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31 January 2021

Can Tho City - Five Capitals of Viet Nam - visiting cocoa farm

Hello, after a bit longer absence.

We are one month after Christmas, less than a month after the Calendar New Year, and in Asia we are waiting for the Lunar New Year.

My break was unexpectedly extended. On my way back from Europe to Viet Nam, I encountered a "fellow virus" who forced me into two weeks of quarantine in a field hospital and then another two weeks of home quarantine, which I am currently in.

The topic of the virus and quarantine in the field hospital will surely find its end in a separate article. I can assure you that there is something to write about, and I can call the experience I gained there a real one. So expect this type of coverage of an unplanned attraction in Viet Nam as well.

The good news is that I am asymptomatic, have had 4 negative test results, and have a fairly high level of antibodies. I am not afraid of the virus anymore.

With this article, I begin a series of reports on the Five Capitals of Viet Nam.

Five capitals, large cities, which are respectively: the capital of the north - Hai Phong, the capital of the State - Ha Noi, the capital of central Viet Nam - Da Nang, the business capital - Ho Chi Minh City and the capital of the Mekong Delta - Can Tho City. Interesting constellation.


I will start with the capital of the Mekong Delta, the city of Can Tho.

A trip to the Mekong Delta is always a hope for an interesting adventure and meeting extraordinary people.

And so it was this time.

If you have read my article on the Mekong Delta, you know that this is the 9 Dragon Delta, so named because the Mekong, after it crosses the Cambodian border, splits into two main lines and then into few more branches, forming the nine main currents of the Mekong flowing into the South China Sea.

Can Tho lies along one of the first three currents of the Mekong: Song Hau.

It is the largest city in the delta and the administrative capital of the province.

The magnet that drew me to the Mekong Delta in November was the Can Tho Light Festival.

But it was not the only target.

I was also curious about the morning market on the water -Cai Rang Floating Market, close to the islands, where the inhabitants willingly share their orchards giving the opportunity to eat a delicious local meal. It is also an opportunity to spend a few hours walking among various fruit trees, characteristic of the Mekong Delta. One of the many attractions in Can Tho City is also an organic cocoa plantation.

Today I will tell you a short story about how this plantation was created, what the owners do as part of their daily duties, and what the process of producing cocoa beans, cocoa butter and the powder used to prepare a delicious hot drink looks like.



Wellcome to the cocoa farm

This plantation is well known in the city. However, it is not widely promoted in guidebooks. Ask at the hotel where you will be staying, how to get there, or order a Grab or a taxi and just go see this interesting place. Address: My Khanh, Phong Dien, Vuon Ca Cao Muoi Cuong.

In my case it was a bit different, as a long-term resident of Viet Nam, I just knew what I was looking for and rented a scooter and went to the plantation.

It took about 20 minutes to ride the scooter south-west through the city.

In the center, follow the DT923 road and after a few kilometers, on the right side, you will see a marked exit to the plantation. The side street is quite decently signposted so it shouldn't be a problem to hit the cocoa plantation gate directly.

The owner of the plantation, a 60-year-old resident of Can Tho, will be happy to show you around the entire plantation, tell the story of its creation and demonstrate the simple activities that he performs every day to provide high-quality organic cocoa beans.

The whole plantation takes up 1 ha of land, which, as is the case in Delta, is about 50 m narrow, but very long - 200 m.

In this area, the owner has a dwelling house, a storage room where he stores the grain, a yard for drying it, and a gazebo with all the equipment for the production of grain, powder and cocoa butter. It is also a place where visitors can test all products. The rest is occupied by irrigation canals on which 600 cocoa trees grow.

The plantation was founded by the father of the present owner, who imported cocoa seeds 55 years ago from Malaysia, which, next to Indonesia, was and still is one of the main places where this plant is grown.

It was a considerable investment for those times. Also risky in a way. The cocoa tree is known as a cultivated plant in Africa, South and Central America. In the 1960s, in Asia, only Indonesia and Malaysia were the main growing areas for this tree. On the other hand, cocoa came to Viet Nam as, in a sense, illegal private import, burdened with phytosanitary and financial risks. This is how the current cocoa plantations in southern Viet Nam were formed.

The cocoa tree can be in the form of a bush or a tree. Those that grow in Asia are in the form of shrubs up to 5 m high. As a plant, it has a very extensive root system, needs a lot of water and a lot of nutrients.

As an agricultural engineer, I can confidently say that the Mekong Delta creates the best conditions for growing these trees in Viet Nam. The waters of the Mekong river carry nutritious particles from West Asia, which makes the river rich in minerals. The fertile fields in the Mekong Delta ensure very even fruiting throughout the year. The cocoa tree is an evergreen tree that bears fruit almost non-stop. However, the peak of fruiting is between September and March.

The arrangement of flowers and fruits looks interesting. They grow straight from trunks and branches. This form of flowering and fruiting is called caulifloria and is quite common in the tropics.

By importing seeds from Malaysia, the father of the current owner established a plantation that began to generate its first income after about five years. A cocoa tree takes about 3 to 5 years to start bearing fruit so intensely that it has an industrial character.

The best harvest is obtained from trees or shrubs between the eighth and fifteenth years of growth, and the total production period for one tree is around 20 years.

The first impression after entering the cocoa plantation was that it was dark there.

This is another curiosity related to the cultivation of cocoa. This tree does not like direct sun. It thrives best and produces rich plans when growing in partial shade. Cocoa plantations are therefore established in a place where other types of fruit trees, e.g. coconut trees, mangosteen trees or mango trees, are previously planted. In any case, the cocoa tree likes to grow in partial shade and other fruit trees provide it with such conditions.

This, of course, raises the question of competition, for mineral resources. Fortunately, the Mekong Delta is an ideal place for cocoa growth and cultivation, as the river waters deposit very fertile, mineral-rich sediments. So we have, at least in this matter, an undisturbed balance that must be maintained in such a plantation.


The plantation 

The cocoa tree bears fruit all year round. It is the owner's responsibility to walk between all 600 trees every day and collect fruit that is already ripe. This is easy to identify because the fruits that are ready for harvest acquire a yellow/light orange skin colour, going from the dark brown, maroon colour. Such a fruit must simply be torn from the tree.

As you probably guessed, since the tree grows all year round and the harvest period lasts all year round, you will find fruit at different stages of development on one tree, as well as flowers.

Yes it's true. The cocoa tree bears fruit all year round, so on one tree you will find small, green, brown-burgundy fruit ripening, as well as ripe, orange-yellow, ready to be picked.

As you can see in the photos, the cocoa fruit resembles a big cucumber or an American football ball. Ripe, it has a wrinkled, brownish-maroon skin, and the torn at this stage is ready for further processing.

According to the stories told by our host, he learned the art of cultivating this fruit from a very old, French-language book that his grandfather gave him.

His father imported cocoa from Malaysia to Viet Nam for commercial purposes. The natural consequence, says our host, was that he also began to cultivate the first trees.

The owner, who goes around the plantation every day, collects the ripe fruit. After they are delivered to the warehouse, the process of their processing begins.

When it comes to the productivity of plantations, the first 3 to 5 years are the period of waiting for trees to mature into production.

Then, in 8 to 15 years, the greatest harvests are achieved. On average, 2.5 t of finished cocoa beans are obtained per hectare. This is the average world standard for this type of crop.

In our case, thanks to providing really great conditions for trees, the productivity reaches even 4 tons of grain per hectare. This is quite a significant difference compared to the world standard. This is the strength of the Mekong.

Interestingly, out of these 4 tons, an average of 3 tons of grains are prepared as an export product, mainly to the United States. The seed from this particular farm is organic seed supplied primarily to Cargill. They do not use any chemical stimulants, no fertilization. Everything needed for development and high yielding is provided by Mekong.

There are no large factories in the area, no air pollution. The farm is on the sidelines, the grain has the status of an organic product and chocolate companies make premium products from it.

The remaining ton of grain is used by the owner for the current service of tourist groups, for production demonstrations and for his own use.



Production process

We already know that the tree is 5 m tall, grows in the shade, requires a lot of water, has an extremely branched root system and produces about 4 tons of grain per hectare.

So let's follow the production process.

After harvesting, the fruits are cut open to get the grain out of them.

The grain is surrounded by a crumb which is very sweet and a bit like Lychee fruit. Both in taste and texture. It is left on the seed for one very important purpose. Fermentation. After being extracted from the fruit, the grain is poured into a heap and undergoes the fermentation process. The grain, including the crumb, is fermented for about 7 days. After this time, the crumb becomes pulp and naturally separates from the grain, falling to the ground. The grain becomes clean, a nice dark brown color. The fermentation process is also important for the beans to acquire the right aroma.

The grains fermented in this way are dried in the sun, covered with cotton, in order to obtain a moisture content of less than 6%. Such dried grain is the first major export product from Asia, Africa and Central America. It is in this form that our host sells the grain from his plantation.

Developed countries already process the grain into other products, such as fat and cocoa powder.

Is it a profitable business?

A kilogram of cocoa beans costs about $ 2,000 on the stock exchange. Our host actively observes price trends, e.g. in Europe and America, and sells the beans in batches to obtain a favorable price. As it is easy to count, having 3 tons of cocoa beans a year is a business worth about $ 6 million a year. Quite a lot, right?

But let's leave business for a moment.

Let's do what our host does best. Production of home-made cocoa.



Hot cocoa, drink of the Gods 

After drying, the beans are roasted.

Roasting is the process of removing the husk from the beans. A very simple method is used on the farm. The grain is roasted in a black metal drum over an open fire, burning the wood and tending the inside of the drum to assess the condition of the grains. In this way, the grains are cleaned from the shells.

The next stage of production is pressing / crushing cocoa beans to extract the cocoa fat contained in the beans. This operation is performed by our host in a mechanical press where the grain is simultaneously crushed and squeezed out. All this is done hot so the fat in the cocoa beans flows out and is collected in containers. It has the consistency of a cream, is milky white in color and is used, among other things, for the production of white chocolate.

After the extraction and separation of the cocoa butter, the brown portion of the beans remains and is the basis of the cocoa powder. The residue after the degreasing process was ground in a mill to obtain the cocoa powder you know, from which you can prepare a fantastic, regenerating drink - hot cocoa.

During his stay on the plantation, the owner tells all these stories, engaging himself in an expressive display of all activities. We have a real treat to participate in the unique process of manual production of cocoa butter, which we then use for white chocolate or cocoa powder which is the basic ingredient of the drink we all know.

Time spent on the farm is not only about watching the production. It is also about seeing the plantation while walking among the trees. You can see, touch and experience what these fruits look like, how they grow and compare the maturity stages of each of them.

We can look into the warehouse where the grain is stored, in bags, ready for export.

There is also a paved square where the beans are naturally dried thanks to the sun.

The stay on such a farm will last about 2 hours. It allows you to learn the secrets of cocoa bean production and enjoy a hot, freshly prepared drink. Time passes quickly and a walk in the shade of the trees is very pleasant in a hot climate.



Time is up

I strongly encourage you to visit the Mekong Delta. Not in an organized group, whose plan is very commercial and does not give a chance to taste the real atmosphere of local community life, but individually. It is much better to delve a bit into the recesses of the Mekong Delta by yourself.

Visit Can Tho or Sa Dec, the city of flowers, the heart of flower production for all of southern Viet Nam. Spend an hour or two in a local temple to visit Cai Rang floating market, rice noodles and coconut candy factory at dawn the next day.

All these attractions in the Mekong Delta can be found easily on the Internet. They are cheap and the bus journey from Sai Gon to Can Tho will take about 3 hours. The buses are extremely comfortable. The ticket provides a bottle of water for the road and a place in an air-conditioned compartment. Traveling in such conditions is pure pleasure.

The cost of a one-way ticket from Sai Gon to Can Tho is 150,000 VND which is about 7 USD.

The Mekong Delta, with its capital Can Tho, is one of the five attractions in the "Five Capitals" program.

You will learn about the other attractions of the Delta and the other four capitals in the following articles.


Because today is a full moon, every wish comes true.

So I wish you good health and a peaceful Lunar New Year 2021 - the year of the Ox.

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