Dak Lak is well off the beaten track in Vietnamese travel maps. The province, however, builds on this reputation to emerge as one of the classiest natural-scenic-heavenly-whatever-it-is destinations of the country. And by classiest, it’s worth every penny out of your pocket, unlike other popular tourist traps of Vietnam. I recently spent 3 days at the province on a backpacker capacity, and regret that those were not enough.
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Dak Lak is the largest province of the Central Highland, a region in the south of central Vietnam. The province, much like its neighbors, is known as the home for a large chunk of ethnic minorities living intermixably with dominant Vietnamese peoples. In Buon Ma Thuot, its capital city, you easily bump into indigenous people, some with highly exotic colourful-plus-black clothing. Dak Lak also prides itself as the land of coffee, or the coffee kingdom as some locals like to call it (Vietnam is world’s second biggest coffee producer, for your info). Put Saigon and Hanoi to shelf, since the ratio of café in Buon Ma Thuot seems to be the highest in Vietnam.
The place is one hell of a rich area and has a great deal of tourist potential, no doubt about it. But for some reason unknown to humankind, travel enthusiasts haven’t caught up with what it offers. On international scale, Dak Lak is virtually alien, hence very few numbers of foreign travelers in even its most popular spots. The unlocked potential, to me, is exactly the charm of this place. It hasn’t been spoiled by visitor overload, unsustainable tourism, and to date, development projects.
For a short summary, this place holds some stunning waterfalls, national parks of forest and mountains, wild animals, odd plants, and a buttload of fragrant coffee fields. You cannot find most of them elsewhere (because frankly you can’t move a waterfall of a mountain), thus the feeling of originality really arises.
How to get to Dak Lak
Buon Ma Thuot city is your primary stop. The provincial capital is well-connected by Vietnam Airlines, Vietjet Air and Jetstar, with daily flights from and to Hanoi, Da Nang and Saigon. Sadly, the airport does not serve international flight. If you prefer driving, National Road 14 from Saigon is the direct way for 350 comfortable kilometres. No railway is available at the moment, or ever.
A 3-day itinerary in Dak Lak
I arrived in Buon Ma Thuot airport at 8pm one evening. Ridiculously, only one taxi company appeared to serve the place. Later I found there would be three, green Mai Linh, white Quyet Thang and yellow Tien Sa, but their aggrement allows each to occupy the airport for one full day. People say there’s no taxi scam in this city, and I confirm that. The journey to the city is only 8km, or 15 minutes by turtle’s pace.
I stayed at the highly recommended youthful Highland House, a mixed hotel-hostel-café with dorm beds and spacious private rooms. The hotel is a bit out of centre, but I had no problem with walking and admittedly, taxi rate here is actually cheap. The hotel provides motorbike and bycicle rent. Motorbike is greatly popular by travelers since most destinations are at least 20km outside the city. But in the end I chose bus for all my trips because, in case you haven’t read the previous sentences, I like walking. All buses runs through the main Nguyen Tat Thanh street, so you will never miss one.
Buon Ma Thuot has all kinds of accommodation. Take a few minute looking at Booking.com or Agoda and you will get lost. Most big hotels, nevertheless, stay at least 1km from city centre.
For explanation, Buon Ma Thuot is a bit of a surprise to first-timers to the city. Rarely called out in the news or on TV, the city is nicely developed with modern houses and orderly blocks, looks wealthy with lots of cars. The car-population ratio is believed to be high in the country. But then again, remember that this place is the mother of all coffee production in Vietnam. And they export coffee. A lot.
To save time, I woke up before 6 and were ready to go at 7.30. Most spots require at least half a day, so I thought I would have enough time for lunch. That proved to be my standard for the whole 3 days.
Dray Sap and Dray Nur waterfalls
My first target was the Dray Sap-Dray Nur waterfall complex, 25km to the southwest, arguably the closest worth visiting. After walking 1.5km to the bus stop on Nguyen Tat Thanh street and waited for ages, I finally caught bus no.13 (called Buon Ma Thuot – Krong No). You just need to say “Thac” (Vietnamese for waterfall) to the conductor and she will give you suitable ticket. For this distance, my ticket wrote VND 23.000 ($1).
You know what, all buses in Buon Ma Thuot are pan-provincial services, which mean the full journey takes at least 60km. The buses are therefore also treated as shipping carriers. You will often see them stop to take on goods, some even as big and long as pipeline. If you’re in hurry, this loading/unloading really annoys you. Fortunately I had too much time to waste.
After 25km, the bus dropped me off out of nowhere. A pretty remote place with few roadside eateries, apparently to lure travelers like me. I wasn’t interested. The Dray Sap waterfall entrance appeared ahead. Now it’s the complicated part. The official but usually forgotten name of the complex is Dray Sap-Gia Long waterfalls(not Dray Sap-Dray Nur as people claim), which comprises 2 distinct waterfalls. The Dray Nur is actually few hundred metres nearby. That makes 3 in a group. To make it worse, Dray Nur is the only one in Dak Lak, since the other 2 belongs to the neighbouring Dak Nong province.
Adult ticket for Dray Sap-Gia Long costs VND 40.000. Behind the entrance, I met a junction with a road sign. It says turn right for 7km to Gia Long waterfall, turn left for 1km to Dray Sap. No right turn for me; I had not enough time for 7km and back. So I walked through the left road filled with trees and rocks, passing restaurant and hotel, and through the legendary local Serepok river. 20 minutes later, I got to the Dray Sap waterfall.
This fall drops to a manifestly pure lake. It was dry season so water was clearly not in full swing. Indeed, it looked a bit sad. The lack of water, however, exposed the amazing 30m high and curvy cliff. Water slowly fell from cliff top, greened the lake, and flowed to the glassy Serepok. In rainy season, this waterfall is known to be fierce though, so as the river, and proves a heaven for photographer. Now at 10, quite some groups of tourists sat at the waterfront and took tons of dull selfie. And so did I.
I saw a concrete stairs to the waterfall top. If you step up and then turn right, you will get on a rocky path to the top. It was really dry there, so I was able to stand close to water source on its yellow cliff. This is where the Serepok river pours into the sudden bottom, but its dryness made the pouring so gentle. The view was monumental. Wild but hamornized.
I asked a guard where the Dray Nur waterfall was. “Walked to the suspension bridge and turn left,” he said. It was him who warned me not to stand to close to water at the top or I would have fallen down. I crossed the long red bridge over Serepok to an island, turned left only to find that the back entrance to Dray Nur there was blocked with a fence. The security there told me Dray Nur was a different area, and I would need to pay for a ticket of VND 30k to get through his hastily-made fence. No problem, since the real main entrance requires one full hour driving from the main road.
Path to Dray Nur is straightforwardly short. A few steps and then the big Dray Nur filled my eyes. It really resembles the previous one. But if anything, it outsizes Dray Sap and falls to another lake, which happens to be bigger than the one at Dray Sap too. For records, the Serepok splits into 2 branches, flows through these 2 waterfalls and then merges again. For this, the 2 are often unofficially called Husband and Wife waterfalls.
Few bunches of teenagers were having picnic nearby the lake. There was a popular food stall with grilled chicken, bamboo-tube rice and BBQ. I felt much joy when realizing that was all, and the place had not been damaged by overwhelming visitor service. Moderate sunshine and cool weather made the atmosphere so great that I stopped there for so long throughout the noon.
The only thing I regretted that this was not rainy season, when the 2 falls ferociously flow and move hearts and souls. At that time, people say they are just real wonders.
It was 2pm now so I went back to Dray Sap-Gia Long entrance to wait for the bus back to Buon Ma Thuot. Funnily, I hopped on the exact bus of the morning, with the same driver and ticket conductor who even remembered where I would get off in city centre.
Verdict: 9/10. Must see in Dak Lak. Full stop.
Ea Kao lake
3.30pm now and there was no time for one more major journey. So I asked a bike taxi to ride me to the Ea Kao lake, a big artificial hydroelectric lake 12km away. If Google Image is to be believed, you will find hundreds of photos of Ea Kao at sunset because the place is exactly nice for this, especially with fishermen hovering over.
I was not lucky; the wind roared and there was no fisherman to be found. Young boys and girls playing on its embankment made it lively though. And then the sun went down, slowly and gloriously enough to be captured by my Fujifilm. After a long walking day, this glamour filled the void in the serene me. In nice weather, the lake often sees photographers wander like bees. I was just not lucky.
Verdict: 6/10. Great for afternoon relax and picnic.
Yok Don national park
I’m sort of obsessed with national parks, and Dak Lak presents itself with 2 of such kind. So I took bus no.15 (called Buon Ma Thuot – Ban Don) on the second morning to Yok Don national park. Ticket price was VND 20k for 40km.
My plan was hire a guide to trek through the jungle at VND 200k for 3-5 hours. It turned out that I should have booked beforehand since there was no guide available to cater for only me. The park’s receptionist kindly arranged to merge my wish with an Austrian couple’s prebooked tour. She even exempted the VND 200k service fee for me (!). I still had to pay VND 60k for entrance and VND 100k for the boat ride back to entrance at the end of the trek though.
So our guide Y Danh Nie (a famous guide of Ede ethnic, you can find him on Google) led us for a 3-hour walk into the renowed khop jungle. Khop means trees with big canopy and low density that usually shed heavily during dry season, leaving them denuded and easily catching fire.
It was dry season after all so the jungle was clear as wanted. Here you have various types of oil trees, with oil leaking down the root admittedly like shit. With hotter temperature, this oil would set the jungle on fire, something Danh Nia said would happen in January every year. The fire would tidy up fallen branches and leaves, certainly in human control.
There were bushy parts that required our guide to slash his knife. Otherwise, the trek would be less interesting since we actually walked a pretty easy path with minimal elevation change (and no mountain altogether). Danh Nia showed us so many kinds of leaves used as herbs, some for pregnant women, some for bleeding, some for whatever there was.
Yok Don national park is large as hell. We just discovered its first 8km and sadly saw no animal (deep in the jungle there are elephants). Here I got why this became a popular trekking destinations, with a mountain and consistent topography ideal for a 2-day hike.
I hoped to latch on to some tougher parts but the old couple seemed to have enough of it. We thus approached the Serepok river and waited for a boat which drove us back to the reception, 30 minutes after. The river, one of the fiercest in Vietnam, flowed mildly in an awkwardly on-time torrential rain that poured 10 seconds after we boarded (It stopped right when we got to the reception!).
Overall, the national park is best for trekking, either for half day, 1 day or 2. Here you can even hire bycicle to roam around. Its biodiversity is so amazing that without a guide you don’t even have a glimpse of what its meaning is.
Verdict: 8/10. Easy for trek starter, sweet for forest wanderer.
Sac Tu Khai Doan pagoda
After a quick lunch, I took the bus back to Buon Ma Thuot, not sure where to stop next. But when it reached just outside city center, I saw a bus driver fighting with a man on the street. That bus happened to be of the same line as mine, so my bus driver stopped in the middle of the road, got out and ran across to conciliate. You hear it right; he stopped irresponsibly to do something responsible. Fed up with it, I got out myself, only to find that the impressive Sac Tu Khai Doan pagoda was right there.
This is one of the most beautiful pagodas I’ve ever seen. The main building was built to be open as much as possible. It combines the long-structure of Ede ethnic’s house with popular Vietnamese pagoda style including 3 compartments. Woods and stones are carefully crafted to every details to depict flowers, dragons, and warriors. And that’s a shitload of wood and stone. Statues of buddha and goddess stands imposingly. With yellow sunlight available, the pagoda looked stunning and peaceful despite being so close to street noise. No wonder why this was a former royal pagoda (built after a decree of the last Vietnamese emperor).
Oh, and when I exited, the Austrian couple of the morning arrived. Another freak coincidence.
Verdict: 7/10. Difference in a city full of Catholics.
Dak Lak museum
I include, to be honest, this part just because the view was so crazy. When I came at 5pm, the museum was closed. I didn’t get to see anything inside. But 2 stunning things appeared in front: 2 insanely big cinnamomum camphora trees (what the hell are they?) and aesthetically pleasing ethnic-inspired architecture. If you can arrive before 4.30pm, this surely is your highlight in Buon Ma Thuot, as local residents (are supposed to) say.
Bim Bip waterfall in Chu Yang Sin national park
After a gruesome review, I chose another national park, called Chu Yang Sin, 40km to the southeast. So the popular and crowded bus no.12 (Buon Ma Thuot – Lak) welcomed me. Ticket price was VND 25k. In theory, I would reach the Bim Bip waterfall, right in front of the park, first and then wandered around Chu Yang Sin itself. Reality was perfectly like that, except for my underestimation of the walk.
The bus dropped me off on an empty national road with green rice fields filling its landscape. It was just out of nowhere. A big billboard at the junction pointed me to Bim Bip waterfall, 4km away. Gosh! Now I needed to walk 4km under the sun to the waterfall entrance, not to mention the wind was insanely blowing everything.
Fortunately, the road passes through a village of ethnic minorities full of wooden stilt houses. Most of locals seem to be farmers with modest wealth. Honestly, this walk on asphalt drained more of my energy than 3 hours in Yok Don jungle the day before. And I hadn’t even started my national park trek yet. After 1 hour, I reached the fall entrance, also a gate to private coffee groves. Mind you, white coffee flowers smell awesome.
1 more kilometre through coffee trees, stones and pathways with some hikes up and down finally led me to the fall. Or its stream to be precise. The fall starts somewhere and drops where I stood. Its narrow flow didn’t excite me much but I guessed that wasn’t the case with some boys swimming near me. The stream was shallow enough for its rocks to cut my leg some bits. Nice place to cool youself down in hot sunlight.
By the time those boys left, I was the only one. So I crossed the stream to continue the trek. It was freak. Coffee trees grew everywhere but I saw no sight of their owners. And moreover I never thought the road to a national park would be so scented with blooms.
Before my eyes was the 2000m-ish Chu Yang Sin mountain. If you’re into hiking, the road I was on is the easiest route to reach its peak (for a 2-day walk). Bad news: National park authorities entrance is on the other side of the mountain, and you would need them for logistics.
The mountain dominated my fantastic view. It looked like just 1km away but turned out to be farther than distance from the moon and back. Then I just kept staggering until reaching a rice field and gave up. Impatient me! It was a shame I never really set foot on the jungle part of the park; it was so far.
Back at the tiny entrance, a couple of Mnong ethnic group offered me a bike ride to the bus stop for free. Thank God for saving me another 4km walk. People in this corner of the Earth are just kinder and more honest than you ever find in cities.
Verdict: 6-7/10. Great if you hike up the moutain, reach the fall top, and mingle yourself with coffee flowers.
Trung Nguyen coffee village
The bus stopped right in busy Buon Ma Thuot centre. I felt like enough for big things and so just exercise my right to relax at the Trung Nguyen coffee village, the most famous café in town.
As you may have already known, or even not, Trung Nguyen is arguably the most recognizable coffee brand of Vietnam. Dak Lak is their stronghold, hence this village. No one comes to Dak Lak to miss a cup a coffee, ever.
The village is in fact a large café modeled to open-air style commonly found in Saigon. A modern garden combines with a traditional wooden house, a man-made waterfall stands by a water pit, a meager coffee museum. And unsurprisingly, a host of tourists too.
The place seemed fine for selfie-lovers. Not what I did. I just order a traditional filtered black coffee with inflated price, sat back and watched people. The coffee didn’t really set the world alight as I expected although it smelled better than most in Hanoi and Saigon. The feeling of enjoyment, however, in Dak Lak style after 3 long days was what I sought after.
But if you’re interested in stories of coffee in Vietnam, then this place may suit you. Keep in mind that the coffee sold here is actually more expensive than elsewhere.
Verdict: 6/10. Enough said.
What should I write for conclusion apart from praising the value of Dak Lak? For travelers, the province gives so much of wild, charming and untouched beauties. I skipped the most well-known spot, the Ban Don tourist area, for it being way commercial and boring to a wanderlust like me. I also skipped elephant riding, a staple of local tourism for it being unethical to an endangered species. But for what I saw and experienced here, that was one of the best Vietnam could offer.
Here is a video summary of the trip: