The endless quest for fabled thousand-dollar wood in central Vietnam

By Xuan Ngoc   May 22, 2017 | 03:26 pm GMT+7

Daring hunters spend weeks in the jungle searching for a fragrant wood worth more than gold, but some never return.

It’s a hunt that takes much more than it ever gives.

Nguyen Trong Tiet knows it better than most, but a price tag of tens of thousands of dollars for each kilo of wood is too much for him to pass up. (Vietnam's annual average income was $2,200 last year.)

For decades he has been part of a group of hunters in central Vietnam who risk death from malaria, jungle carnivores, robbers and the tough jungle itself in search of something that would change their lives.

Agarwood is dark resinous heartwood that forms in Aquilaria trees when they become infected with a type of mold. With a rare pungent, earthy scent, the wood can sell for VND1 billion ($44,000) a kilogram and is used to make expensive incense and perfume.

Oud oil, distilled from the wood, is also used to treat insomnia and rheumatism, and as a pain killer, diuretic, digestive aid and skin tonic. It is often dubbed “liquid gold” and is widely believed to have aphrodisiac properties.

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Men search for agarwood in Khanh Hoa Province in central Vietnam. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen

The hunt for agarwood in the mountains of central Vietnam dates back to at least the 3rd century, as chronicled in Nan zhou yi wu zhi (Strange things from the South) written by Wa Zhen of the Eastern Wu Dynasty.

It was first exported to China and Japan in 1580 after Lord Nguyen Hoang took control of what are now the country's central provinces.

Modern Vietnamese law lists the Aquilaria trees as protected, but this has failed to dissuade people from trying to strike it rich.

The search became a rush many years ago after rumors spread about some locals becoming billionaires from a lucky discovery.

Tiet, now 51, joined the rush when he was 19.

Sitting in his tiny house in a rural commune of Khanh Hoa Province, Tiet described the hunt as “a round of gambling” he has been dealt many times but has never won.

He said each expedition takes from 10 days to a month. Each person needs a bag of rice, salt, an axe and a special device to examine the wood. They drink from jungle streams and spend the night in hammocks slung between trees with a fire to scare away large animals.

“Hunters need to be strong and be able to bear the harshness, or they'll just quit,” said Tiet, whose skin has turned dark from many expeditions.

“It’s a risky job and sometimes you have to bet your life,” he said.

He said a man from the nearby Gia Lai Province was trapped by a rock collapse during a hunt and died after seven days after his co-hunters were unable to dig him out.

Tiet himself has faced death several times. On a night in 1987 his group of 11 hunters had just entered the jungle when they were attacked by a gang of robbers armed with guns.

“They threatened to shoot anyone for moving, so we just sat still.”

After failing to find any agarwood, the robbers beat them and took everything, leaving them to spend the cold night in only shorts and T-shirts.

The next morning, one of them revealed that he had managed to hide some rice and meat in the bush, so they cooked that for breakfast.

“But the robbers found out. They assaulted us again and chased us out of the jungle,” Tiet said.

They walked for three days to reach the main road and had to borrow money to take a bus home.

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Nguyen Trong Tiet talks about the time he was assaulted by robbers during a hunt. Photo by VnExpress/Xuan Ngoc

Tiet and 14 other men hit the jungle again nearly five years ago after rumors spread of a hunter in the Central Highlands finding wood that had earned him around $500,000.

Tiet said he had to sell his herd of cows, the family’s biggest asset at the time, for VND18 million to prepare for the journey.

His wife strongly disagreed to start with but a little hint of hope made her change her mind.

Again, he came back empty-handed after running out of food.

“I just keep going back every time I hear of someone making a fortune,” Tiet said.

He said many men in Khanh Hoa are driven by the same obsession and each makes at least two trips into the jungle every year.

They would set off into the jungle more often if it wasn't for family affairs such as helping their wives with the paddy fields.

Huynh Thanh Xuan, a 72-year-old local, has been searching for agarwood for nearly 50 years.

His biggest fear is getting lost after he and a friend got stranded in the jungle years ago and were forced to eat leaves.

They were rescued on the fourth day when other hunters heard them banging logs against each other.

Local hunters all remember the story of two brothers who never returned from the jungle more than 30 years ago.

Rumour has it that the brothers found some agarwood but were afraid of robbers so they split from their group to take a long route home. They never made it.