But every day, even in the cold of the northern winter, he stands by the front door of his house to gaze at the forest with pride and happiness.
The trees were all planted by him and his family over 50 years, and his life has been dedicated to growing and protecting them.
Cao belongs to the Dao ethnic group, and lives in Tan Dan Commune in Ha Long Town of Quang Ninh Province, home to the world-famous bay.
Trieu Tai Cao at his home in Ha Long in Quang Ninh Province. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Cuong.
The Dao used to be nomadic, felling forests to meet their temporary land needs for cattle and crops before moving on.
It was not until 1968 that they started to settle. By then Cao had started thinking about growing trees. He began to look around for seedlings of valuable timber trees such as ironwood, shorea and apitong.
Between 1970 and 1980 he and his family planted those and other trees on 32 hectares (80 acres).
They faced a lot of challenges in protecting the forest initially because there were no regulations for transferring forest lands to local residents, meaning his family had no authority to manage the forest.
In 1992 the government announced a policy of handing over forests for people to maintain and exploit sustainably.
“I love our family’s forest,” Cao says.
“Thanks to that policy, I could continue growing timber while many people around us opted for growing wattle, also known as acacia.”
Growing acacia takes less time and effort and starts providing an income sooner than timber.
Now the forest has around 600 ironwood trees aged 40-70 years besides hundreds of other timber trees.
Trieu Tien Loc in his family’s forest in Ha Long in Quang Ninh Province. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Cuong.
“I am close to death now and have fulfilled my wish to leave the future generations a forest with such valuable trees.
“Forests are humans’ lungs and should not be treated as public property. So I also wish my children and grandchildren will continue to grow trees and protect this forest.”
Trieu Tien Loc, 35, the youngest of his five sons, says: “Many traders have come to us and asked to buy the ironwood, but my family has been insistently saying no. My father has spent his entire life growing and protecting the forest, and we will continue that.”
“My family’s forest is a watershed forest, and there are large trees that can hold the soil and water, which protects us from landslides.”
Even without chopping down or selling any of the large trees, Cao’s family enjoys an income from the forest by growing other types of plants in it such as bamboo, herbs and medicinal plants.
Pham Van Sau, Party chief of Tan Dan, says Cao’s family is the only one in the commune to successfully grow timber and protect the trees for long.
“Many provincial officials have visited Cao’s forest. Two years ago we sought permission to turn the forest into an eco-tourism area, but have yet to get it.”
Quang Ninh has more than 337,000 hectares of forests, including 122,700 ha of natural forests. Its forest cover of 54.7 percent is among the highest of any province in the country.
Around 700,000 ha of land are still available in the country for growing forests, Vuong Van Quynh, former head of the Institute for Forest Ecology and Environment at the Vietnam National University of Forestry, had told VnExpress last year.
Vietnam has a target of growing around 200,000 ha of forests each year.