Mayu Ino works in Vietnam for the Japanese NGO Seed to Table and is an old friend of Slow Food and Terra Madre. Thanks to her, we were able to visit the food community of Tan Lac organic rice producers in the northern Vietnamese province of Hoa Bin.
The car battled for an hour through the inexorable flood of motorcycles that fills the roads of Hanoi before finally emerging into open countryside. On both sides stretched endless rice paddies, filled with people working, as it was the season for planting out the seedlings.
After another hour’s drive, we stopped for a restorative Vietnamese coffee at the base of the first hills. A beverage is made locally from fermented rice and sold in jars of 5 to 7 liters, which come with meter-long reeds used as straws. Also at the bar, we see rice spirits with toads and scorpions steeping inside the bottles.
Back on the road, we start to climb through a varied landscape, with tropical jungle alternating with rice paddies. The last unpaved stretch takes us a thousand meters above sea level. The mountaintops are wrapped in fog. In Nam Son, we find Thuong and her husband, the village chief Truyen and his deputy Lung, the coordinator of the young growers and other rice producers.
They explain to us that in Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia, over and above the many different rice varieties, there are two main categories: “normal” rice and sticky rice. Production in mountainous areas is mostly concentrated on the latter.
Sticky black Oi rice, with its very limited production and excellent quality, is an ideal candidate for joining the Ark of Taste. Apart from its delicious flavor, it also has therapeutic properties, curing stomachaches and helping to restore strength to women who have just given birth. Mayu Ino is working with a Japanese university to scientifically test these characteristics, and she is also promoting the product and looking for distributors in the capital Hanoi, which has 6 million inhabitants.
As well as the Oi variety, the growers also cultivate Ban, a white sticky rice, and Dan Bac Tam, a white normal rice. Thuong, who has been to Turin for Terra Madre twice, coordinates around 50 producers from the local Muong ethnic group, the fourth largest of Vietnam’s 54 ethnicities. The mountain paddies, whose colors range from emerald to chartreuse to gold, are impressive works of engineering and hydraulics. Compared to the fields in the plains, they require twice as much work for a smaller harvest. All of the rice varieties are grown organically and harvested twice a year.