itinerary. Typical 1-day trips include one of the following: Lak Lake, Yok Don, or Dray Sap Falls. Follow with a visit to the Ede village just outside of town.
Ede Village Just 15km (9,25 miles) south of town, this tiny parcel is an ethnic enclave set up by the Vietnamese government, something like their own “Strategic Hamlet Program” to deal with the perceived threat of splinter factions among ethnic minorities. The first house you come to in the village is the town’s English-speaking family, and you’ll certainly want to see if anyone’s home. One of the younger kids gave me a quick tour of the village, explaining how extended families live in segregated longhouses on stilts and that you can tell how many nuclear families are in one household by the number of windows. Folks are friendly, even if seeming shy, and it’s okay to take pictures if you ask first. With my guide, I was able to talk with some of the lads they wanted to know how much my camera cost and if I had a car. It feels like the village is set up for tourism, and it is (older ladies march out a few weavings they have on sale), but not too many tourists make it out this way, and the village is quite a welcoming place. Do not bring gifts or donations: However, if you plan to be in the area for any amount of time, find out what kind of needs there are and, with the help of a guide, offer some useful supplies (usually medicine or school supplies), but passing out bonbons or pens is not encouraged (even the village head himself asks visitors not to).
Dray Sap and Gia Long Waterfalls
These two stunning waterfalls are some 30km (19 miles) south of Buon Ma Thuot. Down opposite forks of the same entrance road, they’re a good day trip from Buon Ma Thuot. Note: Lak Lake and the falls, though both to the south are separate day trips it’s too much driving for 1 day.
First, Dray Sap Falls has a shaded kiosk area at the entry, a good place to buy a cool beverage after the long, dusty ride. Two paths connect to the falls from the kiosk, the lower road tracing the water’s edge up to the falls (don’t cross the bridge, as that path just leads to cotton fields and a less picturesque falls view) and the upper path of uneven cobble leading to the top of the falls. Take the low road and have a dip at the base of this stunning high waterfall created by a massive granite shelf. There are some good shaded areas, thanks to some massive, overhanging banyans and willows. The view from the top of the falls is great, and the rocky path is a fun climb that connects with the cobbled trail leading high above the bank back to the kiosk. Nearby Gia Long Waterfall is just a few clicks down a well-maintained service road, and this waterfall is even more dynamic, not so much for the falling water which is just a trickle in the dry season but for its steep rock formations. The whole area around the Gia Long Waterfall is eminently climbable.
Yok Don National Park North of Buon Ma Thuot
This park is a great place to travel among small communities of ethnic minorities, including skilled M’nong elephant mahouts. In this park Vietnam’s largest, at over 100, 000 hectares (247, 000 acres) you’ll find more than 60 species of mammals, including deer, monkeys, and even wild elephants, as well as a number of rare and endangered animals. You can take an elephant ride with a M’nong mahout, swim in the Serepok River, or take a good day hike to Ban Don, a small village set up for tourists. Yok Don is not only the largest park in Vietnam but the most temperate, with average temperatures in the mid-70s (mid-20s Celsius) and lots of rainfall. The park is 40km (25 miles) north of Buon Ma Thuot, and a trip here whether a day trip or an overnight in a home stay is best arranged through one of Buon MaThuot’s travel agents, Damsan or Daklak Tourist Overnight tours stay either in the very drab concrete-block guesthouse near the park entry or in Ban Don village at a longhouse set up for foreigner visitors. An overnight gives you a chance to spot animals in the early morning, but most folks do this as a day trip (start early for a chance to see some wildlife).
The 1, 5-hour bumpy ride south of Buon Ma Thuot to Lak Lake is a worthwhile day trip and a good access point to visit hill tribe villages. There are many groups of M’nong people, small splinter groups with disparate languages even, represented in the enclaves surrounding the lake. You enter the Lak Lake area via the Jun Village and can go by boat or on elephant back across the shallow waters to the adjacent M’Lieng Village. More adventurous tours take you by boat and then on foot farther back into the bush. When you visit the villages, note the large mounds outside of any enclave: When M’nong dies they put all effects and the body in a raised grave for 1 year, and then cremate it.
If you’re visiting the lake on your own, whether by hired motorbike or car, you’ll park in busy little Jun Village, alone worth a stroll to see what rural life along the lake is like, and from here exploration is best by boat. These trips are included if you book a tour, but you can also arrange them at the water’s edge with a bit of casual coffee drinking and shooting the breeze (and these figures are just points of departure for a bit of bargaining). Look for Mr. Duc, who speaks all of three English words (“You go boat”), at the first little coffee shop near the Tourist Information sign. He’s a real hoot, and his wife, Mai, cooks the best eats in town. Reach him by phone at 0500/358-6280 or 0905/371-633, and use a translator (or say “I go boat”).
Note: On a hilltop above the Jun Village area of Lak Lake is the little Hotel Biet Dien, operated by Daklak Tourist. The hotel offers great views, and there’s a fun “lodge” feel to the place, with old wood floors throughout. Large units are clean, if a bit sparse, but are more stylish than anything near the lake. You can sleep in Emperor Bao Dai’s actual former room, with great views of the north end of the lake. Because you’re really out in the sticks, this is more or less just a rural slumber party, but the place has a good restaurant, and the mostly French-speaking stalf is kind and accommodating. The place is run by Daklak Tourist, and they can make all necessary arrangements for transport there and staying overnight. Be sure to contact them beforehand, because the place gets booked with big French tour groups. Another good option is Lak Resort (0500/358-61184; Lien Son Townlet, southeast bank of Lak Lake), also run by Daklak Tourist. They have small 1950s-style bungalows in white and pastel green at the southeast end of the lake. They also have a small outdoor pool on-site.
Colfec is the name of the shopping game in Buon Ma Thuot, and just about everyone cells Trung Nguyen, the Vietnamese Coca-Cola of coffee (you can buy it or drink it in coffee shops just about anywhere). Trung Nguyen’s headquarters are in Buon Ma Thuot (268 Nguyen Tat Thanh St.; 0500/386-5116; www. trungnguyen.com.vn), and this company sponsors just about every other storefront. You’ll find vendors all along the streets around the market or the central Victory Monument. Also look for smaller outlets with lesser-known brands, the likes of Nam Nguyen (30 Tran Quang Khai St., near the White Horse Hotel; 0500/395-5255).
All of Buon MaThuot’s souvenir shops are geared toward Vietnamese domestic week enders from the larger cities, and large M’nong-style jugs of whiskey, a smaller replica of the hill tribe’s whiskey containers, are for sale along with the long straws that you use In get the stuff in you (some real fire water). The cool ceramic jugs are a nuisance to carry home on the bus/car/plane, but they’re not a bad gift if you plan to visit Vietnamese friends.