How we found ourselves in the Ea Tu Commune
We were staying in Buôn Ma Thuột, Đắk Lắk, Vietnam and one morning a friend took us to visit several small durian farms in the mixed urban-agricultural outskirts of the city (see the Youtube video).
As I peered out the truck window down a red-dust road I noticed motorbikes balancing huge side baskets of durian unsteadily weaving along, tractors loaded high with durian parked at the ready, and small wooden platforms of durian in front of people’s houses. This was clearly a durian hotspot.
I put a pin down in Google Map.
Then we decided to come back by ourselves and cruise around by motorbike to explore.
It turns out the Ea Tu Commune is a district with several villages (Buôn Ko Tam, Buôn Krông) primarily inhabited by people from the Ede community, one of the indigenous tribes of Vietnam who still speak their own language and keep their own traditions.
What we found is an amazing agro-tourism opportunity if you are visiting Buôn Ma Thuột City and looking for honey-soft, succulent tree-dropped durian direct from small farms, as well as a cultural education, all within 10 minutes of the city-center.
Tan Hoa Wholesale Market
We started early for the Tan Hoa Market, cruising through a misty morning as a giant red sun rose over the darting motorbikes and low houses of Buôn Ma Thuột City’s urban-agricultural suburbs.
We arrived to the market about 6:45AM, to find things already starting to wind down.
Besides one seller with an immense pile of Monthong-like durian, most of the vendors sitting on the ground had just one or two durians left, sitting amongst their vegetables and avocados, and those fruits walked off the premises before I could take off my motorbike helmet.
We approached the lady with the biggest pile of durian, right front and center of the market.
Mostly she had the Dona Durian (similar to Monthong) which was all cut-harvested and not yet ripe.
But behind the big pile, she had a mixed basket of tree-dropped durians. She pulled out a petite 1.5kg Ri6 and an even smaller Sầu Hát.
And even though it was just barely 7AM, our durian day had begun!
Price: 65,000 VND ($2.70 USD)
We started with the tree-ripe Ri6 from the basket behind the big pile. When the vendor cracked it open (with a pair of scissors no less) it revealed huge pale yellow pods, slightly mottled with white, and looking a little stringy.
We plowed right in. It was not what I expected.
This was our second Ri6 of this trip. We’d had plenty of frozen Ri6 in San Francisco and I’d had fresh Ri6 at Mr. Van Hoa’s on my first trip to Vietnam many eons ago, and in my mind Ri6 is a bright yellow durian sort of similar to Chanee.
But this one was … dare I say it? Mealy. It clearly had some wet-core issues going on, and although my fingers sank deep into its corpulent flesh, the texture was really just… meh.
We gave the obligatory thumbs up to the vendor to show that we western folks really do appreciate durian, and then moved on to our second pick, which had a tantalizing aroma.
Price: 45,000 VND ($1.90 USD)
This was our first official Sầu Hát in Vietnam. A Sầu Hát is simply any un-named variety grown from seed, the same as a kampung in Malyaysia or a baan in Thailand.
This one did not disappoint. It was mild and smooth with a honeyed sweetness like yogurt and almond butter drizzled in the clover honey of my childhood. It was also surprisingly fleshy for durian that’s name literally translates as “Big Seed.”
Now aware that there was good durian in the area, we started to get excited about what epic deliciousness we might be able to find in the farm area nearby.
After finishing our breakfast, we took a loop through the Tan Hoa Market to see what other interesting fruits are available in Vietnam.
Then we turned our motorbike away from the main road and into the neighborhood. We had an appointment at 8am I didn’t want to miss.
Ama Hmai Homestay
From the market we put-putted 1km through a narrow garden neighborhood, the front yards waving with red coffee cherries and the air thick with the aroma of dark roasted coffee.
I spotted small durian trees jutting above the coffee bushes, and then we had arrived to the Ama Hmai Homestay.
The Homestay is a 3-story museum and art gallery with 4 bedrooms, a pool in the back, and an extensive library in the attic.
First impression: Shockingly Gorgeous.
Mr. Son was inside cooking coffee over a traditional wood fire. He waved at us from around an enormous ancient drum built out of a single tree trunk, protected from the elements in a glass case. The drum, Mr. said, was at least 150 years old.
He set beautiful clay cups on the table and started a slow Vietnamese drip coffee while we chatted.
Mr. Son and his wife opened Ama Hmai opened in early 2020, and then quickly closed. Mr. Son said we were the first visitors in quite awhile.
He was excited to show us around and explain about Ede culture, language and art.
His interest in Ede culture started when he married into an Ede family. As an outsider, he was intrigued by the folklore, the masks and intricate patterns, and the craftwork of daily life. He started collecting Ede antiques years ago, and is well-known in the community for being willing to buy old books, pipes, jewelry, baskets, and basically anything significant that people are considering discarding.
The walls of the gallery were lined with beautiful gongs, baskets, costumes, woven cloth, musical instruments, many items from the 19th century.
Whoever the Ede people were in the past, they must have been quite artistic – and still are.
Not only is Ama Hmai a museum, it’s also an art gallery for local Ede artists.
It was amazing to think that you could sleep somewhere surrounding by this much beauty.
Every room in the house reflected the same artwork and attention to detail – from the woven mats in the walls to the zig-zag Ede patterns reflected in the baseboards.
The bedrooms themselves were a work of art.
Ama Hmai features 4 simple but stunning bedrooms. There is no AC, but the windows open wide and the house provides a deep shade, so we never felt too hot while we wandered around admiring the paintings or the masks or the clay tobacco pipes.
This pencil drawing in particular caught my eye.
We sincerely wished we had stayed at Ama Hmai Homestay, rather than booking in Buôn Ma Thuột City. It was just so serene, so pretty, and so close to durian.
As we said goodbye to Mr. Son, we noticed durian being sold at a small convenience shop just catty-corner to the homestay.
This would be a seriously epic durian-base to explore the Ea Tu Commune. “Next time,” we told Mr. Son” Next time.”
And we’ll be back, I’m sure.
Tree-Dropped Durian Stall
We saw plenty of durian on small tables set up in front of people’s houses, but I’d already Google tagged one particular stall and had my heart set on visiting that one. So we zoomed the 3km from Ama Hmai to the small tarp gazebo on the side of the road.
I could smell the goodness from the motorbike. Here was the honey, the mead, the tantalizing sweet grassy ferment of a seriously satisfying durian.
We started examining the pile as Nhôm Nie, the durian seller, looked on with bemusement.
The stall was a hive of activity. Every few minutes a new farmer would arrive and extricate a tree-dropped durian from somewhere on his or her scooter. Nhôm Nie got up and down from her hammock, examining durians, haggling, paying cash.
Most people came with just one or two durians hiding under a load of banana or pandan leaves, but some people were clearly delivering bigger loads to somewhere else and just had 1 or 2 tree-dropped ones to sell here.
Nhôm Nie told us that pretty much everyone in the village had at least some durian trees. The community used to depend on coffee as a cash crop, but when coffee prices suddenly crashed in 2000 many farmers began rethinking the wisdom of being reliant on only one crop.
We asked if we could visit a farm in the area, and she laughed.
In a moment of quiet, she got up from her hammock and waved us behind the stall. The background greenery was actually durian trees, looming above the verdant coffee bushes.
She pointed to a durian in Richard’s hands and told us that particular one came from this farm, right behind the stall.
Our mind was made up, it was time to try!
Sầu Hát again
Price: 40,000 VND ($1.70 USD)
The old trees behind the stall were also Sầu Hát, random seedling trees.
The fruit honestly smelled amazing. It was really fresh, the stem still sticky and the shell emanating an aroma like roasted hazelnuts. The seed was bigger than the one at the marketearlier, but the taset was oh-so much-better.
It was like fresh cream and honey, just a simple joyous sweetness.
It was so amazing we went for seconds, and probably thirds had it been available.
We really loved the texture, which was thick but smooth, as well as the complex honeyed sweetness.
Price: 100,000 VND ($4.23 USD)
Besides the pile of Sầu Hát was a growing pile of Monthong durians, which are sold locally under the name “Dona” or sometimes just “Tai.” Everybody knows these are from Thailand.
This is the main export durian, sent fresh to China. Most of the durian drop-offs were this one variety, since people can’t sell the tree-ripe ones to the local warehouses and export facilities.
It felt wrong to walk away from an opportunity to eat tree-ripe Dona Durians.
And you know what? it was really good. It was very soft and creamy, extremely sweet with a butterscotch liquor. For my taste it was unbalanced in the sweet direction, but still very enjoyable.
As we sat and munched our last durian, Kư Byă rocked up on her motorbike and unearthed one of the largest durians we’d seen in Vietnam so far. It weighed a whopping 8.5kg!
Since she spoke English, we chit-chatted until she invited us to visit her family farm and talk with her father.
We climbed back on the motorbike and turned into a small dirt road next to the durian stall.
Visiting Intercropped Durian Farms in Ea Tu
The dirt road was potholed and muddy in places, but wide enough for the open-engine tractors to crawl to theharvest.
Kư Byă told us their family’s main crop is pepper to sell to Japan, but they also grow coffee, turmeric, bananas, corn, chico sapotes, soursop, coconut, and an uncountable number of plants.
Durian only became a commercial crop for them fairly recently.
Kư Byă’s father showed us the oldest durian tree on their property, a 30-year-old Sầu Hát. He had planted for the family to eat, not to sell.
But 6 years ago, he invested in the Dona Durian. Now he has over 200 Dona durian trees producing fruit on his small 1.1 hectare farm.
The farm was very densely planted. In his small plot, he said, he had over 1,000 coffee trees and 400 pepper trees intercropped with his 200 Dona durians.
I asked if he was ever planning to chop down his coffee to focus on durians. He snorted and said No. That’s a terrible idea.
A lot of people suffered in the 2000 coffee crash, he explained. They haven’t forgotten.
Even during Covid, when China closed the borders and Vietnam went into lockdown, the price of durian suddenly became very, very cheap. Too cheap to make a living.
I like my pepper, my coffee, my turmeric, my avocados. You can make money from any fruit tree nowadays, he commented.
If other farmers in the area have a similar belief, then Ea Tu will continue to be an amazing example of intercropped durian farms. That itself is worth a trip to see (and taste).
How to get to Ea Tu from Buôn Ma Thuột City
Ea Tu is located just 10 minutes outside the central district of Buôn Ma Thuột City and about 15 minutes from the airport. You can use Grab to hire a local taxi and pin the coordinates of that stall, or get here by motorbike yourself.
To rent a motorbike, just ask your homestay or hotel host. They will likely know someone renting or will have a motorbike on hand that is used to rent to guests.