Hitchhiking Vietnam
life in vietnam
"It took me two years in a small village in the Philippines to even begin to understand rice. By the end of my time there I could identify over a dozen varieties by their smell alone, knew 34 Tagalog words to describe rice, and could write a recipe book on the various ways to cook it. Still, I was a novice compared to my villagers.

I remember one day buying a 50 kilo sack of rice in the market and bringing it back to my hut. That night I opened it to cook some for my dinner. I knelt down next to the sack and unthinkingly dug my hands in to the elbows. I felt a surge of joy, of satisfaction - I felt safe. I certainly wasn't about to go hungry but that rice suddenly represented a safe food supply for the foreseeable future. The only thing I can liken it to is getting your salary check in the mail. You're okay for a while - you'll be able to meet your needs, pay your bills. It was the first time I began to understand what rice meant to the people of Asia."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

Vietnam has often been likened to one of those two-basket panniers the Vietnamese use to carry things - they look rather like a justice scale with the fulcrum on the shoulder. This is because the Mekong in the south and the Red River in the north are indeed rice baskets, producing vast quantities of grain that feed the rest of Vietnam.

Rice in Vietnam (as in all of Asia) is not just that fluffy white stuff in a box that you dig out once a month as an accompaniment to your favorite lemon chicken. Rice is life. Almost no meal goes by without it (as a matter of fact, the Vietnamese often don't even call it a meal if it doesn't include rice). The poor mountain Vietnamese say "there is no money" and "there is no rice" interchangeably because if they had money, they would use it to buy rice. In many areas rice is money - it is the traditional currency.

There are two principal ways to grow rice - in wet paddy or on dry hillsides. The paddy rice yields a high tonnage per hectare but requires more labor. The dry rice is usually planted by poor farmers who have no access to water or live on slopes too steep to terrace.

With a few possible variations, these are the steps required to grow rice (assuming the paddy has already been constructed).
  1. Flood the paddy.
  2. Pull out all the floating paddy weeds and dump them on the dike to dry
  3. Empty the paddy with an engine or scoop
  4. gather together the remaining fish and other creepy-crawlies and eat them
  5. dig small channels in the mud to help dry the field
  6. Clean the paddy walls of old growth
  7. Plow the paddy twice with a pair of water buffalo
  8. Smooth out the paddy so that its absolutely flat and therefore evenly moist
  9. Dig and fertilize rice seedling beds along one side of the field
  10. germinate the rice for 48 hours.
  11. Plant rice in seedling beds
  12. After rice is 4-6 inches tall, pull it up, bundle it, and carry it out into the main fields.
  13. Replant 3-5 seedlings at a time approximately 6 inches apart in every available inch of field
  14. Fertilize regularly with cow manure or night waste
  15. Weed around each cluster of seedlings several times as they grow taller.
  16. Add water regularly to paddy, using a scoop if necessary
  17. When rice is ripe, harvest with a sharp, curved knife and bundle into sheaves
  18. Thrash rice to remove it from the plant.
  19. Dry rice in the sun
  20. Thresh rice to separate it from the husks
  21. Winnow rice to remove the husks
  22. Store in a dry place.

You will see more than your share of elderly Vietnamese shuffling around with backs that look like question marks. That probably comes from years of stooping in the fields; planting, transplanting, weeding, harvesting....

"The old Patriarch came over and sat beside me on the paddy dike, pulling out a plastic bag of homegrown tobacco and rolling himself a thin cigarette. A paddle boat arrived on cue with several baskets of pre-germinated seed stock, protected by moistened rice sacks and looking exactly like a million tiny sperm. We watched the young men shoulder the baskets and step carefully down into the knee-deep mud. Each gathered a handful of rice and flung it with a flick of his wrist in a wide arc across the mud. With every other step the seed arced across the sky to fall like gentle rain onto the soft, accepting earth. One. Two. Flick. The rice would be left to grow until it was a several inches high and then the women's work began - pulling out each seedling and replanting it in endless, orderly rows to make the maximum use of every inch of available paddy. It was a painful lesson in superabundant labor and insufficient land.

The patriarch carefully unrolled the butt of his cigarette, emptied the shreds of tobacco back into his plastic bag, and returned to his work."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

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