Vietnam sits on the eastern shores of South East Asia, shaped much like an enormous "S" and bordered on the north by China, on the west by Cambodia and Laos, with Thailand much further south of Cambodia. Once "off limits" to many tourists, Indochina has become a thriving region for the international traveller. Vietnam is now known as one of the loveliest countries in South East Asia, with ancient temples, friendly people, and international flavour.
After spending two unforgettable weeks in Thailand, our Rare Fruit group, led by Chris Rollins, arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon and often called the "Paris of the East". Our hotel was the famous Majestic, considered one of the ritziest hotels during the French administration. It has since been refurbished and is enjoying some of its former splendour and prestige.
The central Ben Tranh market, we were told, had anything and everything one could ever want. Although the market was just a few blocks away, we decided to travel in style in a Vietnamese two-seater bicycle taxi. The market was huge and, from all appearances, the many stalls were chocked full of all types of merchandise. Our only problem was that we had only about two hours to browse and shop before closing time.
Priority was therefore given to fruits. My primary interest was to locate a certain variety of mango. Although it was nearing the end of the mango season, there were still some prominently displayed. I didn't have a problem with their currency, and though some of the vendors spoke and understood Thai, the big issue was communication. They didn't speak enough English, and since we didn't have an interpreter, trying to find the names of the mango cultivars was an impossible task. Fortunately, I already knew the name of one cultivar I wanted. The most-asked-for varieties were Xoai Cat Hoa Luc followed by Xoai Tuong, a variety eaten mature green, Xoai Thom, a small 120-150g mango and Xoai Cat Chu a smaller and very sweet mango. Xoai is the Vietnamese word for mango.
Since the most popular variety was Xoai Cat Hua Luc (pronounced Khatt, but spelled like Cat for short), I inquired if they were the Cat variety. At first they seemed a bit perplexed that I should ask such a question. I can only speculate they thought I really wanted to know if the mango was good tasting. Finally, the response was a quick nod accompanied with the biggest smile, hoping it would culminate in a sale. Over the years, I learnt never to take anything a vendor says for granted. So I quickly pointed to another mango display nearby and asked if it was Nam Doc Mai, knowing fully well it wasn't, to which I again received the same response. Realising this was a hopeless situation, I decided to try my luck elsewhere, and bought the mangoes from two other vendors instead.
At the hotel, our taste panel included Larry Schokman, Chris Rollins, Paulette Johnston, Bill Coleman (California), Warren Lue (Jamaica) and myself. All agreed the Cat mango (if it was truly a Cat) had a deliciously sweet and smooth texture, with a delightful melting flavour. Its shape was somewhat elongated about 5-6 inches long, with a skin colouration ranging from the familiar Asian greenish yellow to yellow depending on the degree of ripeness. At the same time, another mango that I bought as a Cat, though not as ripe, somehow did not taste the same. The big question was "did we actually taste the Cat mango or not?"
At a night market in Can Tho, I again purchased what was claimed to be the Cat mango. This time, my tour guide Zoom, was my interpreter. This mango had a golden yellow flesh that was very smooth and delicious, and in my opinion that night was neck to neck with Nam Doc Mai. To solve this problem once and for all, I bought a grafted Xoai Cat Hua Loc mango.
Another big surprise was the size of some large sapodillas (Manikara zapota), some the size of an orange. These mature sapodillas with their light green skin had a light brown flesh, quite unlike the brown-skinned, brown-flesh sapodillas we are familiar with in Florida. Although the fruits were not quite ripe, their flavour somehow lacked that sweet brown sugar taste of most sapodillas. Nobody knew the cultivar of this sapodilla, and since it was likely these fruits were purchased from the floating market boats, finding the name of this cultivar was next to impossible. Once again, without a translator, I was lucky to have gotten the only grafted sapodilla at a small nursery near Can Tho University. The nursery owner was honest enough to say from my description, it is most likely the same variety as those at the Ben Thanh market in Ho Chi Minh City.
A report recently received from Voon Boon Ho confirmed that the Vietnamese sapodilla did, in fact, have a brownish flesh if allowed to get very ripe. The quality was excellent and the texture was very fine and smooth with no sign of grittiness. Voon's other comment was that the Vietnamese picked the fruit a little earlier than normal so that it was easy to rub off the scruffy outer surface to reveal a smooth underlying greenish skin. This, of course, is a very time consuming task that would be impractical in Florida. His explanation sounded plausible since most of the fruits we all bought were very hard and needed several days to ripen.
Another surprise were some very small jackfruits (Artocarpus heterophyllus) about the size of your two closed fists, a size I have never seen before. The flavour was quite good and sweet, but lacked that crunchy texture that I am accustomed to eating in a jackfruit. Nevertheless, its size, I thought, might be just perfect for the American market. I later found out that Malaysia also has a similar size jackfruit. We brought back some seeds to germinate.
One of the first fruits I saw in Ho Chi Minh City were jujubes that were as large as the Thai variety. My evaluation was that their flavour did not compare to the Thai varieties I have in my collection. True, they were crunchy like the Thais, but were somehow a little watery and lacked flavour, a conclusion I arrived at after tasting them at two different locations. The fact that they fruited in May/June might be worthy of some consideration to a collector since the Thai varieties are usually not available till July/August.
Vietnam also grows Dragon's eye longans (Dimocarpus longana), which is probably the same as the Malaysian Mata Kuchin. They were very sweet, but because they were all grown from seed, their flesh ratio was relatively small in relation to the fruit size. It was evident they have not done any selection or have made any attempt to locate other sources, such as those available in Thailand.
At one of our floating market stops, we had lunch at the home of Pham Van Lan on Bihn Hoa Phuoc island. This elderly Vietnamese gentleman also had a longan orchard. Our host was most gracious and was willing to answer every question about our observations, including one that was very noticeable at every place we visited outside Ho Chi Minh City. "Why," we asked, "were the trees in his garden growing on elevated soil mounds instead of at soil level?" He explained that if the plants were planted the customary way, the trees would eventually die as the roots would suffer from rising water in the Mekong Delta, especially during the monsoon season. We also asked about his many trees branches that were girdled. Mr Lan explained that this practice is done regularly to induce flowering, and that the ribbons were merely for easy identification. He even pointed out two prized trees he found that bore larger fruits that also flower without girdling.
Our group also visited a Pumelo orchard. The owner was most gracious and treated us to the prized fruits he was keeping to take to the market. So many questions were asked, but our interpreter was so busy trying his best to interpret his answers into English, I somehow forgot to find out the name of this cultivar, which had a very good flavour.
Finally, at Cat Tho University, we saw how the Vietnamese grew their famous Dragon Fruit (Pitahaya), that had become their number one export crop.
In conclusion, our tour of Vietnam was a little too short. An extra day in Ho Chi Minh City would have been great. Our visit to the Can Tho University opened the window for our mutual benefit. Chris Rollins' offer for closer co-operation came as a welcome surprise to them, since such co-operation is usually done through the customary government-to-government channels. It is our sincere hope that our visit will be the beginning of a mutual relationship benefiting our two countries, and that the Rare Fruit Council International and the Fruit And Spice Park make this possible.
DATE: August 2001
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