THE CENTRAL HIGHLANDS || BUON MA THUOT AND AROUND
The city of BUON MA THUOT itself has little to offer, its central sprawl of modern buildings being splayed across a grid of characterless streets. With a jeep protruding from its central column, the town’s dramatic Victory Monument on Le Duan is the hub from which all the town’s main roads radiate. The town grew big on coffee and rubber, and is surprisingly affluent with a spate of buildings under construction and flash cars buzzing around its streets. However, in a neat reversal of the norm, urban renewal is occurring from the outside in, and the centre is still appealingly grubby.
The main draw of Buon Ma Thuot is what can be found in its environs: nearby minority villages with longhouses; traditional minority communities (mostly E De people) at Ako Dhong on the northern outskirts of town and in the surrounding countryside at Ban Don near Yok Don National Park; and some wonderful waterfalls. Between April and July you’ll see the city surrounded by millions of lemon-coloured butterflies, wafting through the air like yellow petals.
During French colonial times, the town developed on the back of the coffee, tea, rubber and hardwood crops that grew in its fertile red soil, and was the focal point for the plantations that smothered the surrounding countryside: plantation owners and other colons would amuse themselves by picking off the elephants, leopards and tigers once prevalent in the area. In later years Americans superseded the French, but they were long gone by the time the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) swept through in March 1975, making Buon Ma Thuot the first “domino” to fall in the Ho Chi Minh Campaign.
Elephant Race Festival
If you’re in town in spring, don’t miss the Elephant Race Festival, which takes place on the banks of the Serepok River near Ban Don. It’s usually held in the third lunar month but preparations take place for weeks beforehand – those who own elephants in the area spend time fattening up their beasts on local fruit and crops. The race itself is usually brief but blazing, the elephants encouraged (or distracted) by the loud drumming of gongs. Ask at Dak Lak Tourist for dates and details.
YOK DON NATIONAL PARK
Vietnam’s largest wildlife preserve, Yok Don National Park, stretches 115,000 hectares between the hinge of the Cambodian border and the Serepok River. If you start off early in the morning you might see E De and other minority peoples leaving their split-bamboo thatch houses for work in the fields, carrying their tools in raffia backpacks. In addition, over sixty species of animals, including tigers, leopards and bears, and more than 450 types of birds, populate the park; most, however, reside deep in the interior. Of all its exotic animals, elephants are what Yok Don is best known for; the tomb of the greatest elephant hunter of them all – Y Thu Knu (1850–1924), who had a lifetime tally of 244 – is located beyond the final hamlet from the park entrance.
The three sub-hamlets that comprise the village of BAN DON lie a few kilometres beyond Yok Don’s park HQ, on the bank of the crocodile-infested Serepok River. Khmer, Thai, Lao, Jarai and Mnong live in the vicinity, though it’s the E De that make up the majority. They adhere to a matriarchal social system, whereby a groom takes his bride’s name, lives with her family and, should his wife die subsequently, marries one of her sisters so that her family retains a male workforce. Houses around the village, a few of which are longhouses, are built on stilts, and some are decorated with ornate woodwork.
However, village life in Ban Don has become overwhelmingly commercial as the Ban Don Tourist Centre has organized its residents into a tourist-welcoming taskforce. It’s possible to spend the night here, though you’ll only truly appreciate Yok Don by heading further into the park; one exception is during March, when the annual elephant festival is held.
There are a number of activities on offer in Ban Don, an increasingly switched-on national park. Basic hiking is the most popular, though you’ll need a guide. One interesting variation is a night hike at certain times of year, shine a torch into the darkness and you’ll see the eyes of thousands and thousands of frogs staring back at you. During daylight hours, it’s also possible to take a short boat-ride along the Serepok, or have an elephant trekking tour; the latter cannot be recommended due to the unfriendly metal cages plonked atop the beasts.