The section of Highway 4 from Lang Son city to Na Duong town near the Vietnam-China border is flooded with dust and a winter mist. Headlights of oncoming trucks and motorbikes flash past. On the foothills of the mountains alongside me the black-roofed houses of the Nung ethnic minority jut out almost sheepishly.
When I approach Na Duong town it is immersed in gloomy smog thanks to a nearby coal mine and a newly-built power plant. I had pictured rolling hills and an evergreen forest, but there are only gray skies above and piles of coal and indefinable piles of rocks and industrial waste on the sides of the road - this piece of the countryside plays second fiddle to the industrial world.
By a steel-structured bridge, I meet a Nung woman and ask her if shes heard of a fossil forest here in the region.
"What is a fossil?" she says. "There is only coal and waste here."
I drive on. An old friend from Na Duong will hopefully know more. Her father used to work for the Na Duong coal mine for years and perhaps he has come across the precious fossils which I have heard can be found in abundance somewhere in the area.
When I find my friends house located by an industrial dumping site, her father is there but he has never heard of a forest of fossils as someone had described it to me. No one here has.
I start to get the feeling Im on a wild goose chase and so I contact the coal mines authorities, who having conducted extensive surveys in the area surely must have come across the fossils.
Sure enough, Trinh Hong Ngan, the young Chief of the Technical Division of the Na Duong Coal Mine, says he has indeed and agrees to show me.
It turns out to be a short distance from the bridge where I met the Nung woman. It is not a forest but the remains of one. Where we walk, Ngan explains, there once was a forest. Now there is just a rocky, dusty terrain. Large petrified tree trunks jut out of the ground.
Fossilised wood is worth more than a few bob. On one internet site, for example, a piece of fossilised wood 50cm high and 30cm wide is on sale for $2,000. All around me at the Na Duong coal mine, I can see fossilised wood a dozen times bigger if not more.
Ngan says there are a lot of fossils down in the tunnels of the coal mine. He says that the locals either dont know about these fossilised pieces or dont care. But I cant help thinking that perhaps if they knew, theyd care.
Na Duong Coal Mine has been in operation since 1959 and has neither exploited the fossils or gone out of its way to collect and protect them. With a deposit of 100-million-tonnes of coal below I guess theres another fish to fry.
The fossilised trees here have been in the media after a survey by the Lang Son provinces Department of Culture and Information announced the area had once be a lush forest during the tertiary geological period, which doesnt exactly narrow it down, as that describes a period which lasted from around 65 million years to 1.8 million years ago.
It was when mammals began replaced reptiles as the dominant vertebrates. Volcanic eruptions were commonplace and the climate was gradually cooling down. At the end of the tertiary period, glaciers covered the world. What was lost became preserved beneath the earths icy layers.
According to geologists, these Na Duong fossils are of great geological value. It is believed that this area was one of the regional cradles for mankind. At Tham Khuyen and Tham Hai, two famous archaeological sites in the same province, which date back to nearly half a million years ago, fossilised bones of ancient people together with their pottery tools have been found.
Further research is needed. Fossilised objects are well preserved but much may be lost in the absence of proper preservation and protection.
Lang Son provincial museum has come up with the idea of setting up a small exhibition garden featuring fossil collectibles.
In 2005, the Geology and Mineral Department and the Geological Museum under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment proposed establishing a system of geological parks of which the fossilised forest in Na Duong would be revived together with a stone fall in Tuy An, Phu Yen province, a basalt fall in Trinh Nu waterfall in Dak Nong province, and stalactites in Cuc Phuong Park in Ninh Binh province.
These parks are chosen among 29 sites of high geological value across Vietnam but according to La The Phuc, Deputy Director of the Geological Museum, this project remains on the drawing board due to financial issues.