by Cassidy Armbruster
Vietnam’s countryside is filled with rice fields, and the cities with rice dishes. Rice fuels people’s stomachs as well as the economy. Vietnam is the second largest exporter of rice in the entire world, and is the seventh biggest consumer of rice according to the International Rice Research Institute.
On an average summer day, the sun is beaming and the temperature feels as though it’s continuously rising, making conditions extremely harsh for these rice farmers that cover their bodies head to toe to avoid the sunlight. Just outside of the Phan family temple, a rice farmer was kind enough to give me a moment of her day to tell me about her daily tasks and her work schedule. The woman explained that she begins her day in the field at 5:30 AM until her early morning tea break at around 9:00 AM. Following her tea break, she returns to the rice fields until lunch at around 12:00 PM. After her lunch break at 2:00 PM, she is back working under the hot sun. The woman explained that her lunch break is not much of a break, but more a continuation of her workday in a different environment- her home. The woman returns home and tends to her family and her cattle until it’s time to head back out to the rice fields. She said most days she finishes work at 5:30 PM, but on some occasions she works into the night.
Phi, my translator and tour guide, who makes friends with anyone and everyone he meets stopped and asked a woman working in a field near a path we were riding down about what exactly she was doing. The woman in the photograph below explained that the seeds had been moved from a seed bed into the damp field. The seeds are thus in the transplanting stage, which is extremely labor intensive. The woman said that at this point she is spacing the seeds apart by hand to maximize the yield. The seed must reproduce and ripen before they are harvested. Because this job is so labor intensive, sometimes dozens of people will be working throughout the rice field at one time.
As you drive into Hoi An and pass rice farms along the way, you will observe rice farmers using traditional methods to tend to their farms. You will therefore see buffalo roaming the farms connected to their field by a rope, and often accompanied by a rice farmer. Instead of machinery, the farmers do manual labor with the help of their buffalo. The buffalo are raised by the farmers to plow the rice fields in preparation for a new harvest. Buffalo are great for Vietnamese rice farmers because they are well adapted to extremely hot climates, and require minimal food management seeing as the buffalo primarily graze on the land they are surrounded by.
Just as Vietnamese farmers continue their traditions of using buffalo to plow and turn the soil for their rice fields, they continue to practice their traditional irrigation methods today. The farmers scoop water from large channels into the rice fields smaller irrigation channels with a handmade device made from strong wood and bamboo. Bamboo is used throughout Southeast Asia for a variety of uses, such as for roofs, construction, chopsticks, as well as for farming. The device used to irrigate the rice paddy is propped up by three bamboo sticks tied together at the top for balance. A rope is attached to the both the scooper and the bamboo above. The water is then distributed to the smaller irrigation channels with dry soils often because of inadequate rainfall. Although time consuming, physically taxing, and less efficient, the traditional device is effective and requires no electricity.
In the central region of Vietnam, there are typically two crops harvested per year, and by the summer the rice farmers are on their second harvest of the year. The crop generally takes three and a half months to harvest, and afterwards the fields are left to restore themselves in preparation for the next harvest.
Rice is used for a multitude of things throughout Vietnam, such as for rice wine, rice noodles, rice vinegar, and rice crackers. The rice is exploited to its fullest potential so that nothing goes to waste. For example, during our day tour of Hoi An, we visited Mrs. Linh’s home where she makes and sells rice crackers. Even the rice husk is put to use to burn the fire that cooks the rice paste for the rice crackers!
Although a day in the life of a rice farmer is demanding and challenging, the work is fulfilling. Rice is a commodity in Vietnam, thus people taking pride in tending to the rice fields, and in cultivating a food so essential to both Vietnamese cuisine and the economy. I hope I have expanded your appreciation for rice, a grain that may have been misunderstood as a simple, machine produced ingredient in traditional Vietnamese meals.