Sleep is like an old friend who he has not been acquainted with for many years, says Thai Ngoc, a 64-year-old who tells local media he has not slept, even for a few minutes, in more than 35 years.
“To me, sleeping or being awake is the same, so days and nights make no difference,” said Ngoc.
Living at the foot of Duong Lui Mountain in the central province of Quang Nam, he owns a five-hectare farm where he breeds pigs and chickens.
His daily chores include weeding, hoeing, planting sweet potatoes and bamboo basket weaving, among others.
Thai Ngoc points at a pond that he dug during his sleepless nights.
The lifestyle would be grueling for a well-rested individual, but even after years of incurable insomnia, Ngoc approaches his work with the vigor and energy of someone half his age.
He is able to work day and night, he says, accomplishing much more than the average farmer by the light of the moon.
But nights can be lonely too when his only friends are an oil lamp and a fire.
“Those sleepless nights when I have no work to do are the saddest moments,” he says.
“I then lie, going into and out of my house, smoking and drinking tea. I keep longing for the dawn to see my forest which is gradually covering the wild hill.”
His forest work, says Ngoc, has been the most satisfactory achievement of his sleepless years.
On an eight-hectare plot of land, his forest is full of fruit trees and some rare, precious wood species which he has worked hard to preserve over the years.
In addition to his farm at the foot of Duong Lui Mountain, Ngoc has another farm located four kilometers from the first one where he also works to preserve the trees.
Ngoc also makes a point of helping his neighbors.
At the foot of the mountain are a husband and wife, both over 80 years old, whom Ngoc visits whenever he runs out of chores.
He pitches in with their housework and farming.
Thanks to his insomnia, Ngoc says proudly, he has helped protect both his and his neighbors’ trees and vegetables from wild boars.
Leaving his old village for a life at the mountain foot many years ago, Ngoc only comes back to the village when some family there are in need of help or some one has passes.
His neighbor Vu told Thanh Nien that Ngoc often volunteers to help beat a drum during the night and guard the house for the relatives of the dead during funeral ceremonies so they can nap.
Ngoc’s sleeplessness began one day in 1973.
He says he could not sleep after experiencing a fever and headache.
“Some days later it was the same; now it has lasted for more than 11,700 nights,” said Ngoc.
“My husband used to sleep well, but these days, even liquor cannot put him down,” his wife said.
When Ngoc went to central Da Nang City for a medical examination, doctors gave him a clean bill of health, except for a minor decline in liver function, she said.
“I have tried sleeping pills and Vietnamese traditional medicine but nothing helps, even to sleep for a few minutes,” Ngoc said.
Ngoc’s long-term sleeplessness has drawn much attention from the public, the media and local heath experts.
Several television stations from Korea, England, France and Thailand have even come to film Ngoc over the years.
Each has spent between three and five days with Ngoc, setting up video cameras in every area of his home.
The teams recorded all of his activities and even worked in shifts to stay awake with him.
While Ngoc appeared to remain awake the entire time he was being filmed, researchers were unable to explain his condition, he said.
Phan Ngoc Ha, director of the Hoa Khanh Mental Hospital in Da Nang, said chronic sleep disorders can often cause anorexia, lethargy, and irritability.
But in special cases, some people handle it well and continue to live and work normally, although this occurs only in very rare cases, the doctor added.
Some medical experts have offered to support him with treatment, but he has always refused saying, “If I were sickened because of sleeplessness, I would accept it. But I stay healthy and can work with double energy despite the sleeplessness.”
Having been sleepless for more than half his life, the aging farmer is unsure what will happen in the future.
But to Ngoc, what is important is that he has utilized his disorder to convert a war-destroyed forest into an area of greenery.
To date, the two Guinness world records for continual sleeplessness are 264 hours (11 days) set by US student Randy Gardner during a San Diego science project in 1964, and 276 hours set by Toimi Soini from Finland in 1965.
Guinness, however, has refused to endorse sleepless marathons as scientists say it can result in depression, dizziness, hallucinations, irritability, nausea and loss of memory.