The Ba Chúc Massacre Tree

“Thần cây đa, ma cây gạo, cú cáo cây đề”.
Ancient Vietnamese saying: There are gods in the banyan trees, ghosts in the cotton trees, and spirits of owls and foxes in the fig trees. 

Haunted Trees

Sometimes, a tree doesn’t just witness huge numbers of death.

Oh no.

Sometimes, it is USED as part of the method to torture and kill a huge number of people, its roots forced to absorb the vast amount of blood and decaying flesh seeping into the ground.

This is the second story in a series of haunted trees. It is the tale of the ancient banyan in Ba Chúc, one of the most haunted trees in Vietnam.

The Cursed Banyan Tree

Smack dab in the middle of Lộ Tẻ Highway is the 300-year-old Cây Dầu (Dipterocarpus alatus aka resin tree). I say 300-year-old, but that’s stretching it because it’s actually dead.

One could be forgiven for thinking that it is alive. A simple passing glance would cause the casual observer to think that it is still alive.

This is because a young banyan sapling growing from its branches two-hundred years ago was able to take root and slowly began choking the Dầu resin tree.

It became a parasite.

This is nothing nefarious or evil on the part of the banyan tree’s method of rooting. Its seeds spread far and wide via wind, animals, and birds, and when a seed falls on the branch of a tree (or wall, or house, or tomb), it may germinate.

Once the young banyan sapling begins to grow, the living branches of the banyan tree sends its green leafy limbs upward into the sky.

At the same time, it sends long root tendrils downward, towards the ground. The root tendrils wrap around and consequently envelop parts or all of the host tree or edifice. This is what’s called a “strangler” habit.

After one-hundred years of being slowly strangled to death, the Dầu resin tree succumbed to its parasitic invader and perished, leaving behind its dried hulk.

The banyan, now an ancient tree in its own rights, continued to use the dead Dầu resin tree as a support for all its green offshoots. As you can see in the image, it is smack dab in the middle of the road

The locals think it is the reincarnation of the old Dầu resin tree. I don’t think so.

The Dầu resin tree was still alive when this banyan tree began to invade. By the time it died, the banyan was a full-grown mature tree.

This is not a reincarnation but rather, a tribute to the laws of nature.

It is a systematic adherence to the idea that the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.

By now you’re all probably thinking: “Okay, so this is all nice and good, but how is it cursed?”

Bear up with me, please.

For this story to make sense, I have to delve quickly into the history of the place. Once the context has been explained, the senseless massacre begins to become more coherent.

For those of you who just want to skip to the banyan ghost tale, scroll down until you reach the ‘Massacre of Ba Chúc.

Ba Chúc

Ba Chúc is an idyllic sleepy little town belonging to the region known as An Giang, which means peaceful realm.

It nestles in the upper areas of the Mekong Delta, criss-crossed by many canals and small rivers in the regions that are fairly flat. This rich agricultural realm allowed An Giang to develop into a significant agricultural center, producing significant quantities of rice.

In short: It is valuable land, and one that has been fought over by many groups of people, over thousands of years.

This tiny slice of history takes me back to the crux of the story: the 400-year conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam.

An Giang was once an important center of the 1st millennium Óc Eo culture (around the 6th and 7th centuries AD), most likely due to its position on the river.

You see, the people of Óc Eo (who were living in what is now An Giang) were once part of the Angkor Kingdom (the same kingdom that created the majestic Angkor Wat).

Due to various geopolitical reasons, the Angkor kingdom began to weaken and erode, causing it to fall under the rule of Cambodia.

After Angkor fell, the south-eastern lowland region, consisting of more than 34,363 square miles around modern day Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta, became the territory of the Khmer Empire

By the the early 18th century (close to 400 years ago), the Vietnamese took over the Champa kingdom, and the southward movement did not stop. In quick succession, the kingdom of Đại Việt took over what was then Cambodian territory, all the way to the southern tip, including the island of Phú Quốc (more on this island in a future posting).

Being so close to Cambodia, the Khmer Krom are the largest non-Vietnamese group living in and around the area. This caused so much friction between the various factions, that on April 30, 1978, the Kampuchean Revolutionary Army attacked Vietnam in an attempt to reconquer the areas which were formerly part of the Khmer Empire hundreds of years prior.

The Massacre of Ba Chúc

This was a war crime on a heinous level. It was so sudden that very few civilians survived the attack.

The lucky ones died from hand grenades thrown into crowds or caves where fleeing civilians were gathered. Two Buddhist temples, chùa Tam Bửu, and chùa Phi Lai, where people were seeking refuge were also attacked.

But those were the lucky ones.

The not-so-lucky victims were hunted down and then dragged to the center of town to be tortured and killed.

Men and boys were separated and then taken to the huge banyan tree in the center of town. They were made to lay their heads onto the trunk, and their skulls would be bludgeoned with a hoe.

The women and girls were raped in the same area. Then banyan branches were rammed into their vagina until they died.

The babies were thrown into the air and died where they landed. Young children were held by their feet and their bodies swung towards the banyan. They died when their heads impacted agains the trunk of the tree.

All in all, more than 3,000 civilians were systematically murdered within a matter of days. Blood and gore soaked into the ground until it could no longer be absorbed.

Dead people were EVERYWHERE. The stench was horrendous. The silence, deafening.

The images are too gory to post here, but they do exist, and MUST exist to prove that war crimes had been committed against the people of Ba Chúc. [1].

Most Venerable Thích Giác Hạnh

One elderly monk, Thích Giác Hạnh, recalled that during this time, there were many people who had been killed and then thrown into the various rivers and tributaries.

He was one of the monks who were recruited to recover the bodies and to perform the rites and prayers for the dead.

“They came floating down to the Mekong Delta, so many of them,” he recounted. “It had been a few days since they were killed so they were all puffy and swollen, but even though they were completely unrecognizable, you could always tell the men from the women.”

He shook his head. “The men had no shirts and were always faced down because the back of their skulls had been bludgeoned in. The women had no pants and were always faced up because they had been raped.”

“I had to fish them out and give them their rites and prayers. It was a horrible time,” he concluded with deep sadness.

By the time the Vietnamese soldiers were able to reach all the areas impacted (and there were eight towns that had been wiped out in the same manner), everyone had died.

After this, the authorities set up a huge memorial which contained roughly 1/3 of those who had been brutally murdered. There were 1,159 fairly intact skulls (many skulls had been smashed to bits) that were collected and displayed within the memorial.

These are adult females from 21 to 40 years of age.

They were separated into men, women, children, and infants, all stacked together into cases.

You must understand that this goes against the Vietnamese traditions of honoring the dead. They are not normally treated as such. Each person would get a dignified burial and prayers would be offered so that they could move onward into the next life.

They would certainly not be inside a glass display like this.

Sadly, this is not so much a memorial as it is a categorized ossuary––tangible evidence of war crimes which must be preserved for historical and juridical claim.

Professor Martha Lincoln, anthropologist for SFU wrote in her paper titled, Toward a Critical Hauntology: BareAfterlife and the Ghosts of Ba Chúc [2] about the ossuary.

“…the victims of Ba Chúc are presented not as kinfolk or citizens, but as graphically violated bodies. This advances a number of political contentions.

Most overtly, the dead are presented as incontrovertible evidence of the mass murder of civilians (including women, children, and the elderly) and of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge.

As such, they concretize the veracity of a historical and juridical claim. And having been construed as evidence in an unsettled case of extraordinary importance, the dead and their physical remains can never be relinquished or destroyed until they have served the full ends of justice.” [2]

The Haunted Tree

More than 30 years have passed, but the shadow of the crime is still present within the community.  The ossuary with its 1,159 sets of remains, along with the temples and caves where the Pol Pot army threw grenades and killed hundreds of people taking shelter within.

And the tree. The tree is still there.

The people call it ‘cây oan hồn‘ (tree of spirits having been killed unjustly); or more simply, ‘cây ma ám’, (the haunted tree).

Local people assert that although the specter of that genocide has receded, the tree still exacts its revenge against its maltreatment. Almost every year this banyan tree continues to take lives.

Not a year goes by without a handful of people losing their lives in and around this tree.

This is, in my opinion, not so much that the tree is an evil entity, or that it is haunted by a huge number of hungry ghosts, but just look at it!

It’s a huge tree, smack dab in the middle of a busy street.

Instead of removing it and making the street safer to avoid causing accidents to pedestrians and drivers, it is left standing there, like a lone sentinel against the passage of time, and history, and passersby.

Pedestrians have been accidentally mowed down by drivers swerving to avoid the tree. Drivers have head-on collisions with the tree. Its mass is so huge that many drivers cannot see or avoid a collision when pedestrians or bicyclists/motor-cylists emerge from behind the tree.

Mr. Thach Van Loi, Vice Chairman of the People’s Committee of the town of Ba Chúc, stated that when people hear about the banyan tree, many people think it is a superstition and the tree should be removed for the good of the community.

There has been precedence of huge tree removals and replanting, as seen with another such banyan that is over 200 years old, in the city of Quảng Ngãi. [6]

However, the local authority has offered to pay for the removal of the tree, but no contractor dared to take on the job.

“Faced with so many accidents caused by banyan trees to passersby, our locality allows tree removal for free, but no one dares to accept,” he laments. [3]

The fear is that to desecrate the tree that once marked the genocide’s crimes is to bring wrath down upon their family for many generations. 

“No one dares to touch this wretched tree,” a local lamented. “Even if they are given gold, they will not dare to touch it!” [5]

But it’s not just the contractors who refuse to remove the tree. The locals will not allow it.

The Haunted Banyan today.

Mr. Minh Hung, a horticulturist specializing in huge ancient trees from District 2, Ho Chi Minh City, said: “My grandparents always said: “Thần cây đa, ma cây gạo, cú cáo cây đề”, (meaning There are gods in the banyan trees, ghosts in the cotton trees, and spirits of owls and foxes in the fig trees). “Don’t be foolish and touch this tree or major disaster will befall on you and your family”.

There was a recent federal requirement dictating the need to expand and upgrade the small rural road into a high-speed expressway that would link the east to the west.

In order to fulfill this requirement without going against the wishes of the local people, the road was enlarged with the tree still standing at the center.

In this manner, motorists simply avoid it, swerving to to either side depending on the direction they are traveling.

Indeed, many people travel to Ba Chúc specifically to seek out this tree.

Because of the strong rooted belief that trees have gods and evil spirits that may either help or harm them in some manner, long-distance drivers would often stop and pay their respects to the tree by lighting incense and offering fruit and rice cakes at the base of the tree to pray for a safe journey. 

Currently, there is no plan to remove the tree. To ensure traffic safety, the locality has wrapped decorative lights, and flashing lights, both to decorate the tree and to warn people from afar. [4]

But this story is not simply a story of death and destruction. It is also about life, and how tenacious it can be.

Like the Dầu resin tree, the Kampuchean Revolution Army could not reclaim their ancient historic hold on the area even though there was a huge effort to kill off the Vietnamese locals who lived there.

In the end, like the resin tree, the Khmer army was defeated. The local people came back and rebuilt, continuing to live alongside the specter of that massacre, just like the banyan that continues to thrive on the resin tree’s now-dead woody hulk.

  1. Massacre of Ba Chuc 1978
  2. Toward a Critical Hauntology: BareAfterlife and the Ghosts of Ba Chúc
  3. Chuyện lạ có thật về oan hồn trong cây đa ở Kiên Giang
  4. Câu chuyện về cụ cây đứng giữa đường ở Ba Chúc – An Giang
  5. Để bớt đi những câu chuyện buồn cây oan hồn ở An Giang
  6. Cảnh di dời cây đa hơn 200 tuổi ở Quảng Ngãi
  7. Cụ đa 200 tuổi được trồng trên núi Thiên Bút bây giờ ra sao?

4 thoughts on “The Ba Chúc Massacre Tree

Add yours

  1. This is a fantastic article you have written here.

    Let me see if I understand the key take aways of your content here.

    This is a very informative and well-written article that delves into the history and legends surrounding the banyan tree in Ba Chúc. The author has done an excellent job of providing context for the tree’s haunting, and the story of the town’s tragic past is told with sensitivity and respect.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. That is quite a story. I can’t stand it when people do things like that to one another, but I understand the idea of preserving the records to know what happened. It’s important to consider those lives and the tragedy of their loss. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mai. There are many reasons/excuses given by the Vietnamese for invading Cambodia in ’78. This is the first I have heard the evil tree excuse. I am going to stick with historical greed and status quo power.
    As always excellent research Mai. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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