Don’t believe everything you download
“Rhino horn with wine is the alcoholic drink of millionaires,” said the vietbao.com article. Anninhthudo.com said it is “like a luxury car”.
Quang Trung street in HCMC’s Go Vap District is a hot, dirty, dusty, noisy continuation of Hai Ba Trung Street, the street where Vascos is in District 1. With my translator on the back, I took my Honda Wave out of District 1, negotiating around the sewer excavations in the middle of the road that squeezed us and the other tens of thousands of Hondas onto the footpaths with the pedestrians and food carts.
Doing an average 25km/hr we passed shops topped with grubby yellow and red signs and uncountable residential alleys with blue archways. The alleyways spread out like cracked glaze in old porcelain, mazes of sunless canyons between brick four story “tube houses”. So called for their narrowness – the tube house design came about because property rates in Ho Chi Minh City are calculated by the width of the frontage, so land blocks became “tube” shaped rather than square.
We cruised slowly looking for an office at 64/331A Quang Trung St. in Go Vap’s Ward 12. HCMC is notorious for its shocking street numbering and Quang Trung is one the worst offenders. All the shops have their complete address displayed on their sign, but there is no order – for example 12 is next to 2048 then 311. It’s insane.
Given the numbering palaver, we decided to look for Ward 12 on the signs instead of the street number. It didn’t help – three houses next to each other were in three different wards, 11, 10, 12. Not even in order. Crazy. The address on the website was useless and probably false.
I asked my translator, Giang, to call the number on the website to ask for directions. The woman on the other end’s guard went up instantly, “Why do you want to come to our office? We don’t have any products. Call us and our representative from Sapa will come to you.” (The website said the company was headquartered in Sapa, in Vietnam’s far northern Lao Cai Province).
Then Giang enquired about the rhino horn displayed on the website; the woman on the phone’s guard went up quicky saying they didn’t stock it (although it was advertised with the price – a cheap VND74,000,000 about USD3500). She was emphatic that we could not come to the office, but if we gave her our address an agent from Sapa would come to us.
We rode slowly by the kerb up and down the street several times looking for the alley. Almost had two collisions – it is not easy to read street numbers when traffic is travelling on the wrong side of the road. Eventually found Alley 64. Unfortunately Hem 64 traveled only 10 meters then split at least a dozen times, so we followed each offshoot until we were going in circles. The numbering in the alley was as random as out on Quang Trung but eventually we found number 331 (or at least a number 331).
But nobody there knew where 331A or where the company’s office was… If it was signed it certainly wasn’t nearby, and when we called again for directions the woman was even more suspicious and said angrily that we were not to visit their office.
News of our being there was quickly rippling through the community creating a perceived unpleasantness, but futile as it was we made more enquiries with the neighbours and the proprietor of a tiny shop, then half an hour later, feeling shriveled from heat and traffic fumes, we collapsed sweaty and exhausted in the tiny shop’s plastic fold up chairs, ordered a Coca Cola each and decided to go home… The address was either fictitious or we were sitting in spitting distance with no way of knowing.
All we’d done to find this woman’s mobile number was a search for sung te giac (rhino horn) on Google. The results had revealed about 20 advertisements, most on buy and sell sites (mua/ban), many of them out of date, except for a website that displayed an extremely large complete horn. It was obviously current.
The website was run by a company that claimed it was registered in Sapa with the Department of Investment and Planning of Lao Cai Province near the Chinese border. It displayed addresses, emails, phone numbers, names and bank account details.
It also advertised other illegal products from the wildlife trade including monkey bones and tiger bones. All of this advertising is totally illegal in Vietnam according to Government Decree 32, which states that the Ministry and provincial or in this case the HCMC’s People’s Committees are responsible for enforcing the law. Vietnam had announced its advertising ban at the 15th CITES meeting of the party conference of the Parties in Doha.
Over the next month I asked all the Vietnamese in my social circle about rhino horn. It soon seemed its use was more widespread than it appeared on the surface. Even the late renowned Vietnamese songwriter, Trinh Cong Son, the Bob Dylan of Vietnam, so called because of his protest songs, had allegedly used it to treat his diabetes, according to one of my friends’ drivers. This had been back in the days when it was harder to get.
The driver only knew because he was the one who had regularly bought it for Trinh Cong Son over a decade ago. It came from a traditional medicine store in a Hanoian part of Saigon.
He said the shopkeeper would powderise it for him by rubbing it on the earthernware lid (nap lu) of an old fashioned clay water pot (dung nuoc uong). The medicine seller would then mix it with water in the dish-shaped lid then pour the milky liquid into a plastic water bottle, ready for sale.
A few days after my chat with the driver, I met with a Vietnamese friend of mine for pancakes. It was at an open air café on Han Thuyen Street in District 1 within sight of the gate that a North Vietnamese tank famously smashed through at the end of the Vietnam War.
From a wealthy Saigonese family, Nga was a sales-rep for a foreign firm at that time. As her father moved in powerful circles I thought Nga might know something of sung te giac. I said I was looking for the people who smuggled it into the country and asked if she had heard anything about it.
At first she said no, but after a long pause she decided to share a story with me.
It turned out that Nga’s father had been visiting a rich family friend when the woman invited him to view something special in her room under oath of secrecy.
In the room she produced seven rhino horns that she claimed to have had traveled to South Africa to get. Nga said she had brought them into Vietnam herself through customs and said it had all been arranged through official connections. Nga sipped her coffee and said the woman was extremely nervous about having the horns, which was why she insisted on secrecy.
Nga said that without the right contacts it wouldn’t have been possible to smuggle it in. “Ordinary people couldn’t do it,” because it is “so illegal”.
“Why did she want the horns?” I asked.
“Because they are so rare and expensive,” was the answer.
Suddenly Nga regretted telling me. In a statement that described the maelstrom that certain truths get sucked into in Saigon, she said I should “forget the story as a lot of people could get hurt; journalists get killed in Vietnam” and if I wrote the story “I would always have to look over my shoulder.” As a result of this warning, in subsequent interviews I stopped identifying myself as a journalist and gave other reasons (such as my father has cancer, or I want to study traditional medicine) for my interest in the horn. I pressed Nga for more information the next time we met but I could see it was pointless.
That same night I went out to a Turkish restaurant called Warda in a tiny alley off Mac Thi Buoi street, with a friend and his date, a Vietnamese woman who owned a business in Taipei. Diem was obviously well-off, so over a few shishas I casually asked her about rhino horn. She (not knowing why I was asking) told me enthusiastically that she had tried it recently for the first time at a private Chinese Lunar New Year (Tet) party at her mother’s house in Go Vap District near the airport.
She shared about a situation akin to any sharing of illicit substances at a party, the woman’s friend had invited family and close friends aside to share some rhino horn that he had received in a business deal.
In a private room, he produced a section of horn that she described as round as a beer can and about 2cm high. He also produced a small grinding stone, ground it, mixed it with water and served the milky liquid in tiny cups.
While the waiter put fresh coals in the shisha pipe she went on. The man with the rhino horn was a car salesman and had acquired it from a client as part payment for a new car in lieu of $5000. In other words it was being used as currency. She said it made men “strong” (an aphrodisiac) and was good for women’s complexions.
She partook and said everybody was impressed and curious to take part in the impromptu ceremony. Diem added that her mother, whom I met later and found to be a likeable and hilarious woman, was not concerned about the illegality of the rhino horn because of her connections with Hanoi’s Viá»‡n kiá»ƒm sát nhân dân (The people’s court of investigation).
With connections like these her mother could do “whatever she wanted”. Diem smiled broadly saying she was happy to get some for me if I wanted at which point my friend changed the subject.
Unprompted, this stylish woman went on to tell one of the irksome stories I heard in Vietnam that describe the gruesome and fanatical lengths that Vietnamese go to in the name of Oriental medicine.
She and her family had gone 10 years before to the Central Highlands town of Dalat to drink the blood of a freshly killed bear. The then 20-year-old partook along with her family, although she was sickened by the experience. She described images of blood dripping off everybody’s chins and said they consumed every part of that baby bear.
Among the other stories I heard was a man who “grew” a black cat to eat its meat, brains and guts, then used its skin and bones to make Vietnamese whisky – as a daily tonic for back pain. Another man in the Central city of Kontum told me, ground monkey bones help patients eat to regain their strength when recovering from illness.
More stories… Later that week a female journalist from Hanoi said rhino horn was “very popular” in the capital. “I have never seen a whole one. People just carry a block of it in their pockets. I was told it’s good for poison. Just take it with water and 10 minutes later you’re fine.”
One night I came across a human interest article in the newspaper about a woman who ran a rent-a-kitchen business near HCMC’s biggest cancer hospital, Ung Buu in Binh Thanh District. It was translated from a typical Vietnamese piece, propaganda-ish in its portrayal of a selfless woman with the spiritual values of Uncle Ho (the revolutionary leader and late President Ho Chi Minh).
For a small fee relatives could cook for their sick relative at the kitchen instead of bringing meals from home or buying them from a shop, the article said. I wanted to find out if there was rhino horn being traded around the cancer hospital so I arranged a visit to this woman.
The first thing that struck me when I visited the place was how filthy she was, she obviously hadn’t showered or changed clothes for days and instead of being a saint she was just the exhausted slave of a decrepit business. Despite the kitchen being nothing but a blackened brick shell with two charcoal cookers on the floor, not even a sink or a bench, there were several customers.
She said there were desperate people going through that hospital that used sung te giac, but it doesn’t cure cancer, and fake or real it is a waste of money. Surrounded by the realities of late diagnosis and ineffective treatment, she had observed these poor people get their hopes of a miracle cure shattered, victims of cruel sung te giac traders who prey on the sick. One man there with leukemia was boiling up some pawpaw (du du) leaves, another alleged tonic against cancer.
The kitchen owner gave me a photocopy of the article responsible for the man’s belief; surprisingly it came from a Vietnamese newspaper based in Australia.
When first diagnosed with the blood disease he had bought a supposed piece of rhino horn for VND4 million, probably more than two months of his wages, on the Cambodian border and used it to no effect.
The man said he had expected that horn from there would be genuine (the ethnic minority tribes in Vietnam’s border mountainous areas are trusted sources of traditional medicine both floral and faunal), but after using it decided it was probably fake. Poverty had really sunk its teeth into this poor skinny soul. We both grimaced as he drank the hot pawpaw leaf soup.
According to the World Health Organisation, developing countries generally have their health care systems designed to cope with episodes of infectious diseases rather than cancer, so the Big C takes a higher toll than in developed countries. Vietnam is no different with virtually no access to radiotherapy or chemotherapy and very few trained clinicians.
The poor (and often the rich) rely on state hospitals, the majority of which are antiquated, dilapidated and massively overcrowded, or use popular people’s remedies such as the pawpaw leaves, or traditional medicine hospitals and traditional medicine doctors.
A 2010 CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) report said following its mission to Vietnam, the CITES Secretariat was convinced the growing demand is being partly driven by a “belief that rhinoceros horn may prevent persons from contracting cancer”.
The belief was apparently started by a rumor that a mystery Vietnamese Government Minister cured his cancer with sung te giac.
Dr. Ulrike Streicher, had told me in Da Nang she had come across the wild trade as a regular part of her work in IndoChina. “The internet is a huge threat. It makes something localized and small into something global,” Streicher said.
“There is valid traditional medicine. The risk is the knowledge is passed on by word of mouth,” Streicher said.
“When traditional medicine becomes people’s medicine then it is not based on knowledge it’s based on rumor. The information gets so dilute,” she said.
Streicher gave a couple of examples to illustrate her point on how information gets distorted and how rumors can feed demand:
There’s a fir tree in Vietnam that has a node at its top that looks like a large lotus flower made of fine brown hairs. These hairs are medically proven to stop bleeding.
The name loris hairs was coined for them, because the fibers look similar to the hair of an endangered and tiny Vietnamese primate called a loris. As a result of that name, Vietnamese believe the hair of the highly endangered loris stops bleeding.
Chinese whispers? It’s on the internet.
The second story Streicher told was even more bizarre, about a large Asian ungulate with horns in a spiral shape. Very rare and never before sighted by scientists. Excited zoologists collected the incredibly expensive horns from traditional medicine shops for testing and eventually declared a new species called Pseudonovibus Spirals.
It was called Khting Vor in Cambodia. Later it was proven that no such animal actually existed. The horns were all fakes made from cow horn – such was the skill of the forgers.
HCMC’s “Medicine street” in District 5’s Cho Lon or China town is full of animal products like horns, claws, fangs, birds, lizards and snakes. From the shop doors sacks of dried plant medicines spill out on the street with that unique medicinal Chinese tea smell.
Shops deal in tons of herbs a year some locally sourced, some from mountain tribes, some from China. A short wander in the popular tourist haunt quickly reveals dozens of illegal specimens from endangered, rare and precious species. One popular shop on the main street displayed a small fake rhino horn in the glass counter, a crime that is “subject to up to seven years in jail,” according to Vietnamese law. The owner of the shop, which was called Thuoc Bac An Phat, was incredibly blasé. He said matter of factly he couldn’t access real rhino horn so he was selling fakes from Cambodia made from buffalo horn.
Only the well connected
If you want the real rhino horn you have to be connected. I met Thao, a hairdresser shop owner, through a mutual friend at the very popular Highlands Coffee shop on Le Loi Street, District 1.
The second time we met, I asked her about rhino horn. She said her uncle had purchased some for her grandfather who at that time was dying of cancer; he has since died. Her uncle was a worker on the wharf at the Saigon shipping ports and “knew people”.
I told her I was interested in buying some because my father has cancer and rhino horn was not available in Australia; she said it was a good idea to buy some for him and she would like to help me. She called her uncle then and there and he said he’d make enquiries. He came back saying his contacts at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport didn’t have any at present.
He said he could get it elsewhere but it would cost VND35 million a gram, but he couldn’t guarantee it was genuine. He said he only trusted the genuineness of the horn that he bought from his contacts at the airport as he had bought it there before.
Since he’d bought it for Thao’s grandfather, the staff at Hanoi’s Noi Bai and HCMC’s Tan Son Nhat International Airports had taken part in courses run by Interpol, Vietnamese Environment Police and CITES. The courses educated custom staff about wildlife regulations, impacts of the trade, species identification and smuggling techniques. Whether or not this was part of the reason he couldn’t get it I don’t know.
Vietnam has two types of traditional medicine: the Southern folk herbal medicine, thuoc Nam, which uses indigenous Vietnamese herbs from the local flora, and Northern medicine, thuoc Bac, that originated in China with a more complex and scholarly processing.
China is the other big consumer of South Africa’s poached rhino horn, but in contrast to Vietnam the Chinese government openly ascribes to the horn’s supposed medical benefits and is looking for ways to secure supply to its growing market. According to rhinoconservation.org, in 2008, China’s State Soft Sciences Project, Development for Traditional Chinese Medicine Research proposed a controversial rhino horn farming project that attempts to circumvent CITES restrictions.
Down in Vietnam, the trade is just as widespread but more underground. The furtive traders and importers stay anonymous in the shadows of corruption and labyrinthine alleyways while they stir up a sour soup of stories – dynasties of rhino horns as Asian symbols of status and male virility mixed with the news of a new miracle cure for cancer.
They cook it up on the internet for the growing middle class with car salesmen carrying around $5000 blocks of the horn in their pockets like it was cocaine. The insanity is it has already cost Vietnam its entire rhino population, while the onslaught in South Africa continued to spiral in 2011 to an unprecedented 429 rhinos poached, up nearly a 100 from 333 in 2010. Fourteen poachers were shot dead and 180 people including several Vietnamese arrested in South Africa last year, but still no arrests have been made in Vietnam to help try to stem the slaughter.
This is the final installment of "The Saigon Horn."
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