During December 1994 we were able to revisit Viet Nam after many years. The brief visit was made to look at traditional and current fruit growing and cultural practices in the Mekong Delta area. We are particularly interested in Durian and Mangosteen production and its application to our farm at Bartle Frere and would like to share our experience with other RFCA members.
As Tuyet grew up in Tien Giang Province (100 km SW of Saigon) in the Mekong Delta, we had no problem with communication, and we'd have to say the welcome and friendship shown by the rural people wherever we went in the Delta was unexpectedly warm and friendly, especially when we were introduced and it was realised we also had an interest in fruit trees.
To say Viet Nam has been devastated by war is an understatement. Foreign intervention over the last 50 years has caused immense damage. Following Japanese occupation during WW 2, the French tried to reassert their colonial powers and the French Indochina war began (1945-1954). Following the French defeat, the US war (the first "television war") began, ending in US 'withdrawal' in 1975, followed by a US and IMF embargo on trade and development funding until 1994. The amount of ordinance dropped by B52s, fighter bombers etc, the napalm and the defoliants during the 30 years war is almost incomprehensible. The land and the people suffered greatly.
It is a true testimony to the Vietnamese people that they now welcome foreigners, the bomb craters are now filled, the bunkers and barbed wire are gone, and the land mostly returned to productive uses. The country's basic infrastructure (roads, rail, ports, communication, and power) is in very poor condition and requires massive development, which now seems to be starting.
Numerous new plantings of fruit trees on small holdings are noticeable everywhere we went in the Mekong Delta, which will certainly lead to an increase in fruit production from an area that already produces a rice surplus and is known as the rice bowl of SE Asia.
Before we tell you about fruit-growing, it might be helpful to give a brief outline, and an example of the meaning of 'land' to Vietnamese, as the approach to farming in Viet Nam generally is in accordance with this concept.
Traditional Vietnamese live by constant repetition, by the sowing and reaping of rice and by the perpetuation of customary law. Vietnamese worship their ancestors as the source of their lives, their fortunes, and their civilisation. In this society the child imitates the gestures of his grandfather so that when he becomes the grandfather, he could repeat them exactly to his grandchildren. In this passage of time that has no history, the death of a man marks no final end. Buried in the land that sustains his family, the father lives on in the bodies of his children and grandchildren. As time wraps around itself, the generations to come regard him as the source of their present lives and the arbiter of their fate. In this continuum of the family, 'private property' does not really exist, for the father is less of an owner than a trustee of the land to be passed on to his children. To Vietnamese, the land itself is the sacred, constant element; the people flow over the land like water, maintaining and making it fruitful for generations to come.
"Late in the American war, about 1968, a Vietnamese soldier came with his unit to evacuate the people of a starving village in Quang Nam Province so that the area might become a "free fire zone". While the villagers were boarding the US helicopters, one old man ran away from the soldiers, shouting that he would never leave his home. The soldiers followed the old man and found him hiding in a tunnel beside a small garden planted with a few pitiful stunted shrubs. When they tried to persuade him to go with the others, he refused, saying "I have to stay behind to look after this piece of garden. Of all the property handed down to me by my ancestors, only this garden now remains. I have to guard it for my grandson." Seeing the soldiers look askance, the old man admitted that his grandson had been conscripted and that he had not heard from him in two years. He paused, searching for an explanation, and then said, "If I leave, the graves of my ancestors, too, will become forest. How can I have the heart to leave?"
The soldiers turned away from the old man and departed, for they understood that for him to leave the land would be to acknowledge the final death of the family - a death without immortality. By deciding to stay he was deciding to sacrifice his life in postponement of that end. When the soldiers returned to the village fourteen months later, they found that an artillery shell had closed the entrance to the tunnel, making it a grave for the old man." (Between Two Fires : The Unheard Voices Of Vietnam, ed. Ly Qui Chung)
The Mekong Delta and the delta around Saigon is generally very fertile and flat, being formed by silt and river mud borne by the Mekong, Dong Nai, and Saigon Rivers. The land is crisscrossed by rivers, creeks, and drainage canals and is generally only a few metres above water level. As all the rivers connect to the south China Sea which has a tidal range of several metres, the (fresh) water in all the thousands of kilometres of interconnecting rivers, streams, and canals rises and falls about 2 metres twice daily. This natural water movement is used for irrigation and flushing etc., and it is likely this tidal water movement causes corresponding ground water movement, and corresponding air displacement and placement, which is likely to provide a beneficial environment for the root systems of water-loving trees. The river water does become brackish due to salt water intrusion, but only in that part of the delta near the coast during the dry season when the river flow volumes drop.
The Latitude of the Mekong Delta is from 10 to 11 degrees N, whereas Cairns is 17 degrees S of the Equator. There are two distinct seasons: dry from November to April and rainy from May to October. The average annual temperature is 27 degrees, and average annual rainfall, 1900 mm, with September being the wettest month. During the rainy season many parts of the delta are covered by rising water for a week or so, killing many susceptible trees such as Hog Plum, Jackfruit and Sapodilla.
Plentiful water and good soil have allowed intensive agricultural practices to support a large population in the Mekong Delta. The orchards we saw seem to be no larger than 1 hectare with each area belonging to one family member.
Very little machinery is used, hence plantings are closer than the larger scale operations in Australia, and most orchards have water channels running between each row or second row. Most farmers can only afford small quantities of chemical fertiliser (sold by kg. in local markets) , and whatever plant nutrient/mulch is available locally.
In Viet Nam the coconut is a very valuable tree. Every part of the tree is used, and in return the tree is usually cared for in the village or farm environment.
These uses include; green or mature nut is used for food and drink either raw or in cooking and making sweets. Coconut oil is extracted from the grated flesh and used as a hair lotion and for cooking. The husk may be used for cleaning saucepans and your body when taking a bath, and as a fuel when dry. The shell of the nut may be used as a bowl or scoop and can also be burnt for cooking. The leaf is used for weaving into baskets and drying mats etc., and when dry is used for fuel in cooking stoves, and when tied into a small long bundle, used as a burning torch to find the way home on dark nights. The 'spine' or secondary rhachis of the leaf may be trimmed into toothpicks. These 'renewable' parts of the coconut provide a very clean cooking fuel. Finally the trunk may be used as fuel, and the fibrous root system helps stabilise creek banks.
Every year a chemical or manure fertiliser (whatever is available) is dug into the top 5 centimetres of soil in the area from the trunk to 1-metre radius. Productive orchard land is always kept free of weeds and grass.
Our visit was too early in the season for fruit, although we did manage to buy one of the first fruit of the season in Saigon at the end of December. The vendor said it was from the Mytho area of the Mekong Delta. We visited farms and saw Durian growing in Tien Giang and Ben Tre Provinces of the Mekong Delta, and the Lai Thieu district near Saigon. In all these locations water was available to the tree from nearby creeks or channels and a water table 1 or 2 metres below the surface. We were told they need this water.
Different farmers we spoke to used a variety of fertiliser after harvesting. Whatever is readily available is used, which includes fish fertiliser, chicken manure, chemical fertiliser, mill mud and bagasse, and it is placed clear of the trunk and out to the drip line. All growers said to fertilise as above before flowering, then don't touch until harvest, just water, as the tree likes to be left alone during this period. Some farmers did not use animal manure, and applied ash after harvest.
Tree spacings varied as most were in mixed orchards, however some new plantings were at 8x8 metres with trees staggered in a diamond pattern.
We saw many mature Durians growing amongst other trees such as Mangosteen, Coconut etc. close to water, and on creek banks. Trees said to be 30 years or more old had trunk diameters of 30 to 60 cm, height about 15 metres and a canopy about 10 metres diameter. Some of the older trees in Ben Tre Province had been damaged by rockets or by the digging of bomb shelters during the 1945-75 war.
Regarding harvesting and telling when the fruit are ready, when the first fruit drop to the ground they remain marketable for two weeks. Once this happens, other fruit nearby on the same branch are ready and may be harvested.
One farmer said the first fruiting of a tree will usually drop. The majority of Durian we saw were seedling trees, which were culled if non-performers by year ten. Even with cincturing, some seedlings do not fruit in this time. Grafted trees are favoured, and the best variety is said to come from Singapore.
Green/gold ants are not used in Durian or Mangosteen as these trees provide no food or diseases to support them.
Many Mangosteen we saw in mixed orchards were "not doing much", even after thirty years. They are very slow growers.
At Lai Thieu we visited mangosteen orchards ranged along the banks of the Saigon River, that had been planted about one hundred years ago. The mangosteen here were huge - with trunks of 45 cm diameter and over 15 metres high. The spacing is generally six metres between rows and ten metres between trees, but as the trees are so huge it is now much too crowded with leaves and fruit mainly produced on the tree crown, or lower down on the tree where there is a break in planting for the sun to penetrate. One farmer said he was sorry his grandfather had not planted at larger spacing, such as fifteen by fifteen metres with diagonal planting to maximise space for canopy and root run. Interplanting in the first 10 or 20 years could be with Longan, Papaya, Soursop or Wax Jambu etc. We assumed the mangosteen orchard was not thinned, as the removal of long term shelter and companions may lead to decline of the remaining trees.
Fruiting is in April/May. After fruiting, an area of several metres radius from the trunk is cleared of leaf litter, and pig manure and ash is dug into the surface about 30 cm. thick and one hundred kg. per (mature) tree.
At Lai Thieu, mangosteen fruit in ten years in a good sunny position and twelve to fifteen years in predominant shaded undercanopy of one-hundred-year-old trees. The mangosteen orchards we saw in this area were generally within 100 metres of the Saigon River, and the land was flat river delta about 2 or 3 metres above river level. Between each second row there was a irrigation/drainage channel about 1 metre wide by 1 metre deep with water in it about a half-metre to 1 metre below ground level. There were many mangosteen roots visible in these channels, and the local growers said it was important to keep the water in the channels around the trees. Apart from the channels, there would probably be a moving (with the 2-metre tide range) water table about 2 metres below the surface which gives such a good environment for mangosteen.
Other orchards we visited included:
Pummelo, at Tan Trieu near Bien Roa we visited a small 1-hectare pummelo orchard. This orchard had some pink and some white, and the owner said some of her fruit was sent to Taiwan where there was a good market. The trees were about 8 years old and have fruit all year. It was closely planted at about 6 x 7 metres with canopy joining as there is no machinery used. Fertilising is done by digging in horse/cow/chicken and/or pig manure and rice husks from the trunk to the drip line before and after the rainy season each year. The soil in this renowned pummelo area is heavy chocolate river mud and the land is flat to very gently undulating. The land is "dry" delta country, with no surface or channel water around the trees. There was a creek 100 metres away, and the owner said she watered every 2 days in the dry season.
The owner has many 'Fertiliser trees', Leucaena leucocephala, growing around the orchard as they add nitrogen to the soil and they are cut to prop fruiting pummelo branches off the ground.
Sapodilla is a very popular fruit in Viet Nam, with a strong local market encouraging new plantings. One orchard visited near My tho in the Mekong Delta was about l hectare in size, with spacing about 6 metres between trees and 8 metres between rows. Between each row was a channel containing permanent water about 2 metres below the ground surface in which the trees were planted. No machinery is used.
The trees had been established 6 years and now provided a good return from the fruit. The owner fertilised with goat manure and/or chemical fertiliser once or twice a year.
Our 3-week visit was too short, as there were many other orchards further afield we could have visited. Hopefully there will be a next time soon so that we may provide more cultural information. All other visitors we met in Viet Nam were, without exception, very enthusiastic about their trip. This is not to say that everything is perfect, as we have already mentioned the last 50 years have been very difficult for most Vietnamese people. No family is untouched, and many still suffer extreme hardship. Any visitor to the countryside must expect very basic conditions in comparison to western standards.
Apart from the very beautiful countryside, which has been described as a land of brocade and velvet, Viet Nam's asset are its people. There are smiles and friendliness to foreigners everywhere, and we came away from Viet Nam with an impression of vibrancy in the people, as though the country has been reborn and is commencing a new journey. Many Australians may remember this vibrancy in Australia after the War.
DATE: September 1995
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