Viet Nam News
by Nguyễn Quốc Trung
On this land of Bình An, Thượng was usually called an upstart farmer because he had a large French-style villa with 10 rooms on an area of 1,000sq.m, according to the locals’ norm. Its front was so fully equipped with modern facilities that newly married couples often regarded it as a background for their photo albums in memory of their wedding days.
“However, I’m unfortunate this time!” he told me one morning. “Some 10 years ago, the price of latex was rising, resulting in my enormous income. Together with a profit of nearly a billion đồng in hand, I borrowed 700 million from the local bank to add to that sum for the construction of a great building of my dreams. When its frame was nearly finished, my total amount had run out, so I had to borrow another billion from the black market with very high interest. In fact, I hoped that with an ever-increasing latex price, an expectant revenue in a few years to come from my rubber plantation would help me pay off all the debts. Poor me, things happened beyond my expectations! Latex costs lowered gradually week by week and month by month. Consequently, what I earned before wasn’t enough for the all expenses of fuel, workers’ pay, insecticide and the outstanding principals and interests, and so on. Finally, all my real assets went to rack and ruin,” he said sadly.
He was a capable man, for he had gained much more than he lost. Bình An was a newly exploited land. People from all walks of life arrived there to try their luck. Thượng was one of them.
After graduating from the College of Agriculture and Sylviculture, he applied for a job in the Mangrove Forest Farm. After having working there for several years, he found its business dishonest. He decided to object to its leaders’ working methods. When all his efforts came to nothing, he was dismissed for having run counter to the superior’s orders. Settling down on the Bình An land, he started working for scraps: menial jobs of every description and, last but not least, a latex worker and then a cashew collector. Those days, waste land was still dirt cheap. He bought several plots of land to grow rubber and cashew trees. Thanks to latex prices getting higher and higher every passing crop, he earned a huge profit, as a result he soon became a wealthy farmer.
As for marriage, he was very careful in taking a poor girl from Bắc Ninh Province as his wife. After completing her business course at the provincial college, she made up her mind to stay in her hometown in the hope of becoming a credited accountant. However, her dream never came true, although she offered a few intermediaries big sums of money as bribes. Going to the southern province of Bình Dương to look for jobs, she remained jobless after more than a year. Finally, she had to practise massage for a living in a local parlour. One day Thượng met her there. Hearing her sad story, he resolutely decided to give her a job in his own company over the objections of his staff and friends. As luck would have it, she was a good wife who did her household chores diligently.
* * *
Now deeply in debt, he had to do everything to make ends meet, aside from paying a daily interest of over 2 million. Every day, he had to get up early to feed the herd of cows in his shed and the shoal of fishes in his pond. After that he drove his truck downtown to get fertiliser for his orchards and sacks of feed for his poultry. In his free moments, he did basketwork.
“Staying idle all day is a waste of money and time while I’m head over heels in debt,” he said to me when I visited his family one day. “Moreover, I’ll have to keep back our cashew orchard at any cost.”
While we were on the way to his two vast plots of land, where cashew trees were in bloom, I saw a brand-new, luxury Rolls Royce approaching us. A few minutes later, a well-dressed elderly woman got out. She came to us with a broad smile.
“My younger cousin, do you still remember me?” she asked Thượng.
“Of course, how can I forget you, dear sister?” he replied. Then turning around he introduced her to me. “This is my cousin Kim, a well-known businesswoman in the gem industry of Biên Hoà City.”
“Not so! My four jewelry chain shops mean nothing in comparison with others in this trade,” she answered in a modest voice. “Moreover, how can I compare my property with your immense cashew orchards?” she told Thượng with an evil laugh.
“My dear diamond and jewelry shop owner, you’ve resigned yourself to reach here so early, which means you wish to give me some precious pieces of advice, I guess.” Thượng confirmed.
“Yes, of course. Covering a hundred-kilometre distance to this place for nothing? Well, your cashew gardens look really splendid!”
“Whereas I’m over my head in debt, my cousin!”
“No fear! Banknotes have been strewn all over your orchards. They spread unnoticed right under your eyes. What you can do now is to look for a buyer, that’s all.”
“Hmm, you mean the dry cashew leaves that have been lying all over this place, don’t you?”
“Quite right! The matter is to gather and sell them all. Just so!”
“Actually, I’m afraid they might catch fire at any moment. You’re only kidding, aren’t you?” he said in a tentative voice.
“Far from that! They’re much sought-after for the time being,” she told Thượng.
“Believe me, I’m dead serious. Now that they’re all available, I’ll ask some traders to come here to get them all in a few days. But you must gather them up in heaps and put them in big sacks. Is next Monday ok?” she asked him.
“Well, none of my business! So, I’d better let them discuss things with each other,” I whispered to myself before staying away for a few minutes.
“So long as you’re badly in need of capital for your urgent dealings, say, a loan of some billion đồng, please come to me. Your compound might be put as a collateral security for that issue,” she told me straight away.
“But may I put a question to you, lady? What do traders buy them for?”
“To generate energy or make a certain kind of cosmetic like face cream, lipstick or something like that, you see. Anyway, what we’re interested in by now is to get money, that’s all. Well, a golden chance for us!” she replied.
After she had driven away, Thượng told me that she was now in possession of billions of US dollas in the bank.
“If so, why does she have to be an intermediary between Chinese petty traders and Vietnamese sellers?”
“Surely, she earned a huge commission from them. Her luxury car of nearly 20 billion đồng speaks volumes for that,” he added.
In his heart of hearts, he admired her enormously, for she had successfully extricated him from a financial stalemate.
* * *
Returning to HCM City, I remained anxious for Thượng’s business. One day I phoned him to ask if anything bad had happened to him. He told me that everything was smooth sailing. Furthermore, he became a major agent in supplying both cashew leaves and roots for his whole area.
“That means that you dug their roots to that effect?” I asked him nervously.
“With just two kilos of roots, I can earn twice as much as the cost of one tree. Only crazy guys like you would he be bold enough to refuse that deal.”
“Be careful in your dealings, or else mishaps will come upon you some day.”
“Leave me alone, my dear friend. It’s none of your business!”
After that day I had still made lots of other calls to him, but there were no answers. At last our contact came to an end.
* * *
Not until one afternoon did the receptionist sitting on the ground floor ring me up. He told me that I was wanted on the phone by a stranger. Hardly had I stepped out of the lift when I saw a doleful-looking man in basalt soil-stained clothes shrinking back against the wall in a corner of the reception room. By instinct, I thought that the uninvited visitor might be one of my close friends.
It turned out that he was the very Thượng who had been a recently emerging upstart in a region famous for its industrial crops in southeastern Việt Nam.
“All my property has gone to rack and ruin, my beloved friend,” he said with a mournful look on his face.
“Just because of the cashew crops?” I asked him in a sympathetic tone.
“Unfortunately for me, my real assets have been seized, let alone my debt of about 10 billion đồng,” he moaned.
I led him into the sitting-room of my office. He clung to me with unsteady steps.
“Help yourself to a few hot cups of tea first, my dear,” I told him.
“I’ve been taken in lamentably! Without roots, all my cashew trees gradually withered and died.”
As an agent for a foreign merchant circle with a large sum of money as a deposit for dry leaf-and-root dealing for the whole area at first, he earned huge profits. A few months later, he rented many empty structures for his warehouses to expand his business. When they were full of useless cashew parts ready for delivery, no Chinese traders turned up to pay money to him and take them away. He just waited and waited, all in vain!
“Maybe the general agent was none other than your jewelry shop owner, wasn’t she?”
“That’s right. In her turn, she delivered them all to those Chinese rascals, including the deposits.”
“However, at least you have the right to demand to take yours back, through her.”
“She also went bankrupt. Worse still, she was detained for questioning pending her trial. As for those dishonest traders, they were nowhere to be found.”
* * *
I invited him to come to my place for a few days of relaxation.
“Impossible! I have to return home to present myself before the legal authorities early tomorrow.”
I went upstairs to take out some money and put it in an envelope. Coming down I gave it to him. He received it with trembling hands, eyes in tears.
“Thanks a lot. By now, just one million đồng given to me is useful and precious.”
When I enquired after his clan, he burst out crying.
“My family has been torn apart. My wife took our two children to her native village for financial asylum.”
Sadly, the Bình An land was in ruins due to the cashew business’s failure.
Thượng stood up unsteadily. “Frankly speaking, I haven’t had anything to eat since early this morning,” he admitted.
I led him to a phở stall close to my office. He ate two bowls.
“Try to keep yourself at ease and don’t do anything foolish. I know you’re quite able to tide yourself over in these difficult moments,” I said, consoling him.
“I’m willing to support you when necessary. Just tell me about your obstacles. What’s more, you can stay at our place for a long time to look for a job first, then to turn over a new leaf later,” I encouraged him.
He held my hands tightly.
“Many thanks! I might resort to your help some day,” he said.
On the way to the bus stop, he whispered something in my ear in a low voice. “You’d get a few loaves of bread for my dinner this evening. By the way, a few packets of shrimp noodle would be all the better for my breakfast tomorrow!”
Translated by Văn Minh