Not many tourists make it to Daklak, which is one of the reasons why it’s attractive. But it’s easy to get to from Saigon – eight hours by bus or 40 minutes by plane (Air Mekong or Vietnam Airlines, for around VND1 million one-way) to Buon Ma Thuot, the spacious and relaxed regional capital.
Daklak’s charms are waterfalls, elephants, and the milky fermented drink called ruou can. But coffee is what’s most in evidence – tall bushes growing, not in large fields, but in dense plantations clustered round small farmhouses. Vietnam is now the world’s second largest coffee producer after Brazil.
As good a place as any to stay in Buon Ma Thuot is the White Horse (Bach Ma) Hotel on Nguyen Duc Canh, with rooms from US$37. It’s clean, comfortable, and even has orange-juice, coffee and fried eggs in the breakfast buffet.
The best way to get around is to rent a motorbike for the day, with or without a driver. None of the main attractions is close by, and though there are buses, relying on them restricts your independence in a way that a sturdy bike never does. The cost with a driver should be around VND200,000 to VND300,000 per day.
Daklak is part of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, and the road from Saigon is a gentle but continuous climb. It’s currently being made the first section of the new road from Saigon to Hanoi so you necessarily have to take the rough with the smooth. Even so, coming all the way by bike, as one lady I met said she’d done, seemed unnecessarily arduous.
The best waterfalls are to the south of the city, and you can easily see several in one day. The best I saw was Thac Dray Nur, where a huge amount of water cascades down over a wide cliff, even in the dry season. There’s little you can do except be photographed against such scenic splendor, but it’s a fine experience nonetheless.
Less dramatic is Thac Gia Long, some 20 minutes’ ride from Thac Dray Nur. But this series of falls has the advantage that you can clamber over the rocks above and between them. It’s a different kind of experience, but in its way equally attractive.
To get to the elephants, head north to Buon Don, around an hour’s drive away. You won’t see wild herds, but going for a ride on a tame one (two people per animal) is easily arranged. They wade through a fast-flowing river, and then climb back up onto the bank using their knees.
You can also take a boat trip on the same river, with around ten people to a vessel. Elephant and boat trips both last around 15 minutes, though longer excursions can be arranged. The elephant rides cost VND80,000 (for two people), while the boats are VND20,000 per person.
Daklak’s altitude of around 500 meters means that, like Dalat, it’s cold at nights. But during the dry season it’s sunny and crisp by day, so early to bed, and then an early start in the morning, is recommended. Besides, Buon Ma Thuot doesn’t have a lot to offer in the way of nightlife.
But there’s always ruou can. This fermented rice wine is around 20% alcohol per volume, and is drunk communally through long straws from large jars. But water is continually added, so the strength varies and, just when you feel you’ve had enough, more of the watered-down version is offered. Taken in moderation it’s a very congenial drink, with little in the way of unpleasant after-effects. It’s on sale everywhere in Daklak. By Bradley Winterton in Daklak.
Elephants in the river at Buon Don
Rickety bridge at Thac Gia Long waterfall – Photos: Bradley Winterton