Not all that glitters

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  A photo taken October 6 shows part of the Tau Mountain destroyed by Tiep's digs

A 97-year-old Ho Chi Minh City man's decades-long search for treasures robbed from Vietnam and buried on a mountain by Japanese invaders over 50 years ago has finally come to an end.

Tran Van Tiep's license to dig for a hidden treasure on the Tau Mountain in the south-central province of Binh Thuan expired on October 10 and it looks like it will not be renewed.

Tiep says the treasure may be worth more than US$200 billion, though he has yet to find any gold despite years of digging.

According to Tiep, Tomoyuki Yamashita, a famous general of the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, buried over 4,000 tons of gold his army had stolen - from pagodas, banks and museums in several countries they had invaded - on the Tau Mountain in Phuoc The Commune, Tuy Phong District.

Tiep also said there was evidence that before surrendering to the allied forces in September 1945, Yamashita sent a fleet of 84 warships carrying gold to Ca Na Bay, located on the border of Binh Thuan and Ninh Thuan provinces.

Tran Van Tiep, 97, shows Vietweek a document he says proves the existence of treasure buried by a pillaging Japanese army on the Tau Mountain at the end of World War II

Tiep said he had first acquired information in 1957 when the wife of a high-ranking Japanese military official told him of the treasure. He also said he has several historical documents proving its existence.

It was not until 1975 that he began his search in earnest. But he did not have an official permit. He just snuck up the mountain at night and dug by himself.

In 1992, he found a Japanese sword, a map and a Japanese yen banknote which he said were "undeniable evidence of the treasure."

In 1993, Le Van Hien, a local Party official who died in 2010, joined Tiep in the search and the pair were granted a license to dig on the mountain by provincial authorities.

After Hien died, Tiep insisted he would keep searching even though he was alone.

Tiep claims the treasure is hidden somewhere on the mountain's top, which is an hour's hike from the bottom.

The mountain has been devastated by Tiep's digs, that have included whole work crews with bulldozers and massive construction machines.

Ho Ba, chairman of Tuy Phong District People's Committee, said district authorities would work with provincial authorities to make a final assessment of whether or not they would allow Tiep to continue his search after the permit expires. But he was clear on the district's opinion.

"In our point of view, it should stop. The provincial authorities have been supporting his [Tiep's] aspirations for too long.

"If such a treasure exists, it would have been found during the war against the Americans."

Nguyen Thanh Tam, deputy chairman of Binh Thuan Province People's Committee, confirmed that Tiep would not be allowed to dig any longer.

"We won't give him any more extended licenses (as) we have wholeheartedly supported him," he said.

The province sent a working team to the Tau Mountain on October 8 to assess the environmental impact the treasure hunt has had on the mountain. The team will report on what it finds and put forward proposals to solve environmental problems.

Speaking to Vietweek a day before the team arrived, Tiep insisted there was gold in the mountain, and even upped the ante.

"There are 5,000 tons of gold, not just 4,000 tons" he said.

Tiep said he would ask Binh Thuan authorities to extend his license to dig for gold, but he has yet to do so.

He plans to change his team's manager.


"[My current manager] doesn't know how to do the job, and it takes a lot of time," he said.

He claimed that Taiwanese and Hanoian treasure hunters had all tried to beat him to it, but they could not because he was the only one that "holds the key to the treasure."

Binh Thuan authorities have granted Tiep licenses to dig for gold four times, not including two extensions, since 1993.

Last October, a representative of Tiep's team told Vietweek that they had to submit VND500 million ($24,307) to the State Treasury as a deposit for their exploration and for the handling of any environmental problems their digging might cause.

It is assumed Tiep has been funding his digs himself.

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