Vietnam’s biggest and most biodiverse protected area, Yok Don National Park encompasses 115,000 hectares of dry deciduous dipterocarp forest, a resilient type of wet rainforest trees that can grow to exceptional sizes and is coveted for timber. Declared a national park in 1992, Yok Don is home to more than to 858 species of trees, 200 bird species, many reptiles, insects and 93 types of animal – unfortunately 32 of them are on the Red List. Large herds of gaurs, wild bulls, Eld’s deer and elephants once roamed Dak Lak province but deforestation, hunting and illegal wildlife trade has all but wiped them out.
Elephant hunting and taming was an important tradition in the province, and the Mnong here in Buon Don district are famed for their skills. According to the Ethnographic Museum in Buon Ma Thuot, in the early 20th century 30 wild elephants were tamed in Dak Lak every year. As of 2009, it’s estimated that only 200 wild elephants remain in the province.
Today you’ll have to be extremely, extremely lucky to see wildlife on a trek in Yok Don so don’t get your hopes up. In fact, we hope the remaining animals stay deep in the interior far away from the humans that have done a pretty thorough job of hunting them to near extinction. Trekking in Yok Don is about stretching your legs and taking a walk in the woods. You have to start off early if want any chance of seeing a beast. We were told it’s possible to still see monkeys.
The best time to go trekking is dry season from October to April, the optimal time is at the beginning, from October to December, when temperatures are pleasant. Then it begins to get very hot until the rains break. It’s still possible to trek in rainy season but expect lots of mud and high waters that will cut off routes, making for shorter (though not easier) distances. Whether you choose a day hike or an overnight trek, a park guide is mandatory since the Cambodian border bisects the park.
It’s highly recommended that you book in advance (especially in high season) so you can secure one of the three English-speaking guides on staff. A two-day/one-night trek for two people, including guide and tent costs 1,200,000 dong total. This does not include food and water (account for about 100,000 dong per person, per meal). Camp is made near a ranger station in the park. You’ll need to provide and carry your own daypack for personal items. Groups five or larger cost 250,000 dong per person.
For a day hike you’ll cover 16 kilometres on moderate terrain, with some fording of small streams required. For a small group (one to four people), the guide is 500,000 dong per day.
Yok Dok has a surprising number of other activities on offer, ranging from boat trips on the park’s Srepock River (400,000 dong per boat, maximum three people), catch and release “fishing and hammock time” where you can have a beer and watch the locals on the river at sunset, to swimming with the elephants.
One activity that really stands out is the Buon Don Local Cooking Class. A local Ede family shows you how to prepare a typical Ede meal – we were told to expect spicy, sour flavours. It can also include a visit to the local market. We didn’t try this, but we think this would be a great way to get into a local village and learn more about one of Dak Lak’s three indigenous people, all the while supporting the community. The experience takes four hours, cost is 400,000 dong per person and it includes an English-speaking guide to translate. Book in advance.
It’s a difficult task to balance modern conservation with the needs of the local people, whose way of life has included hunting, fishing and living off the jungle for centuries. If more people visit the park, it shows locals in a small way that there is an alternate, sustainable economy from tourism. When we stopped by the person on site spoke excellent English and there was a great binder with all the activities, description and prices. The park is definitely worth checking out.
The education centre/entrance to Yok Don National Park is 40 kilometres northwest of Buon Ma Thuot. Drive out of the city west on Phan Boi Chau, which turns into Nguyen Thi Dinh/TL1. The location is 12.873448, 107.809197, and it’s marked correctly on Google Maps as “Vuon Quoc Gia Yok Don – Trung Tam Dich Vu Du Lich Sinh Thai & Giao Duc Moi Truong”. You can’t miss the enormous billboard. Alternatively, you can take the pink local bus from Buon Ma Thuot (stop is near the post office) to Buon Don. Bus runs from 06:00-16:00, every 30 minutes, costs 20,000 dong. We were told the centre has no set opening hours as there’s always a ranger on site.
By Cindy Fan.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.