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Rice in Vietnamese Culture and Economy

A. Origin of Rice: Vietnamese Myths

1. Once upon a time, the rice grain was in fact a very large ball. Rice was not cultivated then, but at harvest time people instead lit incense and candles, and prayed. The rice grain would simply come into their house, and they would have sufficient for the season.

Unfortunately, one year a lazy woman, in spite of her husband's instruction to sweep the house to make it ready for the rice grain, procrastinated. Her husband finished praying and the rice grain arrived at their house before she had finished sweeping. The woman was so startled that she struck the rice grain with her broom, whereupon the rice grain burst into a thousand pieces--each small as a grain of rice. From that time since, people have had to plant, harvest, and pound rice.

2. God did not mean for people to have work hard to grow rice. A spirit messenger had been entrusted by god to bring rice to earth for humans to enjoy. God gave the messenger two magic sacks. "The seeds in the first," god said, "will grow when they touch the ground and give a plentiful harvest, anywhere, with no effort. The seeds in the second sack, however, must be nurtured; but, if tended properly, will give the earth great beauty."

Of course, god meant for the first seeds to be rice, which would feed millions with little effort; and the second to be grass, which humans couldn't eat but would enjoy as a cover for bare ground. Unfortunately, the heavenly messenger got the sacks mixed up, and humans immediately paid for his error: finding that rice was hard to grow whereas grass grew easily everywhere, especially where it wasn't wanted. (From Le Ly Hayslip When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, 1989, p. 7)


B. Sayings and Superstitions about Rice

1. The shape of the country of Vietnam is like two baskets of rice on a pole; the "baskets" in North and South are the more productive rice-growing regions as well, particularly in the South.

2. Parents must never punish a child while he or she is eating rice, no matter what the child has done, because that would disrupt the sacred communion between the rice-eater and rice-maker. Le Ly Hayslip remembers that she and her siblings quickly learned to eat slowly when they fear punishment. (p. 9)

3. Vietnamese proverb "The scholar precedes the peasant/but when the rice runs out/it's the peasant who precedes the scholar" (From Jacqueline Piper, Rice in South-east Asia)

4. Vietnamese song: "In the heat of mid-day, I plough my field/My sweat falls drop by drop like rain on the ploughed earth/Oh, you who hold a rice-bowl in your hands/Remember how much burning bitterness there is/In each tender and fragrant grain in your mouth!" (Piper, p. 46)

5. Vietnamese nursery rhyme: "Sky! let the rain fall down/So that there's water to drink/So I can plough my field/Sky! let the rain fall down/So we can eat white rice and chopped aubergine!" (Piper, p. 46)

C. Rice-Growing Methods in Vietnam

1. Most rice grown in Vietnam is wet-rice, meaning that it is grown in flooded fields rather than dry land. To get maximum yields, the rice is usually started in special seed beds, then transplanted painstakingly by hand to the flooded fields when the seedlings are strong enough. Other countries of Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, have also traditionally grown rice in this time-consuming method, but as those countries have become more industrialized, they have begun to turn to the less labor-intensive and less productive methods which do not require transplanting, particularly broadcast (similar to the way wheat is grown in the United States).

2. Detailed explanation: Rice seed is broadcast in a prepared nursery bed, meaning one moist enough. The seedlings sprout quickly and after only one week are thick and 2-3 inches high. After about 40 days, the seedlings are ready to be transplanted to the wet paddy-field. They are pulled out in bundles, stacked, and protected from sun and from drying out by wet leaves. Farmers prune the roots and shoots, and plant the seedlings in rows. The paddy field may be allowed to stand flooded until harvest, or may be allowed to dry out before being flooded again soon before the harvest. After the harvest, weeds are allowed to grow in the paddy field for a few weeks, before being plowed under to decay and provide fertilizer for the next crop.

The standing water in a paddy-field prevents weed growth and the algae which grows on the water provides fertilizer in the form of nitrogen (from blue-green algae) and oxygen (from green algae) for the rice plants. These methods plus the addition of some animal manure (usually from animals owned by rice farmer) keeps the ground fertile enough to provide year after year of rice crops, often two crops in one year.

After harvesting (still often done by hand in Southeast Asia and particularly in Vietnam to minimize waste), the rice must be dried before being pounded to separate the grain of rice from its husk, or the rice bran. Traditionally, rice was pounded by hand and retained more of the protein and fat which made it the nutritious basis of the Asian diet. Now, rice is more often milled at a rice mill, from where it emerges more beautifully white, but less nutritious. A "polishing powder" of talc or glucose is often added in the final polishing process. It is to get rid of this powder that most Asians wash their rice (and why we all should).

D. Ways of Eating Rice

1. Most often, rice is simply steamed and eaten as the accompaniment to other dishes in a meal.

2. Rice can also be cooked in a soup, made into noodles which are eaten stir-fried or in soup, made into a flour used to make both savory and sweet dishes, or glutinous rice can be cooked as sticky rice (bring along examples of each of these).

E. Rice and the National Economy

1. Agriculture accounts for 70% of the work force and 50% of national income in Vietnam (William Turley, ed. Reinventing Vietnamese Socialism, p. 11)

2. Rice is Vietnam's second most valuable export, after oil and Vietnam is the third largest exporter of rice (after Thailand and the United States) in the world. Rice exports earned Vietnam approximately US $375 million in 1993. ("Against the Grain," Far Eastern Economic Review April 14, 1994)

3. Decreases in productivity and yield from rice farms were among the main reasons the Vietnamese government launched doi moi (best translated as "renovation," but have the connotation of change and newness as well) at its Sixth National Party Congress in December 1986. Since 1955 in the North, and since 1975 in the South, the Vietnamese government emphasized collectivization as the best way to improve peasant lives and build a socialist state. But on collectives, peasants did not work as hard or take care of the land as well. Per capita rice production declined from 304.9 kilograms in 1961-65 to 252.8 kilograms in 1966-75 (figures for north only, of course). With the introduction of some family incentives in 1979, rice production went from 13.35 million tons per year avg. from 1976-1980 to 17 million tons per year avg. in 1981-1985. But inflation and population grew quickly too, and gains were slow. The situation became grim in 1986-87. In 1987, food production was actually one million tons lower than in 1986, and many people went hungry. The government increased scope for land ownership, peasant initiative, and allowed people to sell and buy on the private market. They have even recently begun to make it easier for foreign companies to invest in Vietnam. U.S. preparations to completely lift the economic embargo stemming from the Vietnam War and re-establish full diplomatic ties have helped as well. Vietnam's economy--led by rice production--is improving dramatically. (Chu Van Lam, "Doi Moi in Vietnamese Agriculture," in William S. Turley, ed. Reinventing Vietnamese Socialism, 151-64.)