Armed police guard Ta De Village in Long Luong Commune of Son La, a northern province that borders Laos, in June 2018, after they broke down a drug cartel.
At dawn on June 28, 2018, two men with a backpack trek through a forest near the Vietnam-Laos border in Nghe An Province.
One of them is Vu Ba Xenh, a teacher at an elementary school in the north-central Vietnamese province.
As the duo reach the forest’s edge, they are ambushed by two police officers.
Lieutenant Nguyen Dinh Tai grabs Xenh by the arms and sends him sprawling and hears three gunshots. He realizes he has been shot in the back, and his legs go. His colleague is shot in the shoulder but is able to shoot back.
Vu Ba Xenh was arrested, and police found in his backpack 20 packs of heroin weighing around 350 grams each, seven kilos of meth, and 12,000 pills of synthetic drugs. The narcotics were on their way from Laos into Vietnam.
Xenh also had a gun and 15 bullets.
The night before he had been given the gun by a stranger and told to go through the forest to take delivery of the drugs.
The drug mule got paid $200, equivalent to the money he earned for teaching a full month.
Last year Vietnamese law enforcement seized more than 2.5 tons of narcotics involving almost 22,400 cases.
"The entire Vietnam-Laos border threatens to become a drug trading hotspot," a worried Nguyen Duc Thinh, a senior official at the Ministry of Public Security’s Drug Crimes Investigation Police Department, said.
Two of the major trafficking routes identified by the police are the northern and north-central ones.
The area where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong Rivers is called the "Golden Triangle."
But the term is more commonly used to refer to an area of approximately 950,000 square kilometers (367,000 square miles) of mountains straddling the three countries. For almost a century the "Golden Triangle" was the biggest source of heroin in the world until its position was recently usurped by Afghanistan’s “Golden Crescent.”
The rugged terrain and certain social issues, especially in northern Myanmar where military leaders from ethnic communities have refused to play by the government’s rules, are the reasons why the heroin business is still going strong here though the countries have declared a war on drugs.
Latest investigations show that in the triangle, opium is grown on some 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres) and 76 tons of heroin is produced annually.
This huge volume enters the international market through one of the countries in the triangle: Laos.
With forests accounting for more than 80 percent of its area and a population density of only 27 people per square kilometer, Laos is perfect territory for the drug business.
The country borders China, Vietnam and Thailand, all of which are major markets and/or gateways for all consumer goods in Asia.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, from Laos, heroin enters Vietnam either for distribution or continuing onward to China.
Some 50km (31 miles) from the Laos border in Vietnam’s northern province of Son La is Lung Xa village in Long Luong Commune, a drug haven.
Giang A La stands in front of his ramshackle wooden house. The 10-year-old is in his school uniform, a stained white shirt and a red scarf. On his back is one of his siblings.
Giang A La carries his sister in front of their wooden hut in Long Luong Commune, Son La Province.
"Sentenced to death," he says when asked about his father, who was arrested in 2017. La is not sure where his mother is. He lives with his grandparents. But his grandfather is a drug addict and his grandmother is old and infirm, and the boy has to take care of his siblings.
It is six in the evening, and his house door is still closed. The adults are either in jail, doped up or have gone somewhere he does not know of. Like any other boy of his age, he is playing slingshots with other kids. No one, not even head of the village, knows who will feed them tonight.
His neighborhood is replete with such tragic stories.
A Tua, who lives next door to La’s family, was arrested six years ago at 15 for transporting heroin. Six months later his wife left with another man, leaving their child behind with his grandparents.
The village chief tells VnExpress: "This family: the husband has been sentenced to life. This one: son and father have been jailed for 25 years each. That one: a man was sentenced to death in April."
Lung Xa lies on the only road that runs through Long Luong Commune. The road passes through mountains and forests, making the commune ideal for drug running from Laos.
Sung Y Hanh at her home in Pa Co Commune, Hoa Binh Province.
A few kilometers down the road is Pa Co Commune in neighboring Hoa Binh Province.
Trieu Thi Yen, a teacher at the Pa Co Elementary School, was looking for one of her students, Sung Y Hanh, at the start of a new school year.
She went to Hanh’s house only to find everything covered in dust, moldy rice in a pot and some withered chayotes in the kitchen. Little Hanh was playing by herself, dirty and messy. No neighbor knew where her mother had gone.
Three years ago Hanh’s grandfather and father were arrested while transporting heroin. Her grandmother and aunt are both addicts.
"Every year there are family members of more than one of my students committing drug crimes or becoming addicts," Yen says.
No story about drug trafficking chains and addicts is complete without a mention of the drug barons of Long Luong Commune.
People in Lung Xa village recall the 2013 Lunar New Year when Trang A Tang, now 37, the first major drug lord of Long Luong, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a three-day feast for the entire village.
He hired dance troupes and artists from Laos to perform and hundreds of cooks prepared traditional dishes.
Once he spent nearly VND80 million ($3,500) to pay the electricity bills of everyone in Ta De, a village next to Lung Xa.
The police had begun to surveil Tang in 2008 after he became rich in a very short time despite apparently being a normal farmer.
By disguising themselves as backpackers and visiting Long Luong, officers found out about his nefarious activities, but they could not raid his hideout since many village officials were his relatives and the area was well protected by armed men.
Son to the former chief of Lung Xa Village, who also involved in the drug ring, Tang was eventually arrested in July 2013, caught red-handed while carrying over 90 kilograms (200 pounds) of heroin in a car from Hanoi to neighboring Bac Ninh Province.
In 2016 a court sentenced Tang and eight of his henchmen to death, while three others, including his wife and father, got life sentences.
The police found out later that local cops and officials had been working for his massive drug ring as spies.
The same year that Tang's gang was busted, two fugitive drug lords arrived in Long Luong to take refuge after the police had uncovered a case involving them and more than 891 kg of heroin in 2012.
Nguyen Thanh Tuan and Nguyen Van Thuan both chose Ta De village as their new headquarters and recruited and armed other criminals as foot soldiers.
"There was a time when people in Ta De could not take their agricultural produce out of the village to sell and traders did not dare step foot in the village," its chief says about the period before June last year.
It was a common sight to see members of their gangs walking around in village carrying submachine guns.
Once they went around in a car and shot and killed three pigs belonging to farmers just to show they could do whatever they felt pleased.
It was a stressful time for officials in Long Luong.
But the Hmong people protected each other, especially as the drug lords knew how to buy their loyalty. A vendor or a kid could be a lookout for them. It was not uncommon to see children in Ta De bring a VND500,000 ($21.5) bill, the largest banknote in Vietnam, to buy snacks.
Once when the commune chairman visited the village, the henchmen stopped him with their AK-47s. He had to stop and take off his helmet so that they could see his face. They were not above shooting strangers entering the village.
One day after signing off on a request to summon the drug lords, he received a death threat.
South Korea-made Shinjeong S5 tanks rolled into Ta De village early one day in June 2018 carrying police officers armed to the teeth.
It was a mission ordered by the Ministry of Public Security.
An army would have been proud of the drug barons’ hideouts: their houses were fortified with three-meter (10-foot) walls, bunkers, tunnels, and security cameras and stacked with grenades, guns and ammunition.
Son La Police said that they spent two years persuading the drug lords to give themselves up, and only started to surround their hideout in April 2018, and cutting food and other supplies to the gangs two months later.
Between June 26 and 29, 300 policemen raided into Ta De.
Many big explosions could be heard and some houses collapsed. When the smoke cleared, both Tuan and Thuan were dead. Tuan was 34 and Thuan 35.
The police said the two had built tunnels to hide in and were protected by gunmen with advanced weaponry, making it hard to approach them. They seized 50 guns, 17 grenades and 7,000 bullets after the operation was complete.
From the border, drug dealers usually trek through forest and along little-known tracks, making it difficult for the police to stop or apprehend them.
It is thought that traffickers bring hundreds of kilograms of heroin into Vietnam every week usually by hiring people living near the border as mules.
Some of them are the most unlikely looking mules.
The day she was arrested on July 30, 2018, Lau Y Do was carrying her 18-month-old daughter in a sling in front of her chest.
The Hoa Binh police caught her when she was on her way to deliver 18,000 pills of synthetic drugs to a woman she did not know. She had no criminal record and said she got VND1.5 million ($65) for that job.
Do was a domestic help who rarely went out of her village. She lived with her husband in a small house far away from the main road. No one can guess how she got such an offer from a stranger.
"A stranger" appears quite frequently in defendants’ testimonies in drug trafficking cases. Locals usually have no idea where the drugs come from, and know neither the person who gives them the drugs nor the one who receives them.
As a result, the police cannot track down the links in drug chains, and only when they carry out massive raids do people come to know who controls these puppets.
About 300 km (186 miles) to the west of Thanh Hoa Province in north-central Vietnam is Houaphanh, one of the poorest provinces of Laos. Houaphanh is also known as a traditional opium growing region, and its capital Xam Neua has turned into a trafficking hub from where Laotian drug barons send their deadly consignments into Vietnam.
Xop Mat village in Nghe An’s Luong Minh Commune used to enjoy the fresh, cool breezes blowing from the nearby mountains throughout the year. But in the 90s the winds turned into raging blizzards: The ethnic Hmong drug lords of Muong Long Commune, Ky Son District, first made their appearance.
Xop Mat village in Luong Minh Commune, Tuong Duong District, Nghe An Province, north-central Vietnam
There was a time when the crop of choice for people in Xop Mat was opium. Muong Long, 54 km away, was also an active and productive opium spot. In the province’s western part, people grew more opium than they grew vegetables in their garden. In 1994, when growing opium was made illegal, drugs from the other side of the border once again began to appear here.
The Hmong drug lords’ henchmen knew how to trap the local men into their drug circle. They first gave the drugs to the men for free, telling them it was God’s medicine and using it would make them very strong. But once people got addicted, they had to pay for them, by acting as mules for the drug lords.
90 percent of the population here belong to ethnic minorities. There are no industrial zones in Tuong Duong District, and most people are farmers who earn around VND25 million ($1,070) a year, almost a third of Vietnam’s GPD per capita.
"In Luong Minh, 70 percent of people enter the drug trafficking business after getting involved with drugs," Vi Van Thuy, police chief of the commune, explains.
He remembers the names of all the drug lords, their ages, the quantity of drugs they carried, and the sentences.
Vi Van May, the former police chief, himself got 20 years for drug trafficking. He hid in the forest for seven years before giving himself up. He had once led the war against drugs in this commune.
Lo Van Tuan, the head of Xop Mat for 17 years, used to exhort people to always comply with the law. The "role model" eventually turned out to be the mastermind behind transporting drugs to major cities across Vietnam and even Laos.
Tuan was sentenced to life. His wife and oldest son are also in prison. His two daughters are junkies.
Thuy lists many more names, counting them on his fingers, all killed, sentenced or addicted. Drugs are like a river flowing through this land, and so lucrative that many warriors give up the fight against it and choose to take a dip in it instead.
Capt Thinh, the senior drug crime investigator, says in recent years there has been an increase in synthetic drugs-related cases while heroin has showed signs of decline.
This is a common trend around the world, with users switching from traditional to synthetic drugs. The production of synthetic drugs is easier because they do not need to be grown and harvested like heroin.
China used to be the biggest drug producer in the world, churning them cheaply ($8,600 – 10,700 per kilogram). But when its government began a war on drugs, the production shifted to a new location – the Golden Triangle, particularly Myanmar. They are now produced in Myanmar and shipped to Laos and then Vietnam at only half the price they used to be despite their high quality and nice packaging.
An official from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime provided an important snippet of information: the Golden Triangle has improved the quality of drugs and has caught up with the market’s need. That means the trafficking route between Laos and Vietnam will get busier in the coming years.
According to a 2017 report by UNODC on drug crimes in Southeast Asia, the drug market shows no signs of slowing down.
The Drug Department said only about 20 percent of the drugs transported through the border is consumed domestically while the rest continues on to countries like China and Australia.
Tran Dinh Dang, a Vietnam Airlines pilot, was sentenced to four years in prison in 2006 for carrying a total of AUD6.5 million ($4.6 million) from Australia to Vietnam on many different occasions. Australia’s Criminal Department said the money belonged to drug gangs in Vietnam.
But Dang did not cooperate with the police and revealed no names. Two years later another Vietnam Airlines pilot, Lai Quoc Viet, was arrested for the same crime.
Australia authorities said drug money also comes from Australia to Vietnam through international money orders as gift cards, pay checks and many others. Drug money worth hundreds of millions of Australian dollars moved to Vietnam in just two years.
There isn’t enough data about the quantity of drugs transported from Vietnam to Australia each year. But customs officers at airports, especially Tan Son Nhat in HCMC, have busted scores of major trafficking attempts involving large quantities.
The origin of the drugs trafficked to Australia can be traced back to opium fields along the Laos-Vietnam border. In 2018, when a big supplier was arrested in HCMC, he said the deal was sealed in Nghe An and the drug was transported from Laos over the border.
People in the poor communes like Luong Minh, whether they acknowledge it or not, have become a link in the global drug trafficking chain.
Thuy, a teacher, received a call on June 28, 2018.
"Are you Thuy, Tai’s wife? You have to be calm okay?"
"At that moment I thought the worst: that my husband had died," Thuy recalls while sitting by her husband’s hospital bed.
Tai was transferred to a hospital in Hanoi the same night. After four months in bed his legs have shrunken due to lack of activity. He had one broken vertebra and a damaged bone narrow and a low possibility of ever walking again.
Lieutenant Nguyen Dinh Tai’s wife massages his legs to ease the pain.
"My arms are now bigger than my legs," Tai said. The arms that arrested many drug transporters are now trying to hang on to the side of the bed and move his legs. But they are still motionless.
The cold wind and rain of winter made Tai’s sleepless, as he was in too much pain. His wounds are so deep like someone dug a trench on his back. Thuy was sleepless for many nights, but all she could do was massage his legs to ease the pain. When he broke down thinking about his condition, she told him it was ok for him to cry. But he joked that if their kids knew that he cried they would laugh at him.
In Pa Co Commune of Hoa Binh, a northern province in Vietnam, Sung A Mang still remembers the death of his younger brother, Lieutenant Sung A Tru, who was shot dead along with two colleagues by a wanted criminal named Vang A Khua on February 5, 2010.
Khua was a very dangerous man. When the police surrounded him, he took one of his own family members hostage. Persuaded by the police, his son, Vang A Cua, surrendered after hiding in the house for a day. But when Cua walked out the door, his father began firing a submachine gun, killing his own son and three officers and injuring others.
Khua and his henchmen continued to fight and did not allow anyone to collect Lieutenant Tru’s body. Mang and his father had to reason and plead with them to get the body.
Lieutenant Tru didn’t even know he had become a father just before he died.
May Nguyet holds a picture of her late mother taken in 1990.
Back in Luong Minh, on the wall of the house of Luong Van Tao, head of Xop Mat village, are two certificates issued by the commune for excellent work in drug prevention. The certificates are old and the words have faded, but they are still on the wall. In his six years of being village head, they represent Tao’s proudest achievements.
May Nguyet stood on a chair to get her mother’s picture from the altar. It’s the only photo of her mother, Luong Huong, in the house, and it was taken when she was just 14 years old.
Huong was Tao’s third daughter and contracted HIV from her drug addict husband and died six years later. Her husband is in jail. Tao was so distressed that he quit his job to raise his three parentless grandkids.
Nguyet returns from school at sunset and cooks dinner.
"The only thing my mother didn’t teach me was sewing," Nguyet says holding her old, white uniform. Her grandmother bought her that shirt but it doesn’t fit her any more.
At Nguyet’s school in Luong Minh Commune one out of nine students miss a mother or father because of drugs. Some students have decided their future after the next two years: finish secondary school and then sign up for labor export programs or just go for work in China like their mothers and aunts.
The commune chairman, Vi Dinh Phuc, admits that drugs are the reason for the lack of workers in the area. Half the people are addicts or prisoners, while many others have gone for work in the south or China.
"The only positive thing is that a new drug lord has not emerged in the past year."
The global war on drugs can be won by giving jobs to people in such poor areas. That is what the U.N. has been doing, but it has only focused on the Vietnamese side and ignored Laos.
Some foreigners are trekking on the road in Pa Co. They see several tourist buses, but little do they know that a woman could have just gone past with her child and 18,000 pills of synthetic drugs.