Buon Ma Thuot

As soon we as disembarked the bus we were surrounded by taxi drivers all insisting that we needed a lift. Bleary eyed, we did not want to just fall into a cab with no sense of direction or and idea how far out of town we had been dumped. A couple of ice coffees in a bus station cafe was necessary to take stock. The taxi drivers would not let up though, and eventually we had to move to another cafe to escape the relentless badgering. They were trying to help themselves to Als cigarettes and this was the final straw for me.  We wanted to try an do things the local way, so after watching for a while we began to notice public buses come and go. Luckily I had the address for a cheap hotel in town that I had got from the internet and scribbled on a piece of paper the day before. This was enough to communicate with a bus driver and he understood where we wanted to go. Instead of paying a taxi fare we payed 15000 dong to go about 10mins into town. The cheap hotel, Huy Dong, was easy to find and seemed to be the cheapest around. They had a basic room for 80000 dong ($4) for a night which is very cheap for Vietnam. Although we had to share a bathroom, we still got satellite tv and a decent fan. With this sorted we were happy to dig in for a while and enjoy being in the town for a while to soak up and enjoy the local vibe of Buon Ma Thuot.

Buon Ma Thout was not the prettiest place but  the area we stayed in had many street vendors selling bread, fruit, nuoc mia (sugar cane juice) and cheap meals like Pho Bo (noodle soup with beef) and rice dishes where you could choose from an assortment of different toppings. All very cheap and delicious. The back drop to the street vendors was often crumbling, old and neglected buildings. This gave the large town an exciting feel for us. It was like a challenge to scratch beneath the surface to reveal the gems of this little visited town. On our first afternoon there we began to get our bearings by walking around the local area and soon found ourselves in some small winding market streets where kitchenware, engines and old machinery as well as clothes and the usual tat was for sale.  The layout reminded us of south American streets, where all of the same things for sale are grouped together on one street. In this case we were wondering through tight alleyways overflowing with engine parts with men in blue overalls, all greasy, hanging out usually on a makeshift hammock near their stall. The main streets were much wider with a constant flow of traffic (nothing like the volume in Hanoi or HMC though).

Strolling down a main road, we felt the heat and were pretty tired after our bus journey so we sat on the side on the main roundabout in the shade deciding what to do. Just as we had decided to go back to our room and have a little siesta, a young Vietnamese couple drove up to us and stopped. The young man handed us a card with text on it. I was immediately suspicious as beggars often shove a card in your face with a sob story asking for money. As I hesitated, Al read it and replied, ‘Yeah sure!’ This would not be his normal response so of course I was surprised. It turned out that the card was asking us if we would mind helping them practice their English. So within minutes we found ourselves in a nearby cafe drinking ice coffee with them. We sat with them for hours exchanging some English for some Vietnamese. It was a great opportunity for us to learn a few vital phrases that proved invaluable for the rest of our time in Vietnam. We learnt that they were leaving the following day to move to Ho Chi Min for a year to learn English. The girl, Diem (Zim), was extremely unsure about saying anything and it took her a while to warm up, whilst her boyfriend (Zom) was enthusiastic to improve. He did not stop talking for hours!

It turned out that the reason he used the method of producing a card when he first saw us was because he had been snubbed in the past by other westerners and was worried he had said something to offend them by mistake. We were so happy we had not misjudged him and allowed him to take us for coffee. We learnt so much about his culture and language in just a few hours. They ended up inviting us for dinner at his house which was a little way out of town. Of course this sounded wonderful to us. So we went for our overdue siesta and within a few hours Zim and Zom picked us up on motorbikes and drove us through rush hour to Zoms family home.

This was the first time we got an overview of the town. It was really very big, with very wide streets. Weirdly it reminded me of Pune, India. I think  it was the spacious feel yet busy and a little crazy with many different things going on. A lady frying chicken feet on the street,  a big shopping centre blaring out loud house music (later we learnt that this meant there was a sale on), as well as the motorbike traffic that we were part of weaving in and out at only 30km/hr. Before long we were on a motorway going out of town and on one side of the street was pine forest and the other side was coffee farms and larger houses. They cut down a little mud road and pulled up and a grand house with a high fence and plenty of land around it. From the hecticness of the town centre, it was a peaceful place where we could hear the bird songs of early evening.

Zom introduced us to his mother and gave us a tour. The front room was the TV room with decorative carved hardwood furniture, a typical thing we have noticed to have in the entertaining room in Vietnam. We then got a tour of his garden where his mum grew baby coffee and pepper plants. The baby plants were shaded by a canopy of gourds and grew over the netting. There were also mango and avocado trees. It was so inspirational to see such a healthy producing garden. We later learnt that she sells the baby plants to the nearby coffee farms, also that Zoms dad owned a coffee business. Coffee was one of the country’s finest produce, the second highest export of coffee comes from Vietnam after Brazil.
For dinner Zim prepared us a typical Vietnamese dinner using the vegetables from the garden. A fresh potato and pumpkin side (which tasted of pure sunshine), pork that fell of the bone, fish and spinach, omelet with rice and some cans of beer. Dad joined us and we really had a great time eating with a family. It was such a difference to be warmly welcomed into their home with wanting anything in return, other than to learn our language and about our culture. We were over the moon that we had the opportunity to experience this. The evening was cut a little short as they needed to go to bed early as they would be catching an early bus to HCM the next morning. We said our goodbyes to the lovely family and they drove us back into town.

Before we said goodbye to Zom and Zim, Zim wanted to show us were she lived. She was a university tutor and lived in student halls, so instead of just going back to town they took us to the opposite side of the town to a much more run down area. Large black clouds followed us and looked ever more impending. Within 5 minutes of reaching Zims place the rain and thunder began. On arrival we were greeted by shy giggling young students, probably between 17-19yrs old. The curious faces soon lost their shyness and sat around trying to practice their English. They were all so nice, it was fun finding these people to talk to and see how real Vietnamese live and get on with their lives in a non-tourist place. We sat around eating green mango for a while and then finally decided that the rain was not going to let up.
Zim and Zom got their waterproof ponchos on and we got underneath them so we couldn’t see a thing! Swerving through the ankle deep the puddles on the way back to town was hair raising, I don’t know whether it was better or worse that we couldn’t see where we were going or what was happening. Zom and Al skidded so severely that they almost came off at one point. We made it back in one piece, just about, and said our goodbyes. We had grown very fond of each other in the space on half a day. We were overwhelmed with their generosity and warm welcome to BMT. What a great start to getting off the beaten track.

We planned to stay in BMT for a few days, so before spending the day visiting what the surrounding area had to offer, we stayed local and chilled out. Eating street food, drinking cafe den da (ice coffee) and caught up on some of our blog. We found a great internet cafe. The owner was lovely and after seeing that Al was writing about local food and researching the Vietnamese ingredients he began to offer us snacks that his wife was rustling up in the kitchen. Banana pancake was my favourite. Opposite the internet cafe was local drinking spot, so after hours in a hot internet cafe we fell across the road and enjoyed a couple jugs of cheap Vietnamese beer (Saigon). In true style most of the men were very drunk and would look at us curiously, but only dared to talk to Al when I left to get some street vendor quail baguette. It was the usual ‘cheers’ (mot, hay, bat…YO! or to you and I 1,2,3, GO!) were half of the glass has to be downed in one go. Al of course did his best to impress. Later on we met an old Vietnamese man who had emigrated to USA many years previous but was visiting family. We ended up really enjoying to hear his opinion on the war, today’s politics and what his philosophy on life in general was.  It isn’t very easy to hear  this kind of inside story because people don’t speak good enough English or they don’t want to talk about their government in a negative way. For us it was a really interesting opportunity to get some insight into this part of the culture.

The surrounding area of Buon Ma Thuot is rural and in parts wild. There are many coffee producing areas in the rolling hills, to the west there is the Yok Don National park which is the main attraction for foreign visitors. Also nearby are several waterfalls and Lak Lake.  Unsure of which place to opt for on our first day out. We decided to take Zom’s advice and head towards Lak Lake which is south east out of town. The first challenge was renting a bike though. With us being in a less touristy area it was harder to find a bike to rent for a reasonable price ($5 per day). Eventually we found a hotel prepared to rent it to us at this price if we agreed to rent it for a couple of days. This was fine with us.

Heading out of town we started off in the same direction as Zom’s house, but we stopped on an appealing looking plaza we had noticed the day before. Street vendors selling coffee and nuoc mia with comfy chairs looking across the grassy square was the perfect first stop to get the obligatory coffee fix before hitting the road out of town. We passed the same pine forest and coffee plantations. Whizzing down the motorway we managed to turn off at the right turning and then progressed through little out of town settlements that lined the main street. Every now and again we would stop for a ice coffee or nuoc mia in nice little road side cafes. Often we were getting very curious looks, it was evident that the locals and through traffic did not see westerners in these parts. Even with helmets on it was to blend in with my blond ponytail and Al’s red beard. Little kids sandwiched between their parents on bikes were usually the first to spot us , waving, pointing, or just looking a little puzzled.

The road began to become less busy and became more narrow, eventually the tarmac coming to an end and a red dusty dirt road replacing it was for most of the time. Now and then the tarmac would reappear but not for very long. The countryside was stunning. As far as the eye could see all shades of vibrant greens from the farmed land would stretch into the distance, dotted with workers wearing the triangle straw hats and perhaps  a modest wooden hut or two.
Sometimes with a corrugated steel roof, but more and more often as we drove into the rural parts, with woven leaf roofs.

We were driving on the road to Dalat,  famed for its cool beautiful mountainous landscape.  Although we were about 6 hours on a bus away from Dalat, the landscape was noticeably becoming more hilly. For a few hours we enjoyed the best biking in Vietnam we had experienced. Winding through and up hills with bends that would expose fantastic views of flat padi fields below. We passed minority villages that were advertised in tour packages.
The people lived in traditional long houses, often looking over the same superb views we were experiencing. People waved at us with curious looks as we slowly meandered through. The majority of traffic consisted of tractors transporting workers and we passed the stereotypical postcard image of a motorbike going to market, riding along with bunches of chickens or ducks hanging upside down balancing the bike out on either side of the back wheel.

The sun was intense and although the breeze from driving at speed on the bike was somewhat refreshing, in the heat of the day is was more like a hairdryer blowing hot dry air in our faces. This was sucking the moisture out of us. We tried to stop for regular breaks to drink water and get in the shade for a while.

After a couple of hours, probably about midday, we began to descend into a valley home to Lak Lake. We had made it! A small amount of houses made up the village settlement around the lake. I was surprised only to see a handful of hotels and local restaurants. From the tourist agencies advertising this destination, along with Zom’s recommendation I expected to see some western day trippers. But there were non, to our delight. We sped up to a hill overlooking the lake for a better view but then decided to try our luck at an upmarket hotel on the waterfront. They had a restaurant with only one family of Vietnamese holiday makers. The prices were more than reasonable and the beer was no different to a local joint in town.

We sat with a view of the beautiful lake and enjoyed a great meal of garlic and spinach with rice and the local favourite of fried noodles with pork and vegetables. We couldn’t believe our luck that we had come all this way and found such an idyllic setting more or less to ourselves. The resort also had a pool, it hadn’t been cleaned for some time and it appeared that all the bungalows were not occupied, we had clearly come in off season. We enjoyed a cold beer on some deckchairs enjoying the view of the lake with the backdrop on the hills we had driven over. Storm clouds developed fast and we watched them trying to predict which way they were moving. It was so good to sit there and watch the large thunder clouds develop and then downpour on the mountains. Luckily the rain never reached us on this occasion and we were safe to start making our way back to Buon Ma Thuot.
Taking the same rout back we cruised over the hills and meandered back through the little minority villages. This time we stopped at the top on one hilltop and enjoyed one of the many road side nuoc mia stands that had several hammocks strung on the side of the road. It was a perfect place for bikers to re-hydrate and take a rest from the fast lane so to speak. If time hadn’t been getting on we would have been quite content hanging there for sometime. Understandably Al did not want to get caught riding back to the hotel in the dark and preferably not the probable rain either. We made it back to an out of town settlement on the side of a main road and stopped for a final pit stop.  As we got back on the road we didn’t last long at all. With a strong inflow wind, heavy, hard, cold rain followed. The visibility was so poor we couldn’t see what was going on. The water soon filled the roads and became treacherous so we pulled into a little shop to take shelter.

We sat there for sometime, the corrugated roof not giving that much shelter but enough from getting drenched. We bought a plastic poncho feeling we should give the shop owner some custom for giving us shelter. When the rain eased we got back on the road but again the rain had a second wind and came down extremely heavily. This time we sheltered with some other people all under a thin long corrugated steel roof extruding from a garage. When the locals started to make a move so did we. Not far down the road we saw the carnage unveil itself. The wind and rain had been so strong it had brought down electric cables in to the main road,corrugated steel roof had been flung into trees and littered the road.
A house on the opposite side had been damaged badly with the front crumbling into the road. Of course there were no authorities on the scene yet and definitely no red tape, so the traffic weaved through the mess before getting back into the normal Vietnamese hectic flow. The rain persisted and at times got heavier, but bearable. Now on the main motorway into town we were not only in rain, but it was dark and rush hour. The locals took it all in their stride, Al was concentrating on not sliding and missing the largest of the puddles. Meanwhile the youngsters on bikes thought it was all a game and would intentionally drive fast through the middle of the big puddles getting everyone totally soaked. They tried to coax us towards the deep puddles at times, laughing all the way. It was exhilarating, we were soaked through and definitely high on life. What an epic way to get back from an epic road trip. A truly awesome part of Vietnam, seen from two wheels, our best motorbike trip so far we later agreed over a cold beer in some warm dry clothes.

Intending to use the motor bike for another day we decide to have another chilled day in BMT updating more blog and exploring the town before we head out again. The main square became a favourite place for morning coffee for us. The street vendors who sod coffee remembered us and although we didn’t understand Vietnamese very well, it was obvious that they were saying ‘Look! They came back!’ to the fellow vendors. We enjoyed a long lazy morning drinking iced coffee and waiting the world go by on the sleep plaza where unemployed locals seemed to do the same. For the most of the day we updated our blog which is easy to get behind on and hard to remember all the little details that make our experiences special. This took us the whole day and unfortunately the local beer haunt was shut that even, so we found another quiet venue and at quail baguettes before watching a film in our little hotel room.

This was to be our last full day in BMT so we took out the motorbike to do some more sight seeing. To start the day off we opted for a juice shop opposite our hotel. It looked like it would be overpriced from the outside, but to my delight they were reasonable and did a blinding avocado smoothie. It was unexpected that Vietnam seemed to be abundant with my favourite food. Around the corner at the market the stalls were dedicated to only selling them. I of course couldn’t resist, so we picked a couple up along with some baguettes for a picnic lunch. Before heading out of town towards some famous waterfalls; Dray Sap and Dray Nur, we went to buy our bus ticket to Saigon for the following day. In effect this bought us another whole day in BMT as it was only due to depart at 9pm the following day.

Then it was a long drive out of town towards the turn off for the waterfalls. The road was much worse condition in this direction with huge pot holes. It was not such a scenic road and it felt like a much more industrial route, in fact it was the same route that we would be taking the following day to Saigon. On the edge of town, just after we passed over the Serepok river (down stream from the waterfalls and also a tributary of the Mekong),we stopped for a nuoc mia and chilled in hammocks for a little while.
Ready to hit the road we took a sharp right and followed the river along on a dirt track for about an hour. We were the only ones on this track apart from the occasional person.It was nice to be alone able to able along stopping to check out what the farms were growing now and then. Coffee, pepper, cassava and banana plants lined the track as we continued to follow it along the river. Eventually the track took us away from the river and into dry rocky hills with people working by collecting rocks for construction materials. We were unsure if we were heading the right way anymore and in our broken Vietnamese asked some of these workers. They obligingly pointed us in the correct direction but they cheekily tried their luck at asking for money. Although we were used to this kind of behaviour, these people seemed a lot poorer than other provinces we have been to. As we drove on we hit a little road side settlement. The people waved but didn’t seem as happy as the people we had come across on our way to Lak Lake. With the waterfalls proximity to Cambodia I wondered if these people reflected any similarity to Cambodians or minority people who dotted the border between the two countries.

Before long we surprised ourselves and arrived at the entrance to the waterfall park. We paid a small entrance fee, 15000dong (50p) and rode into park our bike and parked up near an almost deserted looking gift shop. There were signs to the waterfalls in two directions, both on little hiking routes. We opted for the one going downhill towards the water. The park was beautiful and rich in flora and fauna. We had to wade through little flooded paths before we arrived at an opening to the river. A high, narrow rope suspended bridge connected the riversides. Many Vietnamese men were jumping off the bridge from huge height and plunging into the cold looking river below. Impossible to see the river bottom, we didn’t fancy our chances. I had read about sharp igneous rocks below the surface that made the waters dangerous to swim in. The locals seemed unafraid though, relishing in the cooling waters fully clothed.
Upstream there was a sheer rock cliff that had a narrow waterfall, presumably this water fall would be much more impressive after a heavy rainfall. All the same it was a tranquil setting. As we progressed through the park following the path through it became evident that it was very busy with Vietnamese day trippers and what seemed to be hoards of students skiving and just hanging out. Literally everyone who spotted us would giggle an yell, ‘HELLO! What is your name? Where are you from?’, but this as far as their English went and I don’t think they understood us when we asked questions back. Many tried to take pictures on their phones of us. It felt like we were back in India!

We came to a much bigger waterfall with a large pool at the bottom dotted with black sharp rocks. We crossed another much bigger bridge where kids were jumping on it violently. We were all swinging from side to side attempting to walk forward, it reminded me of being on a cake walk ride at the fair. At the other end of the bridge we managed to escape the people and sat at the edge of a of a hill before it dropped into the pool below. With a fantastic view of the Dray Sap waterfall could be seen from there, we dug out the avocados and bread and enjoyed a picnic. The waterfall at it’s fullest would have extended across the entire rock cliff, but when we where there it had to two full powered areas of funneled water shooting out and crashing into large black boulders that were magnificently eroded into curvaceous black glistening forms.
We continued walking through the park which was so busy with people at times we had to queue to get through to the final bridge and waterfall. This was a very high but small waterfall where many were enjoying to swim in the pool below. Watching young guys jump about 25m off the top of the fall into the pool below,we were entertained along with an audience of all their friends. Throughout the edge of the main waterfall pool there were little shelters where the youngsters hung out. From the litter they were unfortunately creating, it was obvious they were there to drink beer and rice wine and generally do the teenage skiving thing.
Hot and bothered we were tempted to do some swimming too, but with my Hanoi tattoo still healing it was not a good idea for me. Instead we washed our faces in the cool water before returning up the hill to our bike and began to drive back through the empty rocky hills to the edge of Buon Ma Thuot.
By the time we arrived back at the Serepok River bridge we were feeling tired and hungry. It was about 4pm so we had an iced coffee and decided to hunt down some food by venturing further out of town on the motorway. We didn’t go very far as the road side business was teetering out and we saw a large group of people who looked like they had been pulled over by a large group of police. We had gotten away without any road side fines or trouble so far, so we quickly turned around and headed over the bridge.

To our delight, just on the other side of the bridge we spotted a man doing a deliciously smelling bbq, duck or pork. So we sat and enjoyed bbq pork with salad. On the next table to us were a group of men in greasy blue overalls drinking rice wine. Their eyes were blood shot and it looked like they had been drinking all afternoon. They were friendly and asked us to join them, but we declined and managed escape without offending. Back on the road to BMT we didn’t have a repeat of any down pours and made it back dry and relaxed. It had been another nice day on the bike. It is such a great way to see some real Vietnam and get a glimpse of everyday people without going on some expensive pre-arranged guided tour.

With our ticket booked for 9pm the following day, we had an early night. It was just as well as we were very rudely awoken by masses of very loud Vietnamese tourists entering our hotel. People seem to go on holiday by coach trip and take over a hotel. There must have been about 50 people at reception when we were trying to check out, all speaking at full volume trying to barter for a room. It was chaos and we were happy to escape to the juice bar across the road for a breakfast avocado smoothie, watching the madness at a little distance.

For our last day we decided to buy some high grade local coffee and an individual coffee filter that was easy to pick up in the local market. The intention was to keep costs down and get hot water for the room in future and brew our own coffee or tea (I still had loose leaf tea from Fiji in my ruck sack). However, if we didn’t use the coffee on our travels it would make a nice souvenir as it really tasted very good. The shop owner was kind enough to give us a taster. We sat chatting him for sometime as he was one of the few people in this town that was able to hold a conversation in English.

For the rest of the day Al made the most of writing blog and updating Vietnamese recipes on the website. The heat had really got to me and I felt weirdly tired. Without a hotel room to go to I ended up sleeping on the receptions hard wood furniture throughout the day. Eventually when the staff had finished having their naps they let me lie down on their collapsible bed behind the reception desk. They had been a ittle hard-nosed and unfriendly during our stay but I think they had eventually warmed to us. For me this was a rewarding part of staying in one place for more than a few nights and actually getting to know them. Rather than flitting through like so many tourists do in BMT with their only intention being to go to the Yok Don park.

With a few hours to kill before our bus left, Al sat and enjoyed a few bottles of Saigon beer at one of our usual spots run by a nice old lady who had also warmed to us. She would come and try to chat to us and seemed happier than at the beginning to charge us a fair price for the beer.  We said our goodbyes to her and the hotel staff, then jumped in a cab to a gas station (apparently this was where the bus would depart).

Buon Ma Thuot had been one of the best places in South East Asia we had been to so far and we were sad that our 5 days had come to an end. We felt that we had really got an insight to the everyday Vietnam that is so hard to find in a tourist trap location. As much as we could have stayed for longer, we felt it had been a good amount of time and  we needed to allow ourselves time to see some of Saigon and the Mekong Delta. That night we departed and found ourselves awake in the crazy city of Saigon!

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