An Oc Eo antique "rescued" by Thoai Son District's policemen
Most people in the Mekong Delta town of Oc Eo are poor farmers. But the history of the place, which nestles among the rice paddies of An Giang Province not far from Cambodia, is anything but poor.
Oc Eo, in what is now Thoai Son District, was a major trading center for the ancient kingdom of Funan throughout the 1st to 7th centuries.
The spoils of that trading center were dug up in a mad dash in the 1980s as peacetime left hands idle and an international embargo - alongside poor central planning - left the economy in a shambles and the people poverty stricken.
But now, the people who dug up Oc Eo artifacts and sold them during what locals call the "gold rush" are back in poverty and deep in regret.
Most don't regret having disposed of national and international historic treasures. They just wish they had known how much that stuff was worth before they sold it dirt cheap. Most of the area's gold and metals were sold for next to nothing and were melted down by goldsmiths and blacksmiths decades ago.
Khuu Van Hoang, a resident of the town's Trung Son Hamlet, was one of several thousand gold hunters that descended upon the Oc Eo archaeological site in the 1980s,
"If the people had known the true value of these antiques, they all would have become rich," he told Thanh Nien.
"There's no other place where antiques have been found and wasted as much as here."
He said that 40-50 bead necklaces found at Oc Eo were sold for only a few dollars during the gold rush. Nowadays such items cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.
Hoang said he didn't know what to do with the ones he couldn't sell at the time. So, he gave some to the government for free.
"I gave the rest to my friends as gifts," he said.
The first excavation at Oc Eo began in 1942 after French archaeologists, led by Louis Melleret, discovered the site through the use of aerial photography. The site, which was the kingdom of Funan's main port for 600 years, covers 450 ha.
The artifacts found at Oc Eo included pottery, tools, jewelry, casts for making jewelry, coins, and religious statues. Among the finds were gold jewelry and coins from the Roman Empire during the Antonine period, showing just how far trade went there.
"Gold items were being found everywhere, even in rice fields," said Dang Minh Tri, an antique restorer in town.
"After every rain, people rushed to the hills and dirt mounds around the province to look for gold."
Some locals, as well as Vietnamese from other parts of the country and even foreigners, spent years digging up various sites with hand ploughs and shovels.
Among them was a very lucky couple who found 50 taels worth of gold jewelry contained in a silver box.
They were fishermen from another province who lived on their boat. They paid a landlord at the Giong Cat excavation site to dig up an area of two square meters for gold. Once they found the gold, they left and never came back.
Le Van Diep, deputy chief of Trung Son Hamlet, said it couldn't be denied that indeed gold had "fed" many families here and helped them overcome the difficult time of 1980s and early 90s.
"But nobody becomes rich from such gold hunting," he said, noting that most people who had found and sold gold there were now very poor again.
For Diep, the problem is more than economic.
"It's our heritage from our ancestors, how can we become rich by bleeding it?" he asked.
"The jewelry is made of gold, but it is more precious than gold because they are golden artifacts."
Diep said that even though most Oc Eo gold has been melted down already, he still believes there is a lot of gold left buried. He says the reason it's not being found is somewhat karmic.
"People were only blessed during their difficult times," he said.
Diep had been a gold hunter during the rush, but he now refuses offers to join expeditions and digs.
"I have no time for the rush," he said. "I am busy feeding my family."
Protecting the plunder
After the rapid exhaustion of golden items, other artifacts, many of which were damaged during the gold rush, were eyed by antique traders and collectors.
But they were still considered ordinary, cheap household things by the locals that found them due to their lack of knowledge.
Such artifacts included vases, statues, pestles made of ceramic and stone, and necklaces made of precious stone as well.
As the antique traders bought more and more items for cheap from local people, the antiques became more and more rare.
Thus, the "traders" set their sites on items on display at local pagodas, museums and other public structures.
Many have resorted to theft.
The town's Nam Linh Son Pagoda on Ba The Mountain is famous for its Oc Eo statue featuring a four-hand Buddha, which was unearthed in 1913. Its large elephant-shaped statue is also famous. Both are valued at millions of US dollars, but the elephant was stolen several years ago.
A Chinese-Vietnamese antique trader wanted to buy the elephant statue from the pagoda, but the pagoda wouldn't sell. Then, a middle age man visited to the pagoda and asked the monks to allow him to live there and became a monk. The monks didn't believe him but they still let him live with them. Every afternoon, after helping clean the pagoda and pretending to study Buddhism, the man went out drinking and came back late at night drunk.
However, he also studied the monk's schedules and when the pagoda's guard was down, he made off the statue.
The Chinese-Vietnamese trader came back the pagoda years later and admitted that he bought the statue from the man and sold it at a very high price at Cho Lon, dubbed as Chinatown in Ho Chi Minh City's District 5.
Some local farmers who are aware of Oc Eo artifacts' values have sold them to foreign collectors from Thailand and China, with the help of officers from local military school.
In 2002, Senior Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Hieu of the local police force heard that a group of people from Thoai Son District had just sold an Oc Eo statue for US$50,000.
At the same time, Hieu noticed that many local farmers became rich for no reason. Hieu and his investigators looked in to the case and finally retrieved around 20 antique items from the smugglers, some of whom were officers at a nearby military school.
Pham Ngoc Hoa is one of only a few officials recently assigned by the government to collect, keep track of and protect Oc Eo relics.
To carry out his job, Hoa began befriending locals, often going out to eat and get drunk with them.
But he was soon put under investigation by local police who suspected him of being an illegal artifact trader and smuggler.
According to Dang Van Dung, deputy head of the town's people's committee, the local government can't compete with professional traders around town. All the state does is offer people who have such relics in their possession VND100,000 and a paper certificate of merit in exchange for the artifacts.
Hoa sometimes pawns his own belongings to purchase the antiques.
Hoa pawned his motorbike for VND4 million to purchase a precious, beautiful Oc Eo vase.
"I was criticized by an officer from the provincial museum because he said the vase was only worth half what I paid," Hoa recalled.
However, according to Hoa's boss Nguyen Van Be, head of the district's department of culture and tourism, not long after that, they were approached by an antique collector in Can Tho City who was willing to pay VND400 million for the vase.
For now, the hundreds of items Be and Hieu have collected are in storage because they fear giving them to the local An Giang Province museum.
They say that numerous people have tried to give the museum items only to be refused and approached by artifact traders wanting to buy the goods almost immediately. Thus, many suspect that people at the museum are connected with traders and/or smugglers.
A cultural officer in Thoai Son District admits that nobody is qualified to assess the Oc Eo items in the district, and as a result, it is difficult to profile and classify each item, which means it is impossible to track them down once lost.
According to a recent stocktaking at an Oc Eo artifact exhibition house on Ba The Mountain, more than ten items have disappeared recently.
of the items on display aren't real, they're simply reproductions. Even some of the most "valuable" items are reproductions.
And all this while several Oc Eo antique collectors told Thanh Nien that a certain official in the town owns more artifacts than the Ba The exhibition house.