Nguyen Van Duc
Ba Ria Province Farmer

Nguyen Van Duc’s farm sits among the rolling hills of Ba Ria Vung Tau Province. The soil here is red and the air dry. Duc rises slowly, pulls on a shirt and beckons his visitors to a pair of plain wooden benches and a table. His wife and a grandchild sit playing on the bed behind him as he busily crowds the tabletop with green-skinned oranges, a pot of dried flower tea and a bundle of dun-colored mahogany fruits that have no English name. A bottle of his homemade cacao liquor (black and thick as buckwheat honey) hits the table with a thud. Then comes a fragrant plastic box of chilled cocoa powder he roasts and grinds himself. The tidy farm beyond contains rows of neat and well-cared for cacao shrubs that yield one of Marou’s most distinctive bars of chocolate—a spicy, vibrant bar that sometimes smacks of candied orange.

WHERE ARE YOU FROM?

I was born in Tien Giang and had 8 brothers and sisters.

My dad was a rice farmer. Everyone I knew planted rice; I learned how to do it by following neighbors into the fields.

WHAT WAS YOUR EARLIEST MEMORY OF CHOCOLATE?

My dad got a job as a stevedore at the Saigon port. When ships came in from America, he’d go through boxes of food and pocket a bar of chocolate for us at home. You couldn’t get that stuff in the market. So I remember being, like, five years old and my dad coming home with these milk chocolate bars from America. They were delicious.

HOW DID YOU END UP HERE IN BA RIA PROVINCE?

I joined the southern army in 1968 and spent seven years stationed in Go Cong. I had grown up going to pagodas and eating only vegetables on auspicious days. In 1975, I decided to go completely vegetarian to celebrate the reunification and I’ve been that way ever since.

I ended up sending 13 months in a re-education camp. When I got out, they wanted to send me to a new economic zone in Tien Giang province. I was often hungry and was assigned to a lot of long guard posts.

Eventually, I heard about a little community starting up in the central highlands. So, in 1983, we went up there, cleared a spot of land and spent five years growing corn and beans.

The crops grew seasonally so we couldn’t really make a decent living.

My brother had gone to prison in Long Khanh with a monk who had grown some really delicious coffee and sweet potato where we are now, in Ba Ria. My wife and I decided to join him and bought this 1.8 hectare farm, which was all cashew trees and tapioca.

Following the monk’s advice, we planted a little coffee.

I had three kids in school at that time, so it was really hard.

HOW DID YOU GET INTO CACAO FARMING?

In 1999 Nong Lam University launched this two-year program to train up cacao farmers. The program organizers seemed very meticulous in evaluating our soil and farms for eligibility. The idea was to intercrop the cacao with other things. The seedlings did great in the shade, but once they got mature, they produced lousy fruit. No one knew how to take care of them and most of the farmers just cut down their cacao trees.

Most farmers are that way, you know? The minute they feel discouraged, they just get rid of the crop and turn to something new.

But cacao requires a lot of attention and patience; it’s really hard to raise.

The average cacao plantation can put out about 2.5 tons per hectare—that’s if you know what you’re doing. Compared to coffee, that’s fine, but much less than pepper or pomelo.

Cacao farming yields about VND100 million at the end of the year. With pepper, you can make four times that. And some have made a hundred times that growing Pomelo.

*At this point Duc’s wife stirs on the bed in the back of the room where she has slowly nursed an intensely adorable grandchild to sleep: “We’re old,” she says. “Changing crops at this point would take a lot of time and effort and we don’t know what the result will be.”

IS THAT WHY YOU’VE STUCK WITH IT? BECAUSE YOU’RE TOO OLD TO TRY SOMETHING NEW?

I like cacao because you can use the whole plant. The fruit of your labor is so special. You waste nothing. I can make liquor from the juice (pours a shot), chocolate from the seeds and I can compost the shells into a fertilizer.

Every morning, I start my day by stirring cocoa powder I roast at home into a glass of milk. I don’t even bother to drink coffee, these days.

We got involved with cacao after the Department of Rural Development joined this project called Success Alliance, which organized 80-100 cacao-growing clubs throughout southern Vietnam. I ended up leading two clubs of about 40 farmers each. Today, I’d guess that only about 2-3 farmers in each club continue.

Things didn’t go that well for us in the beginning, either. But we felt that at least we had the experience we needed to get better. After a while, we discovered that although the plants didn’t yield a lot of fruit, the price of cacao continued to climb. So we saw some sustainability there.

Rubber used to be called “white gold” but now the price has fluctuated so much—there’s no guarantees.

Now, I’m old. I don’t have the energy or the money to start over again.

For a while, I sold my cacao to Cargill for the global market price.

Then one day that JFK-looking guy with no wife [Vincent] and the dog and the other guy with the beard [Sam] showed up. They paid the best price for my cacao, but they were really exacting in the selection.

So we though they were both really nice and annoying.

WHAT’S THE WORST PART ABOUT BEING A CACAO FARMER?

The dastardly squirrels!

During the fruit season they just poach my rambutans.

But during the cacao harvest, there’s nothing around for them to eat and they can eat as much as 30% of my crop.

I tried to use traps, but the squirrels are too wily. Our last resort is driving them off with an air gun. My sons get a rush out of shooting them, but I can’t bring myself to do so.

[WE GIVE HIM A SAMPLE OF HIS OWN CHOCOLATE] DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHY YOUR CACAO TASTES SO SPICY?

Oh! I think this tastes much better than milk chocolate. I guess the flavor comes from the soil and the natural yeasts on the farm.

WHAT ABOUT THE YEASTS AND THE SOIL, DO YOU THINK, PRODUCES THIS FLAVOR?

I mean, everyone likes the rice wine brewed in Binh Dinh Province. Everyone agrees it’s the tastiest in the country. But if you use the same yeast, the same water, the same rice somewhere else—it ends up tasting different. Must be something about this place.

WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN WHEN YOU GET TOO OLD TO FARM?

My youngest son left university when we got a little ill to help us out.

He’s going to continue taking care of the farm. He knows only a little, though. He doesn’t know how to make the cacao liquor or care for sick trees.

But he’ll get there.

Contact

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Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam