Everyone has a passion, but Nguyen Van Lan has devoted his life to something different – planting the casuarina forest.
Lan is a resident of Xuan Hoi Commune, Nghi Xuan District in the central province of Ha Tinh.
At the age of 86, while people his age rest, he is still busy growing casuarina trees.
His forestry work began in 1978 when a huge wave broke through the Xuan Hoi dyke at his commune and people could no longer plant in the fields due to the flooding by salt water, Lan said.
"Fishermen's assets, such as their boats and equipment for fishing, were washed away and hundreds of families had to leave their homes. Obsessed by the dyke breach, I decided to lead my wife and children to set up a tent for housing and plant forests to help retain the soil in the village," he said.
At first, he borrowed money to buy a boat and gear for fishing. His business proved profitable, as it not only fed his family, but also created jobs for over 50 other families.
Without the sea dyke, saltwater levels increased, which made people uneasy. Witnessing people feeling helpless before storms, Lan wrote a letter asking local authorities to grant land along the coast for him to build a protective forest.
After visiting neighbouring areas to learn how to plant trees to protect the coast, he decided to purchase casuarina seedlings to plant, as he knew casuarina trees were used with much success to bind sand near seashores for controlling erosion and reducing the impact of storms on villages.
It was not an easy task, he said, adding that planting the forest was primarily done by Lan, his wife and their 11 children.
In the beginning, many seedlings died because of his lack of experience. However, he stayed in the forest to continuously water the seedlings and his efforts paid off with half of the forest's seedlings surviving.
Due to his lack of capital, he sometimes picked up casuarinas seeds and cultivated saplings by himself. Thirty years have now passed and his casuarina forest has spread over 10 ha, from just one ha in the beginning.
He considered each casuarina tree as if it were his son. Thus, he did not cut down any trees, regardless of whether they had grown enough to be harvested.
Whenever trees fell due to the effect of a storm, he felt depressed for several days, and then continued replacing them.
The existence of the casuarinas forest does not only prevent sand from drifting, while protecting the village from coastal winds, but also has made the soil more fertile, local residents said.
"Lan's casuarinas forest has been a shelter for us to do business without worrying about disaster," said Nguyen Minh Tam, who lives in Xuan Hoi Commune.
"My family lives in the commune, but I sometimes go to Lan's casuarina forest to collect leaves for cooking. Taking a rest under the trees' shadow, after returning from the sea under the hot sun, we find what meaningful work Lan did in his old days, though he was once considered "crazy", said Dinh Dung, another resident.
People often said planting forests is not an easy task, while protecting them is even more of a challenge. And this is true in Lan's case. To preserve the forest, he had to pay a heavy price, including tears, sweat and blood.
Despite his age, he had refused to live with his children in the commune, instead living alone to protect the casuarina forest.
He said he does not sleep well at night because he is afraid illegal loggers might cut down the trees.
"I once have 7 teeth broken and a finger lost during a fight with 5 log poachers," he said.
In 2009, Nghi Xuan District advocated the building of the sea dyke. Lan was willing to cut down 3ha of casuarina forest, consisting of nearly 500 trees that were 5 years old, to serve the common interest. Then, he received about VND5 million (US$220) for compensation and took the job no one wanted – dyke security guard with no salary.
Lan said he has no intention of resigning from the job.
"I have the strength, thanks to the casuarina forest, for it acts as a green lung. I only wish that I was young and healthy enough to expand the forest. But like a lamp glimmers before the sea winds, my inner wish is that someone will take care of the forest after I die," he said.