Meeting Elvis in Vietnam

by David Calleja, Feb 14, 2011 | Destinations: Vietnam / Buon Me Thuot
With my Mnong guide on board Elvis the Elephant, the kind of Yok Don National Park.

With my Mnong guide on board Elvis the Elephant, the kind of Yok Don National Park.

With my Mnong guide on board Elvis the Elephant, the kind of Yok Don National Park.

Meeting Elvis in Vietnam

By David Calleja

Elvis is not dead. The King has come back as an elephant and lives in one of Vietnam 's most famous nature reserves. I have experienced riding bareback on an open path and even sang the opening lines of "Love Me Tender" to him. My intention is not to offend fans of Elvis Presley but simply give an insight just how far his popularity extends. I have a gambling tour guide to thank for all of this.

Although the Central Highlands city of Buon Ma Thuot is not on every visitor's list for destination, it has a reputation of being Vietnam 's national caffeine capital. In March 2011, the city will host an international coffee festival. It is also home to some of the tastiest rice paper rolls. Buon Ma Thuot's tourism slogan may well be "You're In Flavour Country." But there is a greater attraction more addictive than the region's coffee and rice paper rolls - Yok Don National Park.

Slightly larger than Hong Kong, Yok Don National Park is a popular destination for domestic and international visitors wanting to experience elephant riding and overnight stays with ethnic minority groups such as the E De and Jarai who live in the nearby hills and farm the land according to traditional practices, Huang, my guide for the day, told me. He also mentioned that grounds near the elephant tracks may become home a resort to cater for wealthy holidaymakers. 

Having met several individuals committed to becoming tour guides in cities such as Hanoi and Hue , there was something different about Huang. He admitted to being a regular gambler, unafraid of wagering large sums of money on sports. When I first stopped by his small office, he did not launch into a sales pitch outlining why only he could deliver the perfect tourist package. His first question was, "Which country should I bet all my money on to win the 2008 European Football Championship?"

As a non-gambler, I confessed to not having the slightest idea. An unknown large quantity of money could be riding on what I say. I ended up suggesting Italy . Huang immediate disagreed.

"Ha! They cost me 600 dollars last night because they lose to Holland ." At least I knew where he stood on the matter. To make things even worse, Huang explained that he also had to buy everybody drinks for all 20 of his friends. "I regret being popular," he added.

Before becoming a tour guide in 2003, Huang taught mathematics at a high school between 1997 and 1999 on the outskirts of Buon Ma Thuot, earning $USD50 per month; "standard rate," he says. While he received lots of respect from his colleagues, students and their parents, his mind was distracted by the lure of Vietnam 's steadily growing tourism industry, making more money by chaperoning middle-class families from Saigon and international visitors on short-term stays. Flush with extra money, he participated in card games and eventually found sports gambling. "I could never go back to the classroom," he said. "Imagine if the school found out if I gambled. I would lose face, no more respect." Being a tour guide helps to cultivate his entrepreneurial spirit. It has also fuelled his desire to improve his English.

"What about France ? You think they are good, David?" Huang asked me.

"Why would you support a former colonial power?" I said quizzically.

"Because I love the colour and smell of money," Huang said with a grin. "You know, in the 2006 World Cup, my gambling losses were so bad, I had to sell my Yamaha motorbike. I loved that bike, it was like my identity. But gambling is a hard habit to break, like drinking and smoking."

Gambling is illegal in Vietnam , but motorcycle (xe om) drivers play card games avidly during their down time, especially when shop closes for their lunchtime siesta. When it is time for large scale football tournaments like the World Cup, football fans are not scared to bet large sums of cash. They adopt a team, wear replica shirts, paint their faces and sing along to the tune of pounding drums. Huang says that he sometimes gets into the face-painting activities, because it makes him feel like he is at the ground, just metres away from where all the action is taking place.

"Are you as passionate when Vietnam is playing?" I asked.

"No, they not win much," Huang said.

I really was fascinated by Huang's love of football. He was certainly more into the sport than me. But I was also keen to speak about where we were heading today. Huang said that Yok Don was home to domesticated elephants, buffaloes, monkeys and the elusive white tiger.

"When the park had lots of trees, it was not rare to see the white tiger. But deforestation, logging and more tourists has sent the tigers and wild elephants west towards the Cambodian border," Huang said to me.

Before we left the city bound to take the bus, I received a warning not to be shocked at the condition of some of the elephants. All sorts of gruesome possibilities entered my head at that point, and I could only hope that he was exaggerating.

The bus arrived to take us into the countryside that would stop near a dirt path leading to an entrance for the Yok Don National Park . It was full of city dwellers going home to spend time with their families and help plant rice for the upcoming wet season. I could feel 40 pairs of eyes scanning me; their prolonged glares, combined with the stifling humidity, make me feel like a roast pig on a rotisserie. To my right was a vacant seat, but since a lady was breastfeeding her young baby, I opted to stand. An elderly person was more deserving of the seat. Passengers of all ages and occupations - police officers, businessmen, farmers, mothers, and students - were on board.

We soon left the centre of Buon Ma Thuot, the symphony of buildings, orderly traffic, outdoor food stands and war statues quickly replaced by an endless sequence of dirt roads filled with holes, farmers riding bicycles and rice paddies. Suddenly the driver slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting a runaway calf, and I hurtled forward. I avoided colliding with the mother nursing her baby, but still felt a thud. Fortunately, it was my hands which hit the window. It startled the child, and as his wide brown eyes passed glances with mine as I attempted to regain my composure, I thought this would send him into a crying fit. Thankfully it did not. Students in neatly pressed uniforms of white and blue giggled as I straightened myself and offered a sheepish grin.

Huang, who was standing in front of me, whispered, "Try not to stare directly at people. They look scared of you because you are different."

I urged for somebody to break the ice. Then a female student sitting behind me stood up. I assumed that she was about to get off the bus, so I moved aside as far as I could. Instead, she smiled and  spoke a few words in Vietnamese to Huang as I looked on.

"David," Huang said, "This girl would like to practise speaking English with you."  

The girl sat back down again and asked me to sit next to her. Looking at Huang for assistance as if to ask for help, I initially stood next to her seat, but out of fear of offending her, I sat down. Her skin was darker than most people I had met in Vietnam , a sign that she may have been a member of one of the ethnic groups from the region.

Speaking softly, she asked me, "Where you from?"

"Úc", I answered back.

"Oh-stral-e-ya?" she said, to which I nodded and said, " Australia ."

She smiled and clapped her hands with excitement.

"I am in 11th grade in school, learn English seven year now," she said. We went through a simple question and answer exercise, covering topics of interest, favourite colours and if I liked Vietnam . For the more complex words, she wrote down a sentence in her note pad in Vietnamese and handed it to Huang, who then translated everything into English.

After a short conversation, she opened her book to a different page and showed me some sketches of farm animals, the countryside, portraits of her family, and a drawing of a house on stilts. As I looked through the drawings and said how beautiful the drawings were, she saw my digital camera that I had been holding. I took it out and showed how to operate it. She was intrigued by simple functions such as watching the lens zoom in and out and held it carefully, before I taught her how to flick through pictures of different places I had been in Vietnam ; cities, towns and villages she may never get to see. In my mind, her black and white sketches of the same images that I needed a camera to capture would have been amazing. After taking some photos out of the scenery outside as our bus slowly drove past farms, she told Huang that it was her first time at using a camera, but could not make sense of all the buttons and noises. "It is easy for me to draw," she said to me with a smile.

Before getting off the bus, she pointed to a picture of a girl in full tribal clothing. "That is me," she said. "I am E De person." It was a very beautiful sketch, complete with a full length dress. The E De ethnic people are a group who lived in the outlying hills of Yok Don National Park . They live predominately in southern Vietnam .  

As the bus slowed down, she got up. "Now I am near home. Tomorrow I help plant rice with my family. Thank you for talking," she said.

"Thank you too," I said, smiling back.

She stood in the aisle, waved to me and said, "Goodbye, Australian friend.", before stepping outside. Then the door slowly closed, the engine roared into gear and the bus took off.

About fifteen minutes later, it was time for Huang and myself to get off. We walked for an hour in the humid conditions, with Huang noticing that I was perspiring a lot. He told me that the previous wet season did not start on time and that 2008 could be a repeat. "The forest around us is dying, because there is no rain," he told me. There were tree stumps but few animals. The healthiest part of the forest, Huang said, lay deeper in the jungle heading towards the Cambodian border. "Years ago, wild elephants used to roam here. But the forest is disappearing so there are none left. You will be riding older, tamed elephants." When I asked him about the younger elephants, he tried to shy away from the subject, but then he said that ethnic minorities, such as the E De and Jarai, killed elephants for their ivory tusks and made traditional jewelry and medicine.

"That is against the law here in Vietnam ," he said.

We then walked in silence for a while. Maybe he had a bit more to say about the topic but did not know the right words to express his views. Maybe he did not want to sound offensive to a foreigner in case he developed a bad reputation. In his trade, no tourists means no income.

Finally we reached the elephant reserve, and both Huang and I got what we wanted - some shade and iced tea, which I purchased for him. Huang said that he would negotiate with a Mnong native to select an elephant for me. The Mnong people are divided into three categories based on their geographical location in Vietnam ; Central, Eastern and Southern. An elderly man appeared from a hut to pick an elephant from the herds of six. Each was bound by a rope and tied to a tree. Five out of the six elephants had their tusks removed, which was described to me as part of the domestication process as a sagfety measure. One elephant, however, had only half a tusk and roared persistently. I wondered if he was passing on a signal to be put out of his misery.

Huang called me over to say that my elephant was now ready. "The guide has picked an elephant for you. His name is Elvis."

I was astounded. "Elvis?" I repeated in disbelief.

"Yes, Elvis," Huang repeated. He then gave me a brief biography of the elephant. A rich American who regularly visited Vietnam named the elephant after the world's most famous vocalist. He was a fan of Elvis Presley, and the name stuck. While this may not sound glamorous, it would have been more of an insult to a revered creature to be named after Justin Bieber.

The M'nong guide was already seated on the elephant's neck. He crouched down, whispered a few words into Elvis's ear. I hoped it was something to do with handling me with care. Then he looked at me and said a few words loudly. Huang relayed the message; "he wants you to get on elephant." How was I supposed to climb up? I had no ladder. Before I could think of an alternative, two men rushed over and worked in tandem to give me a boost. One of them squatted and the other patted his shoulder while pointing at my foot. "Come, jump," he said. I placed one foot, then the other, on my makeshift ladder. What happened afterwards was nothing short of a calamity. I wobbled while two guys attempted to push me up high enough so that I could get on board Elvis. I probably outweighed both of my helpers. The whole production resembled a circus act; I am surprised that nobody got hurt. As I slid onto Elvis's back of the great beast, the ride was finally ready to commence.

"WHACK!" Down came the guide's bamboo stick on the elephant, who responded slowly. He stopped and started, not appearing keen to being taken out for a test ride in the heat. My guide used his feet to direct the elephant and tapped plants and trees as he told Elvis to stay on the walking track. Every few metres, Elvis would stop to eat leaves as a means of keeping up his energy, something my guide did not like. I did not mind how much Elvis ate; he was carrying two individuals weighing a total of about 140kg. This is slightly less than what Elvis Presley weighed when he died in 1977. One thing that both the king of rock and roll and the elephant had in common was calorie consumption. It is said that an adult Asian elephant consumes around 96,000 calories per day, reportedly the same amount that Elvis Presley consumed daily in the last 18 months of his life.

I marveled at Elvis's agility to weave between low-hanging branches and trek through mud. For me, this was definitely something special. Like every animal in captivity, he longed to be with his own kind and other endangered species in a promised land of dense forest, far from this tourist zoo. The last time I got anywhere this close to an elephant was in 1999 while touring the Kruger National Park in South Africa, along with 11 other backpackers and a veteran of the Zimbabwean Civil War in an all-terrain vehicle. This time, I was riding bareback, where one false move could have resulted in a fall from seemingly dizzying heights.

When the time came to return to the original departure spot, I patted Elvis on the back, thanking him for returning me safely. This time, I was able to use a makeshift platform to hop off the elephant so that I would not break anybody's bones in using a human stepladder. Before my time with Elvis was over, I wanted to get a look at his face and stroke his trunk. Working up the courage, I approached from the side and attempted to reach my hand over to pat him. But I was unsuccessful; Elvis pulled away - he was not keen on getting too friendly with me.

In my desperation, I sang the opening lines to "Love Me Tender" in a low voice, enough to ensure that it did not attract too much attention. But anything invoking Elvis by name is never going to be a low-key affair. Huang, the Mnong guide and anybody else in the vicinity looked on bemusement, for they must have thought I was crazy for singing a love song to an elephant. By my reckoning, "Hound Dog", accompanied by some dodgy hip-wiggling, may have caused a catastrophe.

It has been nearly three years since my ride with Elvis. He may have never caught a rabbit, but he is definitely a friend of mine.

Long live The King of Yok Don National Park.