Recently, a French friend and I recently had a very interesting discussion. Before I get into the topic, let me introduce you to our background and how it is connected with the topic of this post i.e the cottage industries of Central Vietnam. Anyway, my friend (let’s call her C) and I live as expats in Zamalek in Cairo and at one time worked together. Thus our acquaintance is close and we confide in each other about the good, bad, and annoying things about Cairo. One thing that struck us both was the sheer number of people (read men) in Cairo who seem to spend their entire day sitting at local cafes and watching the world go by. Both C and I find this very odd and C having lived in Asia (and me coming from India), are used to people being very industrious. It was C’s comment of “In Asia, people work like ants…doing every possible task that can be done..from crowd pushers in Tokyo’s subways to tea-sellers of India”, that instantly reminded me of Central Vietnam and the rush of activities in its plethora of cottage industries.
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Introduction to Central Vietnam by Da Lat Easyrider
For those of you who have been following this series, know how I bumped into Da Lat Easyrider in Da Lat and joined a motorcycle guided trip through Central Vietnam. It was by sheer chance which turned into an awesome travel experience. My tour was a pillion rider traveler, with Hung who was my driver-guide. Hung was born and brought up in Central Vietnam, spent his 40+ years as a tour guide, and seen his country change with time. Though he welcomes the economic benefits, Hung disapproves of the sharp as nails commercial attitude of his fellow countrymen that have come with it and switched over to Da Lat Easyrider to offer experiential tours to interested visitors. Needless to say, he did very well thanks to the growing interest of people in experiential travel and Central Vietnam is a very impressive, culturally rich region. So, I went on a journey with Hung from Da Lat Easyrider, from Da Lat to Ho Chi Minh city and it was an eye-opening experience.
Central Vietnam and its cottage industries
Central Vietnam is the geographical heart of the nation. It is packed with historic sights, national parks, beautiful coastline, and cultural interests. Despite this jewel-encrusted aura, Central Vietnam is also the best place to get off the beaten path, explore the minority villages, and enjoy some of the loveliest natural landscapes of Vietnam. and cultural interest, and blessed with ravishing beaches and outstanding national parks. The region’s fertile red soils produce an abundance of natural resources with the most important being coffee, tea, rubber, silk, and hardwood. This has made Central Vietnam a hub for cottage industries and nearly every village, household, and person is involved in producing something. From tea gardens, weasel poop coffee farms, fruit orchards, horticulture, silk production, rice noodle workshops, brick kilns, mushroom farms, to handwoven looms, Central Vietnam thrives in cottage industries and according to my friend C, who has lived here for many years, “people work like ants” here. I have been aptly awed by the industriousness of the people of Central Vietnam and this post is dedicated to those hard-working folks toiling every day in keeping some tradition of their country alive.
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Horticulture and orchard farms
The red soil of Central Vietnam is rich and plenty of things grow on it. Thus it is no wonder, that there are many flower farms, fruit orchards, and mushroom plantations in this region. Fruits like durian, dragon fruit, rambutan, and star fruit are grown commercially here, along with many vegetables such as broccoli, snap beans, and chives. Tea also thrives in this climate and soil and green tea of Central Vietnam is a highly demanded product.
Would you try weasel coffee in Vietnam?
There is a story behind the world’s most expensive coffee i.e the weasel coffee in Vietnam. Though carnivores, weasels love eating ripened coffee berries when the harvest season comes. The animal has a natural instinct of finding the sweetest and ripest coffee berries to eat. They climb from trees to trees, looking for the best and perfectly ripe berries to “consume”. Farmers use this particular trait of the weasels as a sign of perfect harvest condition. Unlike the rodents, weasels slightly chew the flesh of the fruit and swallow the rest including the seeds. And this is the beginning of the production of weasel coffee. The history of Weasel coffee in Vietnam goes back to hundreds of years. Coffee was introduced in Vietnam after the French invasion in the 1800s and it used to be considered as a luxury good.
The history of weasel poop coffee in Vietnam
Only the French colonists and the Nguyen dynasty’s nobles had the right to drink it. Farmers, who were producing coffee were forbidden from consuming it and for them, the only way to drink coffee was to pick up weasel poop which had bits of coffee beans sticking together. They eventually realized that this type of “poop coffee” was more aromatic than the usual one while the being smoother and less bitter. It is, however, a time-consuming process and 5 kg of coffee berries end up as 1.5kg of poop. The expelled beans are carefully washed and dried for three days in the sun, just like regular coffee before they are ready for roasting, bagging, and selling. In recent decades, owing to deforestation, habitat of weasels in the wild is vastly affected thus influencing the production of weasel poop coffee which is worth its value in gold. To preserve this rich and money-making tradition, Vietnamese coffee planters gather weasels from the forests, put them in cages in their farms and feed them with perfectly ripe coffee berries along with the rest of their natural diet.
Rice noodle factories of Central Vietnam
Rice is the staple dish of Vietnam and the national cuisine uses it generously. In fact, rice is consumed in many different ways in Vietnam (rice paper, rice noodles, and plain rice) and Vietnamese rice noodles are one of the best in Asia. These handmade mouth-watering strands of flavorsome noodles are best enjoyed fresh in soups, stews, and broths. The countryside of Vietnam is dotted with rice noodles factories and I visited one with my Da Lat Easyrider guide. The factory was not what I expected. There were no modern machines in a big building. It was more of a cottage industry workshop where most of the process was done outdoors.
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The process of making rice noodles in Vietnam
The production of rice noodle begins with choosing the most suitable rice. It should not too dry and nor too starchy. The rice once selected, is soaked in water for 24 hours, before being drained to reveal congealed forms of starch. The clumps are then put into a mixer with potato flour and lye water, made from ash burned from a massive pile of branches of fragrant locally grown trees stacked in their yard. The mixture is spooned out on a cotton sheet, which is stretched over boiling water. The steam from the water cooks the rice mixture (kind of like a crepe or flat pancake). The water is boiled over a fire fueled by rice husks and every part of the rice is used in the process. After 30-second steam, the ‘rice pancakes’ are pulled out from the cloth with a bamboo pole and are sun-dried on bamboo mats for 5-6 hours. The sheets are then fed through industry-standard food-grade shredders, which in turn creates the fine Vietnamese rice noodles. To understand how rice noodles are made is extremely important to truly appreciate them. The process may vary from factory to factory and the traditional methodology involved cutting these pancakes cut by hand.
Sericulture or the Silk Production of Vietnam
During my guided ride through Central Vietnam, Hung, my driver, and guide took me to many local cottage industries. Central Vietnam is a large, fertile, and lush region which is a hub of many traditional Vietnamese crafts. Sericulture or silk production is one of them and this is due to the soil in which mulberry trees grow abundantly. This is very important since the silkworms feed exclusively on the leaves of the mulberry trees. Sericulture is an elaborate process requiring a lot of time and dedication. The result is the exquisite and highly exported Lam Dong silk of Central Vietnam, which has a soft, shimmering and waxy texture. The elaborate production process begins with the collection of all the raw materials. First, the craftsman has to purchase silkworms and breed them. Once the silkworm starts to move and tossing its head back and forth, it starts spinning the cocoon, thus signaling to the silk maker that it is time to harvest. Every time a silkworm twists its head, it releases secretions from an opening on its jaw. These secretions are a steady stream of liquid silk coated with sericin which when exposed to air, hardens enough for the worm to weave a cocoon with it. The hardened silk yarn is then unreeled from the cocoons after boiling them and the number of cocoons included in each silk thread determines the quality of the silk.
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Understanding the grading of a silk thread
A high-quality thread is made from 40 or so cocoons. A mid-range thread consists of 15 to 20 cocoons, and a low-quality one uses only five or so. This is because a higher the number of cocoons require more work and a longer processing time. Once the silk thread is extracted and spun into a single thread, it goes through further processes of boiling and dying. The longer the thread is boiled, the softer and stretchier the silk is, which also affects the quality of the end product. The final stage consists of various steps such as weaving, dyeing and imprinting design on the silk.
A Vietnamese monastery for the trafficked women
I came to know about Vietnam’s ancient tradition of incense making in a very bitter-sweet way. It was during our ride from Da Lat to HCM with Da Lat Easyrider, that Hung, my driver guide stopped at a monastery. From outside, the monastery looked like a very tranquil place complete with bamboo and pine groves, lotus ponds, and a garden meditation center. Inside it hosted dozens of wounded souls, broken hearts, and brave spirits. Managed and run by nuns, who were themselves, once victims of women trafficking trade, the monastery was a shelter for rescued, abused women and their children. These ladies generally hailed from Mekong Delta and were sold off to men from all over South East Asia, who used them as temporary wives and child bearers. Once tired of their purchase, the men often would re-sell these women with/without children (they usually retained the male child) to other customers or send them back to their villages.
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An incense making workshop with a difference
Such horrific stories poured into my ears as the head nun took me around the monastery and it was a sharp contrast with the sweet smell of the incense sticks the inmates were making. In that monastery, the sheltered and children are educated or trained in traditional trades such as incense making, thus giving them pride and a life skill. I looked around the workshop and saw only tranquil faces, none of which showed any sign of depressed spirit. The fragrance of incense enveloped them like a comfortable blanket and there was a visible pride in what they did. Central Vietnam produces some of the best incense sticks in the entire country and there is a huge demand for these fragrant sticks during the Lunar New Year. Vietnamese incense sticks come in many different aromas like agarwood, cinnamon, and pine. Unlike, the Indian counterparts, Vietnamese incense sticks are very colorful and they are dyed red, yellow or purple. Incense making is a time-consuming process which requires expertise and the craftsmen cover a small stick of bamboo that has been dyed and dried with a mix of scented powder. The sticks used to be traditionally handmade, though whittling machines have now reduced the production time by more than half. Many side trades keep the traditional incense making industry alive and many woodcutters hack bamboo planks down to be fed into a whittling machine, while others dip the thin strips into buckets of pink dye. It is very common in Central Vietnam to see hundreds of brightly coloured bushels of bamboo sticks fanned out like bouquets on the streets for drying.
How to experience Central Vietnam cottage industries
Recently there has been a surge of travelers wishing to experience the cultural side of Central Vietnam. This has given to many cottage industries tour along with a silk themed tourist village near Hoi An. You may join one of these coach tours or small group tours to understand the cottage industries of Central Vietnam, though they have the tendency of being commercialized, rushed, and leading guests to tourist traps. For a more authentic, slow-paced experience opt for the tours offered by the local companies like Da Lat Easyrider, Footprint Travel, and Vespa Adventures. These are usually guided single/multi-day tours and offer deeper insight into the lives, crafts, and traditions of this region.
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