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Tree hugger: Meet the man saving Mekong Delta’s centuries-old tree

Sunday, August 30, 2020, 10:09 GMT+7
Tree hugger: Meet the man saving Mekong Delta’s centuries-old tree
Visitors flock to visit Thai Huy Khanh’s ‘umbrella’ resin tree, an emerging sight in Tra Vinh City, located in the namesake province in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Photo: Tien Trinh / Tuoi Tre

A tree enthusiast in the Mekong Delta province of Tra Vinh has spent the last three decades caring for a centuries-old tree amidst the looming threat of harm from visitors.

Thai Huy Khanh, a 56-year-old resident of Tra Vinh City, the capital of the namesake province, has been keen on safeguarding a prized, ancient dau rai (Dipterocarpus alatus) tree for nearly 30 years.

Known colloquially as the resin tree, the tropical forest tree typically grows gregariously along riverbanks or in dense evergreen or mixed dense forests across Asia. 

Khanh’s resin tree, believed to be over 800 years old, is so big that it takes six people in order to hug its entire trunk.

One of the tree’s most unique features is its spiral trunk and branches which hang over its side and resemble an umbrella, earning it the nickname ‘cay dau du’ (umbrella-shaped resin tree).

The tree is also known for the lump-covered lateral roots which extend from the base of its trunk.

While some say the tree’s bizarre shape is due to genetic modification, visitors from across Vietnam and neighboring countries have flocked to the tree in recent years hoping it will bring them good luck.

Some believe that the tree also has self-healing abilities which allow it to regenerate itself if damaged.

Shrouded in mystery

It is not uncommon for entire tour buses to pull over on Son Thong, a small street in suburban Tra Vinh, to let off passengers who wish to visit the tree to pray for good luck.

Many even peel off its bark to take home in order to share the tree’s prosperity and luck with their families.

When Khanh sees the buses, he drops everything he is doing to rush to the tree and beg visitors to be careful. He even shields it with his own body.

As word of the tree’s ‘divine power’ spreads, Khanh has found it harder and harder to keep visitors off the tree, including tourists from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Myanmar.

Tra Vinh, deemed ‘a city built amid a jungle of age-old trees,’ has long been known for the local government’s emphasis on the upkeep of its more than 15,000 ancient ‘citizens.'

Many believe, however, that Khanh’s tree is by far the city’s oldest and most enigmatic.

Khanh first became enchanted with trees as a child. Despite spending his career in an industry that had nothing to do with forestry, he wound up moving his company’s location to Tra Vinh City simply to be amongst the city’s centuries-old trees.

Back in 1990, during a trip to the city’s outlying areas, Khanh heard of a nearly deserted parcel of land with the single tree that was simply described as ‘magical.’

The plot, previously owned by a Khmer ethnic minority family, immediately caught Khanh’s attention.

Rumor had it that those who saw the tree were held in awe of its bizarre trunk and believed it to have been grown by a Buddhist monk who placed its stems instead of roots in the soil. The tree survived by twisting its own trunk and taking root.  

Khanh asked his wife, Chung Thi Tuy Hang, if he could purchase the land and she reluctantly agreed.

Eventually, Khanh and the owner settled on trading the plot for eight taels of gold (one tael was equivalent to VND4 million [US$175] in the 1990s and over VND50 million [$2,150] today).

Many laughed at Khanh, telling him he could have used the money to buy a decent house in the city’s downtown. For Khanh, however, the price was well worth owning the tree.

Contrary to everyone’s guess that he would fell the tree for timber or sell it as an ornamental item, Khanh did nothing more than clear the plot of litter and care for the tree.

“I bought the land in order to safeguard the tree” was his response to his wife’s bafflement.

Thai Huy Khanh picks up a cuddly owl falling from his ‘umbrella’ resin tree, an emerging sight in Tra Vinh City, located in the namesake province in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Photo: Tien Trinh / Tuoi Tre

Thai Huy Khanh picks up a cuddly owl falling from his ‘umbrella’ resin tree, an emerging sight in Tra Vinh City, located in the namesake province in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Photo: Tien Trinh / Tuoi Tre

After the site was cleared, people began to flood in for photos and to pray for good luck.

The tree’s rising popularity means the onset of Khanh’s fight for its welfare.

“I consider age-old trees human beings. Unlike other plants, they have their own life, need their own habitat, and sustain injuries. How intense is the agony a person feels if their skin is peeled off or set ablaze from time to time, as visitors keep removing pieces of bark or setting fire to its roots?” he said.

Khanh even contacted Dr. Paul Barber, a reputed Australian forest pathologist, when the latter paid a visit to Hanoi, and offered to pay him for a thorough examination of his prized tree.

The pundit agreed to help free of charge, asking only that Khanh cover his traveling expenses.   

Dr. Barber not only examined Khanh’s tree, but also the province’s entire botanical system. 

Upon seeing Khanh’s tree, Dr. Barber explained that he had worked with much larger resin trees but had never seen one quite like Khanh’s.

Hang, Khanh’s wife, shared that Khanh is often offered money to sell the plot of land and the tree, but he always refuses.

Even those who ask to rent a small area to sell coffee near the tree are put off by Khanh’s stringent demands, which include not placing stoves near the tree and not leaving heavy objects on the soil.

Despite his immense love for the tree, Khanh wants to upkeep the precious tree for his city and future generations instead of keeping it to himself or his family alone.

“Why did Japanese people spend millions of U.S. dollars protecting age-old trees? It’s because they wanted to maintain the prized gene pool for the next generations. I cannot shrug off my ‘green’ responsibilities to my offspring and my hometown of Tra Vinh,” he explained, exclaiming how proud the future generations would be if the ‘umbrella’ resin tree continues to thrive for many more centuries.

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Ngoc Hanh - Tien Trinh / Tuoi Tre News

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