By SUE VIGNOLA
The heat is palpable and the air thick with the humidity that is always present in southern Vietnam. We’ve been here barely twenty-four hours and are trying to adapt to temperatures in the region of 35°C with humidity levels through the roof. It's a big change from the -20°C the day we left home! Fortunately, the air-conditioned SUV we’re travelling in and the amazing sights and sounds around us help to take our minds off the heat.
This trip came about at the urging of our main cashew supplier, Dan On of Dan-D Foods in Richmond, BC. Dan is a Vietnamese-Canadian who immigrated to British Columbia in the early 1980s. He opened the Vietnamese branch of his corporation in 1999 so he could oversee cashew processing there. We’ve timed our visit to coincide with the cashew harvest, and are now en route to a cashew plantation and processing plant in the heart of Binh Duong province. We’re accompanied by three of Dan On’s staff members and Dan’s niece, a young Chinese-Australian woman, all of whom are trying to answer our many questions in a mixture of Vietnamese, Cantonese and English. Heading away from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), we pass through quiet countryside, thankfully devoid of the mass of motorized scooters so prevalent in the city. There are about eight million people in Ho Chi Minh City, and at least half of them seem to own a scooter or bike!
On our two-hour journey into the rural areas, we pass by numerous rubber plantations, a major crop export for Vietnam. Reaching our first destination, we are met on the roadside by a weathered farmer who hops onto her scooter and guides us down a dirt road to her small cashew plantation. We step out of the cool vehicle and are embraced by intense heat and brilliant sunshine. Our steps raise clouds of dust from the dry, red earth.
When I enquire about chemical use in conventional cashew cultivation, I’m told that cashews are quite easy to grow and have few predators, so little chemical intervention is required. There is no irrigation used and farmers are dependent on the rain, which is often not sufficient or appears at the wrong time – the usual farmers’ lament! This year the rainy season's impact on the cashews has resulted in a lower yield than normal.
The trees yield their first harvest after six years. The ripe fruit is hand-picked, the “apple” twisted off and discarded, and the dark brown nut placed in bags. The bags of nuts are then transferred to a local processing plant for the first stage of the intense process that cashews must endure to produce the lovely white nuts we all know and love!
Our next stop is a nearby processing plant where a group of very young giggling children, playing while their parents work, are the first to greet us. The building is a cement structure, open in the front, with alcoves for various stages of the production. The first room is packed with approximately fifty people, mostly women of varying ages. They are seated at individual, foot-pedal-operated hulling machines, cracking each shell and removing the cashew. Their hands and arms are covered to protect them from the caustic black resin found inside the hull. The brown skin protects the nut from the resin and is later removed during processing. Cashews are perhaps the only nut that cannot be consumed raw from the tree because until the black resin is removed the nuts are toxic and will cause extreme intestinal pain. The resin is actually a valuable and versatile raw material, used in braking systems and paint manufacture.
In the next alcove, the hulled cashews are placed into huge cauldrons for steam processing to remove the toxic resin. The scene is almost mediaeval in setting and the process may be unchanged from a century ago. The cauldrons are sometimes fueled by cashew hulls, but the plant usually burns cheaper wood since the hulls are more valuable when converted into diesel fuel.
After steaming, the cashews are laid out in the sun to dry, still in their brown skins. The cashews are spread on tarps and raked over constantly by attendants who make sure each and every nut is dried thoroughly in the hot sun. Sue takes a turn with a rake, borrowed from the obliging farm worker who laughs at her attempts to mimic him. The cashews then go for final processing where the brown skin is painstakingly removed by hand. We are beginning to understand why cashews are so expensive!
On our way back to Ho Chi Minh City, our colleagues want to inspect some of the cashews laid out to dry (and for sale) at the side of the road. Spirited discussion takes place. They also indulge in a mysterious “floating test” where the brown-skinned cashews are floated in a bucket of water. We think this is a means to test the full weight of the nutmeat inside the skin but we are not totally sure! We arrive back in the city thoroughly exhausted but fascinated by all we have seen on our first full day in Vietnam, the pearl of South-East Asia.