A sixty-year-old man has spent half his life and all his money chasing the legend of Emperor Ham Nghi's buried treasure
Nguyen Hong Cong (pictured lower left) now lives in a remote cottage in the Hoa Son Forest where he has hunted an elusive treasure trove for the past 30 years.
In the summer of 1982, a group of Central Highlanders stumbled across a northern man digging through the forests of Quang Binh Province.
Nguyen Hong Cong told the locals that he hailed from the northern province of Thanh Hoa and introduced himself as a demobilized border patrol soldier. During the war, he said, he'd attained the army rank as senior lieutenant before retiring to hunt for the rare and valuable agar wood in the Central Highlands.
Cong, then 30 years old, said he abandoned his rare timber search (and his wife) after stumbling across a stone seal bearing the Chinese character vuong (king).
He believed that the buried treasure of the nationalist Emperor Ham Nghi (1802-1945) was still located somewhere in the caves and crannies of the mountains.
Bolstered with a map that was allegedly obtained by a relative in the navy (during a visit to Paris) Cong continued to beg and borrow for funds to fuel his endless search for the rumored treasure.
According to locals and newspaper accounts, Cong has been censured by farmers and government officials, alike. He's facing nearly one hundred thousand dollars in debt and counting. Seemingly nothing can stop him from his voracious quest for the buried treasure.
In 1987, after five years of scouring the mountains in and around Minh Hoa District, Cong held a press conference to announce that he had deciphered a series of clues and symbols that indicated the treasure's location.
During the conference, Cong told reporters that the local government agreed to send a group of experts and machines to Hoa Son to excavate the treasure, under his guidance.
Cong remained vague on details but assured everyone that he was funding the dig.
By early 1988, the government team was pulled off the dig after their efforts proved fruitless.
Cong continued his treasure hunt alone.
In 1997, Cong dispatched a written notification to the provincial authorities reporting yet another "discovery."
"After 14 years of studying and searching at a cost of nearly VND242 million [US$11,800 at today's rate] I have decoded everything and deciphered the location of the treasure of Emperor Ham Nghi," he wrote.
The statement went on to demand that the provincial authorities allow him to claim 10 percent of the treasure's value since he had borrowed such a significant sum to finance his search.
The authorities signed off on Cong's proposal and dispatched another team to the new site"”only to see them return, empty-handed.
Following the failure, the authorities that forbid Cong from continuing his search and refused to re-issue him a permit to continue his search.
Since then, he has continued to excavate caves and dig sites as a sort of rogue archaeologist.
"Hong Cong has been banned [from continuing to dig for treasure]," said Ban Van Son, Hoa Son Commune's party committee secretary. "He has been fined by the district and commune police many times, especially after his mission damaged a whole area of rice fields to the extent that they are no long used."
According to Son, the die-hard treasure hunter has ignored repeated orders to cease and desist.
"We've asked him to report himself whenever he is in the area, including where has he been, what is he doing and asked him not to spread any more rumors about treasure, especially to the media, since such misinformation info has disturbed order and security here."
Dinh Xuan Dai, the chairman of the Hoa Son Commune People's Committee, put things more bluntly.
"Cong is delusional," he said. "There's no so-called treasure here."
The elusive payload
Emperor Ham Nghi (1802-1945), who ascended the Nguyen Dynasty throne in 1884 at the age of 13, reigned for only one year.
The young king and his closest advisors fled the French colonial forces and establish a camp in the hills and jungles of Hoa Son. Legend has it that the group buried a vast trove of royal treasure there to finance their fight against the French.
In 1889, the emperor was arrested and exiled to Algeria.
In 19301932, a group of Frenchmen visited the area to allegedly hunt for the treasure and left with 20 covered trucks.
In the 1960s, a story circulated that a local had happened upon a stash of gold bullion. A little while later, another tale emerged about a stash of gold and jewels that had been unearthed after a flood uprooted a big tree.
In 2004, a group of local scrap traders discovered 20 buried jars containing more than two tons of ancient coins.
Last month, PhD Nguyen Khac Thai dismissed the legend of the treasure as fantastic.
The historian claimed that he had explored the area Cong described but there were no signs of anything being buried there.
"The area didn't contain any undisturbed soil, indicating that it had not been dug up before," Nguyen Khac Thai told Tuoi Tre.
According to Thai, Emperor Ham Nghi and his servants were on the run from French colonialists. So the notion that they were carrying a heavy cache of gold and jewels across treacherous terrains seemed unlikely, if not impossible.
The search continues
In the course of his 30-year search, Cong has pulled tons of soil out of a dozen caves. Locals complain that his ambition has caused him to ruin a number of local rice paddies.
In spite of all his digging, the old man has only managed to turn up a single heavy iron ball and a few metal sheets.
Cong, now 60, has suffered from repeated bouts of malaria. His skin has turned a ghostly white from hours spent digging underground. In 1993, he nearly died when a great downpour flooded the cave he was working in.
On occasion, he visits his family in Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Binh District. The rest of the time is spent toiling underground in the middle of the country.
Despite all his hardship, his belief in the treasure remains.
Two months ago, he emerged and told locals in Minh Hoa District that he now lives in a cottage in the Hoa Son forest and is currently excavating a nearby cave.
He plans to send another statement to the provincial people's committee asking for another dig team and 20 percent of the value of the treasure.
The cost of his lifelong project is estimated at VND2 billion (US$96,360) and rising.