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The passion of Vietnam delta’s annual fruit orgy

TUEsday - 02/07/2013 00:39

Nguyen Minh Chau, the director of the Southern Fruit Research Institute (SOFRI) broke the news over a plate of prize-winning pomelo, in their cavernous headquarters, nearly a year ago.

“It was just last week,” he said in his booming voice. “You missed some very good fruit.”

Farmers from all over Vietnam had come to the delta to submit their best crops. The winners received a small cash prize and SOFRI bragging rights—an honor that could convert a small orchard into a lucrative nursery, supplying brand name saplings to farms all over the country.

“You’ll have to come back next year,” he told me.

Raised in Saigon and educated in India, Chau speaks with a sub-continental ebullience—an intimacy that makes you feel as though you are best friends. When he gets to talking about a subject as potentially banal as durian cultivation, he pulls you close to him, shakes his head and speaks in declarations that rise up into the ceiling and rattle his jowls.

For the past twenty years, one of Chau’s major responsibilities has been to make visiting journalists, foreign scientists and government officials excited about fruit. And he’s very good at what he does.

 

For the next year, I would wake up periodically and think “SOFRI fruit festival.” Throughout the lean dry season, I came to picture the event with all the fantasy and expectation of a ten-year-old awaiting Christmas morning.

On the first Sunday in June I called Chau to check in, only to learn that I’d missed it again.

A gathering of some 400 farmers had already been held in Saigon’s Suoi Tien Park in District 9. But another, smaller, festival would be held in the delta, the following Monday.

So I took off work and hopped on a bus in Cho Lon bound for Cho Lach, a famous rural district set on a sprawling, fecund island set in the Mekong River. According to Chau, the French taught the grafting technique to farmers throughout the district early in the 20th century and that knowledge had left them with an edge in cultivating desirable species.

These days, the grafting has taken on a new frenzy. With their official SOFRI medals in hand, many of the best orchards have given up on growing fruit and turned to selling millions of saplings a year. The island district now serves as the ovaries of the famously fertile Mekong Delta—the 15,000 squishy square miles of southern farmland that produced roughly three million tons of fruit last year alone.

All of this buzzed in my mind when the bus door opened and sweltering humidity crashed down on me like a tidal wave. Staggering into the sunlight, I flagged a xe om, who drove me 200 yards to a massive district community center.

At some point that morning, two workshops had been held covering value chains, markets, pesticides, organic farming, cattle husbandry, safe pig production and the value of a proper fruit bag—among other things.

By 9:30 a.m., however the building had descended into thundering bacchanal.

Competing speakers blared cheap pop and electronic music in the air with such zeal that it became impossible to hold a telephone conversation anywhere in the vicinity.

In the rear of the building, rows upon rows of prized fighting cocks screeched at each other, while children poked straws and blew cigarette smoke at a tiny primate as it clung for dear life to a mushy banana.

Towering over the central auditorium stood a tropical fruit pyramid propped up by fruit demons and dragons.

I had come, I admit, for the durian. So the first thing I did was pull up a stool and eat an entire two-kilogram Kho Qua Xanh—a local cultivar named after the bitter melon due to its color and tangy flavor.

Festival-goers gathered to gawk at me like a kind of sideshow creature—the durian-eating white man. By the time I finished licking the last of the custard-like goo from my fingers, I could barely make my way through the crowd.

When I finally caught up with Chau, the first thing he asked me was: “Have you eaten?”

I told him about the Kho Qua Xanh and he furrowed his brow.

“That’s the poorest varietal,” he said shaking his head.

Perhaps in an effort to cleanse my palette, Chau led me back to the small, cloistered space where the entire SOFRI staff was prying open durians, counting mandarin seeds and measuring mangosteen nodes with pairs of calipers.

Chau pulled me toward a double row of shelves and began looting them of the best fruit in the country. The best rambutan. The best mangosteen. The most perfect mango. He handed them all to me as I shoveled them into my mouth.

Some of it had the young, underdeveloped flavor of early season fruit—things that seemed more noteworthy for their shape, fruit-to-seed-ratio or color than flavor. Others tasted so mind-meldingly good, my eyes rolled up into my head. This, I realized, was how I wanted to die.

In 15 minutes, I consumed another four or five kilograms of fruit. Satisfied, Chau sat me in a chair, where I gurgled for an hour while he finalized the results.

The entire festival was over by noon, at which point I was invited to dine at a half-finished People’s Committee building with the chiefs of the various provincial party committee over rice wine, banh xeo, beef neck and boiled snails.

Huynh Thanh Hung, the head of the province’s Plant Inspection Department, informed me that the event I’d just attended had been designed to promote “safe” fruit.

“I can get you a kilo of Chinese apples for 50 cents,” he said between toasts. “You can take one of those apples and put it on a table here in this climate for two months and it won’t decay. Nothing will happen to it.”

This line appears to be paying off. Last month, Saigon Times reported that “a number of incidents” involving “foreign fruit” had driven durian, pomelo and rambutan prices in Ben Tre up considerably. Foreign buyers were clamoring for Vietnamese fruit, a number of traders told the paper, but there simply wasn’t any to sell off.

At the moment, Chau explained, the department could only test for two of four kinds of commonly-found residual poisons. Somewhere between the snails and the stir fry, a bunch of prize-winning coconuts were stripped of their honors when Huynh’s team revealed that they had tested positive for the use of phosphate fertilizers.

“We’re working on testing for the other two,” Chau said. “But I’ll turn 60 next year and someone else will have to take over as director.” At that moment, I imagined all the fruit trees in the land going fallow upon his departure.

The thought was interrupted when the head of the provincial agricultural department placed a bottle labeled “Ben Tre Coconut Brandy” on the table. Everyone agreed it was delicious, if not a little strong, and returned to their rice wine.

Before I had time to pass out, Chau whisked me into his waiting Mitsubishi to meet with “a local farmer.”

“Just ten minutes,” he said.

An hour later, we were seated at said farmer’s riverside restaurant.

The rail-like Mr. Nguyen Cong Thanh had spent a lifetime nurturing a gorgeous, root-rot proof durian orchard, capable of yielding prime fruit all year long. When his name became famous, he began selling saplings. Then he expanded into cacao—cultivating 13 different species.

But that, too, had grown boring. So he had recently decided to raze a third of his two- hectare orchard to build an amateur zoo, canoeing course, cockfighting pavilion, rental bungalows and the riverfront restaurant where Chau and I now sat, washing down a second lunch of mangosteens, deep fried river fish rolls with glasses of beer and cacao juice.

Chau settled back, nibbled on a roll and considered the sand barges heading from Saigon to Phnom Penh and back. At some point Thanh’s small wooden pleasure boat returned with a couple who was still wet from swimming.

“I’ve known this man for many, many years,” Chau said finally, raising his glass. “He’s a good farmer. A great farmer.”

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