And that last, most beautiful paradise that he saved until last, was the Cook Islands. Liam Ratana meets one of the greatest travellers of our century.
Countries have come and gone throughout Duc Nguyen's travels. Few people will travel as far and wide as he has. The self-described “cosmopolitan” man has just ticked off country 198 and has now completed his goal of visiting every member state of the United Nations.
“I am a cosmopolitan – that means I don’t belong to a country; I belong to the whole world. I am in the Cook Islands, so for now I am a Cook Islander,” Nguyen says.
The proud Vietnamese descendant beams as I introduce myself to him. Although he is now 79, he still manages to offer a firm handshake as he thanks me for coming to interview him. Nguyen clutches a folder under his arm as we make our way outside of the Aremango Guesthouse, to a mild Cook Islands evening.
We sit down at a table on the grass and the breeze dies down ever so slightly, as Nguyen begins to tell me the story of his 66-year expedition through our “small world”. He unclips his folder and proceeds to show me paper clippings and photos of his travels. Nguyen then pulls out a world map on which he has documented his travels.
Nguyen tells me that this is the last leg of his lifetime expedition, having spent the summer in Nauru, before travelling to Wallis and Futuna, Tuvalu, Fiji, New Zealand, and finally on to the Cook Islands.
“I am an overland traveller, I avoid travelling with a plan,” he says. “I used to avoid staying in guest houses, but nowadays it is a requirement for entry into many countries. Before, I used to live with the people. Sometimes we would stay in a palace, sometimes we would be in the rain, under a tree or tarp, whatever,” Nguyen says.
According to thebesttravelled.com, 163 people claim to have visited every country in the world – but only 41 of those claims have been independently verified. The task has become more and more difficult as the UN has expanded from its original 51 members in 1945, to nearly 200 now.
With the completion of his Pacific leg, Nguyen takes the tally of extraordinary travellers to 164.
he Canadian resident began travelling when he was just 14 years old. He says he was compelled to begin travelling following the expulsion of the French from Vietnam in 1954.
“With a Vietnamese background, something pushes you that you are free. I started to travel when we chased the French away in May, 1954,” Nguyen says.
Nguyen confesses that he is a lover of art, particularly painting, which led to him spending time in Paris, France. It was here that he met his “polar opposite”, his wife, in the late 1960s. The pair eventually had their son Kai and were soon on the road again, travelling together as a family for the next 14 years.
“We crossed the Sahara by foot,” Nguyen proudly recalls, as he stares off in reflection of times gone by. His fondness of such memories is evident. Nguyen says his greatest memories from his travels are the places he visited with his family. Nguyen then tells me of the time his family hitch hiked in New Zealand from Auckland to Bluff and stayed with local Maori in “long halls”.
Nguyen is a proud father, but admits he and his son Kai have their differences. Nguyen says he “swims against the current”, whilst Kai “swims with it”. Kai returned to Canada at age 14. By 22, he was a Canadian diplomat in Colombia. By 25, he was the International President of McCain Foods, earning the company a revenue of roughly $10 billion a year. He is now the President of Saputo Incorporated, a Montreal-based Canadian dairy company.
In 2004, Nguyen's wife began studying at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada. Nguyen is supportive of his wife, but says he has been lonely at times, travelling by himself for the past 15 years.
“For 15 to 20 years I have travelled alone. It has been very difficult because nowadays everything is materialistic. Before, it was hospitality. Before, it was something fantastic,” he says. “The hardest part of travelling is when you get old. You feel very lonely sometimes,” says Nguyen. However, he says he is glad he has achieved what he set out to do.
“I am happy that I accomplished what I wanted to do.”
guyen has overcome his fair share of trials and tribulations throughout his travels, having visited danger zones such as Iraq, Iran, Sudan, and even Somalia.
“Each country has a good side and a bad side … Many countries where I passed through … Iran, Iraq, when after you passed, two days later every bomb explodes.
“One time in Sudan I was on a bus for 18 hours. Eventually all the buses stopped in line for, say, an hour. You cannot pass. You must wait until you hear the sound of the exploding mines so we can pass again,” Nguyen says.
The qualified teacher also spent time teaching school children in Africa, in what he says were crude conditions.
“I went to Africa and taught at a school with nothing. No tables, no floor, no walls. I teach them for many months,” says Nguyen.
Nguyen says his travels have taught him many valuable life lessons, but one that stands out is to enjoy your youth.
“When I was hitch-hiking, I didn’t have money. I felt so rich because I was young, foolish, and energetic. Now I have money, I feel very poor …You must enjoy life while you can, because it goes by very quickly,” says Nguyen.
He is happy to end his journey here in the Cook Islands, which he says is cleaner than any other Pacific Island he has visited. Nguyen says that he chose to end his lifetime trip here, because he had heard it was paradise, so wanted to come and find out for himself.
“The Cook Islands is not diluted by the newcomer and that is very important. Here everything is so peaceful and secure, but elsewhere it is terrible. We are all the same, but the more we advance in life, the more our job, our dependence and everything forces us into a group. People don’t want to accept that they are the same.”
I ask Nguyen if he is scared about finally settling down, but he shakes his head and tells me: “No. I have passed through so many things, scared is not in my vocabulary. I don’t care any more.”
The seasoned traveller returned to Canada via Los Angeles last night and will enjoy some time in Vancouver, his home-base for more than 50 years – before beginning to travel again, this time with his wife by his side and in a slightly more “luxurious” manner.
“Perhaps I will bring her back here, but on a cruise,” he says, giving a cheeky grin and a nod to his intrepid journey.