Vietnam is a land that has produced more new species of large mammal than anywhere else on Earth. Before 1992 when a bovine called the saola was discovered, only one large mammal species had been described over the 50 previous years. However, starting with the saola, three new species of large goat-like mammals were described in just four years, and they all came from Vietnam. Interestingly, since the 1992 discovery of the saola it has yet to be observed by a scientist in the field. Certainly, if an antelope can remain hidden in the mountainous jungles of Vietnam, a rare species of wildman can do the same.
Stories of bigfoot-like creatures were brought back to America by returning veterans of the Vietnam war. Many soldiers described what would later be called “rock apes” being seen in the thickly forested mountains as the troops were either camped or moving from place to place. The first time I heard such a story was from an acquaintance of my father. He reportedly saw a seven-foot hairy man run across a opening in the forest during a gun battle. The hairy man then scaled a steep rocky cliff that no man would ever think of climbing, and it did so with staggering speed. Since the soldier was engaged in a gun battle at the time, he had other things to worry about and didn’t bother taking notes on what he saw. Still, he was very much blown away by the sighting.
We started our trip in Hanoi with a visit to Professor Tran Hong Viet of Hanoi National University. He has been researching the Vietnamese wildman for nearly 40 years starting in 1977 when his government became interested and formed an official expedition to find evidence of the wildman. While this government expedition yielded several villagers’ stories, no hard evidence of the wildman was gathered. However, a few years later Professor Viet hit pay dirt when he stumbled upon a number of footprints that he suspects were left by a wildman. He cast one print from the several that were there, and has been sitting on the cast ever since in hopes of eventually publishing his find in an academic journal. He has continued looking for evidence of and gathering stories about the wildman ever since in his spare time.
Professor Viet told us that there are two species of wild man in Vietnam: a larger one that is about 1.9 m tall (6 ft 3 in), and a smaller one that seems to be about 1.2 m tall (4 ft 11 in). While it’s at least possible that the two sizes of wildman are best explained by adult and juvenile examples of the same species, there could actually be two distinct species. Australia seems to have two distinct species, I have heard very credible stories of bigfoot-sized creatures in Indonesia along with the diminutive orang pendek, and similar stories continually come from Laos and Cambodia. I suspect that we are in fact looking at two distinct species, and probably the same ones that have a distribution southwards into Australia. If this is true, I would hypothesize that the larger variety is a bigfoot-like creature, while the smaller one is very different, as the orang pendek seems to be as based on foot structure.
I should note that Professor Viet believes that the larger species is a relic homo erectus. I would probably disagree with him on this because the stories that we heard from eyewitnesses while we were in Vietnam indicate that the species is covered in long hair. While homo erectus probably had a pretty decent coat of hair, it is not thought to be as thick as is described by eyewitnesses of the wildman. Also, it is known that homo erectus had knowledge of fire use, while the Vietnamese wildman has no such connection with fire. I suspect that the Vietnamese wildman is probably some sort of slightly smaller bigfoot-like creature, and maybe a subspecies of sasquatches themselves. Considering the warm climate of Vietnam, it’s entirely possible that the bigfoots in that region have adapted by evolving to a smaller size, which would be squarely in line with Bergmann’s Rule.
Professor Viet has made some observations about both kinds of wildmen based on the sighting reports had has gathered over the years. The color of the creatures’ hair is red or brown, much like in North America. The smaller of the two varieties tends to travel in larger groups than the bigger creatures, which are sometimes seen in pairs. He told us that the creatures are probably nocturnal because 13 out of the 19 eyewitness reports happened at night. While 19 reports is a small data set, I believe it still establishes a trend that would continue with even more sightings to base his hypothesis on. Only time will tell. He also noted that the creatures make a vocalization commonly described as a “whoo” sound, both to each other and to humans. This is very interesting, but I will get into that later. Lastly, the creatures seem to gesture to humans to communicate in some way. It was not mentioned whether or not they gesture to each other.
Professor Viet shared with us the footprint that he cast back in April of 1982 while on a government-sponsored expedition to discover more about the Vietnamese wildman. The print is not very large being only 11 inches in length and about 4.5 inches wide. Professor Viet describes it as having very long toes, but I interpret the toes’ lengths as “drag-outs” as they left the ground so as to elongate their distal edge. If this is the case, then the foot itself might be up to an inch shorter in length than the cast itself. Remember, footprint casts are not the shape of the foot, but rather the shape of the damage done to the ground by the foot.
While the cast is squarely in the size range of a typical human, there seems to be indications of a highly flexible foot, particularly in the mid section where bigfoots and other apes have retained flexibility of the . This very well could be the real deal, and it represents the very first footprint cast ever collected purportedly made by a Vietnamese wildman. A small number of casts have been collected since, but these are of dubious authenticity.
Eyewitnesses described the wildmen with consistency. They apparently have hair in the same places as humans do, but the hair is quite a bit longer. Their faces seem to be very human as well, with their hair covering making them seem inhuman more than any other feature. Some witnesses described them chattering to each other like they were communicating. The common name for the creatures is the Tari (pronounced “tear-EE”).
As would be expected, the local people in Vietnam have folklore about the wildmen. The story we heard most is one of warning about the wildmen. Apparently, the wildmen will grab you by the arm and hold you tightly. As they do so, they look towards the sun with their eyes closed and laugh until the sun goes down. When it gets dark, the wildmen eat you. To avoid this horrible death, the local people say to wear bamboo sleeves so when the wildmen grab your arm, you can easily slip out of the sleeve and escape.
The solo camping trip in Vietnam was supposed to have been done by Bobo, but he was suffering from an infected leech bite and couldn’t risk having his wound fester worse in the jungles. I was asked to step in for him since I had previous experience camping in jungles on our Sumatran expedition, and also because I am always willing to camp for a few days away from the rigorous filming schedules of production. Tyler Bounds, our regular outdoor cameraman and technician, was not on this expedition, so our story editor, Lisa Davis, stepped in to film me in the woods.
The hike was nothing less than grueling. The trail was lost several times, and when it was found it often traversed slick limestone stream beds making it hard to keep footing going up and down the steep mountains. Eventually, we arrived at our campsite along with a small number of porters, our tracker and guide, and an interpreter.
We were honored to have Ho Khanh as our tracker and guide. Ho Khanh is credited as having discovered the world’s largest cave, along with dozens of others. He makes a living in the jungle, and no one better could have been asked for as a tracker in this unforgiving environment. Ho Knanh was also one of our witnesses at the town hall meeting. He described finding large footprints in a cave while he was trying to locate drinking water. It is likely that the wildman who left the footprints was looking for the same thing. While we camped in the woods, Ho Khanh drew a life-sized rendition of what he observed in that cave. Though perhaps not artistically accurate, note the size of the print (almost 14 inches) and the wide splay in the toes. Both of these clearly indicate that this was no human footprint he found.
Upon arrival to our campsite, our interpreter approached us and asked in her broken English, “You want me show you poisonous tree, don’t touch?”
“Yes, yes I do. Show me all poisonous things I don’t touch,” was my reply. I knew this was going to be an interesting trip.
A river flowed nearby our camp directly out of a dark limestone cave. The water was cool and refreshing in the 85 degree heat, especially with the thick humidity bearing down on us. I was looking around in the river when I found empty clam shells. Thinking they could be food sources for wildmen and whatever else is around, I looked around for other possible food items. I soon found a very small snail shell, which I picked up and closely examined. A sharp, searing pain shot up my hand and arm as I realized that the snail shell was not empty at all. Whatever lived in there had just stung or bit me with such venom that I was seriously wondering if it was some sort of neurotoxin, and I’d have to be carried out to safety. Luckily, the pain subsided over the next 20 minutes or so. This was a stark reminder that I should not let my guard down for even a moment in the jungles, and that everything, no matter how small, was a possible danger. I became aware of how benign a continent North America really is.
My time in the jungle was adventurous and informative. The cave where we wanted to find footprints was strikingly beautiful with an entrance that was over 100 feet high. A seasonal river flowed quickly into the darkness to emerge some 60 miles away out of the ground. Nobody has ever navigated the river through the entire course, and it’s unlikely that its even possible.
We found signs of wild pigs as we walked through the thickets. Along with pig sign, we observed giant spiders, languors, millipedes, poisonous centipedes (which I erroneously called “millipedes” on camera), house centipedes (creepy multi-legged crawlies called “rets” in the local language), and some sort of mammal that they call a “squirrel.” They aren’t the squirrels that I’m familiar with.
At one point, we caught a fleeting glimpse of three individuals from one of the tribes of “local minority people” that live indigenously in the national parks there without electricity, schools, or roads. They hunt and gather off the land, utilizing game, plants, and bee hives for food. Three men stood about 50 yards from us off to the side of the trail. They were not dressed any differently than our Ho Khanh, guide, but they never interacted with us. The stood completely still, silently smiling at us. Their smile was not one of greeting, but rather one that clearly said, “We could have killed you five times over by now, you stupid westerner.” When our guide tried to greet them, they silently slipped unseen into the jungle.
When hiking in the jungle, I observed an interesting cultural habit that I believe directly affected our search for the wildman. While looking for the large cave with the water flowing into it, we became separated from each other. To find the other group, the Vietnamese people would make a long “whooo” call to locate each other in the thick jungle. If another group or individual heard the call, they would answer with the same noise. This fascinated me for a couple reasons. First, this might be exactly what the bigfoots in North America are doing, and for possibly the same reason. I believe that bigfoots are very human-like, so it makes sense that they do things for similar reasons as we do. Also, if the humans are doing this behavior, it’s entirely possible, if not probable, that the wildmen have observed this behavior for hundreds of years in humans and would not be answering to those calls. Just like their North American counterparts, the creatures are very smart, and you can’t really fool them more than once or twice. When I saw the humans making perfect bigfoot-like calls to each other, I knew my calls would not illicit any response at all. Though that was discouraging, I realized that I learned something significant about both the Vietnamese wildman and the North American Bigfoot.
The Vietnamese expedition was truly an amazing trip. The culture was so different than anything I had experienced before, and the terrain was some of the most formidable I have yet encountered. With the sheer number of square miles of absolutely impenetrable forest and insurmountable mountains, there is no wonder at all that both species of the Vietnamese wildmen have eluded “discovery” for so long. For the Vietnamese wildman, time in the realm of myth and folklore is limited, just like their North American counterparts. However, unlike North America, the Vietnamese government has already set aside vast tracts of land along the Cambodian and Laotian borders for wildman preserves. I deeply appreciate how the Vietnamese government is so forward-thinking to do such a thing, as opposed to our own government who mostly snickers at the idea that bigfoots are even real. I hope our leaders do some following in this regard.
Finally, as a special treat for you music lovers, below is a live recording of one of the traditional Vietnamese songs performed for us at the temple in Hanoi. I used my field recorder to obtain this, so the levels might be a little off, but you get the idea. The song is probably a thousand years old, and all of the instruments are true to their original form. Enjoy! I know I did.
Here are some more photographs from the Vietnam expedition for you to enjoy: