31. A Home in the Highlands

A move from Ho Chi Minh City to the coffee capital of Buôn Ma Thuột, in the rural province of Đắk Lắk, brings relief from urban air pollution and big-city traffic.

Two young Ede women serve coffee at a Buon Ma Thuot resort. There are 44 ethnic minority groups in Dak Lak province. (JGA photo)

Those who know me best know that my two favorite beverages are red wine and coffee.

The tropical climate here in Vietnam is far from ideal for growing quality grapes and making good wine. There are a handful of wineries in the country, mainly in the hill town of DaLat, but the wine is frankly mediocre. Some of it, indeed, is produced from imported grapes supplemented with mulberry juice. Chilean wine is a widely available alternative, and some French table wines are reasonably priced. But I’m not in Vietnam for the wine.

Coffee is another story. Vietnamese coffee is some of the best in the world. And it is strong — some of my Viet friends insist they are “drunk” by their third cup. That could be one reason why coffee (ca phé) shops are even more ubiquitous here than pubs in Australia or England. Cafes are indeed community gathering places, social hubs for the young and not-so-young.

Vietnam produces and exports more coffee than any country in the world besides Brazil. And the heart of this nation’s coffee industry is Đắk Lắk province, a plateau region of the Central Highlands, 350km (220 miles) north of Ho Chi Minh City at an elevation of about 600 meters (2,000 feet) above sea level.

Coffee flowers were in full blossom in October in the Trung Nguyen Coffee Village. (JGA photo)

‘Father’s Village’

This is where I live now, in a small city — actually, a big country town of half a million people — called Buôn Ma Thuột. (Pronounced BOON-ma-toe, the name means “Thuot’s father’s village” in the indigenous Ede dialect.) A dozen weeks after moving here from Vietnam’s largest city, I could not be happier.

I have nothing against Ho Chi Minh City (SaiGòn). It’s the hub of the action in this Southeast Asian nation. Its many millions of minions certainly kept me entertained during my cultural readjustment. I was never wanting for company. The restaurants fed me well, leaving me fat and happy. I was spending big-city money on big-city women, breathing toxic big-city air and dodging hundreds of big-city motorbikes every time I crossed a street. But at heart, I’m just not a “Big City Boi,” per the lyrics of a recently popular Viet rap song.

A two-week, work-related visit to Đắk Lắk last October convinced me I could enjoy living outside of the population hub. At first, I worried that as an extrovert who did not yet speak much Vietnamese, I would feel confined in a solitary lifestyle.

But I weighed that concern against the positive aspects of a move: I would have a better quality of life, nearer to rivers, lakes and a national park famous for íts elephants. I would spend less money on food, drink and lodging; indeed, my employer, APAX Leaders, would boost my housing allowance. In addition, I felt my contributions as a teacher were more highly valued in this single small center than among the dozens in HCMC. In particular, I foresaw that I would have more time and inclination to devote to writing and to learning Vietnamese.

Home Sweet Home

I lived in a hotel for a month after my arrival before I found a suitable home. Unlike HCMC, there aren’t many full-service apartments suitable for short-term visitors in Buôn Ma Thuột, or “BMT,” as it is widely known. Indeed, the population of English-speaking foreigners in this city may be only two or three dozen. (I’ve met just two other Americans since I arrived.)

But good things come to those who wait. On the first of April, I moved into a new home, a three-bedroom, two-bath townhouse with a staircase to what is now my yoga studio. I pay a mere VND 6,000,000 (US$260) a month, plus another VND 600,000 (US$26) for electricity and water. That’s less than I paid for a one-room studio apartment in HCMC. And I need not commute across half the city to work; I just take an easy 15-minute walk.

The studio was a natural. Even before I found the house, I had begun seeing a yoga studio owner and Oriental medicine practitioner with whom I now spend most of my free time. Lan Anh and I met, appropriately, in a coffee shop. So much for my fear of being socially isolated.

Climbing the stairs to the yoga studio. (JGA photo)

Local Attractions

On no level does Buôn Ma Thuột have the drama of Ho Chi Minh City. It has beautiful parks but few grand monuments. Its two fine museums are devoted not to war, but to ethnic minorities and to coffee. Its restaurants are not focused on steaks, spaghetti, Thai curries or Indian vindaloo, but on beautiful renderings of traditional Vietnamese dishes such as nem nuong (fresh rolls with sausage), bánh bèo (savory rice cakes) and bún riêu (noodle soup with minced seafood).

At the heart of downtown Buôn Ma Thuột, where the highways from SaiGòn and Nha Trang meet, is the city’s most notable public artwork, the Victory Monument. It commemorates the North Vietnamese liberation of the city in early March 1975. The sculpture depicts soldiers atop a column rising above an arch that shelters a replica tank.

The Victory Monument is a central Buon Ma Thuot landmark. (JGA photo)

A short walk south is the Ethnographic Museum, whose history and biodiversity exhibitions are secondary to its introduction of Đắk Lắk’s minority populations. Forty-four ethnic groups are recorded in this province’s vast territory, which extends across more than 5,000 square miles from the border of Cambodia east. Most visible are the Ede (one of whom, H’Hen Niê, was a finalist in the 2018 Miss Universe pageant), the M’nong and the Jarai.

The Trung Nguyen coffee company’s new World Coffee Museum has two large exhibit halls paying tribute to the global heritage of coffee from ancient times. It expands on the beautifully landscaped grounds of the original Trung Nguyen Coffee Village in another part of the city. The city’s biennial Coffee Festival was unfortunately canceled in March 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I have also enjoyed the Kotam Ecotourism Destination, a bucolic suburban oasis with flowers and fruit trees, a manmade waterfall, a Buddhist temple, an Ede longhouse and funeral shelter, restaurants and coffee shops.

The Kotam Ecotourism Destination is a semi-natural urban oasis. (JGA photo)

One of my favorite places in Buôn Ma Thuột is the Khải Đoan Pagoda (Chùa Sắc Tứ Khải Đoan), a large Buddhist temple less than a half-mile from my house. Built in 1951 and since expanded, it features an 800-pound bronze bell, several halls of worship and a bonsai garden with Buddhist sculpture.

Out of Town

Beyond the city, the leading attraction is Yok Don National Park. Its 115,000 hectares (284,000 acres) of mainly dry deciduous forest comprise Vietnam’s single largest nature reserve. Elephants, muntjak deer, monkeys, and rarely seen leopards and red wolves are among the denizens of the park, which is bisected by the Srepok River — a key Mekong River tributary that flows westward into Cambodia. Most visitors approach through the small Ede town of Buon Don and sign up at the park office for guided treks or birdwatching hikes.

Asian elephants, with or without riders, ply the waterways of Yok Don National Park. (JGA photo)

Elsewhere in Đắk Lắk is large, shallow and reedy Lak Lake (Ho Lắk), popular among domestic tourists for its canoe rides to M’nong villages. I’m more impressed by the waterfalls that roll from the hills surrounding the plateau. Dray Nur Falls, 25 km (16 miles) south of BMT, has already lured me back: This cataract, 250 meters (more than 800 feet) long and 30 meters (100 feet) high, also has hiking trails to various natural attractions, including ancient caves and spooky exposed tree roots.

Spray from the thundering Dray Nur waterfall offers a cool respite on a tropical day. (JGA photo)
Fishermen on Ea Kao Lake cast their lines from platforms erected offshore. (JGA photo)
The elegant Khải Đoan Pagoda is in the heart of the city of Buon Ma Thuot. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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