Buon Ma Thuot Detour
By Robert Reid
Fresh coffee, hill tribe overnights and a fake tank–just part of the charms of the Central Highland town, a step (or two) off the beaten path near Nha Trang.
As I climbed aboard the 24-person bus leaving Nha Trang with 37 people already on, I was still clinging to a little of that naive “conquering” spirit that energizes (then burdens) so many travelers when they arrive in a place like Vietnam. I was going to get away from touristy places with their clean $7 guesthouses, 20-cent banana splits and cafes of huddled backpackers-even if it killed me. I’d discover the “real” Vietnam. Something even more exotic than what is shaping up as the new Ho Chi Minh Trail-all comfortable and coastal, through Hue, Hoi An and Nha Trang.
I had had my eye on inland Buon Ma Thuot for a while, mostly because of its strange schizophrenic name. Sometimes called Buon Ma Thuot, sometimes Ban Me Thuot. No one I asked in Ho Chi Minh City could explain why. They just told me of the elephants and coffee I’d find there. And the hill tribes. When I got a week off not long ago, I decided to solve the mystery for myself.
Buon Ma Thuot, the capital of Dak Lak Province, lies on a plateau in the Central Highlands north of Dalat. BMT has always been famous for its coffee and the aroma greets you on the streets. The orange-brown dirt everywhere adds to the illusion that the sky had just opened up and rained freshly ground coffee all over the quiet town.
Few tourists have made it here yet, but the French did long ago. Taking over coffee and rubber plantations in 1880, they soon transformed an unknown backward village into a somewhat prosperous “city.” Even today the spread-out town of about 130,000 seems better off than others of its size in Vietnam.
The Americans were the next noteworthy visitors, followed, of course, by the North Vietnamese Army, who came in on March 10, 1975. The first Russian-made T-34 tank to arrive that day had stood for years at the start of Nguyen Chi Thanh Street, as a sense of pride for the city. Or, at least a source of income for the many photographers nearby-snapping shot after shot of teens in “California” t-shirts. Sadly, the real tank-and BMT’s only real landmark-was hauled off to the Army Museum in Hanoi last January (but wasn’t on display there when I visited in May). The photo business still booms, though, with a new fake tank in its place.
Just across the street is the other popular posing spot, the new and typically modern, Thang Loi Hotel, with characterless rooms starting at $45. Buon Ma Thuotniks swear its restaurant serves “the best food in town,” a sad statement for Dak Lak cuisine. I chose to stay two blocks away, and for $25 less, at the silent disco/karaoke Cao Nguyen Hotel at 57 Phan Chu Trinh. The large and youthful staff, surprised to see a guest, left their parking-lot volleyball game behind to watch me check in.
Back toward the tank, the wooden lodge at 3 Phan Chu Trinh-more Rocky Mountain than Central Highland-houses the unusually helpful Dak Lak Tourist Office. Speaking English and welcoming me with smiles and a free map, Mr. An actually suggested that I don’t hire their tour guide because it’s “much cheaper” without one. (Definitely not Ho Chi Minh City!) But a guide would be your best bet if you’re traveling in BMT with a group.
For over an hour, I spoke with him, one of the trip’s highlights, listening eagerly as he unraveled the history of the town and, more importantly, its name. It seemed simple enough. He told me the Ede and M’Nong people had lived in the area for centuries. Buon Ma Thuot means “Thuot’s father’s village” in the Ede language. And Ban Me Thuot, means the same in M’Nong. In their languages, a father is renamed after a son is born. So, for example, if I were Ede and I had a son named Benny, I’d be called Benny’s Father. And because Mr. Thuot’s dad was an Ede, Buon Ma Thuot is, as I see it, the right name. (No offense to any M’Nong readers.)
With that mystery solved, I was ready to explore. The big attractions of Buon’s Father’s Village are at least an hour out of town-like the popular $40 elephant rides or an overnighter in a M’Nong longhouse at Lak Lake. (Both no longer require tricky travel permits, just ticket fees.) For the first day, I decided to stay in town.
A ride on a bicycle borrowed from a hotel employee quickly proved BMT isn’t as flat as it looks. I puffed my way around a central market, bought a “Buon Ma Thuot” hat and was offered a fruit gift from a crew of teenage boys walking down the middle of the street. Then I wove my way through a crowd outside the concrete church opposite the “fake tank” returning many “hellos” and smiles. Nearby, The Revolutionary Museum was inexplicably closed–and stayed that way during my visit. So I stopped for coffee and a lonely small talk or two. A peaceful town, yes. But pretty boring. Laughter-joyful and taunting-seemed to be coming from over the hills in Nha Trang.
But I bounced back with a real highlight: a French prison! Tucked away and hard to find on a dirt alley at 18 Tan Thuat, the prison was built in 1930 for Viet Minh prisoners, then later for the NVA and Viet Cong captured by the Americans. These days, mostly weeds occupy it, although a gardener’s family was replacing them with new plants and unusual wood sculptures. Three schoolgirls, who lived nearby, volunteered as guides, cheerfully showing me where Vietnamese were once stuffed into hot-box cells to suffer BMT’s surprising heat. Then they posed for photos with the old ball-and-chain lying freely in the courtyard, the broken shackle around one of their ankles.
The next morning, I awoke to learn that three guys of the hotel staff typically wanted “to practice English with a foreigner” and were taking me 15 1/2 miles to Dray Sap Falls. An hour later, my guides pointed at the “famous” falls named after smoke, but all I saw were the piles of abandoned picnic garbage and empty pop bottles and beer cans. Trash was everywhere. A couple garbage cans-and a little cooperation-could do a world of good in Dak Lak Province.
More enjoyable was a quick stop at a random Ede village on the way back. Naked children cannonballed into the chocolate-colored swimming hole, as an elder shyly introduced himself in French, then in English. The backdrop: rows of flowered coffee trees, traditional wooden longhouses and just a hint of pig dung.
If you can’t get your fill of Ede or M’Nong traditional clothing or tools at a village-and most were wearing t-shirts and jeans, I’ll admit-pay the buck to see the Hill Tribe Museum on Nguyen Du Street, housed in the old Summer Palace of Vietnam’s last emperor, Bao Dai. A guide there knows a little English, but there’s not a lot to see…a model of a longhouse, some clothing. A worker there had some “vintage” blouses that she was willing to sell for about $30 to $50. They looked like they were straight out of the exhibits. I went with the ugly Dak Lak postcards, just $2.50.
After two days, it was clear that “roughing it” had its price. Despite the generosity of my tireless guides, my money supply was nearly exhausted. And the costs for meals (often at the same noodle shops) were, strangely, rising. Forty-dollar elephant rides were out. So, I decided to spend my last night 37 miles closer to Dalat at the M’Nong village at Lak Lake for $5. The two-hour ride through hill tribe villages on hilly, gravel roads was a real treat-until my rented Honda had the characteristic breakdown in the middle of nowhere; a real scare for about 30 minutes. When I pulled into the M’Nong village an hour later-covered in dust, sweat and dead bugs-I was thinking more of Saigon comfort. But not for long.
The M’Nong-refreshingly incurious-let me be. I spent the afternoon wandering the village and shores of Lak Lake, peeking into their daily lives. Surely the same as the day before when the foreigner wasn’t there. At last, a few teen boys–who had been shyly showing off their fish catch of the day–took me by hand to a small rowboat for a sunset cruise on the still water, the most memorable image of the trip.
Their wooden longhouses, standing on short stilts, are well named-kind of like New York City railroad apartments, but with a room for each generation of the family. I got one for myself to share with a M’Nong man and his Dr. Zhivago mustache. We smiled and then he turned out the gas-lantern. Wide-awake, I stared into the dark as TVs blared in surrounding homes and pigs goofed off underneath us. It was 7:30pm. The M’Nong retire early.
I beat them waking up though-rather concerned about making my noon flight-and drove back to BMT semi-leisurely, stopping to see the sunrise over the lake as Dak Lak-ers (and the bugs) made their first stir in the cool morning.
Back in BMT, I was touristed out. And dirty. I got to the airport nearly three hours early and with 25,000 dong (about two bucks) in my pocket. I had mentioned to my newly made friends, including the guy I rented the bike from who took me to the airport, that I’d be back again in a “few months.” But would I? My thoughts were elsewhere. When that plane came in from Danang I’d be the first one on.
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If you go, by all means contact the tourist office for a list of tours and packages. Or just drop by for some Dak Lak gossip: (50) 52108, 52324. Thang Loi Hotel: (50) 52322. Cao Nguyen Hotel: (50) 85193. Vietnam Airlines flies twice daily into BMT from HCM City, and now from Danang and Hanoi as well. If you take a bus, the least-evil road is Highway 26 from Nha Trang. But it’s also possible to come in from Dalat, though Highway 27 is really rough, and service may not be frequent. The bus station is 1 1/4 miles from the center of town. Motorcycle drivers (Honda om) will be waiting to take you.