Lak lake and BaoDai Villa

Lak lake and BaoDai Villa
It’s time to see hills on the horizon, maybe fish out the old fleece. But it takes too long to get up to Sapa and you’re done with Dalat. Well, says Tim English, there is an alternative – Lak Lake in Daklak Province.......

     Near enough for a long weekend and empty enough to find that sense of solitude, Daklak province boasts elements of both Sapa and Dalat as well as its own unique flavour. A trip to Lak Lake, just south of the provincial capital Buon Me Thuot, offers you the chance to experience everything from riding on an elephant’s back to rising from an emperor’s bed.
    The easy 40km drive from the city is fairly drab until you drop down onto the causeway that crosses the lake’s vast wetlands. Suddenly, the myriad hues of green and yellow paddy fields stretch out in every direction to a distant circle of mountains sporting an attractive broccoli garnish. These are the remnants of the forests in which Vietnam’s last Emperor, Bao Dai, hunted elephants and tigers until as late as the 1950’s.

     At the lake you’ll be met by Mr Duc, who has headed up Daklak Tourist for the last seven years. Enthusiastic about developing tourism for the benefit of the local M’Nong people, his ambitions are well placed – you have just entered a hidden land of inhabitants still discovering the array of tourism opportunities they have to offer. 

     Reticent but welcoming, the 10,000 or so M’Nong are vastly outnumbered in the province by both Vietnamese and Ede people, but in the immediate vicinity of the lake and out into the local mountains they are a strong and happy majority. 
They have their own language, still live communally in longhouse villages, and some even still wear a traditional red and black costume reminiscent of minorities in the North. They spend their time growing rice, bananas, sugar cane; maize, manioc and fruit. They rear buffalo, chickens and ducks, and distil rice to keep their wine jars at a healthy level. And when they’re not doing all that, they go fishing. As the mountains slowly materialise out of the early morning mist, you’ll see many M’Nong brandishing spears on the lakeside or casting nets from canoes.

    The 2,400m peak of Chu Yang Sin, from which the nearby National Reserve takes its name, remains to be conquered, however. In addition to being a very remote three-day climb, it has no distinct path, few options for overnight stays, and requires local permits and forest ranger guides.

    Mr Duc suggested an alternative – he has mapped out a 20km circular cycling route to the south of Lak Lake. Generally flat, completely safe and permanently beautiful, this can be accomplished on one of the reliable bicycles available for rent at VND40,000 per day, or with a Honda and driver for a little bit more.
 Discovering lak lake

   The (mainly) dirt track takes you through six M’Nong villages, predominantly still made up of longhouses from which the younger occupants eagerly wave as you pass. A highlight was Rocky Cliff. A 2km detour takes you to a pretty little gorge on the Song Dak Lieng, the river that exits the lake to meander through the whole area. With M’Nong women washing clothes and drying maize on rocks next to a sandy beach, few would be able to resist the opportunity of a dip in cool, fresh water. 

    These people haven’t yet seen many tourists – decorum is respectful – but they show none of the shyness and animosity some guidebooks lead you to believe. Even if this route ever becomes crowded, any left or right turn would doubtless take you to other enchanting environs, especially the track I could see snaking off into the trees beyond the logs of Rocky Cliff Bridge.

    It hadn’t looked far on the map but I found myself stopping so frequently for photos, chats, drinks, swims and contemplation of my surroundings that it was already dusk when I came back, leaving Mr Duc concerned as to where I might get some rest.

    There’s a whole spectrum of accommodation on offer around Lak lake, the best of which is the Emperor’s old hunting villa atop the nearest hill. An interesting 1950’s glass-fronted building, its six rooms are designed to capitalize on the view, which I discovered no one else was there to enjoy. It’s not every day you get an Emperor’s pad to yourself for the night – including five friendly staff – so my sleeping decision was quickly made.

     For a mere US$30 the royal room was mine, just as Bao Dai left it, from framed photos depicting the life of an erstwhile ruler to his original hardwood wardrobe. Not attaching balconies to the rooms was a serious architectural blunder, but the terrace more than made up for it. From there, with a cold Saigon Xanh in hand, I was able to watch the sun set over the lake and enjoy a deep sense of peace seldom felt in Vietnam.

 in the emperor’s clothes

   Waking up in Emperor mode I decided my second day had to reflect the big man’s penchant – minus the gun – and Mr Duc had the perfect plan. His guided jungle trek features a fabulous combination of boating across the lake, walking through the hills you can see from the villa and a ride on one of the area’s few remaining elephants.

     Although only a half hour chug away, the other side of the lake is still inaccessible by road. But as you’re guided through the trees along twisting, overgrown paths you soon realise the forest here has long since lost its virginity. It is still a very attractive walk, all the more so for offering a glimpse into the lives of those who must make their living in such surroundings.

     Once the walk is over, it’s time to mount an elephant. Together we lurched through the maize fields that hug the banks of the Krung Ana River. Pleasant and pretty, these pachyderms earn their crust either by lugging lumber or balancing trios of tourists on their broad, bony backs. Either way, no one is taking pot shots at them any more.

     And from up there it’s a different view, too. For the first time you notice the glorious display of the ubiquitous cassia trees, whose parasitical orchids and yellow flowers are collected by the locals either to decorate their porches or to make into fertiliser.

     Before long we arrived at M’Lieng Village and finally stopped for a break at a longhouse, where it soon became clear that more happens beneath these homes than within them. While sipping rice wine and waiting for a tasty-looking duck to meet its end I watched as piglets and pigs, cats and dogs, chickens and children all busied themselves below.

The M’nong traditions

    I also discovered that the enormous timbers from which the houses are made from are often given as wedding gifts. Apparently, in this matriarchal society, a M’Nong woman of marriageable age is endowed with a good supply such logs. When she decides who is to be her husband it is she who knocks up the new house before finally allowing him across the threshold.

    The next longhouse I visited, back across the lake in Jun Village, featured my US$5 bed along with a new development I was happy to see – an ensuite. Lodging sorted, the guides left me alone on the lakeside, looking considerably more pleased with their own pickings than my tipping – their baskets brimmed with jungle goodies from fresh bamboo shoots to tasty la lot leaves, all balanced on long poles they would use for making rakes.

      Another activity you can sign up for is the wine jar ceremony. Norman Lewis, writing about his travels in this area in the 50’s, features his dealings with these alcoholic urns on almost every other page. The ceremony is simple. The head of the household gets a good siphon on the go, selects his victim and forces them to down half a pint in one. The victim then gets to pick the next one and so it continues. This ritual, reminiscent of a good bong with overtones of stealing petrol, goes on until the last man drops. While children skipped under the sole village streetlight we adults slowly pickled ourselves on 20 litres of Grand Reserve de Daklak.

     For obvious reasons the third day started much later than usual, which suited Mr Duc’s next recommendation, an easy bike ride to Lake Triet. Passing paddies studded with low hills you pedal a quiet road while taking care to avoid whatever harvest is currently drying on the hot tar. Climb the dam when you get there and your reward is a glorious view of peaceful waters surrounded by forest. An irregular ferry could set you on your way to Nam Ka, but you’ve reached the barrier to typical Daklak tourism – beyond that point is out of Mr Duc’s range.
My last night was spent at the Ho Lak lakeside complex itself. Set on a stunning promontory, the lawns kept green by a stand of mature jackfruit trees, simple rooms are available for US$10. The Floating Restaurant’s good food was accompanied by a M’Nong music and dance show, along with another wine jar.
Avoiding eye contact with the participants, I instead gazed at the skeletons of thirty new bungalows I could make out in the distance. In a way I was looking into the future. The drive to develop is both visible and relentless and this area has by no means escaped the concrete addiction rampant across Vietnam.

    Daklak might not have all the colour of Sapa nor the breadth of choice of Dalat, but there remains sufficient local character to make the trip captivating and enough natural beauty to top up your photo album.

     And if you want not just the Emperor’s bedclothes but also the whole place to yourself, you should head up there soon.