Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Gave Me Some of That Good Ol' ...

In planning and scheduling our trip to the Tonkinese Alps of Vietnam last month, I was fixated on timing for the rice harvest.  We had previously visited the area in late April at the tail end of the rice planting  season.  I wanted to capture photos of the ethnic tribes people harvesting the rice by hand, or at a minimum if my timing was off - photographs of golden rice terraces ready to be harvested.

It was difficult to determine exactly when to go in order to achieve my goal.  I contacted some people in the area and did not get a specific answer. The harvest depends each year upon when the crop was planted due to weather conditions in April or May, the weather conditions during the growing season, and the weather conditions leading up to the harvest. The harvest even depends on the location of the crop - elevation and micro-climate can drastically affect the rice cultivation.  My research indicated that the harvest season was early September to the end of October.  I decided to err on the side of caution - preferring to be too early rather than miss the entire event.  I chose to travel to the Sapa region during the first week of September for the rice harvest.

I was very pleased upon our arrival on 5 September to discover that the rice harvest had just begun.  I was also surprised to find that we were just at the tail end of the corn harvest.  Corn is grown in the area by the Hmong people.

Harvesting Corn From Patch Along the Roadside
Cultivating corn in Northwest Vietnam is similar to rice cultivation.  It is all done manually.  Small plots of land carved out of mountainsides or along the banks of streams or rivers are used.  Even if the people could afford to purchase or rent mechanized equipment, the size of the plots prevent the use of machines.

Harvest Basket of Corn Straight From the Field
There are Hmong food dishes that use corn.  I suspect that since Hmong people raise pigs, that the corn is also used as animal feed.  What I did not appreciate, until this visit, was how much of the corn is used for the production of "corn liquor" - "White Lightning","Moonshine", "Hooch".

Bac Ha is famous for, besides its Sunday Market, its Moonshine and Tam Hoa plums.  The Hmong people have a very long tradition and culture for making corn liquor.  The Hmong people around Bac Ha are famous for the quality and quantity of the Moonshine that they make.

For hundreds of years, the Hmong people practiced and most definitely enjoyed this aspect of their culture.  There were attempts on the 1960s and 1970s to regulate Vietnamese traditional alcohol production but the attempts failed.  The government failed to recognize and appreciate the strong tradition of the ethnic tribes for their culture of making booze.  Sound familiar?

The most recent attempt by the central government to regulate, if not control, the production of traditional alcohol was in 2013 when people who manufactured traditional alcohol were supposed to register and obtain a permit.  Based upon my conversations in the area the people's reaction is very similar to the famous quote by the character "Gold Hat" from the 1948 movie, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"

 - “Badges (Permits)? We ain’t got no badges (Permits)! We don’t need no badges (Permits)!  I don’t have to show you any stinking badges (Permits)!”

I find it refreshing as well as reassuring that there are still places, but more importantly people, who resist the intrusion of centralized government into their lives and culture.  I am even more impressed to learn that some governments know better than to push their luck and not aggressively impose their will on traditionalists.

The baskets of corn from the field are brought to a central location where they are emptied and the harvest is consolidated into empty recycled sugar, rice, or fertilizer sacks.  Depending upon the quantity of the harvest and number of motorbikes available, the 50KG bags of corn are brought to the home on motorbikes or farm wagons.  I saw some horse drawn carts during our visit and I suspect that may be used too.

Once back at the farm house the corn is spread out to dry in the sun.  Provisions are made to shield the drying corn from the numerous rain showers that still occur in early September in the mountainous region.

After the corn is sufficiently dried, it is shelled - the kernels are removed from the cob by hand or with a specialized machine - either manually or electrically driven.  The corn kernels are then spread out on a tarp in the front yard and often times alongside the road that runs in front of the house to dry further in the sun.

 On our trip up to the Can Cau Saturday Market, I noticed many people buying 20 liter (5 gallon) translucent plastic bottles filled with liquid.

The next day at the Bac Ha Sunday Market, I saw many more of these containers being purchased.  At first I thought that they might be containers of cooking oil.  I knew that they were not bottles of diesel or gasoline because the liquid inside was clear.  Based upon the lack of color and sheer size of the bottles I eventually ruled out cooking oil.  Still somewhat confused as to why mountain people in an undeveloped area with plenty of rivers and streams would end up going to a weekly market I settled on assuming the people were buying drinking water.  It was only upon our return to our hotel that I found out that the people were buying 20 liter containers of moonshine - mountain dew, corn liquor, hooch.  Twenty liters costs $30 USD ($1.50 USD a liter).  Many people were buying more than one container too.  A good profit can be made selling smaller quantities out of the 20 liters and even better profit is made by aging it for a year and then selling it in smaller containers - so I was told.  The going price in a year is around $5.00 a liter.  I am still trying to figure out how storing alcohol in a plastic container improves it after one year. Well if that is what the people believe and it works for them, who am I to spoil it for them. Perhaps I should go back in a year and taste for myself  - if some of the 17 containers will still be around then.  Whiskey is aged in oak barrels to develop much of its flavor and all of its color.

Bac Ha is famous for its Moonshine and Tam Hoa plums.  What if the two were combined?  I know.  I know from experience.  With our dinner at Sa House on Saturday night, all guests were offered Moonshine and "Plum Wine".  The corn liquor was potent - I believe it to be 90 proof.  I tasted the "Plum Wine" and was surprised how strong it was.  It had a pleasant flavor but also packed a punch.  I asked if the moonshine had been added to the wine.  Yes, it had been "fortified" with corn liquor.

Duang does not drink so I ended up with two generous shots of corn liquor and two shots of slightly less potent "Plum Wine".

Duang had complained about having trouble sleeping in Hanoi because I was snoring.  Sunday morning I asked her how she slept or at least how she slept until the early morning thunderstorm.  She said that she slept "Very good.  You not make noise.  Whiskey good for you!"

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