Buon Ma Thuot, a provincial capital in Central Vietnam, is a typical medium-sized Vietnamese town: cozy enough, but lacking in typical tourist attractions. There are a couple of museums and a bunch of monuments for enthusiasts, but not much else. The area technically belongs to a score of hill tribes, M'nong being the most populous of those, but unlike the ethnic minorities in the north, they do not usually wear traditional costumes. To a casual visitor, they look pretty much indistinguishable from any other Vietnamese farmers. The main reason to travel around Buon Ma Thuot is nature: massive, powerful waterfalls, an unusual lake, and a rather rare phenomenon: volcanic tubes.
The two neighboring waterfalls are rather typical in shape for this area: a vertical shift in the bedrock has created a sheer drop, with the top shelf slightly overhanging the precipice. More unusual are the volume and breadth. The amount of crashing water is huge even during the dry season, and the width of the stream is sufficient for dozens of separate brooks and rivulets to branch off and fall independently. Essentially, it is a vast system of rapids, cascades, and pools, where the two major waterfalls define the boundaries. Visiting them is easy: take a bus from Buon Ma Thuot to Krong No, get off at the entrance to Dray Nur, pay the fee (around 2$), explore the area, then cross a suspension bridge and follow a path until you reach Dray Sap. There are small cafes next to both falls. If you aim for the sunset view, you’re likely to miss the last bus back, but hitchhiking is easy.
This large artificial lake has been created when a network of mountain valleys was flooded by a dam for a hydroelectric power plant. Former mountain summits and the higher parts of ranges between the valleys remain above the surface, forming a green maze over the bluish water. Entrepreneurial locals have added a few cafes, a kindergarten-like “instagrammable” viewpoint, and a number of posh homestays, all of this blatantly overpriced. These can be safely ignored since the best views are anyway from the coffee plantations nearby. Getting there, unless you have your own wheels, requires an effort. First, you need to take a bus to Gia Nghia, then change for a minivan heading west and passing by the lake – ask for Ho Ta Dung. If you wish to stay for the sunset, keep in mind that no public transportation travels back to Gia Nghia after dark and there are not many private vehicles for hitchhiking either. The best bet is to stay in one of the three motels on the highway, next to the turn-off for the lake.
Doubtlessly the most unique of all nature attractions around Buon Ma Thuot, and generally in Central Vietnam, is Chu B’luk, a network of ancient lava tubes. Such volcanic caves, cylindrical in appearance and without speleothems, form due to temperature differences in lava flows: cooler, more viscous upper layers stop and solidify, while the hotter lower layers continue moving, creating hollow channels. Not many lava tubes wide enough for a man to walk through and long enough to make it worthwhile exist in the world, and the system in Chu B’luk is believed to be the most extensive in Asia. The caves look bizarre, a lot like a lair of some mystical giant worm, or possibly a wyrm. The easiest to access is the third cave: get to the same entrance as for Dray Nur waterfall, but instead of turning towards the cascades, continue walking straight. The volcanic caves are not yet officially open to tourists – tell the ticket sellers in the booth you are going to the waterfall, or they will turn you back. For the same reason, the trail is not signposted, so use Google or Open Street Maps for navigation. Marks on the cave walls have worn out too; explore at your own risk.
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