|Sweet pickings: Visitors pick ripe litchi from a tree at a countryside farm. — VNS Photos Thuy Hang
by Thuy Hang
The flaming sunlight of summer helps condense the sweetness in many kinds of fruit. At this particular time of the year, the streets of Ha Noi are flooded with the popular, plump, dark-red litchi, one of the sweetest of all tropical fruits.
Tasting the cool pearl-white flesh is not enough for many people - including myself - who like to touch and taste the fruit in the plantations where they are grown. So, on a recent sunny Sunday, I took my family in a rented car to Luc Ngan District in Bac Giang Province, known as the Kingdom of Litchi.
Located about 90km north of the capital, the region has about 30,000ha of litchi trees that supply most of Viet Nam with the juicy fruit. It is famous for one specialty in particular, Thieu litchi – a super sweet litchi with thick flesh and tiny seed - which means you get more fruit for your money! Thieu litchi apparently fail to produce the same taste and quality when grown in other areas.
After an hour of smooth driving on National Road No 31, we suddenly entered "The Kingdom". There were litchi trees everywhere. We slowed down to a crawl as we arrived in Luc Ngan District, where there were mountains of the fruit. Litchi were everywhere – on the left, on the right, the ground, on bicycles, on motorbikes and on trucks and in big heaps at markets.
The road was jammed for kilometres as hundreds of heavy-laden litchi-carrying motorbikes flocked to the main sales areas. A long line of refrigerating vans waited by the roadside for precious loads to take back to the cities. The scene was extremely boisterous as people bargained from car windows, from their motorbikes and on foot.
|Litchi jam: Hundreds of litchi-loaded motorbikes crowd the market in Chu Town, creating a traffic jam a few kilometres long.
It took us an hour to get through the traffic and reach our destination – a litchi farm in Quy Son Commune. Jumping out of the vehicle, all of us rushed to litchi trees weighed down with fruit. Farm owner Cao Thi Thuy gave us a warm welcome and told us we could eat as much as we wanted.
City people living in multi-storey houses amid smoky and deafening traffic declare it is heavenly to pluck ripe fruit by themselves. "In Ha Noi, I can buy a kilo of litchi for only VND25,000 (US$1.2), but this does not compare to the experience of picking and savouring the fruits from the tree," said my 68-year-old aunt. In "The Kingdom", the best fruit sells for as little as VND10,000 ($0.5) per kilo.
Nibbling another litchi, my mother said: "This is the best litchi I've ever tasted." My nieces and nephews jumped for joy as they showed each other the fruit they had picked. Some trees are pruned quite short to allow children to join in the fun.
|Best bunch: Local farmers grade litchi. Dubbed "the Kingdom of Litchi", Luc Ngan District provides the market with more than 100,000 tonnes of litchi every year. — VNA/VNS Photo Tran Viet
In one corner of the farm, children gazed in interest at rows and rows of different vegetables - pumpkins, sweet potato, morning glory and mong toi (creeping spinach). The visit was highlighted by an invitation to lunch with the host. A delicious meal was prepared with all home grown ingredients, including steamed free-range chicken, fish rolls and stir-fried morning glory with garlic. We also savoured another regional speciality – Chu rice noodle. And, of course, the meal concluded with dessert – litchi.
According to Thuy, the Thieu litchi grown in Bac Giang originally came from Thanh Ha District in Hai Duong Province, but they seem to do equally as well, if not better, in "The Kingdom".
Thuy said her 7ha farm yielded an average of eight tonnes of litchi every year, earning her about VND160 million ($7,600). She had a new house built with money earned from the litchi. By mid-June, Luc Ngan District had harvested more than 21,100 tonnes of litchi for domestic consumption as well as for export. There are many multi-storey houses in the neighbourhood, evidence that the fruit is enabling local people to have a better life.
Those visiting the litchi region should not miss getting a close-up of the litchi-drying process. Farmers have set up charcoal kilns to dry litchis in the shell so they can be sold as a snack or as herbal medicine all year around.
The process involves putting fresh fruit in trays on top of kilns for about three days - and turning them frequently. The process helps the fruit retain its natural sweetness as the pulp becomes dark and nutty-tasting. Thuy said 100kg of fresh litchi produced about 30kg of dried fruit.
I believe that many litchi plantations in Phuong Son, Hong Giang and Phi Dien communes could be easily turned into eco-tourism drawcards. However, the local tourism authority has no immediate plans to develop the industry as the succulent fruit seem to be pulling enough visitors by themselves. — VNS