Wednesday, 16 July 2008


We were quite lucky to see a lot of paddy fields in different stages of production as we headed north from Saigon to Sapa. Rice, in Asia forms an important part of the diet of millions of people. It provides one fifth of all calories consumed in the world today. In some cultures, "Hello", literally translates as "Have you eaten rice yet?". 

Rice is best suited to regions with low labour costs and high rainfall, as it is very labour intensive, and requires vast amounts of water to cultivate it. So really its bad for the environment. Vietnam proudly boasts that it is the 2nd largest exporter of rice in the world today, currently making up for 16% of all exports, after Thailand. 

Nearly all the rice grown in Vietnam is grown in paddy fields. The first paddy fields are believed to date from around 3000 BC in China or Korea.  Some dispute over this, mainly between the Chinese and Koreans. I'm sure noone else really cares that much. 

In Vietnam, it seems that every small space of land is given over to rice production. They really do make the most of their land.

After the harvest, the fields are ploughed or left as stubble over the winter. When it is time for planting, the fields are flooded. This is where the water buffalo comes into its own. Yes, the same animal that produces that milky oozy delicious cheese, they also plough rice fields. Did you know that the buffalos in Italy, were originally imported from India. 

The fields are ploughed and them fertilised and then they are smoothed over, flooded again, this forms a deep layer of soft mud. The rice plants are grown from seedlings in a central factory, and they are transported to the fields in bundles. This is where the back breaking works begin. Each plant is planted by hand. In more industrialised countries this is all done by machine, but in Vietnam, from what we saw, it was all by hand. Poor souls.

The field is flooded again to germinate the rice, this is helped during the summer months when the sun beats down on the plants and the humidity envelopes everything around them, and every agrochemical known to science is sprayed over them. This is the worrying part.

I read an article recently in Hanoi, and actually saw it in practice, in Cat Cat outside of Sapa. Farmers are now using ducks to keep pests at bay, as the little beasts eat them, not many weeds grow in rice fields but what does the ducks eat. Not sure what percentage of rice plants is eaten by the ducks, but maybe is less than what the pests get. Plus this way there is no chemical spraying. In Thailand you can get Som Tam with salted crabs collected from the paddy fields. 

When the rice is ready to harvest, more back breaking work is involved. By this time the fields have been drained and are quite dry. The rice plants are cut and stacked in large bundles, then they are thrashed to loosen the hulls. It is then placed on a mat or a sheet and tossed into the air to get rid of any loose bits. Then the process is repeated for another year. 

In Northern Vietnam, they use the fields twice, but in the South I hear they have up to 3 rice harvests a year. How they manage this without damaging the soil I am not sure, I imagine that a lot of chemicals are used. 

We had rice in various forms in Vietnam. Mainly as steamed rice. But also in rice pancakes, fresh and dried, rice paper, rice sweets, pop-rice (same as popcorn but with rice, like rice krispes but not), and we can not forget rice wine. It is a very versatile crop. My favourite rice is Sticky Rice, which is mainly seen in Laos. But more on that one another blog. 

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