The headlines-grabbing story of a former soldier who fled into the jungle with a year-old son and lived there for 40 years took an angry turn Friday with the former’s nephew claiming he had burnt their jungle dwelling down.
Ho Van Lam, 44, a resident of the mountainous district of Tay Tra in the central Quang Ngai Province says he was upset with criticism over his charging people money to guide them to the makeshift-hut that is located 40 kilometers deep in the jungle.
On Friday morning, several news websites had reported Lam had charged visitors, including reporters, VND4 million (US$190) each time he took a group to the tree house where Ho Van Thanh, 82, and his son, Ho Van Lang, 41, had lived, as well as VND500,000-1 million for each interview with him and his “wild” relatives.
The reports said Lam even threatened to attack other locals who wanted to take visitors to the jungle and was planning to increase his charges.
The reports generated considerable criticism, with many people blaming Lam and other relatives for commercially exploiting the “jungle men.”
Lam told the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper via phone Saturday afternoon that he had set fire to the house since he had earned a very bad reputation over the issue.
“I took them [to the tree house] and demanded only a little money but reporters wrote too many bad things about me.
“Upset, I burned it down so that no one will ever ask me to take them there,” he said.
On Friday, Lam had told Tuoi Tre that it’s “reasonable” to charge each person 500,000 dong per trip since the route was very long and dangerous.
He and two other men helped visitors carry clothes and equipment, prepared meals and drinks, and protected them in the jungle, Lam said.
He also said that day he had not received money from anyone for interviews with him, his uncle and cousin.
“I told a reporter this [that he was charging money for the interview] because he was hateful. He came and without making any request, started the interview. It was as if he was torturing us,” he said.
He said his family has been “severely disturbed” since Thanh and Lang were brought back to the family by the authorities and the family on August 7, as many groups of people, including reporters, had come to take photos, conduct interviews and have him take them to the jungle house.
Meanwhile, he, Ho Van Tri, Thanh’s other son, and some other family members, have had to take turns to cook meals for Thanh and Lang, and watch over them to prevent them from going back into the jungle.
Lam said his family members have not been able to work in their fields since the return of their relatives from the jungle.
Over the last two weeks, local and international newspapers have been reporting on Thanh and his son Lang, calling them “jungle men”.
Thanh’s house was bombed one night in 1972 during the Vietnam War when he was serving in the army. His mother and two older sons were killed in the bombing.
Thanh, his wife, and two younger sons Lang (a year old) and Tri (three months old) survived the attack.
Tri was quoted by news website VnExpress as saying that locals told him that his father was in shock and seemed to have lost his mental balance after the bombing and the deaths, so he did not rejoin the army.
Thanh moved to other house with his wife and two sons. Once, after beating up his wife so badly she had to be hospitalized, he fled into the forest with Lang.
When he returned after a few days, the locals lied to him, saying his wife and youngest son had died, since they were afraid that he would beat her again.
Thanh never returned to the village since.
Tri said it was only when he was 12, his mother, then on her deathbed, told him to find his father and brother in the forest.
But his father did not recognize him, believing he was dead, Tri said.
In the jungle, Thanh and Lang lived in a house that looked like a bird’s nest, built with sticks and dry leaves on a big tree five to six meters from the ground, and near a stream, and wore dry bark as clothing.
Two made their own tools like combs, mugs, knives, hammers, axes, and had a field of nearly one hectare (2.47 acres) on which they grew cassava, corn, sugarcane, sesame, rice and tobacco.
They fed on the food they grew, wild vegetables and animal meat, used quills and animal skin as medicine.
Both have forgotten to speak the main Vietnamese language (tiếng Việt) and can only speak a few words of the language spoken by the Kor ethnic minority that they belong to.
News reports say that residents of Tay Tra District and relatives visited the jungle dwellers several times over the last four decades, but failed to persuade them to return home.
They even ran away to hide on seeing strangers, the reports said.
Since they were brought back in what local media have called a “rescue” operation, the father and son have been supported by the authorities, people and their family to reintegrate into the community.
Lang has tried to get used to modern life with cell-phones, cigarettes, clothes, footwear, motorbike, soft drinks and television, but Thanh has refused to use modern stuff. He is only able to eat very little rice and drink a little milk.
Thanh and Lang have received medical treatment for depression and fever respectively at the Tay Tra District Health Center and the center on Friday transferred them to the Quang Ngai General Hospital for further treatment, according to Tuoi Tre.
Thanh has been undergoing treatment since he was brought back from the jungle in a hammock.
Thanh and Lang are still scared of the strangers, the paper reported.
Both father and son have said that they want to return to their jungle house.
It is not clear if they are aware of Lam’s claim to have burnt their house down.