58. Finding Nature in a Highlands City

Surveying the urban parks of Buôn Ma Thuột, center of Dak Lak province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands region.

Sunflowers adorn a hillside in the KoTam Eco Park. (JGA photo)

When I moved to Buôn Ma Thuột from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in February, I did so for a variety of reasons. Not the least of them was environment — getting out of a huge, pulsating metropolis in favor of a quieter provincial capital. Instead of severely polluted air quality and the endless cacophony of motorcycle engines, I could breathe clean air, see the stars at nights and walk across city streets with barely a concern about oncoming traffic.

Now that the threat of COVID-19 is finally easing a bit, it’s a pleasure to get out of urban lockdown and rediscover some of the well-tended green spaces in the city (actually more of a big country town) of 380,000.

The heart of Dak Lak province and Vietnam’s Central Highlands region, Buôn Ma Thuột (pronounced boon ma toe) has an elevation of 536 meters (1,800 feet), assuring a cooler climate than the tropical Mekong Delta lowlands of Saigon. That translates to plenty of beautiful natural sites nearby. Within a short drive are Yak Don National Park, an expansive nature reserve famous for its elephants; several memorable waterfalls, including Thác Dray Nur, a sort of mini-Niagara; and Lak Lake, fringed by villages of the minority M’nong and Ede people.

This blog introduces only a few of the urban parks and natural spaces.

Am elephant fountain adds whimsy to Uncle Ho Memorial Park. (JGA photo)

The centerpiece of Uncle Ho Memorial Park (Đài Tưởng Niệm Bác Hồ) is a gold-painted statue of a seated Ho Chi Minh, father of modern Vietnam, surrounded by three Central Highlands children. (Ho is often depicted as a benevolent father figure.) But that’s just one attraction of this lovingly groomed park, which occupies about four square city blocks.

Contemporary stone sculptures (I especially like the uncredited fingers squishing a mosquito) rise from beds of red flame vine, shaded by large copperpod, bodhi and malia trees. Rudimentary exercise equipment entices adults of all ages to maintain their cardio fitness. A broad plaza encourages stargazing. And at the heart of it all is a whimsical four-elephant fountain, homage to an animal that is a symbol of Dak Lak and the Central Highlands.

Bảo Đại, the last emperor of Vietnam, considered this modest villa as his “palace.” (JGA photo)

Just across the AH-17 highway from the Bac Ho Monument is a large greensward shared by the Dak Lak Museum of Ethnology and the Bảo Đại Palace. The contemporary two-story museum was built in 2008 in an architectural style inspired by the traditional longhouses of hill tribes. It is a wonderful place to while away a couple or three midday hours, especially if your interests extend to regional history, the natural environment or, especially, minority ethnic groups of the Central Highlands.

Bảo Đại (1913-1997) was the last emperor of Vietnam, ruling until the monarchy was abolished in 1945, and Vietnam’s nominal head of state from 1949 to 1955. His Buôn Ma Thuột “palace,” one of several Saigon escapes that he maintained, is actually a villa nestled in a grove of ancient trees, including camphor, ylang-ylang and native fruit trees.

A central fountain adds antique appeal to BMT City Park. (JGA photo)

Buôn Ma Thuột City Park (Công Viên Thành) has a pleasing city-center location, though it clearly is in need of a facelift. Groundskeepers continue to give attention to thoughtfully platted flower beds that surround a central fountain with a sort of antique appeal. It’s a popular place for townspeople to stroll in the early evening hours, when they don’t have to look at painted semi-truck tires that once, perhaps, added decoration to a couple of side fountains.

To be kind, the rest of the park is tired. A children’s play area may once have been wonderful, with a carousel and bumper cars, but it has recently been abandoned to weeds and ill repair. A coffee pavilion and a sand volleyball (or badminton?) court are vacant nearby.

A statue of Quan Am, the goddess of mercy, towers above KoTam Eco Park. (JGA photo)

Not so KoTam Eco Park (formally the KoTam Ecotourism Destination), one of my favorite places in the city. Located a few kilometers east of the center, it combines a natural fruit grove — bananas, papayas, guavas, jackfruit and much more — with a dense copse of bamboo, gentle walking trails through floral gardens, and a group picnic area with a children’s playground.

A highlight is a lovely waterfall feeding a stream that flows through marshy reeds into a larger river where boats offer short outings. Flamingoes, ducks and other waterfowl splash in the pond at the foot of the falls. Overlooking the site are a restaurant and cafes, a traditional Ede longhouse and funeral hut, and a much-visited hilltop shrine to Quan Am, the goddess of mercy in Vietnamese Buddhism.

Fishermen employ unique methods as they cast their lines in Ea Kao Lake. (JGA photo)

Just south of the city is Ea Kao Lake, a 300-acre reservoir with multiple inlets and promontories cloaked in green forest and flanked by gardens and a botanical park. I enjoyed a tour of the monuments of the lakeside Ba Vang pagoda and even a swim in the swimming pool and its spacious hotel-restaurant.

But my fascination fell primarily on the fishermen who cast their lines as they sat upon stilted tables, 20 feet offshore, or trolled from primitive canoes that they rowed with their legs to leave both hands free to catch perch and other freshwater species. Vietnamese love their hai san (seafood), and having a fresh local supply certainly beats having to wait hours for truckloads shipped inland from Nha Trang.

Midday visitors enjoy a relaxing cup of tea at Cafe Yang Sing. (JGA photo)

Even in the heart of town, there are places to escape and capture the local culture. Cafe Nhà Sàn Yang Sing is one such location. Far more than a café, it represents an effort by the inner-city Ede village of Buôn Ako Dhong to cash in a bit on Dak Lak tourism. Coffee shop by day, it becomes an entertainment venue in the evening when bands play on a stage built upon a pond. There are ethnic homes to visit, museum pieces to admire, rice-grinding and coffee-harvest activities to observe.

And speaking of coffee, the province of Dak Lak is coffee country. It even boasts a World Museum of Coffee. The precious bean and berry will, I hope, be the subject of a Travels in Vietnam blog in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime, the midtown Trung Nguyen Coffee Village complex offers a combination of good beans, coffee shrubbery, and historic, museum-quality coffee-growing tools along with stunning architecture. It just underscores the point that in Buôn Ma Thuột, you don’t have to travel far to feel immersed in nature.

Trung Nguyen Coffee Village is an intriguing mid-city oasis. (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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