Vietnam has been closed to tourists for more than 15 years. It is only in the last 2 years that they have opened their borders to attract the tourist dollar. I was fortunate enough to spend 12 days touring South Vietnam recently. I have always wanted to see what types of fruit grows there. As in any country, a visit to the central market soon reveals what fruit is in season there.

I discovered they have durian, mangosteen, longan, salak, jakfruit sapodilla and pitaya, which I discovered is very popular with the locals. They call it 'tiger fruit' and it is a much bigger variety than we grow here. The outside is bright red and the flesh is creamy-coloured with black seeds. The time to experience these fruits are from September to November.

The durian and jak fruit trees abound in all backyards and along the road side. I discovered a variety of durian which surprised me in both size and taste. We visited the Mekong delta region where I first saw these 'giant' durian. A Vietnamese fruit vender had her stall set up like many of the locals do, on the side of the road. We had passed several stalls abounding with durian, longan and pommelo. Suddenly I noticed these huge durians. We asked our guide to stop. On close inspection, they were the biggest I have ever seen. I bought 3 at a cost of $4.00 each. They all weighed in at 8 - 10 kg each, good value I thought. We sat down at a tea stall and had a cup of Vietnamese green tea, and set about devouring one of the durians. The seeds were an average size but a more than generous amount of flesh which was the sweetest I had ever eaten, and the aroma distinctly durian!

I asked our interpreter to find out where the fruit was growing. Before long we were standing in the lady's back yard under a durian tree that had to be 40 years old, reaching 25 m high. Judging by the amount of fruit left on the tree, the season looked to be half over. I counted at least 50 fruit before I got confused whether I had counted that branch or this branch. It grew on the edge of an effluent drain which fed the root system.

I had great difficulty finding the government department responsible for the fruit industry in general. It seems like the government haven't got around to setting up a research station or compiling information on certain species and fruit types, like they have in Thailand. There was no evidence of 'Agent Orange' in the south, but I saw pictures of areas in the North that will take decades to recover from the effects of the deadly chemical rain.

I have looked in envy at how well the durian grows in Asia. I have seen durian growing in Thailand, Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia and now Vietnam. In cases where durians are growing in the wild, they seem to get all the nutrients and water they need.

I have 15 durian left out of 30 that I planted, and I did everything possible to make them grow strong and healthy. I double-rooted them. I have fruit on them for the first time this year, after a prolific flowering. They are six years old. I intend to plant out some of the seedlings I have from the seeds I brought back from Vietnam. All my current trees are grafted, but it's interesting to note that a seedling durian I also planted 6 years ago has several flowers on for the first time. I intend to let a dozen or so of the Vietnam seedlings grow to maturity and see what comes, as they are all from the 'giant' durians from Vietnam.

The mangosteens and longans in Vietnam are very similar in size and taste to any in Asia. There is a thriving pommelo industry in Vietnam. But the nation as a whole is struggling to find its way on the world stage. They are in much need of foreign investment dollars, and expertise to improve their marketing skills. The only fear I have is that if they don't get the right assistance, the city of Saigon could become a second Bangkok. With a population of 8 million people, this would have devastating consequences.

Russell Francis

DATE: January 1994

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