The temptation of million-dollar agarwood lures dreamers into a shadowy world of theft and murder deep in the jungle
Tran Lieu, an agarwood hunter from Ai Nghia Town, Quang Nam Province, is among many locals recently romored to cultivate millions of dollars of ky nam, but the man insists that it is not true.
Nguyen Van Huong, a 60 year-old agarwood hunter from Nong Son District in Quang Nam Province, still remembers burying his two partners, brothers Minh and Man, after the two were beaten to death by agarwood thieves in 1999.
Nguyen Han, 35, became a widowed mother after her husband never returned from a 2009 trip deep into the forest searching for the precious wood.
Countless others have died of malaria or other jungle-born maladies while chasing the elusive material.
Huong began his wood-hunting days 20 years ago. He’s sought agarwood in forests from the central coastal province of Phu Yen to Thua Thien-Hue Province, but rarely has he ever turned up any treasure.
Agarwood is dark resinous heartwood that forms in do bau (Aquilaria) trees when they become infected with a type of mold.
This mold has created a kind of Vietnamese gold rush, as a kilogram of agarwood is said to sell for a million dollars. However, chasing the rotten trees has cost the lives of thousands of local timber harvesters from the central provinces of Vietnam.
Huong says harvesters must be healthy and strong men, both young and experienced, to protect themselves and their booty from “cheating traders and robbers.”
Agarwood hunter Nguyen Van Trung says the minute a group finds the wood, the news spreads quickly and the finders will inevitably be approached by local criminals who threaten them into selling the material cheaply.
“The wood is rare and precious, but we just earn a small profit from it. Most of the money lands in the traders’ pockets,” said Trung.
Pham Van Ngung, 38, from Nong Son District, said that when agarwood hunters do bring profits home, it’s most important to share part of the treasure with other villagers.
He said hunters who do not do so will certainly “die soon.”
Vo Hong Lien, 55, a renowned agarwood hunter from the province’s Dai Nghia Commune, is one of the few lucky ones. He recently built a new two-story house he paid for with US$50,000 he made in the wood-hunting business.
A cut timber of do bau that exposes tram (black color) inside. Photo by Nguyen Tu.
The odor of agarwood is complex and pleasing, with few or no similar natural analogues. As a result, agarwood and its essential oils gained great cultural and religious significance in ancient civilizations around the world, being mentioned throughout one of the world's oldest written texts – the Sanskrit Vedas from India.
In as early as the 3rd century, the chronicle Nan zhou yi wu zhi (Strange things from the South) written by Wa Zhen of the Eastern Wu Dynasty mentioned agarwood produced in the Rinan commandery, now Central Vietnam, and how people collected it in the mountains.
Starting in 1580 after Nguyen Hoang took control over the central provinces of modern Vietnam, he encouraged trade with other countries, specifically China and Japan. Agarwood was exported in three varieties: ky nam, tram huong, and agarwood proper.
A pound of Calambac bought in Hoi An for 15 taels could be sold in Nagasaki for 600 taels. The Nguyen Lords soon established a Royal Monopoly over the sale of ky nam. This monopoly helped fund the Nguyen state finances during the early years of the Nguyen rule.
Tran Lieu, an agarwood hunter from Ai Nghia Town, Quang Nam Province, is among many locals recently rumored to cultivate millions of dollars of ky nam, but the man insists that it is just a rumor.
Twenty years ago, Lien’s family was among the poorest in the area. He left his family to scour the forests for agarwood, but failed every time… until last year.
Last July, Vo Quoc Tuan, a local tram harvester, acted on a tip and asked Lien and others to look for the wood in K’Bang forest in the central highlands province of Gia Lai. On the sixth day of their trip, the men found two kilograms of ky nam in a dead do bau tree, which they later sold for $1.5 million.
Like other members of the group, Lien received $175,000.
The group shared the money with relatives and villagers, and built new roads and a cultural house. They quit their jobs to set up their own local business selling wood handicrafts.
“The group is among the few lucky ones in the area since most of us go back home empty handed after years of walking in forests,” said Trung.
Cao Van Nhac, chairman of Dai Nghia District People’s Committee, says Lien’s success story is very rare.
Nhac said that a recent rumor that locals had found millions of dollars worth of agarwood in the town of Ai Nghia had prompted more than 500 people to leave their families to go after the wood.
“But the wood found this time was worth only $3,000,” Nhac said.
One of seven members of the finders’ group, Nguyen Ngoc Si, is only 16. But he’s been in hiding ever since as local criminals have been trying to steal his tiny stake, according to Nhac, who added that Si had to leave behind his mother, who now lives alone.
“My son had to leave me just because of a little money,” she said.
Some locals are now taking a more realistic approach by planting do bau on their land. But the mold that forms agarwood is still very rare, and impossible to control. Instead, trees six-to-eight-years-old are pumped with stimulants to attract ants and termites that help transform the heartwood into tram and ky nam, two distinct and valuable varieties of wood, highly sought-after in Asia. Two to three years later, the plants will be used to produce handicrafts to export to Asian markets.
But though farmers can sell tram and ky nam trees for $ 4,000 a piece after only a few years of growing, the profits are mere peanuts compared to those that still tempt agarwood hunters.
According to Nguyen Van Hai, vice chairman of Que Trung’s People’s Committee, there are about ten agarwood handicrafts manufacturers in the area who employ hundreds of people and took in a total of $3-4 million in revenues last year, the sum of just one significant agarwood catch.