Ho Am Tham has made it his mission to take care of a stone marking the boundary between Vietnam and Laos. While sitting by the landmark, the 65-year-old war veteran helps border guards catch smugglers.

Ho Am Tham, a village elder in the Lao Bao valley in the mountainous Huong Hoa district in the central province of Quang Tri, has had a special "friend" for many years - a stone border marker dividing Vietnam from Laos.

Villagers are familiar with the elder from the Pa Ko ethnic community who regularly goes to the Se Pon river - the natural border between Vietnam and Laos - where the stone has been erected. The granite landmark, carved with the word "Viet Nam" is about one metre high. Some people say Tham cannot eat or sleep if he does not go there.

Tham says that when he was young, the marker was small and rough. "It has been upgraded three times since I was born. Each time, it becomes bigger and more beautiful."

Tham was born in 1948. He joined the army in 1968 to fight the American invaders. However, three years later, he was demobilised after being injured in combat. Returning to his native village when the war ended, Tham married Y Liem, who is 13 years older. They have six children. "We have three sons, three daughters, and six grandchildren," Tham says, his face bright with joy.

Tham takes care of the boundary marker for love, not money. Some say he cares for it more than for his children because he visits it every other day. He whistles as he cleans up any rubbish around the marker, then wipes it clean with water from the nearby Se Pon river.

"Our village and country will be protected as long as the milestone is protected," Tham claims. He says this is why he visits it even though many people consider it a waste of time and effort.

"I do it because I feel pity for the milestone when cattle trample around it and naughty children chip it with stones", he says. "The boundary stone belongs to the State and no one is allowed to encroach on it."

The 65-year-old man also helps border guards nab many smugglers thanks to his frequent visits to the landmark. Sitting quietly by the stone he immediately notifies the guards if trouble is brewing. "I am cutting two trees with the one saw," he laughs. Guards at the Lao Bao Border Post now regard Tham as a close friend.

Tham's stilt house is located by a lake in the centre of the village. It is frequently patronised by villagers, who came to the elder to ask for judgement on many daily issues, including family and land disputes. This gives him extra prestige.

He now also holds various positions in the village, including membership of the province's Fatherland Front and the village's Veterans Association. Last month, Quang Tri province honoured him as one of the most prestigious 100 village elders in the nation.

"I advise residents not to do bad deeds. They are very honest so if I set a good example, they will surely follow," Tham says.-VNA