|Gangsta's paradise: Luong catches fish on his pond, with his forest in the background. — VNA/VNS Photo
by Quang Vinh
People call Phan Trong Luong, 40, a "Big Brother" and it's true: he does rule the roost over his 100ha of chestnut forests and 800ha reservoir, and he has been in jail for beating up poachers and gambling.
But Dong Thanh Commune chief Ho Van Phung has nothing but praise for the ebullient Luong who, he said, had done a great job in protecting the wildlife in this idyllic haven of the central province of Nghe An.
On a recent visit to Luong's lake we took a motorboat ride across Ve Rung Dam, where a playful breeze from the forests came at us from all directions.
When the boat arrived at the edge of a ravine, we heard and felt a bump on the bottom of the boat which Luong said was one of the 50kg black carp that inhabited the lake.
He told us the story of a local farmer who saw three of the giant fish swimming together near the bank.
At first the farmer thought they were mini submarines, and then ghosts, and he ran back to his commune with the story.
At first we were sceptical about story and the fact that giant black carp inhabited the 20m-deep dam but Luong was adamant.
If we visited the dam often we would eventually see them, he said.
Our location was about 10km from Yen Thanh Town and 70km from Vinh City. It is fringed by mountains, a virgin area of infinite but often hidden charms.
Luong told us that for a long time the dam, with its natural flora, had become a favourite place for migrating birds from the north, such as storks, night herons, teal, black-throated laughing wild ducks, red-whiskered bulbuls and many others.
He said he used the boat, which he made himself, to guard the dam every day.
"I consider the dam my body and soul. I try to protect our chestnut trees and the 18.2 million cubic metre dam. I spend hours in the late afternoon enjoying the birds returning to their nest on the little islands in the lake," Luong said.
When it became too crowded with migrating birds he wanted to buy a bigger boat to keep patrolling.
"Each flock of birds numbers in the thousands. They often leave the roost at 6am and return at 4:30pm or 5pm.
"I know all about them and the diseases they face," he said.
In winter, storks often developed ailments, such as dried legs, and they were hunted and trapped.
"Sometimes I have seen several storks trying to return to the dam after being shot. I love the birds so much. I have caught and arrested many poachers.
"I have the reputation of an underworld figure so many hunters are afraid of me. Thanks to my efforts, illegal hunting is reducing."
Beneath the surface of the lake is home to thousands of oysters and turtles which earns Luong nearly VND100 million (US$5,000) a year.
After taking us around the dam, Luong brought us to his house which is located at the foot of an immense hill of chestnut trees.
His wife, Dang Thi Thu, cooked us a meal with fresh shrimp and fish which were very tasty and later told us story about Luong.
"When Luong and I decided to marry, many of my relatives were against it because he had been in prison several times for gambling and beating up poachers who tried to cut down his chestnut trees.
"I had many sleepless nights, crying over my lot, but deep in my heart I believed I had to wait till Luong returned to start his new life," Thu said.
After his last time in prison, Luong said his father, Phan Trong Tho, had to come to the police station in Yen Thanh District to post a guarantee for his release.
Sitting on a bicycle ridden by his father, who was in bad health, he had time to relect and decided he must try his utmost to maintain the chestnut forests.
Luong decided then and there to rebuild his life.
He went to the forests, cleared bush and planted new trees, working very hard and for long hours.
Now he raises fish in the dam and enjoys breeding livestock, including cows, pigs and chicken.
"We had to borrow VND800 million from my relatives and banks to invest in our trees. I hope they give us a bumper crop this year," Luong said.
Seeing how effectively he worked, commune authorities have appointed him to manage the Ve Rung reservoir, which supplies water for 600ha of fields and the area's five communes. It's the third biggest lake in Nghe An Province.
"We've invested nearly VND500 million in building a fish farm on the dam surface. Each year, I raise 200kg of baby fish and 30 tonnes of fish, providing stable jobs for dozens of people at a monthly salary of VND3.5 million each," Luong said.
His aim was to make the region green by protecting the native birds and encouraging migrating birds.
Dong Thanh chief Phung said that thanks to Luong, the commune was expected to become an eco-tourism centre for domestic and foreign visitors.
"We would never have imagined that an "underworld" type like Luong would become such a helpful person in the commune, creating stable jobs for many locals and a green cover for the commune." — VNS