Ea H’leo, Dak Lak: Truly off the beaten path Vietnam

Lake in Ea H'Leo, Dak Lak, Vietnam
The man-made lake in Ea H’Leo, Dak Lak, Vietnam

When Sara and I were asked by a Vietnamese friend to join her on a trip to her hometown, we hesitated at first. Truthfully, the 7 hour ride on a night-bus scared us more than a bit, but after a brief consultation we were 100% on-board. This would be a true off the beaten path Vietnam experience. Next stop: Ea H’leo, Dak Lak.

Hooray, it’s Friday! Sara got home from work at 5:30PM. We shoved food into our mouths, packed our bags, and took a taxi to a petrol station on the highway. After a 20 minute wait, a bus arrived and we were hustled on to it. It was 8PM. We wouldn’t arrive in Dak Lak until 3AM.

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The Vietnamese night bus is notorious. We’ve ridden on them twice, both times during the day when we didn’t have to sleep at all. Sara has ranted about them in the past. Personally, I haven’t had a problem with them. Yes, they’re way too small for me to stretch out, but their semi-recline is actually pretty close to the angle that I like to sit at. Also, my usual problem with long bus rides is the lack of leg room. On the sleeper buses it’s easy to change the position of your legs periodically. Sleeping on a sleeper bus, however, that would be a new experience.

My posse of 5 ended up getting the 5 seats that run along the upper level of the very back of the bus. We crammed in, giggling at the absurdity of it all. It was like a slumber party in a box. We were so giddy that a Vietnamese man asked us to be quiet. One by one, my group fell asleep until it was just me and my smartphone. At about 1AM, I passed out for an hour then woke up in a bit of pain. I changed positions and fell back asleep. This repeated every hour until we arrived at 3:00 or 4:00AM. In a groggy-state, we took a couple motorcycle taxis to the family home of our friend, and quickly fell asleep for another 4 hours. When I awoke, I stepped out onto the balcony and looked out across a giant field of coffea (the plant that produces the seeds that are coffee beans). Suddenly, I wasn’t tired, but excited.

After breakfast and some amazing coffee, we took some scooters around the outskirts of town – past fields of coffea, pepper, and avocados – to an uncle’s coffea nursery.

Dak Lak coffee nursery
Coffea nursery in Dak Lak, Vietnam
An off the beaten path Vietnam meal
Prepping for a feast in Ea H’leo, Dak Lak, Vietnam

We headed back to the house for a 10AM party. The celebration was a job promotion. We didn’t know what we were getting into. The three or four tables filled up with food and people. Only our group of 5 spoke English, but we communicated with smiles, nods, and drinks… lots and lots of drinks. At first it was beer, but then the rice wine was tapped.

#DakLakWeekend – Busting out the homemade rice wine. Alcohol percentage: unknown. #ryansaravietnam #vietnam

A video posted by Ryan Nem (@itchyfeetonthecheap) on

It tasted strong at first, but after several shots, it dangerously went down like water. Like some sort of fraternity pledge, the men came to our table one at a time and drank a shot with us. After that, we had to go around to all the tables and do a shot with each one. Then, more people came and we did a shot with them. And then… well, it gets pretty fuzzy after that.

But this apparently happened:

#DakLakWeekend – headed to uncles cabin. #vietnam #supermoon #ryansaravietnam #travel

A video posted by Ryan Nem (@itchyfeetonthecheap) on

Then we arrived at Uncle’s house — surrounded by crops, on a hill that overlooked the lake. It was majestic. This shitty cell phone photo does it no justice at all. The sun dropped and we watched the city light up as we had dinner and, of course, more rice wine. Uncle’s house is very simple, almost cabin-like, but the view around him made me jealous. I wondered about his life. How hard it was, how happy he was, and if he was filled with the same feeling I had when I looked out across his property. This was certainly off the beaten path Vietnam, and I was loving it.

The next morning was a bit rough, but the fresh Dak Lak air and the strong Dak Lak coffee cleared my head pretty quickly. We jumped on the scooters and headed to our friend’s family-farm, about 25 kilometers away. The drive was amazing. The rolling hills with crops, mostly coffee, passing through small villages, with a crisp breeze in our faces. We stopped at a small village with a corner cafe. I instantly felt like I was in a different time. The wooden Chinese-style coffee shop had many people sitting around, playing Chinese chess, and sipping a brew that smelled incredibly good. My coffee arrived and I slowly tasted it. In that atmosphere, with a coffee that good, it was the highlight of my trip. The funny thing is, I would never be able to find that spot again without help. I had no idea where I was — I mean, it didn’t even feel like I was in the same era.

Men playing Chinese chess in Dak Lak, Vietnam
An intense game of Chinese chess.

Dak Lak, Vietnam rubber tree farm
A rubber tree with the farm cabin in the background.
We made our way to a beautiful farm where pepper, coffea, and a plethora of rubber trees are grown. It was an incredibly peaceful place with only a small cabin for shelter. We sat down to a feast that included civet, the local weasel-like animal that is sometimes used to make weasel coffee. It was pretty tasty. The beer was poured freely, but I drank only out of politeness. The locals that joined us were all local police officers, so I could hardly say no to having a drink with them.
Dinner party in Ea H'leo, Dak Lak, Vietnam
Our dinner companions after a large meal and some rice wine.
After lunch we drove back to the house for a quick rest before heading out for more food and beer. The family chatted, the children ran around the table, and I tried to stay awake. The meal came to a sudden end and we rushed to the bus station to catch our ride home. After saying goodbye to the family, none of which I could pick out of a line-up, let alone remember their names, we crawled back into the upper back seat of the sleeper bus. This time we were less giddy, but it made it easier to sleep. We got home at about 4AM, giving Sara a couple hours of sleep before she had to get up for work. I, on the other hand, would sleep-in extra long that day, dreaming about the small wooden house on the hill that overlooked the lake… which might have been filled with rice wine.