We staggered into the village of Ban Kalo at noontime on the third day. I remember the day well. The sky was a cloudless aquamarine, the color of shallow water over sandy bottom, and in the undulating heat waves rising off the tin-roofed houses of the village it seemed to ripple as though being caressed by wind-blown waves. We were exhausted. The twelve-hour-plus days of hiking through mountainous terrain had taken its toll: my legs ached, long skid marks chaffed down my back and shoulders from the straps of my backpack, and my skin, now stained the deep amber-tinted brown of iced-tea, burned. We trudged to the hut of the village headman. After the usual pleasantries, which mercifully did not involve any ceremonial wine drinking at this early hour, I collapsed to the wooden-plank floor. From a sitting position, I snapped a few quick pictures of the animal trophies on the wall, noting the species, age, and sex of each. One red muntjac (Muntiacus muntjac) head, with long furry pedicles and hooked antler tips, struck me as particularly impressive. Then I stretched out and fell asleep.
I awoke just as the last light was fading behind the hills. I stepped outside. A familiar Katu village scene unfolded before me. In the dim light, it reminded me of one of the grainy black-and-white photographs in the nineteenth-century Indochina history books I have cram-jammed on my bookshelf back home: men and women in patterned clothing sitting in circles with long pipes, smoke curling from their flared nostrils, children running naked and carefree through the streets. We ate dinner with the headman and his family. The ceremonial rice wine was brought out. I drank as little as I could, not wanting to subject my liver to the same punishment the rest of my body had taken over the past few days. During the course of the meal the talk turned to animals—or, more accurately, I steered it in that direction. The men in the group claimed that, although rare megafauna like elephants and tiger had been hunted out years ago, several ungulates persisted in the region. I asked about Saola. The village headman, who, judging by the trophies on his wall, was an adept hunter, stroked the wiry hairs at the corner of his mouth and said that Vietnamese hunters had killed Saola in recent years in eastern Xe Sap. Maybe, he said, there were a few left. I rolled out a map of the protected area and asked where he thought they would be. He pointed to the area we were going the next day. I sat that night for a long time staring at the map. I gazed at it long after the last bowl of rice wine had been drunk and the last villager had drifted out of the hut. After three grueling days of hiking, we had arrived at the jumping off point for an expedition to one of the most remote and, in my opinion, biologically promising areas in Southeast Asia. I could only hope that a few rarities, perhaps even Saola, had managed to hang on in a region that had already been decimated by forest loss and unsustainable hunting. Did Xe Sap harbour endemic Annamite jewels? We would find out.