Hunting for Gems in Vietnam
Venture into Vietnam’s gem-rich interior and, along with GIA Field Gemologist Vincent Pardieu and his team, climb Luc Yen’s treacherous limestone mountains in search of the region’s gems. You’ll also visit the bustling gem markets of Luc Yen town and skim the waters off Ha Long Bay to visit an akoya pearl farm.
Pardieu points out that the annual expedition to Vietnam isn’t just a good occasion to collect new reference samples and witness mining and trading activity. It also serves to train and evaluate young gemologists hoping to join the Bangkok GIA Field Gemology department.
Luc Yen is a mountainous district located in the north of Vietnam’s Yen Bai province. It’s approximately 155 miles (250 km) northwest of Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, about a 4- to 5-hour journey by road.
Its main city, Yen The, is also known as Luc Yen. Once a sleepy provincial area, Luc Yen was the scene of a rich discovery of ruby, sapphire, and spinel in 1987. Yen The is still Vietnam’s premier gem trading district, although the activity is much reduced since the heady days of the 1980s and 1990s.
Luc Yen is an area of rugged beauty—steep, almost conical limestone mountains rise out of lush, fertile plains. This is karst topography, formed when rainfall dissolved soluble rocks like limestone and created underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves. These features—combined with the hot climate and abundant vegetation—make it exhausting for the GIA team to reach the mines, where miners recover ruby, sapphire, and spinel from primary and secondary deposits using small-scale artisanal methods. At one point, the high temperatures and humidity force the team to seek shelter: “It’s just superhot…people are not working…” Pardieu explains.
Some of the rubies from that 1987 discovery rival those from Mogok, Myanmar. “The stones that were mined 20 years ago are still in the trade,” says Pardieu, “and they may come to the laboratory one of these days, so it is important for us at GIA to come here and collect samples from small-scale miners and to study them…so we’ll be able to identify the stones that were mined today, in the future, or in the past.”
The GIA team also visited the valleys beneath the karsts where local farmers mine gem-quality red, pink, purple, and blue spinel from placers along the streams and from alluvial deposits.
You’ll also join the GIA team as they explore the gem markets of Yen The. As Pardieu says, “That’s usually the first step when I come in an area. We go to the merchants in order to have an idea of what is available.” This includes a visit to the skilled artisans who create Vietnam’s remarkable gemstone paintings. They use tiny stones in a variety of colors to create intricate scenes modeled after Vietnamese artworks.
Finally, the team makes the journey to Ha Long Bay. It’s about six hours east of Yen The, a drive of about 224 miles (360 km). This is the heart of Vietnam’s pearl-culturing area.
This GIA Field Expedition (FE54) took place in June 2014. Besides Pardieu, the participants were cameramen Didier Gruel and Philippe Brunot and expedition members Victoria Raynaud, Stanislas Detroyat, and Marie Daufresne.