|A farmer shows his strange-shaped pomelo called "Ho Lo" in Chau Thanh District, Hau Giang Province. - VNA/VNS Photo Khuong Duy
As Tet (Lunar New Year) nears, I tend to get a bit sentimental and emotional.
In the usual exercise of taking stock and looking ahead, I think of my parents and what they have done for me and how to show them, although they know it already, that they are the most special people on earth for me.
As I tried to cast my net into the ocean that is the internet, looking for something really special to give my parents as a holiday gift, I stumbled on Vo Trung Thanh and his strange-shaped pomelo called "Ho Lo". I am not sure this is the Tet gift I will finally get for my parents, but I felt this is a special story that I could present to Viet Nam News readers on this occasion.
A fruit farmer in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta province of Hau Giang, Thanh's success in growing the ho lo pomelo has made him, and the fruit that he has pioneered, famous nationwide.
Not round like normal shaddock, ho lo pomelo has the shape of a wine gourd and on its body is decorated in high relief with a letter and an icon wishing talent, happiness and luck for the New Year.
Not surprisingly, people have flocked to get the fruit as presents or for their own house to be placed on the family altar to offer their ancestors during the festive days.
The stories I read about the fruit and the man who created it made me determined to meet him in person and talk to him.
I called him on the phone, and got a date two days later. On the three-hour bus journey from HCM City to Can Tho City, I was a bit nervous. I wondered if his newfound fame had changed him, and if this would be reflected in his answers, introducing a marketing element to them, as it happens so often.
After getting off the bus and riding pillion behind a "xe om" (motorbike taxi) driver for almost an hour, I reached Phu Huu Commune in Chau Thanh District, Hau Giang Province.
The commune was a very peaceful with many gardens and canals, and I felt good about being there.
I felt even better when I met Thanh at a local coffee shop near his home, because "it would be quieter to talk there than in the house where many people are packing the fruit to meet orders."
Opening a pack of chewing gum, he gave me one and started his story with a happy face: "The crop this year is not as good as other years, but I'm still happy because I have successfully designed a new icon on the body of my grapefruit – the golden coin.
"This year, neighbouring farmers and I have harvested more than 8,000 ho lo pomelos and all of them have been ordered," he said.
Thanh said he used to be a teacher. After going through a difficult time, he decided to be a farmer and learned to cultivate the nam roi grapefruit variety.
The idea of planting wine-gourd shaddock came to him on an afternoon in 2009 when he found one pomelo stuck between two branches, creating an odd-shaped fruit.
At the same time, he watched a famous Chinese movie called "Pilgrimage to the West" and saw a wine-gourd said to cure a lot of ailments. That had inspired him to take to agriculture.
"The initial time was so difficult. No one had done it before, so I had nobody to learn things from. I tried many things, many times, but was not really successful. But the desire to make a wine-gourd-shaped pomelo followed me even when I slept. I spoke to many about my idea but found little support for it," Thanh said, still smiling through his reminiscences.
"At an agricultural promotion meeting, they even told me not to mention ho lo [wine gourd] again because I have said it many times and they are bored with it," said Thanh.
The rejection did not put him off his project. If anything, it increased his determination. He decided to experiment with a ribbon spool, tightly wrapping the fruit so it would develop in two parts in the shape of a wine gourd. His patience and perseverance bore results, finally.
When he brought the odd-shaped pomelo to an exhibition in Can Tho City, people were surprised, and he won the backing of many experts and customers. This motivated him to go further, beyond perfecting the fruit's new shape. He wanted to create letters and patterns on the pomelo.
"To make it perfect, I needed an iron press to shape the pomelo and design letters on it. I went to many places in big cities to find help, but they all refused. The one who agreed to do it wanted US$4,000. That was too much because the amount of money was so big for a poor farmer like me," he said.
Luck favoured him when a person in HCM City agreed to help him for a cheap price, but having a press did not guarantee success.
"Planting and taking care of such a pomelo is not simple. In the first year, my success was not much. It was only 3 per cent in 2009, then jumped 10 times to 30 per cent in 2010, and now it has reached 95 per cent," he said.
"I also tried to create some other shapes like a bear, but soon recognised that the shape of wine gourd has biggest meaning for Tet."
As Thanh told me his pomelo story, we were disturbed many times, despite being in the coffee shop away from his house. His phone rang constantly with people wanting to order more of his fruit or about the technique he uses to cultivate it.
As I listened to him, my admiration for him grew. What impressed me more was not his innovation, but his determination and passion for work, and his willingness to share knowledge with fellow farmers.
Thanh is now chairman of a pomelo co-operative in his village. He has taught its 26 members how to cultivate the ho lo pomelo. His support has helped many households escape from poverty because one good crop in time for the festive season helps them earn enough for meeting the daily life expenses for the rest of the year. He has also shared his experience with farmers living in other provinces and cities.
The sun was about to set when we finally visited to his garden, which is a big one with many small bridges. Walking between the rows of pomelo trees and under their leafy canopy was exhilarating.
With a sense of wonder, as though I was in some kind of fairyland, I reached out and touched the wine-gourd shaped pomelos. Big, fat and shiny, they seemed to tell me: "Pick us please, we are ready for Tet."
I was not sure before, but I was ready now to get a pair of ho lo pomelos for my parents who are in the north, waiting for their child to come home from the south and welcome the New Year with them
For me, the pomelos were magical not because of their shape, but because they told me such an inspiring story, one that lends wings to the Year of the Horse. — VNS