It’s my birthday and I’ll ride if I want to, I’ll ride if I want to! A water buffalo that is : ) The water buffalo is referred to as the BMW of Vietnam so it was only fitting really.
We had looked at a few tours and settled on Jack Tran’s Wet Rice Farmer Tour – Janine, Rod, Zoe and Hunter treated me for my birthday. Last year swimming in Lake Lucerne and enjoying fantastic Swiss hospitality, this year learning about rice and riding a water buffalo with more good friends – how lucky am I!
The tour started in Hoi An where we were fitted to our bicycles. We were soon on the little lanes behind the town and into the rice paddy fields. It is very picturesque and it was good to be riding a bike again. The weather was perfect – about 29 degrees with cloud cover and a gentle breeze. Our guide Lilli was great fun – she was defying all the odds in Vietnam – she was 24 and still single. Her mother had taken her to see the Witch the day before to see why she wasn’t married and pregnant! 24 appears to be the cut off – if you’re not married and pregnant by this stage in your life you are bringing shame on your family. Lilli said she loves her job, enjoys improving her English by conversing with the tourists and is learning there is a whole wide world out there that one day she hopes to see. We were of course encouraging her : )
The first stop on our leisurely cycle was a duck farm. Eight million households (about 36% of all households) in Vietnam keep poultry – 65% of households keep chicken in small numbers (less than 200 heads per year), 25% of households keep ducks in small numbers (less than 200 heads per year) and 10 to 15% of chicken comes from commercial operations with a herd size of 200 to 500. 0.1% are integrated industrial farms with herd sizes of bewteen 2,000 and 30,000 chicken heads – these operations are normally integrated with foreign feed companies. Ducks are much cheaper to buy than chickens. A chicken in Vietnam is a high-value asset. Keep it laying eggs for you as long as possible. When guests come over or when you want a special meal, serve a whole chicken. Lilli explained that most of the rice paddy fields in Hoi An are family plots where the rice is grown purely for the family’s consumption. Each family has a plot of about 500 square metres – you can see the divisions between plots where there is no rice growing. There are two harvests per annum – January to April and then May to September. October to December is the wet season so no rice is grown then. If the families sold the rice they would get about USD143 (NZD217) per harvest – USD286 (NZD434) per annum. Not a great deal of money for eight months work, hence why it is mainly used to feed the family. The tourism industry in Vietnam has now allowed work outside the home so this money is used to pay for other necessities as well as education for the children beyond primary school.
We were going to visit a wet rice farmer who was going to show us the traditional methods of wet rice farming from preparing the field to sowing the seed and then harvesting the rice. The traditional harvesting methods are not widely used anymore so we stopped off at a rice factory to see how machinery is now used. They had three machines – the first one separated the rice grain from the husk – this husk is then used for cooking fires. The next machine removed the finer husk remnants which are used in chicken food while the final machine cleaned the rice. The finished rice was then put into sacks and marked with the families name. The families pay the factory to carry out this process.
We arrived at the farmers home and parked our bikes. There was a kindergarten or daycare on the premises too with all these little tots inside singing and playing. They were quite fascinated by us and some came to the windows to look and converse. They were so cute – a lot of them stayed on their little chairs chatting and smiling away – they seemed remarkably well behaved! Apparently most of them are dropped off about 7.30am and picked up at 5pm six or seven days a week. They are given two meals a day and they have an afternoon sleep. This service costs the parents USD25 (NZD38) per month but given the average wage is USD150 (NZD228) per month this still represents a large percentage of their wages – 17%.
After much gooing and gaaing it was time to get to work. We donned our farmer clothes and traditional hats took some photos and choose who was going to ride Se (pronounced Say) the water buffalo first. Janine was first up followed by Zoe and Hunter in unison – they were figuring there was safety in numbers. Then it was my turn – it was a strange sensation and I was concerned that I would end up in the brown stuff! Rod took to riding the buffalo like a duck to water – he looked like he was going rodeo riding.
The rotary hoe was then hooked up and we had turns leading Se and guiding the hoe from behind. We all braved squishing and squelching through the mud. After a rice harvest the soil is very acidic so turning it over allows all the good stuff to come to the top. Ploughing a plot of 500 square metres would normally take two to three days. The field is then raked – we stood on top of the rake and held onto Se’s tail as he pulled us around – water skiing buffalo style. Standing on the rake provides weight and allows it to get traction. The next step is to remove the water from the field – there was a little plot set aside where we could practice the traditional method which consisted of two people on either side of a bamboo bucket with ropes attached. You use the top and bottom ropes to maneuverer the bucket. No need for the gym here – this is a good workout in itself.
Once the water is removed you scatter the rice seeds evenly over the plot. Once the seeds start growing water is added to the field, hence the name wet rice farming. To get maximum yields the rice is usually started in special seed beds and then transplanted by hand to the flooded fields when the seedlings are strong enough. After about a month the plants are then thinned out with the plants removed being replanted in new rows. After another couple of months the rice is ready for harvesting. The standing water in a rice paddy field prevents weed growth and the algae which grows on the water provides fertiliser in the form of nitrogen and oxygen. This plus the addition of animal manure keeps the ground fertile year after year. Rice paddy fields are a major source of methane. After harvesting, the rice must be dried before being pounded to separate the rice grain from the husk, or the rice bran. Traditionally rice was pounded by hand and retained more protein and fat which made it more nutritious. Now rice is more often milled at a rice mill but is less nutritious.
As mentioned above most of the rice grown in Hoi An is for consumption by the family. Vietnam is one of world’s richest agricultural regions and is the second-largest (after Thailand) exporter worldwide and the world’s seventh-largest consumer of rice. The Mekong Delta is the heart of the rice producing region of the country where water, boats, houses and markets coexist to produce a generous harvest of rice. Vietnam’s land area of 33 million hectares has three ecosystems that dictate rice culture. These are the southern delta (with its Mekong Delta dominating rice coverage), the northern delta (the tropical monsoon area with cold winters) and the highlands of the north (with upland rice varieties). The most prominent irrigated rice system is the Mekong Delta. Rice is a staple of the national diet and is seen as a “gift from God”.
After all our farming activities we had a go at pounding the rice and then separating the rice grains from the husks – definitley not as easy as the farmer made it look! We then ground some rice into rice milk using a traditional grinder. We were all getting a bit peckish now so next up we made some traditional pancakes with rice milk. It was then time for lunch – there was so much food that we couldn’t eat it all. To top it off Lilli had secretly organised a birthday cake for me – it was quite a work of art. Very spoilt indeed.
When we arrived back at our apartment the staff here had also organised some flowers and another birthday cake – Steve was of course trying to take credit for it but no one was beleiving him. My birthday was topped off at a local restaurant called The Purple Lantern – friends had recommended it and after a little bit of wandering around near An Bang beach we eventually found it. Another memorable birthday : )
Jack Tran’s Eco Tours
JackTran’s EcoTours (Hoi An Eco-tour) is a local Vietnamese fishing family-run business that shows travellers about the Vietnamese people – how they live, work and eat. The owner and Managing Director is Mr. Tran Van Khoa, born in 1978, known as Jack Tran.
Jack Tran founded JackTran’s EcoTours (Hoi An Eco-tour) in 2005 with the vision of creating a sustainable business that would preserve and promote both our environment and our social and cultural values. They specialize in organizing and hosting eco-tours in and around Hoi An. They do this by engaging local Vietnamese people who: provide knowledgeable commentary; demonstrate traditional fishing and faming techniques; and then provide our guests with the opportunity for some hands-on experiences.