Riding elephants in Don Village. Photo: Phong Lan
It is the most beautiful time of the year in the Central Highlands now. The basalt land is blanketed in snow-white coffee flowers.
During a recent visit there, I was amazed by the white hills and fields that seemed to stretch up to the horizon, making me realize there was yet another side to the Central Highlands - a romantic one.
Of course, everyone knows about the exotic land of ethnic cultures and their gongs and the magnificent land of breathtaking mountains.
I decided to spend the weekend in Dak Lak which has the largest area of coffee of the region's five provinces.
It was the end of February and there were lots of visitors trying to, like me, take in the wonderful scenery and atmosphere.
From a friend's house in Buon Trap Town, my companion and I rode a motorbike to explore the coffee fields. The weather was lovely with the bright sun out and shining.
On my friend's advice, we rode along National Highway No. 14 and Provincial Road No. 1 leading up to Yok Don National Park where the vast coffee plantations were in full white bloom. It was sensory overload.
Thang, my friend, said the coffee trees usually bloom twice or three times a year, including from February to the end of March.
"The flowers are only in bloom for about a week and then become fruits," he explained. "Therefore, not every visitor has the chance to see the flowers unless they stay here all spring."
That made me a lucky visitor.
HOW TO GET THERE
For backpackers, the most convenient way to Dak Lak is by air or bus. Vietnam Airlines and Air Mekong fly from Buon Ma Thuot Airport to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang.
Visitors can also book tours at:
* Fiditour, 129 Nguyen Hue Boulevard, D1, HCMC, Tel: 3 914 1414, Email: email@example.com
* Saigon Toserco, 315 Nguyen Thien Thuat Street, D3, HCMC, tel: 3 839 3999, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
* Dang Le Coffee tour, 268 Nguyen Tat Thanh Street, Buon Ma Thuot Town, tel: 0500 651 1168, Email: email@example.com, website: www.coffeetour.com.vn.
It is rainy season in the highlands, so make sure to take a raincoat. Also light jackets since nights could get cold.
During the trip I also had the chance to see locals harvest honey. Along National Highway No. 14, which runs through Dak Lak and Dak Nong provinces, were many temporary camps set up by workers from surrounding areas who had come to harvest honey during the coffee flowering season. Apparently honey from these flowers is special.
At a camp set up by a man named Pham Quang Chinh from Dong Nai Province near Ho Chi Minh City, we were told that he was among many roving honey collectors who came here to take advantage of the coffee flowering season.
"I have more than 200 beehives and we will be here for a month," Chinh said. "Moving is an essential aspect of bee raising. We have to follow the fruit flowers and move about four times a year so that our bees have natural food to produce high-quality honey. The coffee flowering season is really important to us because the honey from these flowers is very good."
We were offered honey to taste and it was sweet. Before saying goodbye to Chinh and his camp, I bought two small bottles (2 kilograms, each priced at VND40,000, or US$2) for my mother because I was sure she would love the taste.
My friend told me that many people here earn lots of money from raising bees. They only move when the flower season ends and of course they carry their bees with them.
Besides the coffee fields, Dak Lak also has many other sights to charm visitors, including the idyllic Don Village, the magnificent Dray Sap Waterfall, and the romantic Lak Lake.
At Don, visitors can get a glimpse into the lives of ethnic people, including their gong culture, and try an elephant ride to see the surrounding scenery, including some stunning sites like the Dray Sap and Dray Nu waterfalls and Lak Lake.
All of them are just 20-50 kilometers from Buon Ma Thuot Town.
Buon Ma Thuot has nice accommodation and dining options and stylish coffee shops. For those with a bigger budget, the four-star Dakruco hotel on Nguyen Chi Thanh Street offers nice views and good service.
There are also many other popular two- and three-stars hotels like Dam San on Nguyen Cong Tru Street, Cao Nguyen on Phan Chu Trinh Street, and Thanh Cong on Ly Thuong Kiet Street.
While coffee is very cheap here, taxis fares are much higher than in Hanoi or HCMC. There are public buses but they are not really popular with visitors because most of them are in poor condition. Many visitors, in fact, rent motorbikes at around VND100,000 a day to explore the area by themselves.
Hotel receptionists provide visitors information about where to hire the bikes.