Retired policeman Le Minh Thuong, 74, from central Nghe An province, has on several occasions refused to sell off his five ancient golden apple trees (diospyros decandrs Lour) for over 7 billion VND (340,000 USD).

Last year, the Vietnam Association for Nature and Environmental Conservation, a Hanoi-based non-governmental organisation, identified the trees as being around 670 years old.

Among the five trees, the largest measure up to 14 metres in height while the rest come in at around 6 metres each.

Thuong explained that, as the trees are "invaluable family treasures", considered witnesses to both family and local history, they have to be preserved for future generations.

According to family annals, Le Van Hoan, the first Le ancestor to settle in the area, was a commander in the army of Le Loi (1384-1433), known as Le Thai To, Emperor of Vietnam and founder of the Le Dynasty.

Seeing the golden apple trees blossom, even in harsh weather, Hoan was inspired to bring his family from central Thanh Hoa province to Nghe An province and build a new village.

Before every battle, commander Hoan would pray standing beneath his trees, to which people came to attribute many victories.

Thuong told the story of how, during the American war, local residents and soldiers had taken shelter underneath the trees.

"The trees are the pride of the Le family," Thuong said, adding that, since the trees were first aired on the TV programme "Strange things in Vietnam" in 2007, curious visitors from around the country had flocked over to see them.

Phung Quang Chinh, a member of the Vietnam Association for Nature and Environmental Conservation, said that ancient trees of at least 200 years of age and domestically-grown trees of at least 100 years are given the title of "Vietnam Heritage Tree" for purposes of biology, culture and history.

The initiative, first launched last October, forms part of national environmental protection efforts.

The association confirmed that, while it will offer technical assistance in identifying the age of trees and their historical/cultural value, all related efforts will be voluntary.

To date, the association has received around 300 application forms with more than 100 trees having been recognised.

Le Thi Thao, vice chairwoman of the Tay Ho district People's Committee in Hanoi, said that 14 of the district's trees have received recognition as "Vietnam Heritage Trees", helping to improve local awareness in preserving cultural/historical relics and protecting the environment.

"Nursing trees is now not only the business of local authorities, but of the whole community," Nhat Tan Ward People's Committee vice chairman Nguyen Xuan Truong said. /.