Discovering a Food Forest in Vietnam

Daniel Hudspith
Friday, 9th October 2015

Whilst travelling in Vietnam, Daniel Hudspith discovers a traditional farm where guilds of fruit trees form the canopy and vegetables grow in dappled shade on berms, surrounded by water filled trenches for fish farming. He sees how traditional systems have influenced the patterns found in permaculture.

I’m heading up the Mekong River. Despite my best efforts, I cannot help but think of Colonel Kurtz as played by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. ‘The horror … the horror’. Of course, it’s anything but horrific. As I motor along the tea-brown water at dawn towards the floating market, with my guide Phoenix – a student of English with a penchant for American baseball – and skipper Thanh – who rarely says a word but has the broadest of smiles – I’m afforded a river view of how the locals start off the day. Glimpses of life: a child washing from a bucket at the water’s edge, a woman peeling vegetables, a man smoking in a fishing boat.

I’m in Vietnam – the Mekong Delta to be precise, that hinterland of tributaries and agricultural land that is the primary food producer for the entire country. As I had expected, the country is fascinating – with the stark contrast between its bustling cities striving towards modernisation and its rambling rural areas that seem to belong to another time providing a feast for the eyes.

As we reach the market, the sun now high enough to cast golden edges on the ripples of the wake we leave behind us, I am immersed in another spectacle. Barges laden with fruits and vegetables lie low in the water like surfacing whales as smaller vessels toting drinks and food zip between them. Traders pull alongside in their own longboats to barter over the price before loading up and chugging to the shore.

What I hadn’t expected on my trip, however, was to see permaculture in action. But that’s exactly what happened. Having toured the market, sampling a slice of this here, a glass of that there, Phoenix asked if I wanted to go and see where some of this fruit was actually grown. She said she knew a place that wouldn’t mind us turning up. Well, certainly, I replied, so Thanh gunned the engine and we skidded on up the river, as Phoenix quizzed me on some of the more arbitrary idioms of the English language.

Of course, what was going on at the fruit farm we visited (owned by Phoenix’s uncle) wasn’t expressly called permaculture; it was just ‘farming’, but while the name might not have been there, the practice certainly was.  

Traditional Farming

The farm was arranged in a long series of shallow trenches that were filled with water, leaving berms between them around two meters wide. The trenches ran the length and breadth of the field. Planted along each of these berms was a row of fruit trees – rambutan, dragon fruit, sapodilla, papaya, avocado, banana and mango. The farm had obviously been going for some time (Phoenix later told me that it had been in her family for three generations) as the trees were almost all mature, and their canopies stretched across – there or thereabouts – the width of the berm and partly over the trench. At that moment, it was predominantly sapodilla season and Phoenix reached out from the veranda to pluck a fruit from the nearest tree, slicing it open for me to try. Its sweet caramel taste was divine.

Phoenix explained that when a certain type of fruit comes into season, the farmer loads up his barge with as much as he can carry and cruises downstream to the market. He stays there, in one spot, sleeping on the boat, until he has sold all his cargo, before coming back, refilling the hold and going back once more. He continues this until all the fruit is sold or the season comes to an end – whichever is soonest. Then, when the next fruit to ripen is in season it starts over again.

The berms were not solely given over to the trees, however. Planted below them and along the edges of the trenches were a number of other plants. Just from where we were sat on the veranda of her uncle’s house, I could spot taro, sweet potato, and watercress. The sun was quite high in the sky now and you could see how these lower-storey plants gaining protection from what can be stultifying temperatures via the dappled shade cast by the fruit trees’ canopies. I asked Phoenix whether having so many species growing together was common in the Delta.

‘Yes. Well, it used to be. This is the traditional way of farming here. Good soil, you see. But now, a lot of farmers just grow rice. To export to China.’

I asked her if she had heard of permaculture, and she gave me a blank look. I explained about companion planting, guilds and so on, and how it helped keep the ecosystem healthy and pests under control. You know, all that jazz. 

‘Oh, yes; lots of insects here because of all the plants. Good food for the fish.’

I hadn’t thought to actually look at the water, assuming it was simply as a reservoir for the plants’ roots in the baking heat. But now, as I looked down into the nearest trench I could see bubbles and humps in the muddy water as fish slowly moved through it. 

Then the distinctive snout of a catfish slowly surfaced, and its mouth engulfed an unsuspecting water bug.

‘We also have snails and frogs in the trenches,’ Phoenix said, pointing to a frog camouflaged in the mud.

‘Don’t the frogs eat the snails?’ I ask.

‘Some. But then we eat the frogs.’

Phoenix motioned to our host at the far end of the veranda. Her uncle was standing over a grill on which lay a couple of frogs, upended, splayed out and smouldering away. 

‘He’s cooked snake and a rat too,’ Phoenix said. ‘Come on, lunch is ready.’

As we got up from our seats to share her uncle’s meal, I noticed the row of lemongrass running along the edge of the veranda and asked Phoenix whether he was using that to flavour our barbecue (I said it hopefully, as I’m not a big fan of unseasoned rat). 

‘Oh, no,’ she said. ‘Lemongrass helps keep the mosquitoes away. Because – how do you say it in English? – they can be nasty little buggers!’

Daniel Hudspith is a freelance writer and editor. He also runs zesttext.com, and blogs irreverent micro-fiction.

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