Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Viet Nam’s Indy Jones hunts for treasure

Rock and a hard man: Phan Chanh Tam beside a discovery in Lam Dong. — VNS Courtesy of Chanh Tam


by Du Van Nga

From trekking through the deep jungle to facing storms and floods, Phan Chanh Tam has been through it all in search of hidden treasures.

The treasures he seeks, however, weren’t abandoned by pirates long ago and there are no maps to discern or riddles to solve. Nature itself is both the source and the obstacle Tam has faced as a geologist who has scoured the nation in search of hidden gems.

"In a real gem collector’s mind, it’s not the price of the gem that assigns its value, but its scarcity," said Tam, as he sits in his gallery in HCM City, surrounded by a collection of gems worth nothing less than US$10 million. "While diamonds may be the most expensive, locally found coloured gems have seduced many American and Asian collectors. We are so lucky to have such national treasures, we have to conserve them carefully."

Tam hasn’t always been so appreciative, or so knowledgeable, about the hidden gems Viet Nam holds. Originally a soldier, Tam left the ranks to study under his uncle Le Van Sam, a gem craftsman.

From his uncle he inherited a passion for gems and entered into a field not much less dangerous than his time as a soldier. Tramping deep into the jungle in challenging conditions, Tam spent 12 years looking for gems, paying for his work with 100 taels of gold mostly borrowed from family and friends.

As he carried on his work, his expertise and knowledge developed. On one of his many trips he was travelling with a delegation when they spotted what appeared to be a rock on the side of the road. While he was told that the rock wasn’t anything special, he went against his instincts and the delegation’s advice, and brought it home.

Having seen past the rock’s rough skin, his instincts proved correct. Sawing through the rock, he discovered quartz and citrine inside. The valuable stone now sits in his collection.

From the Central Highland’s Lam Dong Province to Gia Lai, Buon Me Thuot, Phan Thiet and Ha Tien, Tam has travelled all over the country in search of more precious stones. His travels were so difficult, he often had to push himself to carry on.

"As a child, I always believed that God would support me as long as I was determined," said Tam.

Luckily for Tam, his efforts did finally pay off. After hard work and patience, Tam can now proudly show off his giant gem collection, sitting in his showroom on Ba Huyen Thanh Quan Street in District 3, HCM City.

"Over 90 per cent of them are originally from Viet Nam," boasts Tam. "The rest come from sites all over the world.

"It is quite erroneous to think that Viet Nam has been depleted of gems. On the contrary, I think many generations to come will discover its potential."

Until those generations start searching, Tam hasn’t given up on his quest yet. While he was offerred a position teaching at the Geological Faculty at HCM City’s Hong Bang University, he turned it down, preferring to concentrate his attention on gems.

"My only regret is that age and health are catching up on me, and there are so many things I want to complete. Collecting gems requires not only passion but also luck, skill and financial resources. It’s not something just anyone can do."

With much of his hard work behind him, Tam continues to look ahead. Although his wife is now dead, his daughter shares his passion and participates in the family business.

"As long as I keep living, I’ll continue to add unique and favourite gems to my collection. To be honest, financial support is hard to find these days but I’m hoping to get more money in the future."

Sitting in a room full of riches, one could suggest to Tam that he wouldn’t have to go too far to find some financial resources. Selling his gems, however, is one step Tam isn’t ready to make.

"Each gem is my own flesh and blood, no matter how much I’m offerred I wouldn’t sell them. We all need money, but none of us would sell our body parts, would we?" — VNS