Dutch-Vietnamese couple go back to nature

By Phan Duong   August 6, 2023 | 05:00 am PT
Thuy and her Dutch husband Jack quit their jobs, bought a slice of land in the Central Highlands, and have been living in harmony with nature ever since.

They had the idea after attending a wedding party in the mountain resort town of Da Lat in 2019.

Thuy was working for a Hanoi-based NGO at the time, while Jack had a stable job in South Korea. But then they both left all that behind, relocated to Da Lat, and began familiarizing themselves with the farmer’s lifestyle.

The couple bought a 450-square-meter plot in a rural area just outside the "city of dreams" in 2021. They finished building their new home, which was designed to resemble an evergreen leaf, eight months later.

Jack built the house from 800 bamboo trees with his own hands. The home rapidly garnered attention and people started visiting just to see it with their own eyes.

The couple now says that managing to build their own house made them believe that they could turn all of their dreams into reality.

Jack and Thuy’s house in the suburban area of Da Lat, which was made from bamboo. Photo courtesy of Jack and Thuy

Thuy and Jack’s former house on the outskirts of the Central Highlands town of Da Lat. The home is made entirely of bamboo. Photo courtesy of Thuy and Jack

Thuy came to the realization that human beings are merely "thieves" who steal from nature. She came to believe that humans use natural resources without asking for permission, from the moment they are born until they die.

"What if the Earth runs out of things for humans to steal one day?" she asked Jack.

She was surprised when Jack completely agreed and shared her same concerns. He said he hadn’t shared the sentiment with her because he feared it might worry her.

After this discussion, the couple soon realized their lifestyle was still "too modern and convenient." They still had an induction hob and various kitchen appliances in their house. They bought their food from retailers instead of planting on their land and supplying themselves.

They wanted to lead a more environmentally friendly and minimalist life, and self-reliance became a major driver of what they wanted to do.

They then decided to sell their bamboo house and moved to the more remote and mountainous district of Eah'leo neighboring Dak Lak Province. They bought a 10,000-square-meter lot there and settled down. Coincidentally, there were already some 30 households that had quit living in urban areas and relocated there just like them.

Thuy and Jack spent the whole first year preparing to adapt to their new life. This time they bought a used wooden house instead of building a whole new house from bamboo, in order to be even more environmentally friendly. They cultivated beans that have the ability to make the soil even more nutrition-dense, protect the earth from erosion, store water for longer periods of time, and create natural habitats for new plants.

Thuy and Jack bought and renovated an old wooden house in Dak Lak. Photo courtesy of Thuy and Jack

Thuy and Jack buy and renovate an old wooden house in the Central Highland province of Dak Lak. Photo courtesy of Thuy and Jack

Aiming to self-produce their own food, the couple turned their land into a woodland orchard and garden – a mini-farm, if you will – covered in fruit trees, perennial vegetables, and wild trees.

They transformed the land into a "giant water tank," aiming to preserve the groundwater system. Jack designed various dams, pools, and drain traps throughout their garden, so that water would absorb into the soil instead of washing away.

Rainwater is the only source of water that Thuy and Jack have used since then. They have five tanks in their house, each of which can store 25-cubic-meter of water, to keep rainwater and use it during the dry season. They learnt how to identify, differentiate, and use the vegetables and medical herbs in their garden. They also built a "dry sanitation" system, which does not require using water, and thus has a much smaller impact on the local environment.

"I have had some really interesting experiences since starting this new lifestyle, including cooking with wood and using lye, or ash water, to wash clothes," Thuy said.

"I feel like rice tastes better when cooked with a cast iron pot, while using lye to wash clothes saves my hands from being affected by chemicals."

Thuy and Jack are currently self-producing eggs, water, and vegetables. The only electrical appliances in their house are a refrigerator and a fan.

"We believe that pursuing a modern lifestyle makes people destroy the natural environment more and more," Thuy said, "without remembering that we are merely a part of the whole ecosystem."

Thuy and Jack happily collect fertilizer in their garden. Photo courtesy of Thuy and Jack

Thuy and Jack fertilizing their garden. Photo courtesy of Thuy and Jack

Many people believe that relocating from urban to rural areas requires huge financial and intellectual resources, a notion with which Thuy begs to differ. To her, a strong mentality is the most important requirement. Based on her experience, she knows that a lot of problems can and do arise after quitting modern life in the urban areas and moving to the countryside.

For example, Jack was used to the temperate weather, so he suffered during their first dry season in the mountains. He sweats as soon as he starts working, which makes him exhausted and leaves him no longer wanting to lift a finger.

Bugs were another challenge for Jack last May when their house was conquered by insects. Jack tried every solution he could come up with, from sweeping them away to sucking them up with a vacuum cleaner and using eucalyptus smoke, hoping the smell would scare the bugs away. But nothing worked.

The couple had to accept that they could not do anything but share their living space with the insect dwellers. Still, they couldn’t sleep for a whole week at first because it felt like bugs were crawling all over their bodies at night.

"I have been through all kinds of challenges since moving here, but this time it’s different," Jack told Thuy before grabbing his pillows and going to their children’s room. "I don’t think I can put up with these bugs."

But when he looked out the window and saw the woodland he and Thuy had planted from tiny seeds, he was reminded that they were pursuing a dream, and it was silly to lay awake at night scheming and brooding up with plans to kill the bugs.

"Settling in the forest helps me feel independent," he said. "Now I can do whatever I want whenever I want to, for myself and my family."

Thuy thinks of her and Jack’s current lifestyle as an escape from materialistic needs, namely fame, social status, and money. Her current daily interests are watching a new plant shoot rising up above the ground, or observing a butterfly freeing itself from its cocoon.

"I have become more humble," she said. "I am constantly reminded of how everything, including me, is constantly born and gone."

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