Modern nomad builds a forest haven for no one and everyone

By Phan Duong   June 30, 2021 | 02:37 am PT
A current Hanoi resident has built a forest dwelling that’s open to anyone as a sanctuary to escape the mundane or get some respite from their existential angst.

For the last two years, Nguyen Hoa Viet, 40, has lived alone in the Dong Do Forest.

But he is not your typical ascetic. Viet has been a familiar name in the local sporting community, especially cycling. He was a member of the Quang Ninh Bicycle Club and participated in several cycling tournaments in China (2014).

He also cycled nearly 9,000 km to all four corners of Vietnam – Phu Yen, Dien Bien, Ha Giang, and Ca Mau provinces – in 2017, and ran 4,500 km across Southeast Asia in 2018.

But the son of retired civil servants has himself retired from the rat race with a free lifestyle he has fashioned for himself. The parents are okay with it, since he doesn’t harm anyone.

Viet still cycles, swims and runs every day, but finds it pointless to compete. He does it for his own happiness.

Hanoian builds a no-mans-house in suburban districts forest

Nguyen Hoa Viet cuts wood to make a swing in the home he has built for anyone seeking refuge from daily drudgery. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Phuong.

His motivation for outdoor adventure was a desire to "always urge people to participate in sports that connect with nature, because it is good for the mind and the body," said Viet, a Hue native who grew up in Saigon.

In 2018, because of his cycling and running exploits, he was hired to design a running trail and draw road signs in the Dong Do Area in Soc Son District.

"At that time the road here was not as clear as it is now. It was a single trail full of reeds and an abandoned lake surrounded by dense grass."

During his inspection for designing the trail, he was taken by the greenery and quiet of an area up the mountain that was at least a kilometer from the nearest house. He was possessed by a sudden desire to live at the foot of that mountain.

Nguyen Van Tuyen, who manages the forest, recalls: "When Viet asked for permission to build a hut here, I was surprised.How could a sportsman used to a young and modern lifestyle survive in this jungle alone, I thought."

The 60-year-old forest manager thought Viet would only last "a week to half a month at most" in such a place. He did not know, however, that Viet was used to living a free life for a long time and had all the skills needed to survive living on his own in the forest.

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A corner of the "No Man's Home". Photo courtesy of Viet.

The previous year, in 2017, Viet had decided that he no longer needed to live in one place, donated all his belongings and left Quang Ninh Province to conquer the four corners of the country – the 9,000 km cycling expedition mentioned earlier.

After completing the trips, he he stayed at pagodas in Dong Nai Province, mountains in the Central Highlands province of Lam Dong and on Phu Quoc Island.

"I would take a little rice with me and head to the forest to live alone. I adapted to being alone in the dark and developed an understanding of the animals in the forest.

"When I go into the forest, especially in a place where there are no people, I feel safer."

In Dong Do he first built a small hut to live with his dog and later expanded his living space. He installed power lines and a water pumping system, brought stones from the stream to build paths, and built a kennel and a chicken coop.

His activities did not bother the forestry department.

Tuyen said: "With Viet living here, we feel like we have an extra forest guard. He keeps an eye out for people illegally chopping down trees and promptly reports when there's a fire."

Despite Viet’s preferred isolation, his place made an impression on anyone who passed by, researchers and trekkers.

Nguyen Thi Nguyet Anh, a former officer at the Institute of Physics - Vietnam Academy of Science And Technology in Hanoi, recalled: "The first time I met Viet was when I went trekking with my friends in the forest. We did not know how to get out of the forest. Suddenly, a stranger appeared who looked somehow like a forest dweller."

He not only showed them the way out, but also invited them into the hut to rest and have a drink.

Since that first meeting, Nguyet Anh stops by his place every time she treks in the mountain.

Gradually, Viet's hut became a stopover for trekkers and other adventure sports lovers. It became a water stop of the Hanoi Ultra Trail run.

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Runners and trekkers use Viet’s dwelling as a rest stop. Photo courtesy of Viet.

Noticing that during some weekends, there were big groups of tourists, trekkers and passersby who did not have conveniently large resting places to take a break, Viet came up with the idea of making a "no man's house" that would be open to anyone and everyone.

When he first asked for funding on his personal page, a lot of people rushed to contribute, exceeding the VND 200,000 ($8.72) per person he’d expected. Recently, he had to make an announcement that he would not receive donations anymore because he had already raised the target of VND150 million target ($6,500).

Three months after he embarked on his unique venture, he had completed several sub-projects - a hut, a hexagonal house, a kitchen, a separate toilet area, a trail, an entrance, a swing and a flower trellis. Everything was made with the aim of having "people come here to experience and understand nature and the importance of natural ecosystems."

"The idea was to creating a place for everyone, those who have lost their direction in life or want to rest their body and mind after whirling around in the hustle and bustle city life. Or even for those who just happen to run by. For people to have a place to stop, rest and bathe or people who just want to connect with nature. The project is almost complete," Viet said.

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Viet goes on a walk with his dog. Photo courtesy of Viet.

Phung Tam, a runner who has stopped by several times, said that when she first entered the gate and saw the place, she felt warm and a call in her heart to return to nature. When she entered Viet's living space, she was quite surprised because the house was carefully crafted and had a raw beauty. Her group sat down to have porridge, gathered around the wood stove and listened to music.

"Actually, at that time, I just wanted to close my eyes and sleep peacefully to enjoy the quiet feeling of this place. Later, when I contacted Viet, he shared many meaningful words that touched my heart, and I appreciated his rare, beautiful soul."

Now that the project in its final stages with just a few details left to be completed, Viet has announced that it's time for him to leave and move on.

"Hopefully someone will be strong enough to unconditionally love everything here and take good care of it."

And what about him? He will just go with the flow, to wherever life will take him. He only seeks to live in peace and be present in the present moment.

He has said that doesn’t seek to become a monk, but: "Maybe I'll go to a monastery or another isolated place like this used to be."

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