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 1/4 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 (pay just 8,000 VND to enter), 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 homestay -- is best arranged through one of Buon Ma Thuot'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).
Lak Lake -- The 1 1/2-hour bumpy ride south of Buon Ma Thuot to Lak Lake is a worthwhile day trip and a good access point to visit hilltribe 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 die, 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. For a 1-hour boat ride on Lak Lake and across to the M'Lieng village, expect to pay about $10 for an hour. You can do the same trip by elephant for $30. 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 tel. 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. For just $30, you can sleep in Emperor Bao Dai's actual former room, with great views of the north end of the lake. The six units here range from $20 to $30. 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 staff 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 (tel. 0500/358-6184; 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're spacious and clean, and a good bargain at $25. They also have a small outdoor pool on-site. Serious budget travelers can stay in a longhouse for $8. For more information, contact Daklak Tourist in Buon Ma Thuot at Lien Son Street, Lak District, Daklak (tel. 0500/358-6767).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.