The history of Cacao
Cacao and Chocolate in Vietnam, a Brief History
ACT 1: FRANCE’S CHOCOLATE-COVERED FAILURE
French missionaries and luminaries brought cacao to Vietnam in the 19th century.
The famous Dr. Alexandre Yersin (disciple of Louis Pasteur, discoverer of the bubonic plague bacillus and formidable presence in Indochina until 1943) is said to have tried his hand at cacao farming Vietnam.
Let’s just say it might not have been his most successful enterprise. That or the records disappeared.
We know with a bit more certainty that a missionary, Father Gernot, planted cacao trees in Ben Tre in the late 1800s.
Administrative records from the early 20th century reveal the Lieutenant General rescinded subsidies to cacao farmers after just 17 years.
“It seems, effectively, useless to encourage this culture which has, until now, not yielded any satisfying result,” he noted in a decree dated January 24, 1907.
A few trees nevertheless remained in the Mekong Delta, where the fruit was mostly eaten fresh.
Without any significant investment or know-how, cacao remained a marginal product in Vietnam’s colonial days.
ACT 2: COCOA FOR THE USSR
The second act of the Vietnamese cacao story takes place in the bleak hours of the 1980s, when a meager trade with the USSR (and a few other Eastern Bloc states) kept the Vietnamese economy afloat. Soviet chocolate experts and their Cuban friends tried heir hand in Vietnam, but by the time the first cacao trees were yielding pods, the Berlin Wall had fallen and Russian buyers had vanished.
Once again, the farmers had no customers and cut back all but a handful of trees.
ACT 3: VIETNAM’S CACAO RENAISSANCE
Following the end of the US Embargo, International commodity traders, NGOs and foreign development programs (USAID’s Success Alliance program, in particular) saw Vietnam as a possible boon for the world’s growing chocolate appetite.
As wallets and waistlines grew in nearby China, corporate candymen hoped to cut significant cost by making MARS bars out of cacao pods grown in nearby Vietnam.
Academics like Dr Phuoc of the Nong Lam agricultural university helped create programs that supported the effort of small farmers in a number of provinces.
“For a time, cacao spread like wildfire.”
Government collectives threw the shrub everywhere to see what stuck. The idea, of course, was volume. Experts estimate that cultivation boomed with a peak at five-thousand tons in 2010 only to shrink as farmers turned to more lucrative crops like pepper or pomelo.
During that time, however, many of the country’s aging farmers saw cacao as a stable and promising alternative. They could inter-crop the shrub with coconut and other low-maintenance products. They could also earn extra money by harvesting, fermenting and drying their own beans.
Marou now works closely with farmers who are passionate about cacao, whose hard work is making Vietnam one of the most exciting new producers of cacao in the world.
In 2016 Vietnam was recognized as a fine-flavored origin for cacao seekers. Thanks, in no small part to the free advertising offered by Marou, cacao junkies began showing up in Vietnam looking for its distinct and spicy beans.
Slowly but surely, Cacao cultivation is ticking up again in areas where it has managed to survive boom and bust.
It faces some formidable challenges.
Climate change has limited freshwater supplies in the Mekong Delta and created vicious cycles of drought and storm in the highlands. We’re experimenting now with a sustainable, low-impact crop grown inside a mountainous native forest.
As the first artisan chocolate maker based in Vietnam, we’re committed to finding a sustainable path forward for the farmers we now consider family.