The ancient Indian word for rice, dhanya ('sustainer of the human
race'), is apt when describing the importance of rice to the Vietnamese.
A Vietnamese fable tells of a time when rice did not need to be harvested. Instead, it would be summoned through prayer and arrive in each home from the heavens in the form of a large ball. One day a man ordered his wife to sweep the floor in preparation for the coming of the rice, but she was still sweeping when the huge ball arrived and struck it by accident, causing it to shatter into many pieces. Since then, Vietnamese have had to toil to produce rice by hand.
Rural Vietnam today is in many ways similar to what it would have been centuries ago: women in conical hats (non bai tho) irrigating fields by hand, farmers stooping to plant the flooded paddies and water buffalo ploughing seedbeds with harrows.
Despite the labour-intensive production process, rice is the single most important crop in Vietnam and involves 70% of the working population. While always playing an important role in the Vietnamese economy, its production intensified considerably as a result of economic reforms, known as doi moi, or 'renovation', in 1986. The reforms shifted agricultural production away from subsistence towards cash cropping, transforming Vietnam from a rice importer to exporter in 1989. In 1997 Vietnam exported over 3.5 million tonnes of'rice; for the first time in its history, northern Vietnam had excess rice for export and contributed about 270,000 tonnes. In 1999 rice exports rose to a record 4.5 million tonnes. Since then the yearly average has been hovering around 3.5 million tonnes.
Half of the production and the majority of rice exports from Vietnam come from the Mekong Delta. The Red River Delta is the main rice supplier for the north, although supplies often need to be supplemented by the south. Rice produced in the highlands is an important crop for ethnic minorities, although their output is relatively small compared with the rest of the country. Ironically, it's the powerful rural cartels, which set their own prices for seeds, fertilisers and pesticides, that reap the rewards.
The importance of rice in the diet of the Vietnamese is evident in the many rice dishes available, including rice omelette (banhxeoi, rice porridge (chao) and extremely potent rice wine (ruou goo), to name a few. Vietnam's ubiquitous com pho (rice-noodle soup) restaurants serve white rice (com) with a variety of cooked meat and vegetables, as well as rice noodle soup (pho).
In Vietnam the dominant rice-growing system is 'irrigated lowland'. Despite advances in rice production, such as the introduction of new plant varieties and increased use of fertilisers, much of the work involved with growing the plant itself is still carried out without modern machinery. Fields are ploughed and harrowed with the assistance of water buffaloes, seeds are planted by hand, and when the seedlings reach a certain age they have to be individually uprooted and transplanted (again manually) to another field to avoid root rot. This painstaking process is mostly undertaken by women. Irrigation is typically carried out by two workers using woven baskets on rope to transfer water from canals to the fields. When the water level is high enough fish can be raised in the paddies.
Rice plants take three to six months to grow, depending on the type and environment. In Vietnam, the three major cropping seasons are winter-spring, summer-autumn and the wet season. When ready to harvest, the plants are thigh-high and in about 30cm of water. The grains grow in drooping fronds and are cut by hand, then transported by wheelbarrows to thrashing machines that separate the husk from the plant. Other machines are used to 'dehusk' the rice (for brown rice) or 'polish' it (for white rice). A familiar sight at this stage is brown carpets of rice spread along roads to dry before milling. While rice continues to grow in Vietnam, the intensification of production since the start of the 1990s has led to problems such as salinity. In addition there has been a growing infestation of rice-field rats caused by the hunting of snakes (which hunt the rats). Unabated environmental degradation and high population growth are placing furthei pressure on Vietnam's staple grain supply. This, together with the increasing warnings against high fertilisation, may mean the long-term future of rice production in Vietnam is not guaranteed.