Buon Ma Thuot
Buon Ma Thuot lies about 190 km inland Nha Trang and around 200km north of Dalat. A large town in a coffee plantation area, it’s the provincial capital of Dak Lak province but its main interest for visitors are the natural surroundings and the thirty or so ethnic groups in the area. Dak Lak is warmer and more humid than Dalat, with a rainy season April to November.
The town itself is nondescript apart the Kha Doan Pagoda, an unusual combination of the features of an Ede long house with a roof designed in accordance with Hue imperial architecture. It was built to commemorate the wife of Emperor Khai Dinh – her son was Emperor Bao Dai, the last of the dynasty.
Most of Buon Ma Thuot’s attractions lie well away the town. They include the excellent Gia Long and Dray Nur waterfalls, both little visited. Gia Long is adjacent to ancient forest – Emperor Bao Dai used to hunt there.
The forest is spectacular – enormous trees, vines, and a profusion of insects. Nearby is a natural swimming pool, an almost rectangular basin with a sandy bottom.
On the other bank are the remains of a bridge and lake built by Bao Dai, now being slowly strangled by the lush vegetation.
Dray Nur is a complete contrast. Set in dry, arid land, its waters thunder over black volcanic rock. Its comparatively barren surroundings enhance the impact of the falls – standing at the bottom among the swirling mist, the noise is deafening.
Serene Lak Lake offers travel in a dugout canoe across the lake to ride working elephants and meet their mahouts through ethnic villages, some with homestay facilities.
About thirteen miles the town there is a settlement of Ede people who live in distinctive longhouses on stilts. It's a good starting point for a hike through Nam Kha Forest.
Further away to the northwest is Yok Don, Vietnam’s largest national park. Several ethnic groups live within it, notably the M’nong people who traditionally specialised in hunting and domesticating the wild elephants that roamed in the area.
However, the effects of US bombing and defoliation, together with loss of habitat agricultural encroachment have drastically reduced their numbers. The journey to Yok Don is quite taxing, but the forests are striking and there are many species of flora and fauna, some very rare.
Although depleted, there are still plenty left, both wild and domesticated. Elephant riding in Yok Don is the real McCoy rather than the gentler tourist version at Lak Lake. During the dry season, two-day safari-style forays the deep forest can be arranged. Homestays are possible, and there’s a few bedrooms available in the park’s headquarters – either way, don’t expect anything other than the most basic accommodation.