[ Koran Angelfish - Digital Art Photo by BRM ]
In 1995 the United States resumed relations with the Vietnamese government and we could once again travel and do business there. A couple of marine tropical fish importers in Los Angeles, California, had established contact with the fisheries department of the Vietnamese government. The government was anxious to get into the tropical fish trade, but knew little about it. So I went over to do a survey of the tropical coast of Vietnam - to see what facilities would be made available by the government, check the logistics, and most importantly, find out what they had of value for this business.
That first trip was with some anxiety - I was not sure how well Americans would be received after all those years of antagonism and war. Coasting in over Saigon, on the final approach to the airport, I stared down on a city that looks like a giant ant nest that has been broken open. The general pallor of the city was brown, and the streets had thousands of people streaming through them on foot, bicycle, cyclo (bike-rickshaw), motorbikes - with the occasional vehicle looking like a rock in the stream. Nothing like anything I had experienced before - o-goodie!
I need not have worried about my acceptance, everyone was very gracious, polite, and helpful. Several times during my stay I was asked if I was an American or a Russian. When I answered, they would reply; "America #1!", or something to that effect. Finally I asked this Vietnamese fellow who learned English from Americans during the war (an 'old man' over there is someone from that era - most Vietnamese are under 25 years of age) why Americans are favored over Russians. He explained that after the whole country went Communist they could only trade with the Communist Block. Vietnam sent to the Russians and their allies a lot of rice, lumber, fish, etc. and received in exchange all the inferior manufactured goods that those countries could not sell on the world market - the machinery just did not work. So they got stuck with Communist junk. I looked around and saw that most of the working phones were all pre-1975 AT&T. Ninety percent of the heavy trucks were 2.5 ton GMC Army trucks left behind. It was interesting to note that they all had non-functional radiators, so they mounted 55 gallon barrels on the cab roof and ran a small water house down to the engine block. The hose to the block drain was strapped to the front bumper in such a way that it sent a small stream out to the road on the driver's side. When the driver saw the water stop he knew it was time to pull into a water tower, like an old steam locomotive, for a fill-up! Ah - ingenuity at its finest.
[ The Harbor at Nha Trang - Photo BRM ]
So I met with the big wigs in the government and they put people, vehicles, and facilities at my disposal. So much hope - so much disappointment. When America abandoned all those military supplies in '75, we helped create an ecological disaster equal to the use of Agent Orange. The North never trusted the South - so after the North Vietnamese took over South Vietnam they garrisoned their own soldiers to maintain their rule. The majority of those soldiers received $7.00 a month in pay. How is a poor soldier going to supplement his income, or his diet? With Dupont bait - of course! They sold explosives to the fishermen or used it themselves to get fish on the reefs - leaving one long line of coral rubble from Nha Trang to Phu Quac - the tropical area I surveyed.
[ Sunset on the Island Phu Quac - Photo BRM ]
I reported to the investors that the habitat destruction would take years to reverse and that not enough tropical fish could be collected to justify any substantial development of the trade. However - having nosed around in all the market places in the South, I could not help notice the abundance of reptiles available. The Vietnamese, like all Asians, eat just about anything organic. So the next several months was devoted to building a holding/shipping facility for reptiles in Saigon and showing them how to care for and pack the animals for export to the pet trade. Thus was born the company 'Green Nature', with Phan Huy Hoang as proprietor. Hoang was a quick learner and so was his workers. Having trained people in many different 'Third World Countries' for various tasks, I am used to being patient and repetitive when training the natives. So it was a pleasant surprise that the Vietnamese turned out to be so intelligent and industrious. I would show someone how to do something one time and that was it - no repeat lessons. In fact, I remember showing them how to do a couple things that I thought of as 'the best way,' and within a couple days they would be showing me a better way! It is good to be humbled once in a while - keeps you on your toes.
Since there was such a big market for most species of reptiles and amphibians to the food trade already, I did not have to do much in the way of instructing on what to get where - that was already common knowledge. But it was necessary to show the trappers the humane methods of capture, holding, and transport. Injured and stressed animals are of no value for the pet trade. Then I found my way into the 'behind the scenes' area of the food market. The black market trade with China. Slaughter houses filled with every kind of snake being gutted and skinned, and then smuggling across the border. The turtle traders kept their animals alive. I guess the Chinese would buy snake meat, but turtles had to be in the whole and kicking. I saw hundreds of tortoises headed for the Chinese diner tables and felt like I was rescuing them from an untimely death by purchasing them for the pet trade. Unfortunately, many of those that we bought died anyway from the stress of their inhumane holding by the slaughter house and all the sand forced down their throats! We opened up a few that would not eat and had wasted away. Seems that the slaughter house buys by the pound, so the collectors or middle men boosted their sale with the sand. I tried warning everyone in the business and government about the consequences of this unbridled smuggling of reptiles to China. That this rice producing country could expect to be over-run by rats for lack of snakes, and that the tortoises are going to disappear. They are smart people and probably had already figured out what problems they would end up with if they did nothing to stop that smuggling. To their credit I have heard they have it under control.
But what about the rest of the countries and their animals in Southeast Asia? It was a tough trade off bringing China into the family of nations and world trade. We turned them into a consumer nation with enough disposable income to buy all the exotic animals they can consume! 1.2 billion people can eat a lot of snakes or bear gall bladers for that matter. The illegal trade for Chinese consumption is thriving in every country that has substantial wildlife - including the United States. I met a Chinese gentleman from Hong Kong with another from Singapore in one of the Saigon markets. One was buying a pickled tiger's tongue and the other was ordering a bear claw (not the pastry type). I asked them why they eat all this exotic stuff, especially with the prices being sky high for some of it. He said that the Chinese have a traditional belief that certain powers are attained from each of these animals and from specific organs and parts. The more expensive the animal part - the greater the power, and of course, the prestige. Sounds like Sushi dinning gone amuck.
A side trip to Cambodia was another highlight of this 8 month stay in Vietnam. The capitol, Phnum Penh, is a really strange place with some really strange people. A place were the international mafia gather - like Asuncion, Paraguay. The natives were OK It looked like half the natives in the market place was missing a limb or two - the result of an untimely encounter with unexploded ordinance or one of the 10 million plastic land mines still waiting for a victim. Having seen the movie 'Killing Fields' - I had to take a ride out to see Pol Pot's playground. They have marked trails around the temple full of skulls so that you know where to step - lots of mines around that place. I would have liked to gone to Ankor Wat - but hey, you got to save something for the next visit.
With the reptile operation going full swing and the tropical fish operation going nowhere - we went back to Palau to pack it up. Time to try our hand as importers in Miami - haven't done that one yet!