So ya wanna find rubies, huh? Well, tough guy, step right up. We got just the tour – Sri Lanka, the original home of rubies. Every trip to Ratnapura features the Jaffna return, with a Tamil Tiger indoctrination session.
Ruby, oh Ruby, wherefore art thou?
Too tame? Okay, forget Sri Lanka, and dig this – holiday in Cambodia – Pailin. Pay cash and I’ll throw in the Khmer Rouge guide for free (except during the November through May dry season offensive).
Still too tame? So there’s a truce, so what – there’s still plenty of grief to go around. Anyway, we’ve got other tours. Check this out – Mogok, Burma. For a limited time only, we offer a terrific twofer: guaranteed contact with malarial mosquitoes and the secret police.
Powder-puff tours? Us? What are ya, some kinda Rambo? But I think we’ve got just the ticket for you. Jagdalek, in Afghanistan. Think about it, you’ll be up there in the Hindu Kush, miserable weather, lousy food – at one with nature and the mujahideen – what more could you want? But I gotta warn ya, the moment peace comes to Kabul, the mines’ll be played out…
Where are you going?… Wait! How about Madagascar, they’ve never had a free election… Kenya, the mine was stolen from John Saul by the president’s wife… Tanzania, the place is rife with AIDS… Harts Range, Australia, they ain’t seen rain there since Noah floated his ark… Okay, okay, what about Thailand, they’ve been killing people there lately, haven’t they? Maybe not in Chanthaburi, but you do have to go through Bangkok to get there… wait… wait…
Been There, Done That
Such is life in the world of ruby. Goddammit! Why can’t somebody dig up rubies someplace pleasant? Let’s say a Greek island or maybe Chamonix, in the French Alps? With all the dirt dug during presidential election campaigns you’d think they could turn up some rubies in the US, right, perhaps buried under the capital? But it never happens. Rubies seem to come only from the most god-awful places. Name a place riddled with pox, poverty and/or war and that’s where to look for rubies. In fact, the really savvy ruby prospectors don’t bother with geological maps, they use the Amnesty International list for human rights violations. Their divining rod is a rolled up copy of the World Health Organization (WHO) list of diseased places.
Map of northern Vietnam, showing the location of the important ruby mines at Quy Chau and Luc Yen.
And now they’ve really done it. Yep. They’ve gone and found rubies in Vietnam. Just our luck.
The Good News
The good news about Vietnam is that the war has been over for 17 years. And during the past three the central government has initiated economic reforms which they spell D-O-I M-O-I, but which many would spell C-A-P-I-T-A-L-I-S-M, were they taking place anywhere else.
In 1992, Vietnam still displays numerous vestiges of its communist past. Foreign visitors arriving in either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City must register with the police within 48 hours. Many parts of Vietnam remain completely off-limits to foreigners, unless they have special permits. This includes both of the important ruby-mining districts (Luc Yen, north of Hanoi, and Quy Chau, to the south). But with the increasing tourism and relaxation of society in general, it is expected that such restrictions will be removed in the near future.
And the Bad
So how about the bad news? The latest ruby discovery in Vietnam has occurred in Quy Chau district of Nghe An (formerly Nghe Tinh) province. The Lonely Planet guidebook, Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia (1991) had this to say about the place:
Nghe Tinh [Nghe An] Province is endowed with poor soil and some of the worst weather in Vietnam. The area frequently suffers from floods and devastating typhoons. Nghe Tinh is one of the places about which the locals say: ‘The typhoon was born here and comes back often to visit’. The summers are very hot and dry while during the winter the cold and rain are made all the more unpleasant by biting winds from the north.
If I’m not mistaken, this sounds just like ruby country.
Discovery of rubies in Vietnam took the entire world by surprise, not the least the author. In 1989 and 1990 I heard the first rumblings that the reds had the reds. “Ha,” I declared, “Refugees, maybe. Rubies? No way.” Slowly, ever-so-slowly, the realization came that I might be mistaken.
First was the sudden deluge of “Burmese” type rubies in the Bangkok market. Secondly was the announcement of a Vietnamese ruby auction in Bangkok. At last, after watching planeloads of Thai gem dealers disembark at Bangkok’s Don Muang airport wearing cone-shaped hats, I was forced to admit that they had not been visiting World Pavilion at Disneyland.  And I resolved to find out more about this country and its rubies. The next thing I knew, I was on my way to Vinh, provincial and ruby capital of Nghe An province.
|Figure 2 Ruby crystal group from Luc Yen, Vietnam.|
(Photo: Bart Curren / ICA; specimen: Pala International)
Horrors of War
War is horrible, everyone knows that. Nghe An province, with its capital, Vinh, was home to some of the worst destruction of the Vietnam war. Start things off with some French firebombing. Then add a bit of scorched earth, courtesy of the Viet Minh. Now top it off with good ol’ US high-tech bombing to really do things right. But the worst was yet to come.
After the war was over, the Vietnamese brought in the East Germans to rebuild the place, producing what one visitor described as “a tropical East Berlin.” If Marlon Brando saw Vinh today, he would have only one thing to say: “The horror… the horror…”
The Road to Vinh
Vinh is accessed from Hanoi over 200 km of what the charitable call “Highway 1,” a slender piece of asphalt-cum-bullock track stretching all the way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, (2000 km to the south). From Vinh, the mines are another 80 km further west into the bush, towards the Laotian border. As we bumped and bounced our way down towards Vinh I tentatively inquired as to the condition of the road to the mines. With a toothsome grin my Vietnamese host declared: “This Highway No. 1. That Highway No. 10.” Then he cackled with raucous laughter. I did have to ask…
The gem auction: A long time gone (and a long time coming)
Early the next day we set out for the very first legal gem sale in the history of Vietnam. Or so we were told. It was to begin at 7:30 a.m. Or so we were told. The proceedings began with numerous speeches, speeches from every provincial official whom had ever held a rubber stamp in hand. They clearly drove home the point – “A ruby in hand is worth ten thousand speeches in the bush.” By about 9:30 a.m., when they found no one left to speak except the cyclo-driver outside, it was time to begin. Or so we were told.
It was actually time for a break. We retired to the courtyard, which contained, among other things, a jeep. It was a Soviet job, kinda old-fashioned, kinda green. Your basic Russian jeep. What was interesting was the cobwebs extending between wheels and ground. Whilst searching for the proper metaphor to describe the deeper meaning of what I was seeing, my reverie was broken by the call. We were ready to look at rubies. Or so we were told.
Inside on the table were two bags of ruby rough, bags which all involved apparently expected us to buy from a distance of ten meters. I tentatively approached the table and inquired about the possibility of freeing the rubies from their plastic cells. No problem. They cut the bags and glistening red orbs tumbled onto a distant plate. That brought grins all around. Emboldened, I then asked about the chances of placing said gems on skin, preferably mine. And this was also possible, a ruby in the hand. Yes, things were looking good. But better was still to come. I asked the price. And I was told. But while I blanched at the amount, I was told that counter-offers were possible. Even better. This was my kind of auction. The coin finally dropped when, after I inquired about the supposedly illegal process of exporting gem rough from Vietnam, they declared: “Chung toi voi lam!” Did I hear correctly? Did they say “Chung toi voi lam”? Yes, they did. And just what the @%$# does Chung toi voi lam mean? Hands scratched heads, brows furrowed and grins tightened, but at last the translation came: “No problemo, baby!” What…? You mean…? Blood rushed to my head and as the room spun I reeled backwards sputtering “But this means… I mean it’s like… frree tttrraaaadddeee paaaradis……” Crash!!!
In shock, as my entire childhood passed before my eyes, I tumbled from the chair. Fortunately salvation was close at hand, in the form of a young boy wearing a faded Mickey Mouse T-shirt. As I crawled to my feet, consciousness crept back. Then it hit me – like a diamond bullet right between the eyes – Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto, the whole gang. The sheer genius of it – brilliant, crystalline, logical, pure, consummate. Like Hunter S. Thompson, once said, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Which is exactly what I did, moments later inking a contract that named me as exclusive distributor in perpetuity for all Walt Disney paraphernalia in Vietnam. So now you know. When the Vietnamese kids scream for Mickey Mouse T-shirts, their parents gotta come to me.
The Vinh sale was the first step for Vietnam on the road to legitimizing its gem industry. Until three years ago, the country had no major gem deposits. Then rubies were discovered at Luc Yen. Until one year ago, the country had virtually no laws regulating the gem business or gem mining. But the Vietnamese as a whole were burned badly by their first experience (the B.H. Mining/Vinagemco joint venture fiasco). As a result, laws were passed during the past year banning all future foreign involvement in gem mining (foreign involvement in cutting and trading is still allowed).
Today Vietnam is at a crossroads. Many in government circles are waking up to the fact that the gem trade is all but impossible to regulate. Legislation banning the sale of rough serves only smugglers. Wisely they have chosen to legitimize the trade, in part by turning a blind eye to smuggling and illegal mining. The Vinh auction-cum-sale was evidence of their increasing pragmatism. Many of the gems at the auction were probably obtained via illegal (i.e., non-concession) mining. The government had a choice: either they ban the sale of illegally-mined stones (and thus encourage the development of smugglers), or they allow their sale, no questions asked (as long as they are offered at the official weekly sales, where a duty is collected).
The Road and the Mines
Upon leaving the auction in Vinh, we immediately set out for the mines, located some 70 km west of Highway 1 and a few kilometers southeast of Quy Chau. Six police checkpoints were spread between Vinh and Quy Chau district.
Nghe An province represents not only the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh, but also the road- and railhead of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Both the railroad line, which crosses the road frequently, and the road were major military targets during the war.
The mining area consists of gently-rolling hills bisected by the Hieu river, near the village of Cho Bin. Northeast of the river, the hills are thought to be limestone, but the rubies come from the hills on the southwest bank. These consist of weathered granite, interwoven with pegmatites. The rubies originated in the pegmatites, and have been concentrated in alluvial gravels in the valley bottom and along the hillside streams. There were four mechanized mines operating in the area we visited, but due to time constraints we were not able to visit all of the mines in the district.
The original find of ruby in Vietnam was made sometime in 1988-89, at Luc Yen (Yen Bai province), northwest of Hanoi. This discovery spurred exploration all across the country; during the later part of 1990, a second deposit was unearthed, in Quy Chau district during the latter part of 1990. Once the word spread that the valuable red stones of Luc Yen could be also dug around Quy Chau, a wild-west type gem rush descended on the area. The population soared as one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam suddenly became one of the richest. At one stage it was estimated that the district was inhabited by anywhere from 50,000 to over 300,000 miners.
Digging their Own Graves
They came to dig, and dig they did, tunnelling hither and thither. As relentless as ants, they furrowed and burrowed into the hills, many becoming rich in the process. Brand spanking new homes now dot the landscape of what was once Vietnam’s poorest province. But all was not well in the Land of Red. Holes yielded riches for a lucky few, but turned into graves for the many unfortunates. In a single accident in 1991, over 60 people were said to have perished from a massive cave-in.
Peace in Cambodia meant trouble back in Vietnam. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers were discharged. Many made the transition back into civilian life without problem, but a few turned their guns on the local populace, robbing those who travelled along remote roads, including Quy Chau district.
Such security problems, along with the mining accidents, forced the central government to step in. As far as I could determine, they have succeeded in bringing peace and order to the mines. Illegal (i.e., non-concession) mining remains, but is now done largely by natives of Nghe An province, rather than outsiders. The gem-bearing area has been mapped by geologists and the most-promising sites auctioned off to Vietnamese companies. Five different concessions were said to have been issued in the area which I visited.
Like ruby mines in Thailand and Cambodia, bulldozers or backhoes are used to excavate the land. The earth is then forced into a separation jig by the use of water cannons. Once in the jig, the “heavies” (higher density minerals) are sorted by hand to remove the rubies. Nominally-illegal pit mining is also carried out throughout the district, mainly on the fringes of the mechanized mines.
I’ll bet it tastes just like chicken… Dinner for sale in the market of Vietnam’s Quy Chau ruby mines.
(Photo: R.W. Hughes; May, 1992)
Gem material I saw consisted largely of ruby, with smaller amounts of blue and orange sapphire, and one piece of yellow chrysoberyl. Unlike Luc Yen, the Quy Chau mines apparently produce no spinel. The ruby is similar in appearance to that from Luc Yen, featuring distinctive blue zones of color. Other than from Luc Yen, I have witnessed this in rubies from only one other source, Jagdalek, in Afghanistan.
Turning Swords into Dop Sticks
One of the more interesting aspects of my time in Vietnam was a visit to the National Center for Scientific Research (NCSR). Located on the outskirts of Hanoi, this is the country’s foremost scientific think-tank. Previously involved in all types of theoretical and applied science, including military applications, the nation’s top physicists and scientists are today applying their talents to more earthy matters – such as gold-testing, gem cutting and the heat treatment of rubies and sapphires. I was shown elaborate ovens, including one which allows heating under vacuum. When I inquired about their chances of success in a field shrouded in mystery, one scientist scoffed at my skepticism: “Do you really believe that people with little education can perform magic? While we do not wish to belittle the discoveries of the pioneers in this field, heat treatment of rubies and sapphires is mysterious only to those who know nothing of science.”
Miners at Vietnam’s Quy Chau ruby deposit.
(Photo: R.W. Hughes; May, 1992)
And know science they apparently do. In various parts of the facility I was shown everything from an electron microscope to computerized satellite imaging (for weather prediction) and X-ray fluorescence (used for gold analysis – my 24-karat gold wedding ring turned out to contain only 95% gold, instead of 99.9%). The kicker was when they showed me Vietnamese rubies before and after heat treatment. There was certainly nothing mysterious about the results they were getting.
A Visit with Bac Ho
We finished up our Nghe An trip with a visit to the houses of Ho Chi Minh’s parents, just outside of Vinh. While there was nothing special about the structures themselves (they were simple village houses), the guides made the journey especially worthwhile. At each house was a Vietnamese woman selected for a special job – explaining about the early years in the life of Ho Chi Minh, the father of modern Vietnam. The peacefulness of the surroundings and especially the lilting, melodic quality of each guide’s voice transcended all barriers, cultural, language and otherwise. And it gave cause for reflection.
Vietnam is a country of great beauty and resource with a proud, but in some ways, burdensome past. One thousand years of war and foreign occupation may give strength and succor; however they also create an inward-looking, siege mentality. Like the many new nations of eastern Europe, the Vietnamese people are just beginning to throw off the shackles of the past, just beginning to see the first rays of a new dawn.
Postscript: War stories
Almost any American can tell you about the Vietnam war, the first and only war that the US has ever lost (Korea was a stalemate). But far fewer Americans could tell you that the war is not yet over, that legally the US is still at war with Vietnam. As of June 1992, the United States of America, the most powerful nation on earth, maintains no diplomatic relations with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. They never have. The US has never had an embassy in Hanoi. Unlike the people of Russia, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Poland, Rumania, Albania and others, in 1992 Vietnam must go it alone. Unlike their fellow communists in China (which currently have most-favored-nation trading status with the US), the Vietnamese must go it alone. For almost 40 years, the US government has imposed a political and economic blockade against Vietnam. And still, as always, the Vietnamese go it alone.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the US embargo was said to be a result of the war against communism (although the US had diplomatic and commercial relations with many communist countries, including the USSR). During the 1980s, the excuse was the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, which overthrew the “humanitarian” Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The US declared that it would not consider normalization until Vietnam pulled its troops out. And during the 1990s, after Vietnam pulled out of Cambodia, the US promptly moved the goalposts back, saying that other “humanitarian” issues would have to be resolved first. And so the Vietnamese continue to go it alone.
American Government Compassion: Missing in Action
The US government’s 1992 rhetoric is that the Vietnamese have not cooperated fully on the issue of approximately 500-2000 American soldiers missing-in-action (MIAs) from the Vietnam War era. This is also labelled a “humanitarian” concern by the US government.
The US government never imposed post-war sanctions against Japan and Germany, even though MIAs numbered in the tens of thousands. American MIAs during the Korean War alone numbered over 10,000. The “humanitarian” issue of MIAs was never an issue after either World War II or the Korean War.
Just what sort of cooperation is the US government seeking from the Vietnamese government? They want (and expect) to be able to visit any part of Vietnam on a moment’s notice, including restricted areas. If the Vietnamese were powerful enough, at the very least they would be able to demand a reciprocal arrangement in the US. One can imagine the following exchange:
Vietnamese Investigators: Two of our people we sent on a sabotage mission to Cape Kennedy in 1971 are unaccounted for. We demand to be taken to Cape Kennedy, now!
US Officials: Please to excuse. We are most sorry, sirs, but space shuttle launch is to schedule for today. Perhaps we visit tomorrow? We have plan a wery, wery special meal tonight at famous McDonald’s restaurant.
Vietnamese Investigators: Listen here, you round-eyed hairy gorillas! We are fed up with your excuses and evasions! Quite frankly, we don’t care if you plan to launch George Bush into space this afternoon…. And by the way, would you like a little yellow rain? If you don’t take us to Cape Kennedy immediately we will drop off a few presents for you – boat people! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha…… And before we forget, just one more thing – we hate Ronald McDonald! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha……
US Officials: Please to excuse. We will to try hard to cooperate you. But don’t make fun of Ronald…Vietnamese Investigators: …Yeah, and do ya know the difference between a bowl of yogurt and an American? Even if left alone for 200 years, the American can’t develop a culture! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha…
Amazingly enough, the people of Vietnam bear little hostility towards individual Americans – thank god most can separate the actions of the US government from its citizens. And the Vietnamese government has allowed US government MIA teams free access to most sites, even on short notice. But apparently it has not been enough. What is enough? At the present time, apparently nothing. Political analysts say that, no matter what the Vietnamese government does, a basic change in policy is unlikely until after the November 1992 presidential elections. The “bones and bodies” lobby is thought to be powerful enough to cost George Bush votes. With a tight race being forecast, this is a chance that Bush is unwilling to take. And so the Vietnamese continue to go it alone.
It wouldn’t be so bad if the US government kept their politics to themselves. But they haven’t. Other governments such as Britain have been cowed by Washington into toeing the US line. Nowhere has this hurt more than in the realm of international aid. Supposedly non-biased lending institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have been blocked by the US government in assisting Vietnam. The latest example was the May 1992 meeting of the Asian Development Bank, where a comprehensive aid program to Vietnam was vetoed by the US. This topsy-turvy logic would do a village idiot justice. Since US companies are banned by the US government from trading in Vietnam, aid projects would by necessity go to non-US firms – thus such a lending program would hurt the US. Hence the Vietnamese must continue to go it alone.
Over the past few decades, what sort of governments has the US maintained diplomatic and economic relations with? Somoza’s Nicaragua, Saddam’s Iraq, the Shah’s Iran. Need more? China, which massacred hundreds at Tienammen Square; Haiti, during the entire reign of “Baby Doc” Duvalier; the Philippines during the Marcos era , and as I write this (May 20, 1992), hundreds of citizens fighting for democracy are being gunned down in the streets of Bangkok by the Thai military. The US government has expressed “concern” about the atrocities in Bangkok, but has not broken off diplomatic or commercial relations (nor has it cancelled the over $600 million in military sales to the Thai armed forces). 
Probably the best example of the fickle US foreign policy is Burma, whose most famous citizen is Nobel-prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi (under house arrest for the past two years for opposing the Ne Win-led military dictatorship). Why does the US maintain diplomatic links with Burma, a country condemned by Amnesty International as a human-rights graveyard, and not with Vietnam? Why are US companies (such as a major soft drink manufacturer currently constructing a factory in Rangoon) allowed and even encouraged to do business in Burma, and yet banned from any commercial activities in Vietnam? One American put it thus: “We never lost a war to the Burmese.”
Many Vietnamese have probably resigned themselves to irrational behavior from the US, the present policies being little different from the tainted logic of the war years, with statements such as:
“We had to destroy it to save it.”
Statement from an American soldier describing to a reporter why they destroyed a Vietnamese village
“Only we can prevent forests.”
Slogan of the “ranch hands,” pilots who dropped Agent Orange during the Vietnam war
“The Oriental does not place the same value on human life that we do.”
Gen. William Westmoreland, Commander of US forces during the Vietnam war
The specter of US involvement in Vietnam is one that continues to haunt Americans. At the end of the Gulf War in early 1991, George Bush declared to all who would listen (including, presumably, the American people) that the Vietnam War was now over, Americans could turn their back on that dark chapter in history, that the ghost of the Vietnam had finally been laid to rest. But apparently he forgot to sign the will. And so in the hearts and minds of Americans, the Vietnam War continues, tugging like a beggar that will not go away. And through the streets of Vietnam the Vietnamese people themselves, too proud to beg, continue to go it alone.
- I thought I was the last to face the truth. But a visit to the Burmese gem auction in February 1992 proved otherwise. Auction officials there refused to even consider the possibility that their monopoly on fine rubies was at an end. [return to article]
- During the Reagan years, then vice-president George Bush lauded Marcos for his respect of human rights during a visit to Manila. [return to article]
- Immediately after the shooting started in Bangkok, the US government announced that it was stopping the military aspects of the “Cobra Gold” Thai/US military exercises that were underway. And the US emphasized that it had already cut off all aid programs other than drug suppression when the Thai military junta took power in February 1991. But a diligent journalist found that this was merely window dressing, and that military sales from the US government to Thailand continue, business as usual. And the Far Eastern Economic Review reported that on the night of May 19, a US military representative met with a major Thai arms middleman and assured him that nothing would change. [return to article]
Written in 1992 and published shortly after my first visit to Vietnam ( JewelSiam: Vol. 3, No. 4, July/August, pp. 56-62), this was at a time when the US Government maintained a commercial embargo against Vietnam (since dropped by Clinton).
One of today’s problems is that there exists no counterbalance to the United States on the world stage, with the result that the US is moving around the world, willy nilly, running roughshod over smaller nations. The world’s policeman has become the planet bully. I have the same misgivings about this as I would have about any police chief having unrestricted power.
The implications of this policy are already clear: having dispatched the Soviet Union, America has invented a new enemy – China. The (often racist) propaganda being issued in America regarding China is frightening and resembles nothing so much as a 1990s version of the “Yellow Peril” of the World War II era.
It is all fine and well to call for China to free Tibet, but in so doing, one should be aware that the Chinese annexation of China is no different that the US annexation of Hawaii (and the whole United States, for that matter).
The arrogance of some of my fellow Americans is truly amazing. As a whole, we are probably among the least-travelled citizens of this planet and yet this fact does not stop us from suggesting that we be allowed to run the world’s affairs.
Does the United States really need to have an enemy? I’d like to think not. Does any powerful country need to behave like a school bully? Again, I’d like to think not. But in the USA’s case, it may be unavoidable because we are just too much bigger and more powerful than any other country. Perhaps what needs to be done is to split the US up, into, say, 50 countries. Only then, perhaps, can the world sleep better.
There are many Americans who believe beliefs such as those expressed above constitute treason. For me, the real treason is enacting laws such as the embargo against Vietnam (and Cuba, etc.). As a citizen of a democracy, I reserve the right to choose where I go in this world and who I work for. This is not something the government should decide for me. For me, treason is also enacting conscription laws, which require that citizens be unwillingly forced to fight and die for their country, a decision that should be left to the individual. If it were, it would be that much harder for governments involve their citizens in disasters such as the Vietnam war.
Thankfully, the Vietnam conflict is now behind us. But let us never forget the mindless blind allegiance that led us there. Let it never happen again.
Bangkok, August 3, 1997