From Pleiku, we continued south into Buôn Ma Thuột, Dak Lak province – the coffee capital of Vietnam. Coffee was first introduced in the country following the French arrival in the late 1800s. A century later, it is still the omnipresent colonial legacy. The whole population is hooked. Especially from Hue southward, coffee reigns supreme. No matter how small the town, there will be a cafe that local people take pride in. Hosts would take out-of-town guests to their favorite coffee hang-outs as if they were some must-visit landmarks. It is courteous to show appreciation to both the style of the shops, and the taste of the coffee available. You can get into lengthy nitpicking discussions on which house has the best roast and the best blend, the pros and cons of a chrome vs. aluminum slow-drip filter, etc. The indisputable is that Dak Lak gives the country the most superior beans. Many claim that it is the basalt-rich red soil that imparts a flavor hardly perceptible but impossible to replicate elsewhere.

Slightly north of town center is Ako Dhong (buôn Cô Thôn in Vietnamese) – a wealthy Ede village with rows of beautifully preserved long houses. The houses seem to be of little daily use nowadays as families have built new American suburbia-style residences right behind. The architecture and construction would leave many city folks envious, not to mention the clean streets. The small settlement – it takes only about 20 minutes to circle around – is among the prettiest and wealthiest I’ve seen in the whole country.

Dak Lak, Buôn Ma Thuột, Ako Dhong, buôn Cô Thôn, ethnic minorities, longhouses, nhà dài, Ede ethnic, dân tộc Ê-đê

Dak Lak, Buôn Ma Thuột, Ako Dhong, buôn Cô Thôn, ethnic minorities, longhouses, nhà dài, Ede ethnic, dân tộc Ê-đê

Dak Lak, Buôn Ma Thuột, Ako Dhong, buôn Cô Thôn, ethnic minorities, longhouses, nhà dài, Ede ethnic, dân tộc Ê-đê

Dak Lak, Buôn Ma Thuột, Ako Dhong, buôn Cô Thôn, ethnic minorities, Ede ethnic, dân tộc Ê-đê

Founded back in the 1950s, the village has prospered apparently thanks to the coffee plant. Honestly, it was a little hard for me to believe. Google tells me that there’s only 26 acres of farm land, and small scale farmers throughout the country are by no mean well-off. At the end of the road is a small tourism complex popular with wedding parties and other local gatherings, but very few individual houses in the community show any sign of getting tourist money, except for a modest coffee shop and a small souvenir store. I was intrigued, but not enough to investigate further their prosperity. All the more props to the community for safeguarding their longhouses; it’s quite common for folks (and government) to demolish cultural treasures as soon as they have the means to do so.

Our next destination is one hour south of Buôn Ma Thuột: the M’nong village of Jun on the shore of lake Lak also boasts a series of long houses, but of a much poorer state. Seeking a low key experience of home-stay and elephant riding, we made arrangement through the owner of a local cafe right outside the village, Mr. Duc. A former easy rider driver, he appears to have good relationship with guides who help bring in a small but regular flow of customers. I felt uncomfortable, not because he was eager to sell me the elephant ride, but because he kept saying how we were all one family – a big red flag in my book. (How about not charging me if we’re such family?). In the end, I still went with the elephant ride, because goddamnit, I’m in the Central Highlands and I want to be on top of an elephant.

No single gram of regret. Riding on an elephant was simply unique. I couldn’t help laughing out loud as I slid up and down the crater seat with each step our giant transporter took. The bumpy ride was even a little dizzying at first. I was glad it didn’t last longer than 40 minutes, or else my butt would surely have suffered that night.

Dak Lak, Buôn Ma Thuột, riding elephant, Jun village, buôn Jun, hồ Lak, lake Lak, ethnic minorities, M'nong ethnic, dân tộc M'nông

Dak Lak, Buôn Ma Thuột, riding elephant, Jun village, buôn Jun, hồ Lak, lake Lak, ethnic minorities, M'nong ethnic, dân tộc M'nông

I would have love to see the elephant swim, but wading water was fun enough.

Dak Lak, Buôn Ma Thuột, Jun village, buôn Jun, hồ Lak, lake Lak, ethnic minorities, M'nong ethnic, dân tộc M'nôngChasing the elephant. Kids everywhere love the big pal, though he might not like them back.

Dak Lak, Buôn Ma Thuột, Jun village, buôn Jun, hồ Lak, lake Lak, ethnic minorities, M'nong ethnic, dân tộc M'nông

Dak Lak, Buôn Ma Thuột, Jun village, buôn Jun, hồ Lak, lake Lak, ethnic minorities, M'nong ethnic, dân tộc M'nông

Our “home stay” was more accurately sleeping at a local long house. There’s no doors or walls within a long house, but there’s an imaginary line dividing it into two parts: the front half is used as a living room to greet guests, the back half the dwelling space of the family where they eat and sleep. We slept obviously in the front part on soft mattresses; a thin curtain was drawn almost across the whole width of the house to give us and the family some privacy. I was quite tired after the elephant ride and only exchanged a brief introduction with the family before passing out for a nap. Later in the evening, we went for a walk and by the time we got back, the family had already gone to bed.

Dak Lak, Buôn Ma Thuột, Jun village, nhà dài, longhouses, buôn Jun, hồ Lak, lake Lak, ethnic minorities, M'nong ethnic, dân tộc M'nông

Dak Lak, Buôn Ma Thuột, Jun village, nhà dài, longhouses, buôn Jun, hồ Lak, lake Lak, ethnic minorities, M'nong ethnic, dân tộc M'nông

The price for this very basic set-up was $2.5 for a Vietnamese, and $5 for a foreigner. It is in no way outrageous, but I found out host family only receives 10% of the pay. I understand that the middleman probably   has to pay some tax, and deals with official regulations, but I was still upset that so little goes to the people providing the actual service. One reason for my righteousness is that there’s a long history of exploit by Vietnamese on ethnic minorities and I felt guilty that I was helping it. (Elephant guy fared a little better, receiving 50% of the $20 we paid). For now, it looks impossible to arrange for the home-stay directly with the locals, but the morning before we left, we did manage to negotiate a boat ride without having to go through Mr. Duc.

Dak Lak, Buôn Ma Thuột, Jun village, buôn Jun, hồ Lak, lake Lak, ethnic minorities, M'nong ethnic, dân tộc M'nôngLake Lak is the biggest natural lake in the Central Highlands, and the second biggest in the country. I originally wanted to rent a boat to row myself, but in the end went with this guy. We paid him $5, half of what we’d have paid through Mr. Duc. He promptly took the money to the bar right after we reached shore.

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