Welcome to Made in Vietnam, part II. I’ve arrived in Saigon, and now am going to try and catch up on the last few days spent wandering around on a motorcycle in the Central Highlands. Mr. Lu’u was my wonderful guide during this jaunt, and as his biz card states, he is "fully licensed guide – fully insured – safe." Well after a few beers last night and meeting his family, I found out that he has no license and no insurance. You just gotta love Vietnam! He took me to many places in the country side and showed me different facets of life in Vietnam.
The first stop was a farmers house where he showed us the important things such as the still for making rice wine, the setup for making tofu, and the other chains in recycling on a farm (rice from the still feeds the pig whose waste fertilizes the coffee whose husks burn to heat the still). The only downfall is that the pig ends up drunk most of it’s life…. The wine and pigs are sold in the town market to supplement the income from coffee and other crops.
Concrete pots, used for exterior bonsai and other plantings, are made in another small shop. The young men can make around 4 large pots a day, and the older women paint them in preparation for selling in nearby towns the concrete pots other pottery from further north.
Next was a mushroom farm. Sawdust from rubber trees past their prime is mixed with limestone, heated in an oven, then impregnated with mushroom spores and hung in a dark hut for a couple of weeks. Mushrooms start to sprout, are clipped off, dried, and sent to Saigon about once a month. The spent packages are then are mixed with new raw materials and the cycle starts again. The oven is again fueled by coffee bean husks.
A couple of more stops showed various steps in silk making. The first stop showed the spinning process where the silk is drawn from the cocoons, washed, dried, and packaged for shipment to Saigon for dyeing. The photo shows the cocoons floating in cold water (after being soaked in hot water) as the strands are collected on the spools above. The worms and remainder of the cocoon are then used as, yep, you guessed it, pig food.
Then we stopped by a farmer’s shack where he, in addition to regular farming duties, raises the silk worms in his one room house. Feed them with mulberry leaves grown around the house, they grow and need to be divided every week or so. Meticulous cleanliness is required to avoid disease and predatory insects. When they are ready to spin a cocoon, they are put on a bamboo screen (made by yet another neighbor that specializes in bamboo products) that provides enough surface area for the spinning and makes harvesting easy. They can send the cocoons with the larvae or wait till the butterfly emerges, which gives them access to more eggs for the next round.
My culinary interests were peaked by the pepper and cinnamon plantations. The pepper plant is a vine, and gives one crop a year. The peppercorns are dried in the sun and sent off to be processed. The cinnamon comes from the bark of mature cinnamon trees, which can be harvested after 8-10 years. This makes them the favorite local "retirement plan," where the farmers hope to be able to have an income once they are older and can’t keep up with the demands of other crops. It was an amazing surprise to bite a leaf of the cinnamon tree and taste the unadulterated-with-sugar taste of real cinnamon. The interesting part of this crop is that unlike other products, the vast majority of the cinnamon is exported, so I couldn’t find a souvenir package to bring home!
No visit to Vietnam would be complete without seeing a rubber tree plantation. The French (thanks, Michelin) started massive plantations back in the late 1800s in an attempt to make Vietnam a self supporting colony (oops, I’m sorry, they called it a "protectorate"). Anyway, now they are in smaller scale farms in the central highlands. The trees start to produce after 6-7 years and will produce for around 30 years before being cut down and replanted with new trees. The dried sap was cool, but the cinnamon tasted better…. And yes, that is my trusty Honda steed in the background. From Soviet era two-stroke to brand new Japanese four-stroke!
The last one that I’ll mention is also a bridge to my next post. We stopped at a small pagoda where women nuns run a center for worshiping a woman Buddha. In a small room off to the side, three "pre-nuns" (okay, I know there’s a correct term, but it ain’t in my head right now) were making incense. The photo shows the completed sticks drying in the sun. They use sawdust and "sticky bark" (one of those words that just didn’t translate well) as the base and roll on incense that has been made on site. The bamboo stick is dyed on site as well, using a native root gathered by the hill tribes as the coloring agent. Each woman makes around 1000 a day working on average 4 hours. You can do the math: they crank! And they make a grand total of: free room and board at the pagoda. That’s right, they do all this work for the privilege of having a place to sleep and eat away from the troubles of life that brought them to the nunnery. .
If you made it this far without being bored to tears, you can tell my business interests are perking up on this tour of the countryside. I usually am asking them various questions like their raw material costs, their markets, how they decided to grow one thing or another, and it all boils down to the fact they are all hard working entrepreneurs trying to make a life for themselves (well, except for the nuns). The central highlands saw a lot of fighting in the war, and afterward it was populated by many northerners being given land after the war trying to ease the pressure of population growth in the North. The jungles are all but gone except in remoter areas, and the land is literally covered with coffee trees provided by the government in an attempt to jump start the rural economy. Vietnam is now the second leading producer of coffee (after Brazil), and I believe it after seeing miles upon miles of coffee trees.
The next post (either tonight or in the morning) will cover some of the people that I experienced during my trip. And somehow, truth is always stranger than fiction….