Chau hires a van for the day and we bounce off to her hometown of Cu Chi. Two years ago I visited the famous tunnels of Cu Chi, a maze of tunnels that served as the command center for the forces fighting the South Vietnamese government. The farms we visited were only a few miles away.
Our first stop was a diary farm. We stopped at a huge outdoor tavern where it appeared customers were either finishing off their drinking from the previous night or getting an early start on their weekend libations. After walking through the bar and kitchen to a courtyard, we were told to take off our shoes and entered a new four-story home with a huge flat-screen TV in the living room.
Our host, a man about my age, welcomed us and sent a girl to get us coffee and fruit juices. We just kept staring at this marble edifice and he offered to take us for a tour of his new home. It had six bedrooms, most with private baths, and an exercise room on the top floor.
“But I came to see cows,” I muttered. We walked outside and there were a hundred milk cows with 300 more across the road. Mr. Pho feeds his cows rice straw plus supplements and markets the milk to a local corporation. His operation is modern and surprisingly odor free.
Mr. Pho told us he was a military officer in the South Vietnamese government and after the war he was “gone for a while.” Since private enterprises like his were only first tolerated in 1993, I realized this operation is the result of 15 years of work. I wanted to ask more about his life and realized some questions are best left unasked. He took pictures of us with his digital camera to show to the men in his exercise group.
Our next stop was a cricket farm. Baby crickets grow to maturity in large plastic trash containers and feast on rice powder. They are then frozen and sold as a delicacy in upscale Asian restaurants. The luxury car in the garage and the modern home and awesomely landscaped yard give evidence this lady farmer is doing well.
She did not offer us samples, but directed us to a local restaurant that serves them. We went there and ordered cricket tempura and crickets with an onions and butter. They taste better than they look.
The visit to the family rice farm of Chau was poignant and fascinating. The simple house is being crowded by the ever-widening highway now extending to a few feet from the front door and may be torn down for further construction.
Relatives greet Chau after she has first burned incense in front of pictures of her deceased parents to show them honor and respect. The family rice fields are three-fourths of a mile from the house. Harvest was in progress and men pick up small bundles of rice, beat it three times into a box. The grain is then put into 100-pound bags and taken to the home for drying on concrete slabs.
The temperature was 90 and so was the humidity. This is a miserable environment with backbreaking work at every stage; stooping while planting and transplanting the rice and then hand harvesting.
I did not mention to them that in Kansas, harvest equipment has air-conditioned cabs with FM radios.
We took a side trip to visit a family making rice paper. A thin batter of rice is placed on a skillet and then rolled to a frame. Rice paper is used for spring rolls and in the past as writing paper. The speed and dexterity of the women producing it was amazing.
We had crocodile at a commercial farm. The ugly beasts were in ponds near our outdoor dining pavilion. My travel companion asked what they were fed. “Probably customers who don’t pay their check,” I muttered.
Our six-course crocodile lunch included fried steaks, curried crocodile and crocodile soup. We took a break to watch staff feed them fish and later ambled through the small workshop producing wallets and belts from the skins.
We ate our way across the country. The one dish I will not repeat is 1,000-year-old duck eggs—fertile eggs boiled just before the hatch—a unique chicken/egg taste that still makes me want to gag.
Vietnam is on the cusp of major economic development. But problems persist. Farm workers are leaving to work in factories. One guide said many persons were only farming part-time due to higher wages from factory jobs.
The government realizes it needs to add low-tech mechanized equipment for harvesting rice but the small plots of land make this a challenge.
The farms produce major income from exports and rising grain prices. But this is offset by inflation hitting urban consumers.
But it was good to visit farms. For every question answered, I had more questions. But I will learn more on my next visit.
You can contact the author at Dale.Suderman@gmail.com and see photographs at www.QuietAmericans.blogspot.com