A 96-year-old man says he is close to ending a treasure hunt that has lasted well over 50 years
Tran Van Tiep, 96, and his youngest son Tran Phuong Hong. Tiep has obtained permission from Binh Thuan Province authorities to search for the 4,000 tons of gold treasure he believed to be hidden in the Tau Mountains in the province's Tuy Phong District.
Four thousand tons of gold.
At today's prices US$221 billion or VND4,641 trillion.
Just four years from celebrating his 100th birthday and nearly 55 years after he first came to know of the treasure, Tran Van Tiep is sure he is close to hitting pay dirt.
Tiep says he will unearth the treasure buried by the Japanese in a mountain in south-central Vietnam during the World War II.
After searching for it for more than five decades, it has come down to the matter of a few months, Tiep asserts confidently.
His confidence has rubbed off on authorities in Binh Thuan Province who recently gave him official permission to explore for the treasure among the Tau Mountains in Phuoc The Commune, located in the province's Tuy Phong District.
The permission, taking effect on October 10 and valid for nine months, is more than enough for Tiep, who says he has filed a number of documents and maps of the treasure that most other people believe to be untrue.
"I have documents of the Japanese, American and local residents in Tau Mountains. I dug and found, but only took out certain things supposed to mark the site, like a Japanese sword and banknote," he said.
The nonagenarian says he did not dig for the gold earlier because he was alone without support and equipment. He feared he would be robbed.
"Now I am confident about digging it up after obtaining permission from local authorities and having hired guards and workers," he said, adding that he had never revealed the documents he has to a second person.
Chairman of Binh Thuan People's Committee, Le Tien Phuong, who signed the approval, said the provincial administration had earlier banned Tiep from searching for the treasure because he was surveying manually.
"He has recently contracted the Hanoi Geophysical Instruments Joint Stock Company to survey the area with magnetic detecting devices. Moreover, he and his partners have presented a detailed survey plan with the use of modern equipment," he told Thanh Nien, explaining why the treasure hunt was approved this time.
"Tiep also presented maps, relics, pictures and other findings over years of searching and demonstrated a strong will to look for the treasure. Thus, the People's Committee allowed him to explore under the government's monitoring," he said, adding that they will not issue a similar decision for Tiep once the nine-month period is over.
On October 17, Tiep deposited VND500 million (US$23,900) as required by the provincial authorities to guarantee his commitment to refill the exploration sites. His staff of nearly 30 people is expediting preparation work before the search is launched.
For the country
Tiep says he got information about the treasure in 1957 but kept it confidential until the Vietnam War ended in 1975 as he wanted to unearth it for the nation, not for himself.
Recently, Tiep showed Thanh Nien part of his documents that say General Tomoyuki Yamashita, general of the Japanese Imperial Army during the World War 2, dispatched a fleet of 84 ships to carry 4,000 tons of gold to hide inside a coastal mount in Binh Thuan in 1943.
Sixty-six ships were sunk in the Ca Na Bay by the Allied Air Forces while others fled. After the World War 2, many Japanese nationals have come to Vietnam to search for the treasure, but failed, according to Tiep's documents.
"They buried the treasures there because it is near the road, railway and waterway. It is a perfect location because it is in a region that the Cham King used to bury his treasures," he said.
Tiep has found many items from the site that he says were used to mark the treasure, including an old and rusty Japanese sword, an old Japanese banknote and two metal badges with a black dragon and other items.
In 1993, Tiep got the first approval from local authorities to find the treasure in the mountains. After a year of searching, he hired dredging machines to excavate a large site on a rocky mountain side. He says he was able to approach the entrance of the underground treasure cave, which measures 24 meters by 80 meters, after digging three meters into the rock surface. He estimates the treasure was buried 40 meters deep into the ground.
Tiep said he has evidence of many Japanese people approaching the region on the lookout for the secret treasure over the past decades.
Relics relating to the treasure trove that Tiep claims he found in the Tau Mountains
In January 1995, a Japanese known only as Hakamura came to Cau Island, located some ten kilometers from Tau Mountains, to survey the place. "He had no other reason than looking for the treasure," Tiep said, adding that the man disappeared after residents reported to local authorities.
In 1999, Tiep said a Singaporean company was set up in the province but all the management board are Japanese. The company operated in shrimp farming and animal feed production and closed in 2004. Tiep says he suspected that they were actually looking for the treasure.
After that Tiep hired a man in Phu Tho, believed to have supernatural power to see underground objects, to join his treasure quest. This man reported to Tiep that a Japanese woman had met him and offered to pay US$200 million for a certain search but he refused.
Tiep said the Japanese he filed above are all related to the search for the hidden treasure.
During his treasure hunt years ago, Tiep had been accompanied by a key provincial figure who shared his belief Le Van Hien, former member of the Communist Party Central Committee and chief of the party unit in Binh Thuan Province from 1976 to 1986.
Hien, who died in 2009, had said that the treasure would be unearthed one day with modern technology and equipment.
"So I am not just doing it for the country, but also to fulfill Hien's wish," Tiep said.
Gold for the soul
Tiep's relatives have said they will support his search for the treasure whether it is true or not. They have said the ongoing gold quest would keep his enthusiasm going during his old age.
Tran Phuong Hong, his youngest child among 11 children, said most of Tiep's children and grandchildren lead a comfortable life. One of his sons, Tran Phuong Binh, is extremely wealthy. He is the CEO of DongA Bank, headquartered in Ho Chi Minh City. Binh's wife, Cao Thi Ngoc Dung, is general director of Phu Nhuan Jewelry Joint Stock Company (PNJ).
"This [search for the treasure] is his greatest enthusiasm and my siblings discussed it and asked me to help him," said Hong, who is the driver and assistant for his father. "We support him and no longer urge him to abandon his search, because it could affect his health."
The family members used to urge Tiep to abandon his search but to no avail. But Hong changed his mind recently for another reason.
"After the geophysics company found signs of metal blocks underground at the site, I began to believe in him," he said.
Ho Ba, chairman of Tuy Phong District People's Committee, said he supported the provincial decision to allow Tiep to search for the treasure in the district.
"At the very least, it would end decades-old speculation over a huge gold treasure in the Tau Mountains."