Buon Ma Thuot

The Central Highlands of Vietnam may be off the beaten track compared to some of Vietnam's more popular tourist destinations, but that doesn't mean the Highlands don't have something to offer. Dak Lak Province (also spelled Dac Lac) is one of these lesser known areas of Vietnam that nevertheless is well-worth a visit.

Buon Ma Thuot

In southern Vietnam's Central Highlands, not too far from the Cambodian border, is the city of Buon Ma Thuot. Unlike Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, and Da Nang, all of which have seen a significant bump in western tourism over the past decade or two, Buon Ma Thuot remains well off the beaten track. In other words, in Buon Ma Thuot, you'll get to witness a glimpse of the “real” Vietnam.

Buon Ma Thuot (also spelled Buon Ma Thuat or Ban Me Thuot) is the capital of Dak Lak Province. A bustling small city of about 300,000 people, it is the largest city in the Central Highlands region, and provides a great launch pad for adventures into attractions of the Central Highlands.

Fifty kilometres from Buon Ma Thuot, you can find the Don commune, which is the home to some of the very best elephant trainers in all of Southeast Asia. With a long history due to their prominence as elephant traders, the Don commune includes Cham towers and tombs that date back to the 13th century. Long since covered with moss, the tombs were once the burial grounds of wealthy tribal chiefs

Dak Lak Province and its Elephants

Buon Ma Thuot is the capital city of the province of Dak Lak, a province of lakes and waterfalls, rich forests, and ethnic minorities. During French rule, Dak Lak was a region of plantations, and coffee is still the main export from Dak Lak today, but when the Vietnamese rebelled against their colonisers during the First Indochina War, the region's minority tribes led quite a few of the rebellions themselves. The tribes had the same response to the American forces who came in during the Vietnam War; fighting was heavy in the 1960s and 70s during the war, and the first North Vietnamese tank to enter Buon Ma Thuot remains in the centre of the city as a reminder of this era.

The most famous residents of Dak Lak Province, however, are its elephants. The people of the Central Highlands have been known as phenomenal elephant riders and trainers for centuries now, and most tourists who visit Dak Lak can't pass up the opportunity to go for a ride on the back of one of these elephants.

In 2009, the province began work on a 200 hectare elephant sanctuary to protect both wild and domestic elephants. Located in Yok Don National Park, the elephant sanctuary is designed to protect one of the region's most precious natural resources. Dak Lak only has less than 115 wild elephants remaining, and even the domesticated elephant population is starting to rapidly shrink due to improper care and breeding techniques.

Yok Don National Park

Yok Don is one of the largest national parks in Vietnam - however it must be said it is not one of the most exciting to visit. A large part of the area reserved as parkland - and the area you are most likely to see on a short visit - has been replanted recently, and so there is none of the impressive old-growth forest with old trunks and creepers intertwining, more a fairly regular plantation of trees.

While it is commendable that the government is making an effort to replant forest that has been lost, it is unlikely the casual visitor will get as much out of a trip to Yok Don as they might from Cuc Phuong or Cat Tien parks where on arrival the visitor is already in fairly deep jungle, and the wilderness lies not to far from where you sleep. That being said, the area outside the park, around Yok Don and Buon Ma Thuot - and in particular the waterfalls - is stunningingly beautiful and definitely worth exploring.

Dray Sap Falls

Not far from Buon Ma Thuot are the Dray Sap falls, beautiful, broad waterfalls set in a horseshoe shape. Beyond the first set of falls are two more, all equally impressive. Although the falls aren't particularly high, they are very long. Swimming in the pools beneath the falls is not advisable, although some people enjoy trying anyway.

The area around the waterfalls include old growth forests, including banyan trees and willows, crisscrossed by vines and other plant foliage. A variety of birds and other wildlife can be spotted amongst these older trees. At the entrance of the falls is a kiosk area, which sells cold beverages and plenty of postcards.

Although it's not as famous, the close by Gia Long waterfall is also worth seeing while you're visiting the Dray Sap falls. During the dry season, Gia Long disappears to a mere trickle, but even then the steep rock formations around the falls are worth climbing and exploring for adventurous types.

Lak Lake

A little more than fifty kilometres from Buon Ma Thuot is Lak Lake. Home to one of the palaces of the last emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai, the valley and the 500 hectare lake is used as a resort getaway for wealthy Vietnamese. Today you can visit the palace of the emperor, and enjoy a panoramic view of the valley from his second floor balcony.

Tourists often enjoy traversing the lake in a dug-out canoe, travelling to different spots to see the lake's beautiful lotuses. Even though the lake is a very popular tourist destination, it's still wild, providing the local population with an abundance of fresh fish each year.

The Central Highlands region of Vietnam is filled with ethnic minorities and hill tribes that have inhabited the area for many centuries, and the area around Lak Lake is no different. On the south shores of the lake lies Jun Village, a traditional village of the M'nong people. With wood and rattan houses propped on stilts, and farm animals wandering through the street, Jun Village provides an educational glimpse into the daily lives of some of these rural hill people. For the adventurous visitor, you can rent a mattress for the night in one of the stilt longhouses for a mere £3.50.

Buon Ma Thuot and the surrounding area provide an intimate look at Vietnam that the tourists who stick to the big cities never get to see. If you're planning on exploring the Central Highlands, Buon Ma Thuot provides an excellent base of operations. From there, it's easy to trek out into various parts of Dak Lak Province, including Dray Sap falls, Lak Lake, and other popular spots.

Getting to and from Buon Ma Thuot

Buon Ma Thuot is a short but visually stunning 3hr drive from Nha Trang. The road from Dalat is also incredibly beautiful, though the road is extremely windy so it is not great for those who suffer from car sickness (read: most of your fellow passengers). From Buon Ma Thuot you may wish to continue on to Kon Tum or head back down to the coast at Nha Trang or Quy Nhon.

For exploring the region you are likely to need your own transport. Motorbikes can be hired in the town and there are numerous travel agents that can book tours, however you may wish to arrange these before you arrive.