Lak Lake is a well-known expanse of water in the central highlands province of Dak Lak and is believed to have been the place of residence of the Water God Potao Apui of the Ede ethnic minority group.
I had a great experience when visiting the area several years ago, and my recent visit filled me with lots of nostalgia for the place because of the rapid changes that have occurred over the years.
Into the highlands
I rode my motorbike along National Road No 27, which stretches more than 200 km and connects Dalat and Ban Me Thuot. To reach Lak Lake I had to cover another 55 km, which took more than an hour.
I rode past places such as Cu Kuin and Brong Bong before reaching Lak, a district bearing the same name as the lake and at an altitude of 500 metres above sea level, by the Chu Yang Sin Mountain Range.
Ten years ago, it was quite hard to reach Lak Lake because the road was narrow and rough and the tourist services were few.
In those days, there were no houses on the side of the road. I was mesmerised by the beautiful highlands scenery when I rode my motorbike along the shady road with a lot of trees on both sides, and I had a wish to meet the mighty young man called Dam San in the legend of the Ede ethnic minority people, who is believed to have looked for the Sun Goddess in the hope of bringing light to his village during the cold windy winter.
The scenery this time made my visit to the area a bit disappointing, because modern life has arrived in this mountainous area. Reinforced concrete houses resembling cubes of different colours have mushroomed. Advertising signs can be seen everywhere, spoiling the natural features of the highlands of my memory.
I was thinking about lots of things while I was riding my motorbike without realising how quickly time was flying. When I saw the road sign indicating the direction to Lak Lake, I knew I had entered the kingdom of the legendary Water God Potao Apui.
I made my way round the capital of the powerful God. At noon, the lake looked calm and cool, with a slight breeze and birds singing here and there.
Looking at some of the dugout canoes lying quietly by the lake bank, I remembered the stories from elderly heads of villages, who spoke of visits to the forest, worshipping ceremonies asking the gods for permission to cut down big thousand-year-old trees.
After the worshipping ceremonies, strong young men were chosen to cut down some of the big trees to bring home and make dugout canoes, so that they could cross the lake, go fishing, and present offerings to the God Potao Apui when the moon indicated it was time for high tides and torrential rain.
Today, such dugout canoes are rare because there are only a few big trees left in the area. For a long time, I admired the Chu Yang Sin Mountain Range to my heart’s content, a place also known as the land of the Fire God. Then, I realised that the mountain range had been badly destroyed and even the bushes were withering in the scorching sun of March. Suddenly, a feeling of sadness passed through me. I was wondering what the scenery of this area would look like in the future.
On the way to Jun village, I saw some elephants calmly chewing on sugarcane, waiting to carry tourists on their backs and make it across the lake. However, the image of plastic bags floating on the surface was a serious concern and indicated some prompt action is needed at Lak Lake to curb environmental pollution. Unless the problem is resolved soon, the aquatic bio-system in the lake will be destroyed. Residents will suffer serious losses in income from tourist services and the decay of the aquatic resources that have long been a great provider.
Palace of the last emperor
I rode up the slope to reach the Palace of Emperor Bao Dai, situated on the top of a hill. Riding my motorbike along roads covered with fallen leaves, I felt as if I had become lost in a place with a temperate climate because of the cool air and mild sun. The scenery was as pretty as a picture, making me feel like lifting my face and taking as many deep breaths of clean air as I could.
I arrived at the palace, which belonged to the final emperor of Vietnam’s final dynasty, the Nguyen Dynasty. It is said that he stayed there during his hunting trips. The palace area now looks a little deserted, though visitors can find a restaurant and accommodation nearby.
I bought a ticket to get to know more about the palace. It was clear to see that old objects from a golden period had withered over time. The pictures of Emperor Bao Dai, Queen Nam Phuong, and concubines Ngoc Diep and Phi Anh on the walls stood as proof of a dynasty that has now been consigned to history.
I suddenly felt curious and looked at a picture of people hunting for tigers in a forest near Lak Lake. The area back then was a pristine jungle with lots of elephants, bears, tigers and other big cats. Now, only the sound of the tour guide remained, pointing out pieces rope used for hunting elephants that were exhibited in a glass cabinet covered with a thick layer of dust.
Wandering around the hills, I looked aimlessly at bare forest and felt some uncertainty, because the forest can no longer serve as the protector of local people. The winds still blew, and in a distant valley the rice had become yellow and ripe. On the surface of the lake, dugout canoes left the bank, providing some excitement for tourists trying to take some photos as souvenirs of their visit to the highlands.