A Reptile Trader's Adventure in Vietnam

Today the President of the United States signed the 'Normalization of Trade Agreement' with Vietnam. The import duties on Vietnamese imports will drop substancialy - but I doubt that the importers will be passing the saving along to the buyers!

When Vietnam and the United States restored 'Diplomatic Relations' in 1995, I flew over there as soon as possible. It wasn't a long trip because at that time we were living on an Island in Micronesia, called Palau - about 450 miles due east of the Philippines. The hard part was getting the visa. I had to DSL my passport 24,000 miles r/t to Mexico City via LA for the Vietnamese visa - no representation in the United States.

In Palau we had been operating a marine tropical fish export business for a couple of years that specialized in culturing hard & soft corals. Then Palau gained independence from the U.S. and the politicos started moving in for the kill on private businesses. We could proceed to develop the world's largest coral propagation farm if we took in the right 'partners'. This is a typical situation in small countries where people vote for a living instead of working for one. Not only was Palau the newest country, but with only 15,000 citizens it certainly one of the smallest! But more work with less income was not attractive - so I went to check out the tropical fish prospects in Vietnam.

Starting in 1975 the victors of the Vietnam War placed large garrisons of North Vietnamese solders in the southern half of the country. With the average soldier being paid about $7.00 a month by the Vietnamese government, there was a lot of scrambling going on to bring in some additional income. Uncle Sam left tons of supplies and equipment in the south after the '75 defeat - opportunities for the enterprising. So the Vietnamese spent the next twenty years fishing with the 'pineapples' we left behind - hand grenades. When I checked out the reefs from the Cambodia boarder to Nha Trang, I found them in ruins, over-run by sea urchins and algae. Silt run-off from agriculture and land development, dumping of raw sewerage and industrial waste, fleets of bottom dragging net boats - the degradation of their water quality made it doubtful we could even culture corals. And without a healthy reef system there are few colorful reef fishes as well. The total reef ecology in the areas we wanted to work was out of whack.

But - there in the market places, I saw lots of reptiles! Live, pickled, salted, dried and bar-b-qued. Anyway you want them! Same options with the mammals, insects and fish. Many of the restaurants served wild boar, deer and Water Buffalo - I kept my adventurous eating to those three species. Where others saw food I saw opportunity in the exotic pet trade. So the wife and I went back into the reptile business. Our Vietnamese friend, Hoang Phan, shared that vision of a reptile business and together we built the facilities and network to put the company 'GREEN NATURE' into operation.

That first vision of Ho Chi Ming City (Saigon) from the plane was unforgettable. As we came in for the landing I looked down on a dusty and sprawling city with streets choked by bicycles and 'cyclos' ( a cross between a bicycle and a rickshaw). A sea of humanity moving like ants through a man-made energetic ant hill. Riding through the city you could see construction at a frantic pace everywhere - it seemed like most of the buildings were either in the process of going up or coming down.

Being one of the first Americans to arrive after 20 years of 'American Lockout' - I was a little nervous about how I would be received by the Vietnamese people in general. That first day set the tone on how I was perceived and how I would be treated. I got into a conversation with a Vietnamese gentleman in a restaurant who asked if I was Russian or American. Understand that the country was Communist (and still is) with the Russians as their long standing allies. I have a policy for situations such as this - try the truth first, if you think you can get away with it. So gripping the table hard and eying the door - I said I was American. He jumped up with a smile and thrust his hand in the air with his index finger jabbing at the ceiling and yelling; "America number one! America number one!"

After the second or third encounter of this nature I finally asked one of the many government technocrats I met; " Why do the Vietnamese seem to be at odds with their fellow Communists in Europe?". He said that after the victory over the Americans their country was locked into trade with the Communist Block Nations who took great advantage of Vietnam. Vietnam exported rice, lumber, seafood and raw materials to Russia, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Poland, etc. What Vietnam got in exchange was inferior industrial goods - equipment and materials that had no value in the global market place was dumped on Vietnam. They got shiploads of farm tractors and machinery that operated poorly or not at all! As I looked around the country at working equipment, I could see that most everything was 20+ years old and American made - the 'stuff' left behind. It still worked! Most of the cargo trucks I saw on the highways were old American Army trucks with the white star and numbers painted over. The truck radiators gave out some time ago, so they had 55 gallon drums strapped to the top of the cabin roof and a small hose running down to the motor block. The motor's water drain hose was strapped to the front bumper in such a way that the stream could be seen squirting into oncoming traffic by the driver. That way the driver would know when to look for a water tower to fill up with coolant again - his motor would be running out of 'stream'.

While investigating the existing animal business in Vietnam for possible suppliers to our live export trade we came upon some surprises and some unpleasant scenarios. They have snake venders bicycling about the city with bamboo cages strapped to the rear frame of the bike. This was 'fresh delivery' for those in the mood for snake meat. The 'Radiata' and the Sunbeam' snakes seemed to be the most popular. We could not make a deal with any venders for snakes because they are selling at the retail level - so we had to find their suppliers, the snake warehouse. To walk into a dungeon like warehouse full of men pulling snakes out of hug baskets, chopping off their heads and then pealing off the skin like silk stockings is a bit startling. Wheel barrows stacked high with the meat goes zipping out the back as the men work at a blistering pace. The air was stifling hot and humid, the concrete floor was slippery with the fluids of the snakes and sweat of the men, all of it running off into the drains. A herper's Dante. Most of the snakes are water snakes from the rice paddies and the delta region. The Mekong Delta is vast - one of the world's largest Mangrove swamps.

In the mouth of the Delta there are villages (around Ca Mau) that have had a thriving python breeding industry for many years. The farmers in that area found it more lucrative to produce pythons then pigs - the traditional small farm animal cash product. The pythons (Burmese and Reticulated) take very little space to raise. The 'product' being the meat for food, the hide for the skin industry (boots, belts, etc.), the bones and fat for glues and medicine. Nothing wasted here - and all they need is traps to capture some of the Delta's millions of rats and birds for feed! Almost as efficient as the 'CAT AND RAT FARM' described by author Mark Twain. We expected to be the first foreigners here to be buying the baby pythons for export. Not. We found out that during the 20 year U.S. embargo against Vietnam those babies had been flooding out of Vietnam to America through Pinang, Malaysia, thanks to one of the more notorious smugglers in the animal business - Anson Wong.

We visited the turtle warehouse next. Another dank dungeon with concrete pits, this time heaped high with turtles and tortoises of all sizes and species thrown together. It made my heart sink to see the treatment those poor animals were getting. At this warehouse most animals were destined for China - to be smuggled across to the waiting cooking pots. There was a huge number of the animals and I was assured that this was but a small amount to the total leaving the country illegally on a daily basis. When I returned to the U.S. I had some Impressa Tortoises shipped to me from Vietnam that did not fare well. Upon examination we found the tortoise's stomachs filled with sand. Someone tried increasing the value of the tortoises before selling to the 'turtle warehouse' - where they buy everything by the kilo!
So many 'trade-offs' in this world. Few people realize the cost of opening up China and changing it's society from a subsistence economy to a consumer economy. One of the results of this change has been the tremendous global exploitation of the world's wildlife for China's 'food supply'. China boarders on many countries and the wildlife from the neighbors is pouring in at an increasing rate, affected mostly by the ability of the Chinese to buy and the quantity of the animals still surviving in the wild. Once, while I was in the market place where wealthy Chinese from Malaysia and Hong Kong did their 'shopping', I asked one of them why he was buying a pickled Tiger's tongue for $500.00. He said; "To eat. Chinese do not eat the Exotic for pleasure or taste - we want the 'medicine', the power of the animal to be assimilated into our being. The Tiger is obvious, but something like the Tortoise? - that is for long life!". Before I left Vietnam I warned officials that the country would face crop and grain storage losses by an infestation of rats if the snake population was not protected from the smuggling trade to China. To their credit the Vietnamese have been trying hard to protect their wildlife and stop the China drain. But it might be too little too late - they are being hit hard by the rats now. For more information on this click here.

Vietnam is a beautiful country and I have a good deal of respect for the Vietnamese people. Our work took us all over Southern Vietnam - from tropical islands to Pine forested mountains. Everywhere we went in the country we were well treated by friendly people. The workers we associated with are the most industrious and intelligent that I had ever encountered anywhere. There are now hundreds of schools teaching English, so French will no longer be the second language. And with the new trade agreement signed today between Vietnam and the U.S., we can expect a strong bond to develop between the two nations. The Vietnamese may be late on the scene, but I am confident they will prove to be second only to China as an 'Asian Tiger'.