Buon Ma Thuot may not be as well known as other places in Vietnam such as Hanoi, but it is worth seeing. It is the provincial capital of Dak Lak (or Dac Lac) Province and approximately 360 kilometres from Saigon, deep in the Central Highlands of the country. Despite being one of the biggest towns in the Central Highlands, Buon Ma Thuot is only visited by a few tourists because it is off the beaten track. However, this town can serve as a starting point for those who want to see the attractions in the area.
Buon Ma Thuot is a small but busy place. With a population of about 300,000, it is home to ethnic minorities like the Jarai and Rhade peoples. The place is historically relevant because it was the site of the last major confrontation between the North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese armies back in March 1975. These days, however, Buon Ma Thuot is better known for its coffee.
Buon Ma Thuot does not have attractions on offer. What it does offer, however, is easy access to the attractions in its immediate area. This is the reason why Buon Ma Thuot is considered a good base for excursions and outdoor trips.
In the immediate area of Buon Ma Thuot, beautiful waterfalls are one of the best attractions. Gia Long and Dray Nur are impressive but if you have to visit just one waterfall, it should be Dray Sap, which can be found in a stunning rainforest.
Another must-visit attraction is the Yok Don National Park which is considered the largest nature reserve in Vietnam and here visitors can find rare animals and birds, as well as endangered species. However, ethnic tribes such as the Ede and M'nong live here as well and they are known to domesticate wild elephants.
Other attractions accessible through Buon Ma Thuot are the Ban Don Village and the Lak Lake. The former is a village notable for its tribal architecture, while the latter provides an idyllic scene where one can witness the slow pace of rural living. On the shore of the lake is June Village, where people live in thatched-roof houses on stilts.
Finding a good place to eat in Buon Ma Thuot may be a challenge, but the quest will prove to be rewarding to those who try.
Ninh Hoa is a Vietnamese dish of meat and vegetables wrapped in rice paper and soaked in peanut sauce. It is served in some restaurants found in Ly Thuong Kiet, close to the inexpensive hotels. There are many places that serve noodles, but the best ones can be found in Quan Com Tieu Linh in Hung Vuong.
Western food is quite scarce, but Bon Trieu is worth a try. Found on Hai Ba Trung beside Dam San Tourist, the establishment has an English-language menu with some dishes made with a Western twist. Those looking for a gastronomic adventure can go to Thanh Hung on Nguyen Dinh Chieu, where the meals are exotic. Meanwhile, locals recommend the Damsan Hotel's restaurant for delicious Vietnamese fare at reasonable prices.
The thing that makes up for the lack of dining options in Buon Ma Thuot is the coffee. The town's coffee is smooth and rich, with a hint of chocolate. The locals drink it either extra strong or extra sweet, with condensed milk and ice.
Buon Ma Thuot is not a destination for the ultimate in nightlife. Visitors should not expect clubs, pubs and bars in a provincial town tucked in the Central Highlands. There are no disco lights, pulsing beats or live music to be found here.
Buon Ma Thuot is very much a rural area and is not as lively at night. However, there are some places which can be considered as night time destinations, even though they do not fit in the typical night life scene.
The Forget Me Not Cafe may be quiet during the day, but at night it comes alive. This is due to the karaoke sessions held every night from 19:00 to 22:00. Those who want to end their day with a drink can check out the beer joints in Buon Ma Thuot, most of which are found in the intersection of Mac Thi Buoi and Phan Boi Chau Streets. Bach Dang on Quang Trung Street also serves cheap bia hoi on tap.
In this town, shopping options are very limited and tourists who expect to find a wide selection of merchandise will be disappointed. Because coffee is Buon Ma Thuot's best-known product, it is also the main commodity. Coffee is sold everywhere in town and you can buy whole coffee beans, ground coffee, even the ready-to-drink variety. The best place to buy coffee beans is at the intersection of Hoang Dieu and Phan Chu Trinh Streets. Trung Nguyen is considered as the 'Coca-Cola' of Vietnamese coffee and is sold in many places, but its main store is on Nguyen Tat Thanh Street.
Those who want to give souvenirs to friends can purchase small replicas of M'nong-style jugs. These jugs are used by the hill tribes to store whiskey and are cool souvenirs, but they can be difficult to carry and transport. The jug replicas are sold in the souvenir shops of Buon Ma Thuot.
What are the best things to do when in Buon Ma Thuot? There are several activities that can keep a visitor preoccupied in this town. However, at the top of the list is elephant riding. In Ban Don Village, there are guides who can take a visitor into the Yok Don National Park and across the Serepok River by riding an elephant. Visitors will find that the huge creatures are actually quite gentle, and that the elephants love playing in the water. The M'nong people, who live in the park, are the ones who take care of the elephants.
Visitors can also head on over to the Dak Lak Province Museum and check out the Ethnographic Exhibit where you can learn a lot about the history, culture, customs and traditions of hill tribes in Buon Ma Thuot.
However, if visitors want to cool down after a long day, they can go and enjoy the Dak Lak Waterpark.
Buon Ma Thuot is a short three-hour drive from Nha Trang, and the trip affords passengers a view of beautiful landscapes. It can also be reached from Dalat, but the road is very winding. One can ride a bus to get to the town but to better explore the region, a travellers should have their own means of transportation.
Buon Ma Thuot experiences a tropical monsoon climate with two different seasons. The rainy season begins in May and ends in October; the dry season begins in November and ends in April. The best time to visit is during the dry season. The scenery is not as lush, but at least it makes getting around more convenient and less stressful.
A travel permit is needed before going to any of the surrounding villages in Buon Ma Thuot. This can be acquired from the Dak Lak Tourist Association but if a traveller books a tour with a travel agent, it becomes the agent's responsibility to get the permit.