Villages and Yok Don National Park
The entrance to Yok Don National Park and tourist village of Ban Don is located 40 kilometres northwest of Buon Ma Thuot city in Buon Don district. While the majority of visitors are funnelled to the tourist trap Buon Don Tourist Centre, close by there are other ethnic villages and a cemetery worth taking a look at, as well as activities offered through the national park office.
First a little background: Elephant hunting and taming was an important tradition in Dak Lak province, and the Mnong tribe of Buon Don district were particularly famous for their skills. Tracking and capturing a wild elephant would take several days, with a whole troop of people and five to ten domesticated elephants involved in the hunt. Taming the elephant required up to three months and the relationship was so strong, elephants were considered members of the family and the village. In the early 20th century, 30 wild elephants were tamed in the province every year. In Ban Don there is the tomb of legendary elephant hunter Y Thu Knu (1850–1924), shown on tourist maps as “elephant hunter’s tomb.”
As the number of wild elephants have dwindled, so has the tradition. 2009 estimates suggest that only 200 wild elephants remain in Dak Lak. But the cultural connection to elephants continues. For example, heading into Ban Don on TL1, 1.2 kilometres beyond the entrance to Yok Don National Park (there’s a huge billboard, you can’t miss) is a cemetery on your right hand side. Take a wander and you’ll see Christian graves as well as traditional Ede and Mnong covered tombs surrounded by carved wooden statues including elephants and elephant tusks, which symbolise power.
The Ede, Mnong and Jarai have an interesting approach on death. The initial funeral involves gong music, funeral songs, rituals and mourning. The tomb is regularly cared for and the spirit is fed until a tomb abandoning ceremony at a much later date. After any where from one to seven years later, when the family has saved enough money, there’s a joyous farewell party to the spirit. Statues are added to the tomb – common figures are of a woman carrying a basket on her back, mother with child, elephant or elephant tusks, peacocks, monkeys, mourners or jars. Objects are offered, a buffalo or pig is sacrificed (spot the jaw bones hanging above the graves) and the whole community joins in feasting and drinking for up to five days. The spirit and sorrow has been released and the tomb is never visited again and left to decay.
This area of Buon Don has a mix of ethnic groups, including the Ede, Mnong and Lao, the latter two being the most dominate. That’s right, ethnic Lao live in this area, which is not surprising given the proximity to the Lao border and their affinity for elephant hunting as well. Across the road from the cemetery is the village of Buon Jang Lanh (also spelled Yang Len on maps) – there’s a huge archway with the name at the entrance. Take a walk through the village and see houses built on stilts; perhaps you’ll see a woman wearing a Lao-style skirt. As a Yok Don National Park guide explained, within one village there are sometimes five different languages spoken: Lao, Thai, Khmer and the minority languages, and the common tongue to communicate is often Lao, not Vietnamese. How can you tell who is who, other than by their last name? This is where hiring a guide will come in handy. Hire one through an agency in Buon Ma Thuot or contact Yok Don National Park.
Hiking in Yok Don National Park, Vietnam’s largest protected area, is a good dry season activity and they also offer other programs including boat trips on the Sprepok River (400,000 dong per boat that can fit up to three people), and an Ede cooking class.
Further on is the Buon Don Tourist Centre – we suggest you save 30,000 dong and avoid this tourist trap. If the touristy Ede longhouse and stands piled high with souvenirs at the entrance doesn’t put you off, then inside you’ll find a series of bamboo suspension bridges that take you to concrete restaurants, mediocre views of the Srepok River and elephant rides. Open daily from 07:00-17:00. You can stay in the Ede longhouse for 150,000 dong a night for two.
Buon Ma Thuot agencies offer run of the mill one-day set tours with some combination of Ban Don, elephant rides, coffee plantations, Lak Lake and Dray Nur waterfall. Dang Le Tourism (45 Ly Tu Trong) has a Ban Don and Draynur waterfall trip, with traditional dance and gong show for 1,359,000 dong per person based on two people. Dak Lak Tourist‘s (51 Ly Thuong Kiet Street) day trip only covers Ban Don. For one to three people, it costs 580,000 dong per person plus a 170,000 dong foreigner permit fee.
Doing it yourself by motorbike is a more appealing option. To get there, drive 40 kilometres out of the city, west on Phan Boi Chau, which turns into Nguyen Thi Dinh/TL1. You can’t miss the big billboard for the park entrance to Yok Don and then it’s another four kilometres to Buon Don Tourist Centre. Four kilometres before the entrance to Yok Don you’ll see a sign pointing west for “Ban Don” — this is to another village called Ban Don Thanh Ha where you can see Bay Nhanh waterfalls.
By taxi, a driver quoted us 600,000 dong for a day trip to Dray Nur and Dray Sap waterfall plus Buon Don/Yok Don National Park. Alternatively, the slow, cheap way is the pink and green local bus from Buon Ma Thuot (stop is near the post office) to Buon Don. Buses run from 06:00 to 16:00 every 30 minutes and cost 20,000 dong.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.