If you find yourself in Buon Ma Thuot, you can, if you so wish, go and visit a small village to the north of the city called Ban Don.
We were drawn there chiefly by elephants (drawn as in ‘attracted too’, I mean. We didn’t employ elephants to pull us. That’d be both very slow and completely impractical). Elephants in this part of the country were once routinely tamed by the Ede and Mo-Nong ethnic minorities, and the elephant village today acts as a neat and tidy (if very heavily touristified) monument cum museum to their heritage.
You quickly notice something about the houses in this part of the country: they’re all very long, and very thin. These single story bungalows, made entirely of wood, are so long – sometimes 200 metres long – for a reason: The families who used to inhabit them would, over time, grow bigger as their kids produced kids who produced more kids. When the children of a family grew old enough to consider moving out, rather than find somewhere else to live or go to the rigmarole of building a new place, the family would simply make the existing house a bit longer.
This was a matriarchal society. Entrance to a family’s home was gained using one of two ladders. The smaller, less impressive ladder was used by men. The larger, grander ladder, featuring two large, round, wooden, breast-shaped orbs (the touching of which was said to bring luck), was for women.
Once inside (and in this case through the traditional family gift shop), the front section of the long house was lined with two long, heavy wooden benches. These benches, each of which were carved from a single tree, were used as status symbols for families. The longer your bench, the more money you had. Keeping up with the Jonses involved acquiring bigger and better benches.
Inside the house, a large drum made from the hides of water buffalo, was used to draw the family together to announce important pieces of news. As you can imagine, I took considerable interest in the drum. It was double headed, but no Remo Weatherkings here: one side was headed with the skin of a male buffalo, and one with the skin of a female buffao. Good news was heralded by beating the female buffalo’s skin, and bad news by using the opposing, male skin head.
We didn’t actually get round to riding any elephants, but you can do so for the pittance of 70,000VND per person (about £2 a head). The tourist centre has all mod cons, including a restaurant and a second tatified gift shop. It was well worth a visit, actually, if only to learn a little of the local tribal history and to see the wooden traditional houses on the drive in, which told a story of their own.
To get to Ban Don village, drive north from Buon Ma Thuot along TL1. After an hour or so you’ll begin to see signs advertising the village. Follow these, or else simply ask a local. I had the benefit of a Vietnamese speaking travelling companion to help in doing this, but I’m fairly sure simply impersonating an elephant would work equally well, if indeed not a great deal better and you should definitely do that.