VIETNAM TRAVEL

 

Central Highands

Da Lat - Around Da Lat - Di Linh - Bao Loc - Dan Nhim Lake - Ngoan Muc Pass - Buon Ma Thuot - Around Boun Ma Thuot - Pleiku - Kon Tum

AROUND BUON MA THUOT

Dray Sap & Gia Long Falls
Both these waterfalls (Tell: 584 605; admission 8000d), sharing a stretch of the Krong Ana River, are stunning and offer good riverside trekking op-portunities. Entering from the main gate, the first turning to the left heads to the spectacular 100m-wide Dray Sap. After heading down some slippery steps near the restaurant there's great views from an Indiana Jones-style swinging bridge. Across the bridge there are smaller falls on a fork of the river to the left, past an area where local villagers have cleared the jungle for corn. It's a surreal sight, seeing the spray from the main falls rising over the cornfield. It's this ever-present mist that gave the falls their name, meaning 'smoky falls'. The Gia Long Falls are a further 7km along the road, which cuts through increasingly dense jungle. Less wide or high than Dray Sap, the volume of churning, muddy water still makes for an impressive sight. It's possible to walk a riverside path between the two falls. To reach them, follow Đ Le Duan until it becomes Nguyen Thi Dinh and eventually Hwy 14 heading south. After 16km you'll pass a major bridge. Cross this and continue tor another 5km and turn left about 500m past the Falling Markets. This road will bring you to the entrance in another 6km. In Buon Ma Thuot, Damsan Tourist is the place to inquire about tours s.o the waterfalls.
Yok Don National Park
IDD Code: (+84) 50
The largest of Vietnam's nature preserves, Yok Don National Park (Vuon Quoc Gia Yok Don) has been gradually expanded and today encompasses 115,545 hectares of mainly dry deciduous forest, with the beautiful Serepok River flowing through it. Yok Don is home to 67 mammal species, 38 of which are listed as endangered in Indochina, and 17 of those endangered worldwide. The park habitat accommodates elephants, tigers and leopards, as well as nearly 250 different species of bird - including a pair of critically-endangered giant ibis (Thaumatibis gigantea), sighted in 2003. More common wildlife in the park includes deer, monkeys and snakes. In recent years previously unknown animals like the Canisauvus, a species of wild dog, have been discovered. The delicate balance between ecological conservation and the preservation of local cultures is a challenge, considering the poverty of the region's people and their traditional means of survival (eg hunting). However, the Vietnamese government is working with international agencies, such as the UN Development Programme (UNDP), to manage this ongoing balance, aiming towards education and community participation in conservation practices. There are 17 ethnic groups in the region, including a significant number that have mi¬grated from northern Vietnam. The locals are mostly Ede and M'nong, a matrilineal tribe. The family name is passed down through the mother, and children are considered members of their mother's family. The M'nong are known for their skills in capturing wild elephants, dozens of which live in the area (see below). Traditional elephant-racing festivals are put on from time to time. Visitors can arrange elephant rides or guided treks through beautiful forests. Elephants typically carry three people, but for heavier Westerners two is usually the limit. Elephant rides can be arranged through DakLak Tourist in Buon Ma Thuot, but you can also just turn up and make arrangements. Booking direct costs from 100,000 to 200,000d per hour.
SIGHTS & ACTIVITIES
Most of the domestic tourist action centres on the village of Ban Don in Ea Sup district, 45km northwest of Buon Ma Thuot. The village, 5km beyond the turn-off into the national park, often gets overrun with busloads of visitors indulging in traditional activities such as gong performances and drinking wine from a communal jug - everybody gathers around and drinks at the same lime through very long straws. A good local guide based in Ban Don is Dang Xuan Vu. He can help with accommodation, treks and elephant rides, as well as information on the park's flora and fauna. There are the neglected ruins of a 13th-century Cham tower called Yang Prong 50km north of Ban Don at Ya Liao, near the Cambodian border. A permit and guide arc necessary to visit this spot.
SLEEPING & EATING
At the national park headquarters, Yok Don Guesthouse (Tell:853 110; r 150,000d; has four basic rooms (cold water only), each with two beds. Camping in the park is possible, but you'll need to have a guide with you. Overnight treks with a guide cost 350,000d, and longer treks can ai;o be arranged. You'll need to bring your own food on all trips. In Ban Don, contact Ban Don Tourist (Tell:798 119) about overnighting in minority stilt houses (per person US$5). Another option (also arranged through Ban Don Tourist) is the bungalows (US$12) out on nearby Aino Island, reached via a rickety series of bamboo suspension bridges. Though it can be a bit of a circus, there is a good restaurant in Ban Don. If you're lucky you might catch a local performance of gong music and dancing put on for a group tour.
GETTING THERE & AROUND
Local buses head from Buon Ma Thuot bus station to Yok Don National Park (US$1, 40km. eight daily). Motorbike taxis in Buon Ma Thuot can take you to the park for around US$7/10 one way/return. Elephants can be hired overnight for 600,000d per day.
Lak Lake
This beautiful spot is awakening to tourism. offering authentic experiences of hill-tribe life, along with increasingly comfortable accommodation choices. Lak Lake (Ho Lak) covers 600 hectares in the rainy season, but shrinks to 400 hectares surrounded by rice paddies in the dry. It was once full of crocodiles, but these have long since found their fate as shoes, handbags and taxidermied monstrosities, Located on the mountainous road between Dalat (154km southeast) and Buon Ma Thuot (50km north), the surrounding countryside is stunning. Emperor Bao Dai must have thought so, as he built yet another of his palaces (is anyone keeping count?) overlooking the lake (sec below). On the south shores, near the town of Lien Son, Jun Village reveals an enigmatic slice of traditional M'nong life. The rattan and wood houses are all built on stilts, which was a way of keeping the animals out. Pigs, cows and chickens wander around at will, and you'll see the odd elephant being ridden around. The villagers go about their daily lives quite uninterested in the tourists in their midst. If you're interested in staying overnight, Mr Due at Cafe Due Mai (Tell: 586 280; 268 Đ Nguyen Tat Thanh), in the heart of the village, can organise a mattress in one of several traditional stilt longhouses for US$5, as well as gong concerts, elephant rides (US$16), and kayaking or walking tours.

SLEEPING & EATING
Lak Resort (Du lich Ho lak; (ĐT: 586 767; Lien Son; s/d US$8/10, bungalows US$25, shared longhouse US$5; In a peaceful lake setting, under the shade of jackfruit trees, Lak Resort still offers basic cheap rooms in an old wing or mattresses in a shared M'nong longhouse with an ex¬ternal toilet block, sleeping up to 30 people. At the time of research an upmarket cluster of lakeside bungalows around a central pool was near completion. A romantic restau¬rant over the lake serves decent food (dishes 25,000d). Tours can be arranged here and bicycles hired. Run by DakLak Tourist, the resort is committed to employing at least 51% M'nong staff.
Bao Dai Villa (Tell: 586 767; Lien Son; r US$20-30) DakLak Tourist also owns the former emperor's palace, situated on a hill overlooking the lake. If you can manage to ignore the stuffed croco¬diles and ghastly floral bedspreads, the views are lovely and some of the rooms huge. It's clean enough, but it could do with a good coat of paint. There's a restaurant downstairs (meals US$5) and the price includes breakfast.
GETTING THERE & AWAY
Lak Lake is easily and regularly visited as a stop on the Easy Rider trail on the scenic route between Dalat and Buon Ma Thuot. A day-trip on the back of a motorbike from Buon Ma Thuot should only cost around US$12, including waiting time. DakLak Tourist in Buon Ma Thuot offers day or overnight tours . Public buses to Lak Lake leave regularly from the Buon Ma Thuot bus station (20,000d) or inquire at DakLak Tourist.
BABY ELEPHANT WALK
Throughout history, kings from Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have come to the area around present-day Yok Don National Park in search of elephants. To this day the tradition of elephant trapping continues, rooted in local culture and traditions. Typically, hunters use two domesticated elephants in order to catch one wild calf. Only elephants under the age of three are targeted, otherwise they're too hard to train, and run a highter risk of returning to the jungle. Custom maintains that men must abstain from sex for at least a week before commencing the hunt. The hunts involve a series of quick attacks and retreats, and the hunters' energy needs to be saved in case they are chased down by the angry parents, who are not too keen on their loved offspring being calf-napped. Unlike the elephant poachers in Africa, the hill-tribe hunters never cause physical harm to the parents when capturing their young. Once the hunting party has returned from the Jungle, the village holds a naming ceremony for their new captive. Here's where the niceties cease. The training of these highly intelligent and social creatures initially consists of savage heatings to break the infant's will. Until recently, a lifetime of heavy tod lay before it - elephants were used as combination bulldozers, fork-lifts and semitrailers. The government has now clamped down on using them to carry wood, and now their main commercial purpose is to ferry tourists. It's an awful dilemma,as there's an undeniable thrill in seeing elephants taking part in village life as they have for centuries. But this delights is tempered by the knowledge of what these beautiful creatures have had to endure in order to spend their years lugging hefty Westerners through the forest.