Elijah Ferrian heads down to a village in the rural southwest of Vietnam to get a finger on the pulse of a land characterised by rice farming at the mercy of the rains. All that seems to be changing with the advanced urbanisation of Vietnam’s economy. Photos by Vinh Dao.
I’m relatively new to Vietnam. The staff here at AsiaLIFE had our wheels turning, brainstorming for a cover story, and someone posed the question, “What do you think the average Vietnamese person does every day?” Answers varied, but those of us expats on staff were generally hard to come up with an answer we felt confident about.
“Not people from Saigon,” we decided, “but the average Vietnamese person in the countryside. What is their life really like? How would we even know that?” Most of us know generally what life is like inside of the sprawling metropolis that is Ho Chi Minh City, but according to the CIA World Factbook, as of 2015, 66.4 percent of the Vietnamese population were living outside of urban environments. Families in rural areas are living off of a significantly reduced amount of income compared to their urbanised peers, with many still living the same lifestyle, day in and day out, that their great grandparents had before them.
Our director creaked his chair in my direction. “Let’s send the new guy to the countryside.”
Village Time For The New Jack
A handful of us went to stay with a family in a village named Cai Lay, in Tien Gang province, for a few days. I was excited. I really had been missing being out amongst sprawling plant life, clean air, and a star-scape actually viewable when skies were clear.
The purpose of the trip initially was to put me to work in the rice fields. Hunt down and eliminate rice thieving field rats. Whatever work needed to be done, I would be doing it alongside everyone else.
What we ended up experiencing was wholly different than what we expected: this village is transforming into another level of commerce right before our eyes. The story had blossomed into something else entirely.
Microcosm: Rice, Fruits, Animals
Dang Van Kha is a 60-years-old livestock farmer that wears his profession on his sun-weathered features. Wiry, stoic in demeanour, and absolutely hilarious.
We are sitting at a makeshift table on the farm sipping on hot tea with Kha and his family and neighbours. A man ambles up that had been hitting the rice wine a bit heavy that day, and they start to rib him. They are cackling back and forth as the man works his way up to the table to sit down. Suddenly his face, wide eyed and confused, darts from me to the friends encircled around the table. The group of men laugh toward our new guest. Our lead designer, Thang Pham, luckily had joined our trip as translator, and I look at him for answers.
“What the hell just happened there?” I ask.
“They’re all messing with him, telling him crazy stuff, and he believes them because he’s been drinking,” he replies.
Let’s just say they had him convinced that I was up to no good. We all join in on a huge laugh before I turn my attention to Kha, to ask about his life, his family, and his farm.
The Dang family has been working this land for over 100 years. His great-grandfather bought it, and they started out like most everyone in this area did: growing rice. There’s a general sustenance farming tier. You start with rice, work your way up to fruits and vegetables, and eventually start raising animals – a few chickens, a handful of ducks, and maybe a cow or three. It’s a long process, and is only achieved through a disciplined, arduous daily regimen that I imagine the majority of those of us in industrialised cities would break down and cry after reaching the four or five day mark.
Kha wakes up at three in the morning everyday and has a quick breakfast. He feeds the ducks, chickens, and cows at three different times, while doing general upkeep and maintenance of the fruits and vegetables he grows on his 1,000-square-metre plot of land.
He heads to the market and attempts to sell his goods. VND90,000 per kilo of chicken. VND40,000 per kilo of duck. If he’s really lucky, he might be able to sell a cow if the season has been rough for his potential buyers.
“Business always fluctuates.” he explains. “Every year you can never really tell what is going to happen. It fluctuates like crazy no matter what your profession. All the jobs are not stable.”
This is illustrated by the fact that jackfruit, which he can usually sell for VND30,000-a-piece, has dropped down to VND7,000 because of an oversupply. There’s no way for him to project that happening. There’s no time to spend 12 hours a day working your land and keeping tabs on competitors wares.
Luckily for the Dang family, the times… they are a-changin’.
New Paths Lead West
A thoroughfare was recently built that cut through Cai Lay village. It connects Saigon with the sprawling fields and small villages out west that have been historically cut off from the rest of the economy. Until this new road was built, Quoc Lo 1, a major interstate highway fit for major vehicles and anyone looking to head deeper into the western Mekong Delta region, was the only connection from Saigon to the heartland of the fourth largest rice-yielding area in the world.
This new road is the harbinger of a new economic future for this region, and Ly Thi Be Tam, a high school teacher for the past 28 years, has just built her new business right next to it.
Her parents were rice farmers. Their parents were rice farmers. She built a gigantic warehouse, storefront, and home structure with her own savings. She plans to sell interior design products, furniture, light fixtures, security cameras, air-conditioners, and various home goods. So why this transition?
“If it wasn’t for the road coming through, there’s no way I would be opening this business,” she explains. “We were informed two years ago that this was happening. I have been planning. Over the next few months, many people will be building houses and shops around the area because of the new developments. The government has a lot of contracts opening new places, and this will be the headquarters of the town.”
Tam’s daughter, Luu Quoc Thien Trang, has a university degree in logistics, and was planning on heading to Ho Chi Minh City to pursue her dream career as manager of a shipping line. That’s all changed, and now she is staying home to help her mother solidify her dream of owning a successful business.
Macrocosm – Main Road, Family Stores, Hot Properties
The man we were staying with, Pham Van Loc, bought the land on which his beautiful new house stands for only VND5 million. This was back in 1987.
He had no place to stay at the time, and he needed some land if he was to ever build a home. He constructed a small straw house, and got his start on rice cultivation, which he learned after working the fields immediately after the American war, from 1975 up until he hand planted 200 longan trees on his newly-acquired 5,000 hectares.
He just stopped cultivating rice last year he tells us. His hands are now full in the construction business that is now booming because of the massive growth into the surrounding area, but he still grows fruits and vegetables. The prices are all over the place, but he has a new house which he built in 2012, and has much less to worry about with the new developments in his village.
Loc speaks with a smile as he looks out over his land from his porch. “We have all been very lucky,” he says. “The government built a main road right by [our] land. If they had decided to build it just 10 or 20 miles further over, everyone would still have to be farming. I would still be doing rice, and still be doing fruit.”
Just to illustrate the absolute life-changing event that this has been for Cai Lay village, Dang Van Kha’s 1,000-square-metres of land was worth only VND60 million (US$2,695) before the road’s construction. Now the property is worth VND1 billion ($44,900).
Urbanisation and Diversification
In recent years, the poverty rate among fruit farmers in certain areas of the Mekong Delta has been declining at a rapid rate. In fact, according to a report by the International Institute for Environmental Development, poverty has been declining in the Mekong Delta more rapidly than rural households elsewhere in Vietnam as a whole.
Much of this improvement stems from the mass growth of income coupled with lifestyle changes, steering the urban populace towards better diets and higher demand for fruits and vegetables. Additionally, the increase of employment opportunities in a wide variety of different sectors, coupled with a rise in local traders connecting small farms with urban markets, are playing out in a beautiful symbiosis. All of this allows the massive economic growth that Saigon is experiencing to trickle out into the rice fields.
The storied farm families get to invest in the lands that have been handed down to them for generations, and with that comes new economic growth in multiple directions for families that were historically too poor to migrate, and too tied to their farms to leave them anyway.
It is a beautiful change to watch unfold.
I have never been treated more warmly than I was getting to know the people living in Cai Lay. These families opened up their homes to our crew, put up with my buggering and incessant questioning, Vinh’s constant photo snapping, all while refusing to let us lift a finger, and bombarding us with delicious home-cooked dishes that I had never even seen before.
This was a true experience of life in Vietnam. An experience of a time that has existed relatively unchanged for hundreds of years.
I could not think of a better transition into the new economic age that the country is catapulting into, then for the lifeblood of the agricultural backbone that has brought everyone this far to be rewarded with a chance at transition.