Vietnam

10 Delightful Things to Do in Buon Ma Thuot: Vietnam’s Coffee Capital

Buon Ma Thuot (Vietnamese spelling: Buôn Ma Thuột) is a city of rich ethnic cultural values and coffee production. Interestingly, it’s one of the cities where French colonial urban planning developed the most in Vietnam.

Located in Daklak Province (Đắk Lắk), Buon Ma Thuot is the largest city in Central Highlands (Tây Nguyên) of Vietnam. It also has the highest population for a mountainous city in Vietnam and home to 375 590 people in 2019.

Things to Know About Buon Ma Thuot

Things to Know About Buon Ma Thuot
[ by Buôn Ma Thuột from Facebook ]

Records of ethnic groups living in Central Highlands Vietnam date back to the 12th century. The first civilization in the area of Buon Ma Thuot belonged to the Ede ethnic group (người Ê Đê). They speak Ede which is a Chamic language — a Malayo-Polynesian language of the Austronesian family in Central Vietnam.

Buon Ma Thuot Origins

Buon Ma Thuot Origins
[ image from Facebook ]

Originally, the Ede formed villages (buôn) by the Ea Tam Spring (suối Ea Tam) of Serepok River (Sêrêpôk). Serepok is the biggest river in Dak Lak Province and a tributary of the Mekong River.

The Ede lived in traditional longhouses (nhà dài) which are an essential part of Buon Ma Thuot culture to this day. Moreover, each village was managed by a village elder.

In the Ede language, ‘buôn’ is equivalent to ‘làng’ which means ‘village’ in Vietnamese. Also, ‘sêrêpôk’ literally means ‘river’.

Presently, you can still visit a number of early villages in Buon Ma Thuot. They include Buon Don, Buon Ako Dhong, and Buon Jun to name a few.

From the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, the French conducted many expeditions in the highlands of western Vietnam. One of them led to the early urban development of the plateau city of Dalat.

Through the Mekong River to the Serepok River, they first reached the highlands of Daklak (Darlac in old French texts). The people of Buon Don Village then enabled the French to reach other Ede villages by Ea Tam Spring.

French Colonial Urban Planning in Buon Ma Thuot

In 1904, the French colonial rule established Daklak Province. They also moved its municipal center from Buon Don Village to Ban Me Thuot City (present-day Buon Ma Thuot). Afterward, the French colonial urban development went through three major phases.

First, in 1905, the French brought Vietnamese from other cities to impart to the Ede modern agriculture. They also divided the city into different areas based on existing villages.

Next, in 1918, they built a village for other Vietnamese from around Central Vietnam. In addition, schools began teaching the modern Vietnamese script to the Ede. This is also when Ede folk tales, especially the Epic of Dam San (Sử thi Đăm San), were transcribed.

Lastly, in 1930, the planning made clear separations of areas for French people, Central Vietnamese people, and Ede people. Vietnamese ethnic groups living in Buon Ma Thuot also participated in the wars against the French and the US.

During the end of the French colonial period, King Bảo Đại usually spent his vacations in the Central Highlands. He was the last Vietnamese monarch to leave behind key structures, especially in Dalat City and Buon Ma Thuot.

Confusion Surrounding the Name Buon Ma Thuot

Interestingly, French colonialists named the city ‘Ban Mé Thuot’. ‘Ban’ here means a city of villages which are equal to wards. Moreover, ‘bản’ also means ‘village’ in the Mon-Khmer branch of the Lao language group living in Vietnam.

Under the Republic of Vietnam (1955 – 1975), the pronunciation was adapted into ‘Ban Mê Thuột’. After the National Reunification in 1975, the city was renamed ‘Buôn Ma Thuột’. However, this led to some confusion about the origin and spelling of the city’s name.

According to Ede, the name ‘Buôn Ma Thuột’ came from a person known as ‘Ama Thuột’. In particular, he was a reputable village elder. Also, ‘ama’ means ‘the father in the family’ in the Ede language.

Buon Ma Thuot Coffee

Buon Ma Thuot Coffee
[ by Dang Cong from Unsplash ]

Buon Ma Thuot is the reputable capital of Vietnamese coffee for everything including product quality, production quantity, and variety. Notably, coffee was introduced to Vietnam as early as 1857. However, coffee-growing only started in Buon Ma Thuot with French plantations around 1930.

Nonetheless, Dak Lak Province currently has the highest coffee production in the world at 2.5 tons per 10 km2. This is one of the main reasons why Vietnam is the number two coffee exporter in the world.

Buon Ma Thuot coffee also made its way into a popular Vietnamese song ‘Ly cà phê Ban Mê’. The name can roughly translate to ‘A cup of Buon Ma Thuot coffee’.

Elephants of Buon Ma Thuot and Central Highlands

Elephants of Buon Ma Thuot and Central Highlands
[ by Trần Hoài Nam Bmt from Facebook ]

Historically, elephants used to be a symbol of wealth and power of village chiefs as well as soldiers in wars. To ethnic groups in Central Highlands Vietnam, elephants are friendly as well as respected family members.

In Dak Lak, the first elephant tamers were the M’Nong people (người M’Nông). Elephants then became an inseparable part of the people’s culture, history, literature and other art forms.

Currently, hunting elephants is against both Vietnamese and international law. Previously tamed elephants in Buon Ma Thuot are taken care of for preservation and tourism purposes.

One of the traditional customs you can still observe in Buon Ma Thuot is the elephant race festival. M’nong and Ede people hold this festival once every two years in March on the Lunar Calendar. If the time is right, you can observe this festival in Buon Don Village as well as Buon Jun Village.

Top Things to Do in Buon Ma Thuot

All the delightful things to do in Buon Ma Thuot are conveniently accessible from its center. When talking about central Buon Ma Thuot, people often refer to the iconic 6-lane roundabout as a symbol of the city.

Basically, you’ll most likely use the roundabout to get anywhere in the city. Also, in the middle of the roundabout is the historic and symbolic Buon Ma Thuot Victory Monument.

The most prominent structure of the monument is a cement replica of the number 980 T-54 tank. The tank played an important role in the Battle of Buon Ma Thuot contributing to the overall National Reunification in 1975.

Also close by is the Old Wild Almond Tree (cây Kơ Nia) where many people believe gods and spirits reside. Many ethnic groups of Buon Ma Thuot follow animism and this tree is the most reputable spiritual symbol here. The tree is currently next to a coffee shop in the Cultural Center of Dak Lak Province.

The tree first entered the mainstream media through a poem by Nguyễn Ngọc Anh in 1957 during the Vietnam War. The poem was titled ‘Bóng cây Kơ Nia’ which roughly translates to, ‘The Shade of the Wild Almond Tree’.

It became all the more popular when Phan Huỳnh Điểu adapted the poem into a song in 1971. He also participated in the Vietnam War in the Central Highlands.

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1. Bao Dai Palace Turned Dak Lak Museum

Dak Lak Museum
[ by Bảo tàng Đắk Lắk from Facebook ]

Dak Lak Museum (Bảo tàng Đắk Lắk) has a fascinating collection on Vietnamese ethnic groups living in the province. Permanent exhibits include Ethnic Cultures, Bio-diversity, and History of Dak Lak Province. Objects on display have explanations in 4 languages including English, Vietnamese, French, and Ede.

The museum also frequently holds educational programs and live demonstrations on traditional handicrafts of the ethnic groups. The handicrafts include weaving, embroidery, making and playing musical instruments, and pottery.

The building of Dak Lak Museum has a nice mix of modern architecture and the traditional longhouse of the Ede. It’s actually on the grounds of the former Bao Dai Palace (Biệt điện Bảo Đại).

This palace used to be the living quarters of King Bao Dai in the city during his reign. It’s now preserved into an exhibit on Bao Dai’s life in Buon Ma Thuot managed by the Dak Lak Museum.

Close to the museum is the Buon Ma Thuot Prison (Nhà đày Buôn Ma Thuột), a Special National Heritage Site. It served as a ‘House of Exile’ for political prisoners in Central Vietnam from 1930 all the way to 1975.

2. Ethnic Culture in Buon Don Village

Ethnic Culture in Buon Don Village
[ by Trung tâm Du lịch Buôn Đôn from Facebook ]

Buon Don Village (Buôn Đôn), aka Ban Don Village, was one of the first villages in Buon Ma Thuot. Nowadays, it’s an ecotourist area with many interesting things to do regarding ethnic cultural values in Buon Ma Thuot. It’s in Buon Don District, about 40 km away from the center of Buon Ma Thuot City.

Originally, the village earned its fame in the area thanks to its foundational and excellent elephant tamers. You can learn more at the Tomb of the Elephant King (mộ Vua Voi) and his stilt house (nhà sàn).

One of visitors’ favorite things to do in Buon Don Village used to be hopping on an elephant ride. However, tourist elephant riding has been deemed animal mistreatment and outlawed in Vietnam since 2020. Visitors now can still feed and take pictures with them.

To get to the village, you’ll first have to cross a part of the Serepok River on a hanging bridge. On the way, you’ll see a typical Rong house (nhà Rông) of ethnic groups in Central Highlands Vietnam. Inside, there are everyday objects of local peoples.

During the weekends, visitors can also enjoy traditional music performances of the gong culture by the Ede people. This ecotourist area doesn’t have lodgings but there are restaurants serving Central Highlands dishes for lunch.

Buon Don Village and its elephants also made their way into a popular Vietnamese children song. The song is ‘Chú voi con ở Bản Đôn’ which roughly translates to ‘The baby elephant in Ban Don Village’.

3. Wildlife Ecotours at Yok Don National Park

Yok Don National Park
[ image from Yokdonnationalpark.vn ]

Yok Don National Park (Vườn quốc gia Yok Đôn) is one of the largest special-use forests in Vietnam. It has a superb reputation for all things to do regarding wildlife conservation and eco-tours in Buon Ma Thuot.

Yok Don National Park is in partnership with international organizations. They include the Olsen Animal Trust, in addition to Animals Asia, as well as WWF. It’s quite close to Buon Don Village, about 40 km away from central Buon Ma Thuot.

A highlight in Yok Don National Park is observing elephants roaming freely in their natural forest habitat. Interestingly, there’s a cooking class by an Ede family in a nearby village that you can join.

Similar to other national parks in Vietnam, Yok Don has some interesting hiking and trekking tours. If you go trekking and camping overnight in the dipterocarp forest (rừng khộp), you’ll observe and learn about the biodiversity of the area.

The trails can lead you to the top of Yok Don Mountain or the beautiful Seven-Branch Waterfall (Thác Bảy Nhánh). Another way to enjoy the trails of Yok Don National Park is one-day cycling tours.

In addition, you can do some casual bird-watching, fishing by the lakes, or a boat trip on Serepok River. Yok Don also has lodging facilities if you want to spend more time here.

4. Dugout Canoe on Lak Lake

Dugout Canoe on Lak Lake
[ image from Lak Tented Camp ]

Lak Lake (hồ Lắk) is a serene scenery surrounded by lush forests and Yang Chu Sin Mountains. It’s the biggest freshwater lake in Dak Lak and the second in Vietnam after Ba Be Lake. Located 50 km away from central Buon Ma Thuot, it’s connected to a tributary of the Serepok River.

One of the most relaxing things to do in Buon Ma Thuot is rowing a dugout canoe on Lak Lake. You can rent them in the nearby Buon Jun Village (Buôn Jun) of the M’Nong people.

The beauty of Lak Lake also inspired Bao Dai to build a mansion by its shore for his vacations. Interestingly, visitors can see memorabilia of the last Vietnamese monarch and also spend a night in his former residence.

If you’re interested in sustainable tourism then stay in the Lak Tented Camp for the best view over the lake. The eco lodgings focus on low carbon footprint emission and eco-cultural activities including for kids.

5. Through the Cascades of Dray Nur Waterfall

Dray Nur Waterfall
[ by vitieubao from Pixabay ]

Dray Nur Waterfall (thác Dray Nur) is a favorite destination for the younger generation — just 26 km away from the city. In addition to the surrounding mountains and forests, there are many energetic outdoor things to do in Buon Ma Thuot.

The first adrenaline rush comes as you plow through the crashing water at the bottom of Dray Nur Waterfall. Then, brace yourself because you’ll enter a large and dark cave.

Of course, your safety is always a priority with life vests and professional lifeguards around. Nonetheless, you can choose to simply walk around the cascades and not get wet.

The stream of Dray Nur Waterfall also creates three natural pools that you can swim in. The first one is at the bottom of the fall. It’s easy to reach with a shallow depth suitable for everyone.

However, it gets harder to reach the second pool which has a rocky bottom. Lastly, the third one is over 8 meters deep and the path to it is quite steep and rough.

In particular, Dray Nur Waterfall has a physically engaging ‘Biking – Trekking – Rafting’ tour which gets the best out of the peaceful scenery. This half-day tour provides full equipment and an accompanying guide.

Dray Nur Waterfall has guest rooms as well as a designated overnight camping site. In addition, visitors can hang out with Ede people living here with a traditional BBQ by the fire.

6. Trung Nguyen Coffee Village and World Coffee Museum

Trung Nguyen Coffee Village and World Coffee Museum
[ by Bảo tàng Thế giới Cà phê from Facebook ]

Trung Nguyen Coffee Village (Làng cà phê Trung Nguyên) is actually a modern complex and gathering of coffee lovers. It belongs to Trung Nguyen Legend Corporation, one of the biggest coffee companies in Vietnam. It’s only 3 km away from central Buon Ma Thuot with many fascinating things to do regarding coffee.

Here, visitors can enjoy different coffee bean varieties and brewing methods from countries all over the world. Of course, you can make careful observations as professional baristas prepare your cup of coffee to your liking.

For a more hands-on experience, head to the coffee garden with trees over 30 years old. The guides are very knowledgeable in coffee production. They can teach you how to grow, harvest, select, and prepare coffee beans for that perfect cup of joe.

In addition, they have a building with exhibits featuring everyday and cultural objects of ethnic groups in Central Highlands Vietnam. They also have a collection of various coffee harvesting tools, grinders, roasters, sorters, and makers.

Furthermore, Trung Nguyen Legend Corporation also manages the World Coffee Museum (Bảo tàng Thế giới Cà phê). The museum is only 3 km away from the complex and has over 10 000 objects on display about coffee.

7. Sac Tu Khai Doan Pagoda of the Last Feudal Dynasty

Sac Tu Khai Doan Pagoda
[ by Du Lịch Buôn Ma Thuột from Facebook ]

Sac Tu Khai Doan Pagoda (Chùa sắc tứ Khải Đoan) was the first official pagoda in Dak Lak. In addition to the central location, it’s also the largest one in Buon Ma Thuot.

The name is a combination of Emperor Khải Định and Queen Đoan Huy — mother of Bao Dai. Furthermore, ‘sắc tứ’ is a prestigious title bestowed by the emperor. As a matter of fact, Khai Doan Pagoda was the last one to receive the title in Vietnam.

Queen Doan Huy started the construction for Tu Sac Khai Doan Pagoda in 1951. Most of the building material is wood in a brown color scheme, giving it an ancient and graceful feel. Standing out from other pagodas in Vietnam, the design is a subtle mix of local and feudal architecture.

The main hall in the front resembles an Ede longhouse. Meanwhile, all the wooden poles throughout the structures are typical of houses in Hue during the 17th century. Moreover, a roof with clay tiles and dragon carvings is prominent in Vietnamese royal architecture.

8. Ea Kao Lake with an Eco Farm

Ea Kao Lake
[ by vitieubao from Pixabay ]

Ea Kao Lake (hồ Ea Kao) is an artificial lake with broad and serene scenery for a day out. It’s a go-to getaway only 10 km away from central Buon Ma Thuot, especially for younger people. In Ede, Ea Kao can translate to ‘water never runs dry’ and this is true even during the summer.

Ea Kao Lake is one of the go-to places for things to do such as picnics for locals of Buon Ma Thuot City. Many people simply pack a lunch basket and sit on a mat by the shore. Others choose to rent a boat from local fishermen to find their catch of the day.

If you want some snaps for your Instagram, head to Ea Kao Lake Eco Farm. They have a variety of fun settings like bubble domes with Ea Kao Lake as the background. Also, you can handpick fruits including raspberry, cherry tomatoes, and jackfruit on their organic farm and pay by the kilo.

9. Peculiar Vantage Point of Yang Tao Elephant Rock

Yang Tao Elephant Rock
[ image from Facebook ]

Yang Tao Elephant Rock (Đá Voi Yang Tao) is a unique vantage point in Buon Ma Thuot. This actually refers to a couple —  Mother Elephant Rock (Đá Voi Mẹ) and Father Elephant Rock (Đá Voi Cha). In addition, Mother Elephant Rock is the largest monolith in Vietnam at 200 m long and 30 m tall.

They resemble elephants lying in a vast forest of which they call home, hence the name. To the local M’nong people, the Yang Tao Elephant Rock are spiritual guardians of the land.

Yang Tao Elephant Rock is about 45 km away from central Buon Ma Thuot. Most people choose to climb Mother Elephant Rock, which only takes 15 minutes, as it has better views. The vista covers Yang Chu Sin Mountains as well as surrounding lakes, forests, and fields.

You’ll need to leave your bike at the bottom or ask to park in a nearby house. The slope is not steep but it’s fairly smooth so you’ll need a pair of walking shoes with good traction. Also, you’ll want to avoid climbing it during rainy or windy days.

10. Yang Prong Cham Tower in a Forest

Yang Prong Cham Tower
[ by Việt Nguyễn from Facebook ]

Yang Prong Cham Tower (Tháp Chàm Yang Prong) is a distinct destination 89 km away from central Buon Ma Thuot. In Ede, ‘Yang Prong’ means ‘Great God’. It’s the only Cham Tower in Central Highlands serving as proof of the ancient Cham Empire here.

While other Cham Towers tend to be in an open space, Yang Prong is in the middle of a forest. It’s a spiritual gathering for locals regardless of ethnicity and all the offerings are voluntary.

Yang Prong is only a single tower of simple Cham architecture, so not as expansive as the Ponagar in Nha Trang. According to researchers, it dates from the 13th century during the reign of King Jaya Simhavarman III.

In addition, it was likely a place of worship for Mukhalinga — an aniconic representation of Lord Shiva. However, a statue was never found inside the temple. The reason could be that Yang Prong Cham Tower was damaged during the wars.

Best Weather for Visiting Buon Ma Thuot

Best Weather for Visiting Buon Ma Thuot
[ by Du Lịch Buôn Ma Thuột from Facebook ]

With a highland location, Buon Ma Thuot has pretty nice weather all year round so you can visit it anytime. In particular, Mexican sunflowers bloom during December while March is the coffee flower season.

The dry season is from November to April, while the rainy season is from May to October. Also, the average temperature is around 23 – 24℃. Nonetheless, Meteoblue is a good tool to check the weather on your trip to Buon Ma Thuot.

How to Get to Buon Ma Thuot

Buon Ma Thuot Airport
[ by Sân Bay Buôn Ma Thuột Đak Lak from Facebook ]

Thanks to Buon Ma Thuot Airport, Buon Ma Thuot is easily accessible from other cities across Vietnam. You can quickly fly from the main cities with international airports like Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, Danang, and more.

Alternatively, you can book coaches (travel bus) from other cities to Buon Ma Thuot. Good booking agencies include local agencies like Futa Bus Lines and Bookaway. Alternatively, there is also Vexere if you want to arrive at Buon Don District.

Getting Around Buon Ma Thuot

One of the easiest ways to get around Buon Ma Thuot is to rent a motorbike for yourself. You can easily find motorbike rental shops online and around Buon Ma Thuot city center. However, you should always make sure you have the required identifications and check the vehicle’s condition upon renting.

There are also cabs from government taxi companies like Vinasun and Mai Linh. In addition, Grab is similar to Uber and you can book both motorbike and taxi drivers.

There are also public buses that you can take from downtown Buon Ma Thuot. They include number 12 to Lak Lake and number 15 to Buon Don Village.

Buon Ma Thuot Tours

There are a number of tours that include all the best things to do in Buon Ma Thuot. Some pretty interesting choices include motorbike street food tours, tours to a cacao farm plus chocolate factory, and coffee farm tours.

In addition, you can easily find tours that combine visiting places in both Dalat City and Buon Ma Thuot. These tours can depart from either of the two and other cities as well.

What to Eat in Buon Ma Thuot

What to Eat in Buon Ma Thuot
[ by Bánh Ướt Thịt Nướng Ban Mê from Facebook ]

One culinary experience you need to try in Central Highlands Vietnam is a BBQ by the fire. Similar to nearby cities, Buon Ma Thuot BBQ has rice in bamboo tubes over charcoal fire (cơm lam). Besides meat skewers, the main protein of choice is a whole grilled chicken.

Steamed Rice Paper and Grilled Meat

A popular ‘wrap-and-dip’ dish in Buon Ma Thuot is steamed rice paper and grilled meat (bánh ướt thịt nướng). Each sheet of steamed rice paper is served on a separate plate which makes it really neat to roll. Other ingredients include different kinds of julienned vegetables, cooked Vietnamese cold cuts, and grilled pork.

Bun Do

A popular signature dish of Buon Ma Thuot is Bun do (bún đỏ) or red noodle soup. It uses rice vermicelli and gets the red color from annatto seeds and tomatoes.

Some say it’s similar to bun rieu (bún riêu) due to the ingredients, especially the rice paddy crab patties. However, it’s seasoned with fermented shrimp paste (mắm tôm), and topped with water celery and boiled quail eggs.

Bun Chia

Another common noodle dish of Buon Ma Thuot is bun chia (bún chìa) or bone-in pork shoulder noodle soup. Some think it’s quite similar to bun bo Hue (bún bò Huế), or Hue beef noodle soup. However, the seasoning is different and it doesn’t have beef.

Beef Tamarind Hotpot

One way to enjoy the chilly weather of Buon Ma Thuot is a steamy beef tamarind hotpot (bò nhúng me). Similar to other hotpot dishes in Vietnam, it goes with noodles and a lot of vegetables. However, you can also make spring rolls by using rice paper as well.

What to Buy in Buon Ma Thuot

Besides some of the best coffee in Vietnam, Buon Ma Thuot has some more souvenirs for you to bring home. They include pure honey, dried bamboo shoot, traditional embroidery from ethnic villages, and more. You can easily find them at local markets and even Buon Ma Thuot Airport.

Amakong Wine

Amakong wine (rượu A Ma Công) is a specialty of Buon Ma Thuot with many medicinal ingredients. They include Sargentodoxa cuneata (huyết đằng), barrenwort (dâm dương hoắc), atao nenso (tơm trơng), and Smilax glabra (thổ phục linh).

The wine also has Curculigo orchioides (sâm cau), Cinnamomum cassia Presl (quế chi), Goji (kỷ tử), and Lingzhi (linh chi). It was named after a well-known elder of Buon Don Village.

Venison Jerky

Buon Ma Thuot is one of the places where you can get venison jerky. After being grilled over charcoal fire, the spicy venison jerky goes amazingly well with booze.

Where to Stay in Buon Ma Thuot

Where to Stay in Buon Ma Thuot
[ image from Lak Tented Camp ]

As a peaceful highland city, Buon Ma Thuot doesn’t have many luxury hotels. Instead, homestays appeal more to people who prefer being closer to nature. They are also a more local experience, plus they are cheaper.

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