Fragrant wood casts a spell

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Two women graze their buffalo in Nghia Tay Village, Dai Loc District, the central province of Quang Nam. As most of local men leave for hunting Calambac, only women, children and elderly remain

Six years ago, Doan Thanh Tai and three of his friends from My Hao Village in Dai Long District, the central province of Quang Nam, found 100 kilograms of Calambac.

The 28-year-old man still feels the excitement of that day. He remembers vividly that it was the 24th day of their expedition, and everyone was tired because they hadn't found anything.

"Looking at the trunk of the tree that I had dug for several years, I felt bitter, but then I decided to dig it for a few more times to try my luck.

And God didn't turn his back on me..."

Tai said after they made the discovery, they spent six days digging for the dark resinous heartwood that forms in Aquilaria crassna (Agar Wood) trees when they become infected with a type of mold.

They then brought the wood home and sold it to a trader, referred to only as Tu, for a total of over VND24 billion (US$1.16 million).

"It was the first time we saw so much money. We counted it in stacks, because it was impossible to count it note by note. The money was like tree leaves in the forest," he said.

Tai's story is the stuff of legend. And it is one of several such legends that have set men in the province off on treasure hunts over many years now, and apparently, some have hit pay dirt.

Nguyen Van Sy of Nghia Tay Village is a success story that is doing the rounds now.

The young boy, 16 years old according to the Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper, followed his uncle and three locals to hunt for Calambac on KumKro Mountain in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai early May.

One afternoon in the middle of June, while others went into the forest, Sy stayed back at their tent to prepare dinner. As Sy was looking for firewood, he found a piece of black wood which gave out a pleasant scent when it burned.

CALAMBAC - WHAT IS IT AND HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?

According to Webster's dictionary:

- 1828 Definition:
CALAMBAC, n. Aloes-wood, xyloe-aloes, a drug, which is the product of a tree growing in China and some of the Indian isles. It is of a light spongy texture, very porous, and the pores so filled with a soft fragrant resin, that it may be indented by the fingers and chewed like mastic. It is also called tambac. The two coarser kinds are called lignum aloes, and calambour.

- 1913 Definition:

 [F. calambac, calambour, from Malay Kalambaq a kind of fragrant wood]

 1.      A fragrant wood; agalloch

 

Tran Huu Nam, vice chairman of Da Nang City Traditional Medicine Association, says Calambac is a very rare kind of medicinal herb usually used to release pains among other treatments.

 

Prof. Dinh Xuan Ba, one of Vietnam's leading researchers in agarwood, told newswire Dan Tri that the heartwood is very expensive because it is believed to bring good luck to its owner (if not the finder) and to have the capacity to treat some incurable diseases.

 

In fact, many rich foreigners have come to buy the wood from him for treating diseases like sleep disorders and for making charms, according to Ba, who owns a farm of 10,000 agar trees.

 

Ba said there are five kinds of Calambac worth between $35,000-400,000 per kilo.

Using Sy's information, the group soon found pieces of Calambac under a rotten truck less than 100 meters from their tent.

Sy had better luck than his father, also a wood hunter, who died in floods that occurred during one of his expeditions. He and his group reportedly earned billions of dong from selling the wood.

His mother, Nguyen Thi Van, confirmed: "He (Sy) did earn some money from selling calambac, but it wasn't as much as rumored."

Still, the rumors were strong enough for another 50 men to head off into the forest on their own treasure hunts.

One of them, Vo Van Thu, claimed that after a four-day trip each of them earned VND100 million ($4,861).

According to Thu, it wasn't the first time people in his village had found the rare, fragrant wood, which now sells for S$350,000-400,000 per kilogram.

"Thanks to the village's good luck, over the past two years locals have always been finding the wood," he said.

He said this was due to blessings from a goddess, deity of a temple located on the entrance to Nghia Tay Village, where many wood hunters come to pray.

"She (the goddess) is really powerful, so locals, and people from other villages, especially Dai Phong and Dai Tan on the other side of the river, come to visit a lot," said a woman named Thanh who lives next to the temple.

After a successful trip, the wood hunters would contribute money to upgrade the temple and many others across the district, Thanh said.

Hazards

Experienced Calambac hunters say because the wood is as precious as gold, once one finds it, the information spreads very quickly, luring many traders and gangsters.

It becomes a daunting challenge, therefore, for them to keep the wood safe after they find it.

Tai said that in 2005, when his group had returned home after their successful expedition, they found strangers wandering around their village.

Tu, the trader who bought the wood from them, had to use several tricks to make other traders and gangsters think that he was taking the precious wood to Ho Chi Minh City by river, while he transported it by road.

One day later, Tu took the group with him on a two-week trip around the country as reward for their efforts and also to avoid gangsters coming to "disturb" them, Tai said.

Meanwhile, Thu, in the latest successful story, said after finding pieces of Calambac on June 22, he and his friends had to separate and gather in the central province of Khanh Hoa as arranged by a trader. He said during the trip, they had to change vehicles many times to avoid gangsters.

According to Thu, Sy, his relative, was picked up right in the forest together with his peers by the same trader, who later took them to Khanh Hoa for the trade as well.

Usually hunters who earn a great deal from Calambac will leave their village for weeks to hide from gangsters, and this practice has developed into a custom that dispels the curse of bad luck that befalls successful wood hunters, Thu said.

Sometimes, "it's miserable to not find any Calambac, but much more misery awaits the finder," he said.

The curse

Although most people follow the custom after finding the wood, not many of them seem to be able to escape the curse these days.

Tai, for example, now lives in the central city of Da Nang and almost all his money has run out. He said after receiving the payment for the Calambac, three of them went to the central city of Da Nang to do business, and the other went to HCMC.

"I knew everything will run out, sooner or later, so I had my ancestors' graves and altar upgraded," he said, adding that he also bought land in Da Nang for his younger brothers and another one in HCMC for his elder sister.

He, meanwhile, built a house in Da Nang, got married and has a son now.

However, Tai said, his obsession with Calambac never faded, so he later invested hundreds of millions of dong looking for the wood in Cambodia with his brothers.

"There we hired local people to lead us to mountains. Besides the salary, every day we paid them VND100,000 ($4.82). Everyone was happy! Hundreds of Vietnamese hunters were also invited to Cambodia to explore forests.

"But God didn't agree to give us more, so we had one year of failure. Money also ran out," he said.

After that, Tai opened a timber factory in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak, but it soon went out of business as well, and he and his wife are currently in the process of getting divorced.

Despite his failures and suffering, Tai is still considered one of the luckiest Calambac hunters.

In fact, after earning lots of money, many people have left their village and only returned when they were broke, like L.N.D.

D. earned who earned over VND5 billion ($241,000) from selling Calambac in My Hao village in 2005, but after returning to the village, he left his family behind to continue with his hunting in the forest, his wife said.

"In 2005, the whole village was stirred when some people earned tens of billions of dong from Calambac, but the village didn't get any benefit. They left the village and came back when they had no more money," said Nguyen Van Cuc, former chairman of Dai Phong Commune's People's Committee.

Meanwhile, Cao Van Nhac, chairman of Dai Nghia People's Committee, said: "When locals found Calambac, I was happy, because they also did many things in public interest."

Nhac said many successful hunters like a group of nine people who earned VND34 billion ($1.64 million) last year have contributed to making roads, schools and other infrastructure for their village.

Still, the chairman said he doesn't favor the trend that many locals rush to look for the wood, because very few people can find it. Many have been killed by floods, malaria and lightning during their trips, or lost money on long trips, he said.

Nguyen Buong, a 75-year-old resident of My Hao Village, said: "I don't know if it is good or bad. Very few can find it, while many leave the village because of it.

"The worst part is that local children don't want to study, but long to grow up so they can go Calambac hunting." 

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