by Anh H. Nguyen
An indispensable part in the mosaic of Vietnam's agriculture
Rice is one of Vietnam's unofficial symbols, an integral part of the country's culture, history, and everyday life. For many Westerners, simply mentioning the world Vietnam will conjure up images of luminous green or golden paddy fields. Rice is Vietnam's most important crop, both as a staple of the food supply and a key export item of the nation's economy. Simultaneously, Vietnam is the world's 7th biggest consumer of rice AND has surpassed Thailand to be the world's 2nd leading rice exporter, behind India only. However, Vietnam is home to another group of agriculture products rarely mentioned in the press, their importance often eclipsed by the prominence of rice: fruits.
A common sight in Vietnam: tempting pyramids of colorful fruits on sidewalks beckoning passersby to open their wallets.
If you have frequented enough supermarkets anywhere in the world, you are likely to notice one thing: fruits are often pushed to the front of the stores, veggies are close by, while the frozen section generally stays in the back. That is no coincidence: the prominence of eye-catching, aromatic, juicy fruits at the entrance is designed specifically to evoke a sense of freshness and abundance. The fruits subliminally signify that as soon as the buyers step in the store, they are in another zone, which is calm, pleasant, and away from the madding crowds. Deep down inside, we omnivores still love to be connected to nature and the mere sight of fruits could give us emotional well-being at a subconscious level.
Selection of fruits near the entry of a Vinmart store in Hanoi
In Vietnam, one is likely to encounter fruits everywhere. With rows and piles of seasonal fruits glinting in the sun like vibrant jewels on street vendors' carts, carrying poles, river market's boats, in stalls, shops, and grocery stores, with fruits either being eaten raw or making a presence in juices, salads, savory dishes, desserts, jams, and preserves, Vietnam is a heaven for fruit lovers. Travelers from afar could even go on special tours to visit fruit orchards, where they can see, touch, smell, pick, and taste the cornucopia. The assortment of fruits in Vietnam is remarkably varied, perhaps due to the country's wide range of climates and soil bodies. Fruits play an important part in the healthy, balanced diet of Vietnamese people: long before the nutritional values of fruits were recognized, a plate of fruits after dinner has been a simple delight enjoyed by people of all classes.
The trade of fruits in Vietnam
Based on their popularity and origins, the fruits of Vietnam could be (very roughly) divided into three main groups:
The first would be popular, familiar fruits like coconut, banana, pineapple, and watermelon. Those fruits not only satisfy local demand but also become valuable exports. For example: Vietnam has been exporting bananas to Korea for 6 years, the volume rising steadily from 180 tonnes (2015) to 6685 tonnes (2019). Bananas from Vietnam are sold in 81 hypermarkets by Lotte Mart across the country.
A floating fruit seller in Vietnam makes a stunning spectacle
The second would be the huge collection of tropical fruits virtually uncelebrated in the West: durian, lychee, guava, jackfruit, longan, rose apple, star fruit, mangosteen, rambutan, star apple, cherimoya, dragon fruit, sapodilla, pomelo, etc. They are renowned and highly sought after in Asia, though. China imports nine kinds of fruits from Vietnam via formal channels, seven of which could be considered exotic fruits. Exports to Thailand, Japan, Taiwan are also surging. Admirable efforts have also been made to introduce the lesser-known fruits of Vietnam to Western countries: Vietnam exports six varieties of fruits to the US - dragon fruit, rambutan, longan, lychee, star apple, and mango - worth around US$20 million a year, and frozen durian to Australia.
Lychee farmers preparing their goods in Bac Giang
Dragonfruit farmers having a bumper crop in Binh Thuan
The last group is imported fruits. While still modest in value compared to fruit exports, this field is ripe for growth (pardon my pun). A rising middle class and bigger GDP to match make the Vietnam market highly promising for fruit traders. Fruits that thrive in cold climate like cherries, blueberries, and kiwis are a given of course, but even domestically grown fruits have no choice but to contend with their foreign counterparts. Oranges from the US and Australia, grapes and apples from Japan and Korea grace the shelves of many fruit wholesalers and grocery stores. Once rare commodities mainly given as gifts or indulgences on special occasions, these foreign specimen have become more and more common on the dining tables of ordinary people.
Why the fruit exports from Vietnam are falling behind in terms of competitiveness
2020 has not been kind to Vietnam farmers: first, the pandemic has been diminishing consumption and causing complications in the supply chain worldwide. When the dragonfruit in Binh Thuan and longan in Long An ripened, for example, Covid-19 also surged in many countries, which resulted in weakened demand. As the fruits were highly perishable, they were sold at a fraction of their normal price. Climate change and natural disasters like the saltwater crisis in Ben Tre or multiple storms hitting central Vietnam also had adverse effects on the quality and yield of the fruits: the coconut suffered terribly, many crops were wiped out. But the main underlying problem has been there all along: the sad truth is that the fruits produced in Vietnam are many times simply not up to par.
After the historic saltwater intrusion and drought in 2020, the famed coconut production of Ben Tre turned woeful - the tiny salinity-affected coconuts were then sold for less than nothing
In 2020, Vietnam saw the value of fruit exports to China drop by 25%, partly due to the pandemic, but mostly because China has raised the standards in quality and origin of its imports, which Vietnam fruit sellers are struggling to meet. That was a rude wake-up call, for sure, but also one sorely needed. China is the largest market for Vietnam's fruits, and also the least fastidious regarding requirements. If Vietnam fruit producers could not comply with China's restrictions, there is little hope of gaining more export opportunities.
Longan is one of the nine fruits officially exported to China
Fruits are lucrative: the income generated from growing fruits is four to eight times larger than growing rice per the same area. However, fruits could also be finicky and temperamental, vulnerable to plagues, pests, and changes in weather. The production of fruits in Vietnam up to now has been more focused on quantity than quality, since the market keeps expanding and the locals have not been too choosy in general. Pesticides are used rather freely, while packaging and storage practices are often poor. Those flaws become highly visible when subject to strict international standards. In some instances, fruit importers have found harmful bacteria on the goods. Fruits are often meant to be eaten without cooking, so food safety and hygiene are issues of utmost importance. And since people first buy with their eyes, then with their noses, the fruits need to be firm, unblemished, beautiful, and fragrant. But many fruit businesses operating in Vietnam are of small scales, which makes quality control more difficult.
The tides are changing though. How? And more importantly, why? Let's find out.
The fruit industry of Vietnam is transforming
It seems like every week, there are some articles about the exorbitant prices that imported fruits could command, always concluded by the punchline: "In spite of the high cost, those fruits sell like hot cakes, practically flying off the shelves." Videos of celebrities and influencers trying out those prohibitively expensive fruits also abound on the Internet. A bunch of 20 Shine Muscat grapes imported from Korea costs approximately 100 USD or 2.5 million VND. A bunch of 10 Ruby Roman grapes imported from Japan costs 500 USD, more than twice the average monthly income per capita. A Japanese peach, apple, or kumquat could cost 20 times more than its local cousin.
Also dubbed "milk grapes" or "peony grapes", these big boys are supposed to taste heavenly
Since it is the Internet, everyone has something to say about this new trend. But let's all put aside the class commentary for a second and admit one thing: pricy, high-quality, almost mythical fruits are not yet normal, but they are definitely getting more and more normalized now. Those things have trickling down effects: imported fruits are now a regular presence in people's lives, especially those in big cities. On average, the country spends 150 million USD buying fruits from overseas every month. For a so-called "mecca of fruits" to have its own people favor foreign products while the fruit exports are going down is a worrying sign.
The upside of this, however, is that as people get used to higher levels of quality in fruits, they have the power to positively dictate the market, including the homegrown fruit sector. Out of necessity, Vietnam's fruit producers need to compete not only on prices but also quality (the price issue is increasingly becoming a moot point anyways, since imported fruits are getting cheaper and cheaper). Pressures from both outside and within are forcing them to adapt. Larger scale production with certified contract farmers, more irradiation plants to sanitize fruits, extend their shelf life, and reduce diseases, and more stringent plant pest protocols would be good first steps to meet the safety requirements of both foreign and local consumers.
The Fruit Republic - a global exporter of Vietnam's pink pomelo, seedless lime, and dragonfruit has high standards regarding the fruits' quality and safety
Vietnam is home to many great, yet obscure fruits. Those who have tasted the Canh oranges of Ha Noi surely cannot forget their sublime sweetness, so contrary to their humble exteriors. The grapes of Ninh Thuan could rival such from the best vineyards in Napa. And the peaches of Sapa, though smaller than the giant, picture-perfect varieties from Japan, have a peculiar taste that is no less alluring, sugary with a tart hint. Due to the lack of advertising and operation inefficiency, those fruits and many others are still relatively unknown, not only to outsiders but also the country's own citizens. Large scale production that allows room for improvements, and innovations coupled with coordinated marketing efforts will also benefit the producers and admirers of those delicacies.
Some final words
There has always been great potential in the fruits of Vietnam, but both the producers and consumers have been victims of an outdated agriculture system and non-transparent trade. As the fruit businesses become more standardized, there lies the hope that the fruits of Vietnam may one day shine on a global stage.