Family trees, nation's pride

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Le Van Thuong, head of the family that owns the garden with five newly anointed National Heritage trees, poses in front of the hollowed trunks of one of them

He was offered US$300,000 and more for his garden with old trees, but the owner was not tempted.

Le Van Thuong is now the owner of the national heritages nearly 670 years old.

The Vietnam Nature and Environment Protection Association declared the five trees a national heritage late last month.  The Le Van family in Nghi Thinh Commune, Nghi Loc District, Nghe An Province, has taken care of the trees for many generations.

Before conferring the heritage title on them, experts from association checked the trees and the Forest Science Institute conducted tests to estimate their age.

Eight other old trees in Hanoi and the south central region, ranging from 250 to 1,000 years old, have also received the title this year. This is not the first time old trees are conferred the heritage title in the country, but it is the first time one person owns so many of them.

It's the end of summer but the trees on the 7,200 square meter garden are still laden with fruit.

Thuong, the 71-year-old head of the Le Van family, has dug many holes to bury the fruits when they fall, but there're still a lot of green ones left on the trees. The fruits are cheap and it might not be economically feasible to have people pick them for selling.

He said children from neighboring homes used to gather in the garden to play and eat the fruits but there are too many of them and they are bored now.

The gold apple fruit, whose scientific name is Diospyros decandra Lour, is famous for its fragrance.

In Vietnam, the trees are called thị.

Thuong said his thị are now an asset "of the country, not just of the Le Van family."

The garden has been in the national limelight for sometime now.

In 2005, the trees were featured on the show "Strange things in Vietnam" on the national television.

Many reporters and plant experts from the University of Forestry and the Forest Science Institute have visited the garden.

It soon became a famous tourist spot with a lot of people vacationing at the nearby Cua Lo beach in the province attracted by the garden and the old trees.

The garden has received many expensive purchase offers, the 16th head of the Le Van family recalled.

One of them was made by three people from Hai Phong near Hanoi, who offered $30,000 for each of the trees.

In late 2009, some people from the southern region also offered to buy his garden, house and other small gardens of the family nearby at a very high price a price Thuong did not reveal, to turn the whole place into an eco-tourism area.

Thuong refused all the offers as the land and the trees were passed down by his ancestors.

The trees are a "treasure" of his family, the man said.

He said he doesn't know clearly the origin of the trees as they were already there when his ancestors first settled there, and the trees were not much different then.

According to Le Van family records, General Le Van Hoan in the 14th century led troops from the northern region to the central region to fight the Champas.

While passing by the area, the general saw five thị trees growing healthy in the middle of the desert and he asked the soldiers to set up tents there.

The trees were already giving a lot of fruits at that time, the records said.

After the mission, General Hoan decided to bring his family there as the thị persuaded him that the land was good. The area was also located near rivers and the sea, according to the books.

Thuong said fruits from the trees saved a lot of people from the infamous Vietnam Famine of 1945, also known as Famine of the At Dau Year, which occurred in northern Vietnam from October 1944 to May 1945, during the Japanese occupation of Indochina in World War II.

Between 400,000 and 2 million people are estimated to have starved to death in the famine.

The trees are so old now that their trunks have huge hollows in them, but they have survived heavy storms much better than other young trees, Thuong said.  The hollows were used as bomb shelters by several soldiers during the Vietnam War, he added.

What next?

The national recognition is a matter of pride for the Le Van family, especially Thuong.

However, he is worried about how he should take care of the trees, now they have been declared a national heritage.

"As a national heritage, the trees are the government's responsibility now, so what is my responsibility?

"Do I still have to pay gardening taxes and will I receive any support from the government for taking care of them?"

He has approached all local government agencies and none have given an answer, Thuong said.

The commune administration asked him to go to the district government as this was a new issue and there was no regulation to deal with it.

He went to the district Department of Natural Resources and Environment, which said it does not manage trees and directed him to the Culture Office, which said the same thing.

The Nghe An Nature and Environment Protection Association also said it knows nothing about the matter.

Thuong also approached the Cua Lo administration in the hope of getting some support for providing another tourism spot for the beach town's visitors.

But so far, he has drawn a blank.

 "It's nice," that local authorities have turned their back to him after his trees have brought to the area dozens of groups of visitors every year, Thuong said.

But the trees are still his family heirloom and if local governments give him no help, he will continue doing it himself.

"I will organize a celebration party myself, so my family and ancestors can feel proud."

The trees, mute witnesses to several centuries of history, are maintaining a stoic silence.

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