Story: Thai A
Photos: Thai A, Le Hoang

We visit the Ta Lai Longhouse, an inspiring ecotourism project on the edge of South Cat Tien Forest

It was quite incredible to see Chau Ma women preparing European meals for guests at the Ta Lai Longhouse. Despite having spent their whole lives in the buffer zone around South Cat Tien National Park, these women were able to make creamed pumpkin soup, barbecued pork ribs and mashed potatoes that rivaled those of professional chefs in the city. In the jungle’s dim light a long tent covered a dining table set with gleaming cutlery and plates. The table was inviting, especially for guests who were exhausted from a day of trekking through jungles that boast the greatest biodiversity in Southern Vietnam.

Tickell’s blue Flycatcher

Ta Lai Commune and other communes around South Cat Tien have long been home to communities of ethnic groups like the Chau Ma and S’Tieng. For generations they have hunted wild animals, fished and collected forest products. Unfortunately, these activities threaten the local flora and fauna, including some endangered species. South Cat Tien Forest was once home to tigers, cheetah, one-horned (Javanese) rhinos, gibbons, freshwater crocodiles and many species of endemic birds. Sadly, poachers killed the last rhino in South Cat Tien five years ago. Many endangered species of plants and animals are on the verge of extinction. Faced with this plight, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has long advocated preservation projects that include educating the locals and supporting forest rangers. Forest rangers, travel and cultural agencies, travel organizations and many other individuals are working together to help preserve our jungles’ biodiversity.

One of these projects is to develop ecotourism within and around reserves. In South Cat Tien National Park, the WWF supported local people to build a local-style guest house called the Ta Lai Long House. Managed by young people from Ho Chi Minh City in tandem with international volunteers and locals, the Ta Lai Longhouse is a delightful place to stay and the perfect starting point for trekking and kayaking tours. Built from wood and bamboo, the longhouse is simple yet clean and comfortable. It can accommodate 30 guests simultaneously and uses mainly solar energy. Guests of all nationalities delight in the long bamboo table and benches in the courtyard where they sip tea and chat with project coordinators and Ta Lai villagers. It’s a big surprise to meet young S’Tieng women who speak English, French and Chinese, not to mention Vietnamese and of course their native mother tongue. These young women lead trekking and kayaking tours and guide guests to local hamlets. Following a sumptuous meal eaten outdoors guests enjoy bronze gong performances by the communal troupe and stall dances performed by Tay women beside a bonfire.

Monkeys at South Cat Tien well adapt to the wild environment after being raised

Overseen by volunteers, the Ta Lai Longhouse is not only a great example of a homestay but a place where locals can benefit from tourism, with profits used for to aid the community. The WWF and other international organizations aim to create means for local people to earn sustainable livelihoods in ways that do not damage the forests. Sponsoring initial capital for households to buy cattle, promoting awareness about preservation and helping to establish sustainable tourism projects are some of the measures taken by the WWF to create invisible, yet sustainable, shields for national parks. These measures have resulted in positive outcomes not only in Vietnam. Countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Peru, Chile and South Africa are helping to create new ways for residents in and near forests to earn a living, rather than simply imposing hunting bans.

Visitors to South Cat Tien National Park will revel in its multilayered plants and giant trees that are over 300
years old. They can also learn about the local wildlife. It is incredible to see peacocks dancing in a clearing at dawn, view waterholes popular with freshwater crocodiles and hear howling gibbons. At the Ta Lai Longhouse, the efforts of the WWF and many young volunteers are paying off for local people, visitors and the surrounding jungles.