Trees producing precious wood have been chopped down for decades, resulting in stumps abandoned in wild forests being targeted since they are worth millions of Vietnamese dong each.
Forests and streams have even been ‘uprooted’ to search for stumps for sale. A stump can be carved into a unique piece of furniture or an ornament for the home, depending on its original shape.
Flat areas which were formerly forests have been dug up to hunt for the stumps as well.
The stumps of tree species such as huong (perfume), ca te(ironwood), cam lai (kingwood), and go mun (ebony) are preferred because their wood maintains its character over a long period of time.
On the way to the hydroelectricity plant Ia Ly in Chu Pah District of Gia Lai Province in the Central Highlands, Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper journalists spotted a man carrying two stumps on his bicycle still caked in wet mud.
Introducing himself as Dinh Yeng, he had dug up the two stumps of perfume wood to buy rice for his children.
He offered to sell his two stumps for VND200,000 (US$9).
That is the price when buying directly from a digger. It may be several times more expensive at a collector’s place.
On most streets in the Central Highlands, it is easy to find a large number of stumps gathered at coffee shops or farms.
They are on display for sale. Owners buy them from locals who are mostly ethnic minority people and sell to visitors from cities at a profit.
“On average I provide one truck fully loaded with stumps of precious wood every week,” said a collector of stumps in Gia Lai.
“Buyers of stumps are mostly from the city.”
A 50kg stump of kingwood is worth no less than VND2 million ($89). A stump of perfume wood is cheaper.
Diggers are mostly poor ethnic minority people living in remote villages in the region.
A group of men can dig up two stumps a day. They may work for several days to uproot a larger stump with its roots untouched for decoration.
“I saw people dig up stumps in forests. It is unbelievably hard work,” said a woman named Truong Thi Hai, who collects stumps.
“Several men were needed to carry a stump, moving inch by inch from the bank of a stream to a nearby street,” Hai said.
“But they don’t earn much. Collectors are the ones gaining the most profit from selling a stump because they sell it at a price dozens of times higher than the rate at which they buy. They know the real value of a stump and the taste of buyers.”
Stumps are taken to fine-art carving shops to be carved into furniture like sofas, tables, beds, worship cabinets, and more, with many decorative details.
However, what it ends up being depends on the original shape of a stump.
Nguyen Quang Hung, owner of a carving shop on Ly Thai To Street in Pleiku City, Gia Lai’s provincial capital, said he can carve a stump into an armchair decorated with four animals like a dragon, unicorn, turtle, and phoenix at the cost of VND15 million ($670).
The work is done within two weeks.
The trend of making decorative furniture from stumps has gained in popularity over recent years.
Previously, stumps were abandoned in gardens to use as firewood only. Locals would even pour petrol on them to burn and save space.
“No one could predict then the value of those stumps now,” said a local in Krong Pa District of Gia Lai.
“If we had known, we would have kept them in ponds and by now we could have built a big house or bought cars thanks to those stumps.”
Because of the trend, fine-art carving shops have mushroomed in the Central Highlands to meet the increasing demand.