You can take a boy out of his jungle, but…

By Pham Linh   June 4, 2020 | 05:23 am PT
You can take a boy out of his jungle, but…
Ho Van Lang sits next to the betel vine he has planted by his hut in the forest of the central province of Quang Ngai, May 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Linh.
Vietnam's Tarzan was taken out of the jungle seven years ago, but he's proved that the jungle cannot be taken out of him.

On a sweltering day in May, a bunch of men gathered in a hut on the fringe of a forest in the central province of Quang Ngai.

They were taking a break from working in the rice fields in Tra Nga Village, Tra Phong Commune in Tra Bong District.

Sitting inside the hut, Ho Van Lang smiled a black smile courtesy of chewing betel for years. The beret he was wearing emphasized his youthful look, belying his actual age of 51.

That day, he had brought vegetables, honey wax, dried fish and rice to cook lunch for everyone.

"Every time people work on the field they get to eat meals cooked by Lang, because he isn’t used to how we marinate food," said Ho Van Tri, Lang's brother.

His diet is not the only thing that sets him apart from those in the hut. While Lang works alongside them on the rice fields beside a mountain near the forest, the villagers don't really think of him as one of them.

As far as they are concerned, he belongs to the jungle.

They are not wrong.

Having lived in the forest with no contact with "civilization" except his father since he was an infant, Lang is most at home there, though he is a sociable creature when he is in the village.

Lang achieved almost instant fame on his return from the jungle as Vietnam's modern Tarzan whose father took him to live in the forest as an infant soon after the Vietnam War ended.

How this happened is a tragic story that goes back almost half a century.

48 years ago, Lang's father Ho Van Thanh was a soldier fighting the American army. One day, he heard bombs fall on his village and rushed home, only to see his mother and two older sons die.

Besides himself with grief, Thanh lost his mental balance and became violence prone. He took his wife and two younger sons, Ho Van Tri and Ho Van Lang to a safer place, but she was not safe from his violent tendencies.

One day, unable to control himself, he beat her up till she fainted, gathered Lang, not quite two years old then, and set off to the forest. No one knows why he did not take Tri along.

Thanh returned later, looking for his wife, but the villages lied that she had died, fearful that he might assault her again.

Since that day, the father and son isolated themselves in the forest in Tra Xinh Commune, Tay Tra District (now part of Tra Bong District.) They initially stayed near the edge of the forest, but moved further into it as people cleared forest land for farming.

Life continued thus till Tri, 12 years old then, went on a long trek into the forest with his uncle, looking for his dad and brother.

Thanh cold not recognize his son, but after the reunion, Tri visited them in their tree house twice a year. He would take some rice, salt, oil and other basic items with him.

Tarzan adjusts

In 2013, as Thanh’s health deteriorated with age, Tri and his uncle, along with local authorities, decided to bring the father-son duo back to the village.

On their return, the community did their best to accommodate the two, but Thanh and Lang missed their old life.

Thanh had no desire to socialize. He spent most of his time brooding silently at the back of the house. Lang, on the other hand, became more sociable, visiting neighbors and chatting with them, improving his command of the Cor language. He also changed in other ways.

Lang used to be scared of buffalos, but when he learned his brother raised one to sell and buy food, he overcame his fear and became its regular feeder. Now, the family has three buffalos.

"Lang is very hard working, whatever the people teach him to do he will pick up. Now he knows how to chop down rattan and bamboo for selling them. But he still follows people’s guidance, but does not know how to use money," Tri said.

Several times, Lang has dropped off the wood at the buyers’ places and returned home without collecting the money, so Tri would have to do it.

Lang does not have any interest besides chewing betel nuts and drinking green tea. At first, Lang followed Tri in drinking beer and other liquor, but developed an allergy. He then advised his brother to stop drinking.

"Lang got mad at me, asking me why I could drink but he could not, so I gave up drinking," Tri said.

Lang gets shy whenever the men in the village strike up a conversation about women. That is one area he has not been able to succeed in.

"The women say Lang is old, poor and not as bright as other people. They are also afraid he is not capable of raising children," Tri said.

Call of the wild

Two years after he returned, Lang continued to miss the forest. He preferred to stay in the field than at home.

In 2017, his father died and Lang felt more lonely, and the sounds of the forest called out more. He began spending most of his days and nights at the fields, about four kilometers from his home.

"Life in the village is really fun, I can listen to Cor and Kinh languages, and there are vehicles everywhere... but the field is far away and walking home makes me tired," Lang said.

These days, Lang only stays in the village one or two nights every month to sell the mice and birds he catches and the corn and bananas he grows in the forest. When he returns to the forest, Tri and his wife give him rice and spices.

Tri still meets his brother often, bringing more food for him every time he visits.

"Lang doesn’t wear trousers, so when his shorts and shirts wear out, I ask my wife to buy new ones and give them to him when I visit him," Tri said.

Ho Van Lang, Vietnams modern Tarzan (left) waits for his brother Ho Van Tri to stock his basket with food before going to the fields in the forest. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Linh

Ho Van Lang (L) waits for his brother Ho Van Tri to stock his basket with food before going to the fields near the forest, May 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Linh.

Back where he belongs

Today, Lang’s hut is in the middle of the forest, but not far from the village. It has a wind chime to keep wild animals at bay.

Back from the village, he puts down his basket and chews some betel.

Looking at the fresh banana plants in the clearing around his hut, he is reminded of the time his father and he would eat them, sour and sweet at the same time.

Using a machete fashioned out a piece of metal that had flown out of a bomb that his father had collected and given to him, Lang digs the soil to plant the roots for a banana crop. There is a row of areca nut palms that will keep him supplied with betel nuts.

After he is done for the day, he washes his hands, feet and face with water from the nearby stream. Then he sits quietly and stares into the distance.

One with the forest, he is home.

Seven years after being taken out of the jungle, Ho Van Lang has decided that is where he really belongs. Video by VnExpress/Pham Linh.

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