Annemarie Weegenaar lives in Tam Dao national park, a humble home about 65km northwest of Ha Noi that she shares with 148 bears, and counting.
As bear and vet team director of the Tam Dao rescue centre run by Animals Asia in the Red River Delta, she has devoted her life's work to freeing critically endangered bears from their captors. In many parts of Viet Nam, bear bile continues to be extracted in painful and illegal procedures, then marketed and sold as traditional medicine.
"I co-ordinate the rescues with the bear and vet team," Weegenaar said. "And although much of my time is indoors these days, I make sure I get to see the bears every day – visiting our new arrivals and seeing their progress, or watching a bear take its first steps outside on the grass."
The bear sanctuary spread over 12ha of lush forest resembles an oversized playground. Sun and moon bears, named for the golden-coloured crescents on their chests, amble over to the fence to eye up a rare visitor or climb up wooden structures designed to simulate their natural environments.
While the bears are kept in an enclosed area, they are given infinitely better lives than the 1,000-plus bears still living in cramped cages on Vietnamese bile farms, Weegenaar said.
Many of the bears suffered serious injuries or have missing limbs, practically guaranteeing that they would be recaptured if they returned to the wild.
Weegenaar grew up in a relatively small town in the Netherlands, where she had many pets and enjoyed horseback riding. She earned a bachelor's degree in animal management and later worked with rhinos, otters and seals. Her passion for bears blossomed while conducting a behavioural study on three polar bears at the Singapore Zoo.
She also worked in Australia, Borneo, Indonesia and China before accepting a job at the Tam Dao bear sanctuary five years ago.
She said the bears continue to surprise her with their playfulness, like Lotus, a moon bear that occasionally does somersaults.
"They actually have a lot of fun, and they're just incredibly intelligent and very playful and each is an individual," she said.
Most recently, on October 30, Animals Asia rescued the last bear from Quang Ninh Province's last bear bile farm. The rescue of the 33rd bear named Hercules brought an end to the inhumane practice in that province, which involves sedating the bears with illegal drugs, piercing the abdomen with a long spinal needle and extracting bile from the gall bladder.
However, the practice still continues in other provinces of Viet Nam and throughout China. Animals Asia is also working to combat bile farming by spreading awareness of various herbs and plants that can be used as alternatives to bile in traditional medicine.
"It's been really hard work to get to this stage, but definitely a shift will move to another province to get people more aware in those areas," she said. "We will not stop. We will continue until there's no more bears on bile farms in Viet Nam."
Many of the rescued bears must undergo dental surgery to remove fractured and rotting teeth, or surgeries to have their gall bladders removed due to chronic infections and gallstones. They will be kept in quarantine away from other bears until they have been fully rehabilitated.
When Weegenaar isn't working, she enjoys running, cycling, visiting her friends in Ha Noi, or travelling to other regions and countries. She said that while she may not have all the modern conveniences that her expat friends have in Ha Noi, she has grown to love rural life in Tam Dao.
"(I love) listening to the cicadas around my room at night, clear skies which show the mountains surrounding the valley of the bear centre," she said. "Although there isn't much wildlife around anymore, a quick glimpse of a small mammal or a shy bird makes my life in the national park a great and peaceful home."