Who knew there could be so many different kinds of farming in one small country. We have had several rare opportunities that few tourists seek out intentionally…but then those of you reading these posts know us both well enough that our choices frequent the path less worn.
Dyanne has given a well detailed description about the labor intensive process of rice farming, an fundamental food staple. Did you know though that Vietnam is the largest producer of rice, exporting to many of its neighbors? Rice does not just occur in the large water soaked paddies but in nooks crannies, side and front yards–wherever water can be transported easily into a sunken area. Every patch of earth, however tiny, is planted with something–cabbage, greens, onions, corn and the other usual vegetables.
Though our own experience of vegetable growing is to amend the soil with compost making it light and fertile, the heavy red clay soil here produces stunning vegetables without apparent amendment. During our home-stay it was pretty ironic that as part of our eco-travel to the area we were “given” the opportunity to plant cabbage and lettuce starts! As the saying goes…”When in Rome…” We did our work with grace and humor. We travel far only to do just wee bit more planting before we really call our work done for the year’s food production. Our home-stay host was thankful and pleased that we had helped her to have lettuce in just two weeks. In my pinhead thinking I was musing, “good grief, this clay is such a mess to work with…what on earth will grow in it”. Here’s the truth…the next morning, I swear, most of the cabbage leaves were at least a third bigger! Oh how humbling…oh what learning.
But way more interesting than our little planting experience is that we have learned about several types of farming while in north Vietnam which I had never really considered “farming”. But when I step back and look at the bigger picture of a deeply community and family-centered, traditional agricultural culture, the clam, shrimp and salt farms out at the coast southeast of Hanoi are indeed forms of farming. I have been trying to put my finger on appropriate words to describe how these types of farming struck me. The farms are a fine balance of form and function completely in sync using all the natural elements and materials at hand. The tools, materials, storage sheds, working sheds-on-stilts each have a beauty of natural form evolved generations ago and continue to have the perfect form to fit the function.
Salt farms are family owned, passing from generation to generation. Let me give you a visual to set the scene. As far as the eye can see, there is a series of adjacent flat surfaces, “pans”, about 20×20 with short raised sections to divide each pan section. The “pans” are silky smooth and although they look to be concrete, they are made of lime and rice hull ash floated with extraordinary smoothness…for good reason. Next to the salt pans are flat football sized areas of wet sand…their texture is firm like sand from a freshly receded surf. Heaped up on one side next to the salt pans are mounds of wet sand. Between the sand and salt flats lies a trench about 2′ x 20′ long. And next to the trench is a hole in the ground lined with the same cementicious lime and rice hull ash.
The process has changed little over the generations. The mechanics are as ingenious as they are old. A system of underground channels conveys the salt water into the farmed flats. Fresh salt water arrives into the trench next to the open hole along side the flat pan area. The salt water goes through several iterations in the trench which has sand from the sand flat. This is a filtration process that intensifies the salt concentration preparing it for scooping out onto the salt pan. I believe I have it correct that this filtration process is done several times before the salt water is transferred onto the pan from the hole into which the filtered water has drained. Then the flooding process is done using large metal scoops again lashed to long bamboo poles. Just enough water is transferred onto the pan so as to not overflow into the next pan. Depending upon the weather, full sun or overcast, determines both how long the drying process takes and how much they can harvest in a day. Obviously when it’s raining there’s no active salt farming. Once the water has evaporated there is a thin layer of salt crystals about the size and texture of the coarse cooking salt we use at home. At this point the women begin to scrape the salt with wide bladed metal spatulas on long bamboo handles. They walk/scrape across the pans in lines and then mound the creamy colored salt into a huge pile, typically one pile per pan and scoop into a wheel barrow standing ready in the path along side the pan. The wheel barrow is assuredly the most stunning piece of equipment.
Made of a bamboo and wood frame with a typical rubber wheel barrow tire, the bucket is woven reed, sturdy and functionally perfect to let the salt sit and drain before being transported to the storage shed. Once the salt is harvested, the pans will be rinsed and squeegeed clean ready to start the process all over again. The trenches are dug clean of sand which is piled on the sand filed adjacent to the trench.
The storage sheds located not far from the salt pan areas continue to demonstrate a fine balance of form and function. Check it out for yourself.
On the way walking out, our experience shifted emotionally. Our local guide who runs an eco tourist company (very fledgling in Vietnam) stopped to talk with an older man, one of the family members working the farm. Our conversation shifted from learning about quantities per day and other metrics to what had occurred here during the American War. The man was of an age to have lived through those disastrous times. He told us that the whole area was bombed, destroying the pans and sand fields. Everything…salt pans, sand fields, storage sheds…lives and livelihoods shad to be rebuilt from the disparate pieces. As Americans, it is difficult not to feel deep sorrow and regret for the ravages of a senseless war. Apologies from us are received with grace…and with a positive brushing off with expressions of “that was in the past and we are living in harmony now”. This is a way of being, of seeing the present, very prevalent where we travel here. We hear frequently what is most important now in current VN society is they have harmony and peace–the unification of the whole country and good relations politically with the US.