In comparison to the resort town of Da Lat, Dak Lak is nearly unheard of. Most know about it as Vietnam’s largest coffee grower and exporter. Yet there is so much more hidden beneath the red basaltic soils. In fact, this under-the-radar province is in no hurry to reveal its treasures: stunningly beautiful sceneries and cultural richness.
Situated on the Central Highland, Dak Lak originated as part of the ancient Champa. The region was brought under the rule of Nguyen lords when Dai Viet annexed the kingdom in the 15th century. However, the control was relatively loose and the land had been left to the indigenous until the French occupation.
Majestic sceneries and cultural richness.
The French saw massive potential in this flat and fertile plateau. They established endless plantations, most notably coffee and rubber, and conducted forced labor on the local community. That resulted in fierce resistance among minority tribes, with multiple rebellions breaking out during this period. The province was later integrated into South Vietnam and it witnessed many actions in the American War.
Today, Dak Lak is still largely known for its coffee, fruit, and rubber. But in the last few years, there have been efforts to boost tourism in this region. Indeed, Dak Lak’s majestic scenery is second to none. And the native ethnic groups boast remarkable cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible.
1. Buon Ma Thuot
The first stop of my journey to Dak Lak was Buon Ma Thuot – a transportation hub and the provincial capital. The French selected this town as the administrative center of Dak Lak in 1904, rather than Don Village which has long-standing fame for elephant hunting and training. Since then, Buon Ma Thuot has grown into the most populous city in Central Highland, as well as Vietnam’s most prominent coffee producer. Parenthetically, the city got its name from a dubious Ede village chief, Ama Y Thuot, whose wealth is said to be the stuff of legend.
Like other urban centers in Vietnam, Buon Ma Thuot is undergoing a rapid transformation. There are few traces of yesteryears, except for the leafy boulevards and the residences of the last emperor, Bao Dai. Yet the city doesn’t revolve around tourism, thus travelers can expect some authentic experiences. For example, having Robusta in an authentic longhouse, learning about Dak Lak’s ethnic minorities at the Museum of Ethnography, or getting to know the different coffee cultures at the World Coffee Museum.
1.1 Ako Dhong Village
Located on the northern end of Buon Ma Thuot, Ako Dhong Village has long been home to the Ede community. They are among the most populous ethnic minority groups in Central Highland, with a total population of 330,000. In the past, the Ede primarily engaged in hunting, fishing, farming, and crafting. But now, they do the same jobs as the Kinh people (Vietnamese).
Ako Dhong features two dozen timber longhouses surrounded by colorful flowery yards. They are elevated on stilts and take the shape of boats. The Ede decorate their houses with wooden patterns and sculptures of humans and animals. Most are carved by axes.
Experience the Ede way of life.
The longhouses accommodate several generations of a clan or family. But these days, many Ede families built comfortable, modern buildings right next to these houses. They also transform the longhouses into cafes or homestays where guests can experience the Ede way of life.
Ede Longhouse and the Matriarchy
The longhouse is a symbol of Ede matriarchal culture. Traditionally, each time a woman in the house is getting married, the building is extended by one compartment so the newly wedded couple can move in. Hence, the longer the house, the more prosperous the family is.
The matriarchy is also vividly demonstrated on the front staircases. The female staircase is broader and often carved with the image of female breasts and crescent, while the male one is small and almost plain. Only daughters can inherit the family’s assets. And the youngest one will manage the house because she is responsible for the ancestor worshiping and taking care of the aging parents.
1.2 Dak Lak Museum of Ethnography
To get the full picture of the ethnic minorities in Dak Lak, there is no better place than the Dak Lak Museum of Ethnology. Completed in 2011, this museum resembles a gigantic longhouse but is inspired by the best lessons of Vietnam modernism. It features a two-axis structure (one long and one short) and a roof-like facade predominated by straight and clean lines. The museum stands on the grounds of Bao Dai’s former residence – a vast green area dotted with ancient trees.
With over 10,000 objects on display, visitors can pick up knowledge about the cultures of 44 ethnic groups living in Dak Lak. There are outfits, weapons, ritual tools, dugouts, and even scale models of traditional architecture. The museum also shows the area’s impressive biodiversity, as well as the history of Buon Ma Thuot. One aspect that I found surprisingly progressive is the item descriptions. Aside from the Vietnamese, French, and English descriptions, the museum provides explanations in multiple ethnic languages, allowing ethnic minorities to know more about their own artifacts.
1.3 World Coffee Museum
Another museum that takes inspiration from the traditional longhouse is the World Coffee Museum. Opened in late 2018, this museum consists of five curving structures, with white elongated walls and stone tiled roofs that measure up to 16 meters high. The interior is typically minimalist, with unpainted walls and little to no decorations. The only bursts of colors come from the exhibiting objects.
From containers, grinders, kettles to coffee makers, thousands of artifacts are related to various coffee cultures are on display. They are collected from around the world through multiple periods. Many come directly from the Coffee Museum in Hamburg – a city that has also made a fortune thanks to this hot drink. Apart from the exhibition areas, the museum has an interactive space where visitors can literally enjoy coffee with all five senses.
2. Dray Nur Waterfall
Leaving Buon Ma Thuot, I made my way to Dray Nur (or Drai Anur in the Ede language), a massive waterfall located 25 kilometers from the city. It is the largest and most majestic waterfall in Dak Lak, measuring 250 meters long and up to 30 meters high. The waterfall is fed by the Srepok River – a major tributary of the Mekong River that flows into the Central Highland via northeastern Cambodia. There is a cave underneath the water wall where you can experience nature at full force.
Due to geological activities, a gigantic rock formation rises up in the middle of the Srepok, splitting it into two smaller rivers. As these rivers run downstream, they create Dray Nur (Female or Wife Waterfall) and Dray Sap (Male or Husband Waterfall). This unique formation has inspired the local people to make up a “Romeo and Juliet” version of the forest, albeit with a more satisfying ending: Mother Nature punishes two rival families by separating them forever with two mighty rivers.
3. Lak Lake
My journey continues in the vast and peaceful Lak Lake – a natural wonder just 52 kilometers from Buon Ma Thuot. The lake covers an area of about 6.2 km2, making it the largest freshwater reservoir in Central Highland. It is also Vietnam’s second-largest body of freshwater, after Ba Be Lake. Lak Lake is supplied by the Krong Ana River, thus even in the dry season, it rarely dries up.
The drive there, through idyllic rural landscapes, was the icing on the cake. As our car passed the coffee plantations, which were in full bloom in February, a pleasant aroma wafted in. Its sweet scent reminded me of pomelo flowers and is totally different from that of coffee. Then after an hour, an immense lake fringed by rolling hills appeared on the horizon. It glittered under the midday sun, causing my heart to skip a beat. Each hour casts the mirror-like lake in a different light, and so often, it creates fascinating scenery.
Mnong People and Lak Lake
For centuries, Lak Lake has been home to the Mnong, a tribe that earns living mainly by farming and fishing. They can be seen fishing in traditional dugouts or mill wooden boats. These people are also great potters. With their skillful hands, they can turn mud and clay into masterpieces. The Mnong culture is strongly influenced by the Ede’s, from outfits, customs to the matriarchal system. To the Mnong, Lak Lake is a holy place and there are many stories related to this lake, including occult phenomena and monsters.
But the one that strikes me most is the myth behind the lake’s name. Once upon a time, a Mnong woman named Y Lak caught a small, sacred eel. But after a few days, this creature grew enormous in size, and subsequently expanded the water body forming its habitat. Later, locals named the lake Dak Lak, which means Y Lak’s water. And this paved the way for the present name of both the lake and the province. Regarding Y Lak, she is believed to become the wife of the Lake God (the eel) and she has lived at the depth ever since.
On the shore of Lak Lake, I met M’Tau – a female domesticated elephant. In the Mnong language, that name means Princess. And she was treated rightly so. Unlike those in captivity, M’Tau looks pretty happy: healthy skin, round belly, strong toenails, and especially no stink at all. The mahout told me M’Tau love taking a bath, so when seeing water she will rush into it (not forget to bring a banana tree root with her). He has grown up with her, so there is a bond between them. Things like cages or chains are totally unnecessary. He added that several greedy masters use these tools just to break the mind of the elephants, forcing them to work.
Normally, the mahout leaves M’Tau in the forest behind the lake. Per request, he will walk with her (2-3 hours) to the lake so guests can observe her from a short distance. M’Tau can do whatever she likes, and the mahout is there mainly to keep her safe. This life is hardly comparable to that of a wild elephant, but at least for M’Tau, she is emotionally and physically at ease. Though the Dak Lak government has banned the cruel treatment of elephants (riding inclusive), it might take years for the mahouts to change their behavior. After all, their livelihood relies on the elephants.
Tips for visiting Dak Lak
- Buon Ma Thuot – the transportation hub of Dak Lak – is accessible by plane from most major cities in Vietnam. There are also intercity buses from Saigon. The trip takes appoximately 7.5 hours.
- It is possible to combine Dak Lak with Da Lat in a itinerary. The distance between Buon Ma Thuot and Da Lat is 210 kilometers on winding road. From Dak Lak, you can travel north to further explore the Central Highland.
- The park around the Museum of Ethnology is a perfect place to unwind. There is also a gorgeous villa in Vietnam modernist style. It is said to be the house of Madame Xuan – sister-in-law of President Ngo Dinh Diem.
- As the capital of coffee, it’s not difficult to find a beautiful cafe in Buon Ma Thuot. But Arul Coffee in Ako Dhong left me with the strongest impression. Set in a traditional longhouse, this cafe serves robusta in a very classic way.
- Though Dray Nur and Dray Sap officially belong to two different provinces, they are connected by a suspension bridge crossing the Srepok River. You will need to walk through the coffee plantation to reach this bridge.
- Dray Nur is less known and often mistaken for the Dray Sap Waterfall system. Even Google has difficulty differentiating between them (search Dray Sap and you will see pictures of Dray Nur). However, if you only have time for one, opt for Dray Nur. It is larger and looks way more spectacular. Dray Sap, in my opinion, looks mediocre.
- Lak Lake is just one hour away from the city, making it an easy day-trip destination. But if you want to linger, Lak Tented Camp offers comfortable tents and bungalows. The location of this eco-lodge is also excellent, setting on the hill facing the water.