As a nature lover, Nguyen Tri Tam, 27, splits his time between leading tourists on jungle treks and planting trees, hoping his efforts will lure more people into the natural beauty of Lam Dong Province in Vietnam's Central Highlands.
His attempts are now being lauded for raising public awareness of the far-reaching consequences of deforestation and the imperative need for environmental protection.
Bananas for birds
Tam, originally from Bao Loc City in Lam Dong Province, first realized his love of nature after spending a few years in Ho Chi Minh City’s concrete jungle.
Realizing how much he wanted to share the green trees and fresh air of his hometown with others, he moved back to Bao Loc to launch a travel agency.
When he is not running his business, he is busy taking magnificent photos of the local landscape, a hobby that has helped him build his own personal connection with his surroundings.
One of the most popular tours Tam offers is a trek up Dai Binh Mountain, also known as Spung Mountain, during which hikers can catch a stunning view of Bao Loc City from 1,000 meters above sea level when they reach the peak.
"Bao Loc has become quite popular over the last few years", said Tam. "People used to only think about Da Lat when talking about Lam Dong, even though Bao Loc is equally peaceful, beautiful, and pristine.”
Most of Dai Binh Mountain has been cleared for coffee plantations, leaving the mountain with just a small patch of trees on its summit. The bizarre look has led many to joke that the mountain has an ‘undercut hairstyle.’
The deforestation of Dai Binh is just a fraction of the environmental devastation taking place throughout the province.
Hoping to combat the destruction, Tam purchased three hectares of land at the edge of a local forest where he has built a now-thriving banana plantation.
Instead of harvesting the bananas each season, he lets birds and wild animals feast on the fruits.
"Seeing the birds and other animals enjoying my bananas gives me a sense of pride. It’s the least I can do to help the environment,” Tam said, adding that neighbors and friends were surprised at first to hear he had no intention of harvesting the crops.
When he is not tending to his plantation, Tam spends a significant amount of time convincing hunters to leave the forest animals alone.
"I simply ask them to stop hunting," he said. "The birds will return if there are no gunshots.”
Planting trees on the peak
Tam’s trekking tour of Dai Binh Mountain begins at 3:00 pm. It takes about two hours to reach the summit.
Afterward, Tam and his guests set up a tent together, build a campfire, sing, and spend the night gazing at the stars above and Bao Loc City below.
"Having the opportunity to relax in nature makes everybody feel comfortable," Tam explained. "It’s important to understand the value that nature brings to us humans. It helps us understand the importance of protecting the environment and inspires us to make our own contributions toward its protection.”
One of the ways Tam makes his own contribution is by planting trees.
On his treks, each of his guests is given a small tree to plant in the forest. The guests hold onto the tree during the hike and through the night before planting them in the morning after enjoying the sunrise.
“It breaks my heart to see how much [the green coverage on] the peak of Dai Binh has shrunk in the past few years,’ Tam said. “Having tourists plant trees on my land at the forest’s edge is just my small way of protecting the mountain.
"Each tree that’s planted on Tam’s land represents one more person understanding the importance of environmental protection.
"I will do my best to keep up with the project until the land is completely covered."
Tam’s project has become an inspiration for others in the province and one of his friends has even expressed the intention to follow Tam’s lead by encouraging visitors to plant trees in the area.
Bui Kim Ngan, a 27-year-old from Ho Chi Minh City who trekked Dai Binh in July, shared that the trip was one of the most memorable experiences of her life.
While sharing about the trip, Ngan noted that she was particularly impressed with Tam.
"He is extremely devoted to promoting sustainable tourism and helping each member contribute by planting trees to protect the forest,” she said.
Leaving nothing but footprints
Tam starts each tour by offering each member a bottle of water and reminding each guest that they are responsible for holding on to it and filling it up the next morning before the trek down.
He also reminds his guests to collect any rubbish they find along the way and place it in one of the dustbins he has set up on the path.
After each tour, organic waste is used as fertilizer and recyclable waste is taken to a plant.
The rest is dumped in a local landfill.