The Cacao Hunter
Nguyen Thi Le Thuy strikes us as the future of Vietnam’s cacao industry. Thuy basically didn’t know what chocolate was until she got into college. Today, she’s covered the country and probably knows more about the tiny differences between cacao from province to province.
WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
I was born and raised in Buon Ma Thuot City in Dak Lak Province.
WHAT’S YOUR EARLIEST MEMORY OF CHOCOLATE?
I heard nothing about chocolate growing up. I guess we had brown ice cream called “chocolate,” but we didn’t think much about where it came from.
When I turned 18, I moved to Ho Chi Minh City to attend university.
My first official eating chocolate was a Hershey Bar I bought in the supermarket for around VND100,000. That was a lot of money for students. We liked the flavor, but it wasn’t something we could eat every day.
HOW DID YOU COME TO WORK WITH CHOCOLATE?
Getting bored with my previous job, in 2014 I decided to quit my job, leave my comfort zone by travelling alone around Asian countries. I couch-surfed and worked my way around western and northern Thailand on small organic farms. Then around Laos and Cambodia and come back to Vietnam. Then, one day, I read this article by an anonymous blogger Tony Bua Sang (Tony Morning). He was gushing about this new company called Marou—started by two foreigners working closely with Vietnamese farmers to create a quality chocolate. It was surprising to me because chocolate is made from cacao beans which grow in Vietnam whereas I used to think that chocolate only come from Europe and America. So I contacted Sam and got a chance meeting up with him. He didn’t really know what to do with me; the company was small then!
But the meeting really inspired me, so I decided to visit the Bamboo Chocolate Factory in Bali and see how chocolate got made. When I got home, I spent few months researching Vietnamese cacao. I contacted with a friend who is a professor at Nong Lam University, developing a conching and cracking machine for chocolate making. He told me about this group of farmers coming down from Dak Lak Province to see the machine.
DO YOU LIKE EATING CHOCOLATE NOW?
I only came to know anything about chocolate in my 20s! Once I started working with Marou, I spent my days traveling the country with Alex, our agronomist.
He patiently explained the fine differences between beans, how to taste for irregularities and off-flavors. It took a long time. Now, I have a hard time eating and enjoying industrial chocolate. When you source beans you know that someone buys the stuff you don’t.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE FUTURE OF VIETNAMESE CACAO?
Well, we’re looking to expand into Binh Phuoc, Phu Yen and Khanh Hoa. We keep meeting new farmers who are enthusiastic and devoted to the notion of spending their whole lives growing wonderful cacao. The government’s now paying a lot more attention to the cacao industry, so I’m really optimistic about the future. A lot of the farmers tell me that growing cacao is easier than a lot of other agricultural trees. You can plant them in the shade of other crops—cacao has a lot of positive attributes.