Seasons take on a different meaning in Vietnam. Whereas all the usual seasons songs in my ESL repertoire are firmly rooted in the northern hemisphere cycle of spring, summer, autumn and winter, this does not match the reality of Central Vietnam. Autumn – or fall as it now just as easily rolls of my tongue – does not come dressed in golden yellow or burnished red hues; neither are trees unceremoniously defrocked by blustery winds leaving branches bare and waiting to be robed with the sequined sparkle of snow. Although Tet and the onset of spring in early February is marked with a flurry of yellow buds and flowers on the pavements, in Vietnam the only things that change colour as the seasons progress are the rice paddies….
My first view of the rice paddies in Vietnam was in late August, on a trip to Binh Ninh – an area not too far from Hanoi. Against the backdrop of impressive karst scenery, lush green fields filled every available stretch of land either side of the waterway coursing through the valley.
On arriving in Quang Ngai, central Vietnam, I did not take much notice of the rice paddies; I was too engrossed in the experiences of exploring a new country. During my first trips to the beach and the nearby pagoda, I was focusing on memorizing roads, routes and landmarks. Of course, the verdant fields attracted my attention, but cycling to keep up with others meant that taking photographs had to be postponed to a later time, when I could visit the area at my own leisurely pace. Early November finally saw me on a solo trip to the beach, phone in hand to take snapshots of the green landscapes of the locality. With the start of the rainy season and the promise of water galore in the paddy fields, water buffalo wallowed among the rice plants and noisy rafts of ducks splashed in their vastly extended ponds.
I can only surmise I missed the early winter rice harvest, as only a couple of months later, the abundant greenery had suddenly vanished. In the gloom of January and early February, brown, muddy fields, bearing the spikey remnants of rice stalks, were already being prepared for the next rice crop. In central Vietnam, the rice cycle – from seedling to mature plant ripe and ready for harvesting – takes about three months, so farmers can produce at least two crops each year making the most of the wetter and cooler months.
In mid April, I was alerted to the next harvest. Bags bulging with rice appeared on the pavements and mounds of rice were spread out thinly on the roads near my place of work… Just before the rice is harvested, the paddy fields are drained, leaving the threshed rice kernels damp. Unless they are thoroughly dried, farmers risk their crop becoming mouldy and no longer fit for consumption. No better place to dry the grains than on sun-soaked, tarmaced or concreted roads…
So, it looked like the time had come to get back onto my bike and cycle the familiar route to the beach… Alongside the road the once green and brown fields had turned the telltale yellow shade of grains ripened and ready for harvest. Ears of rice drooping down, heavy with fat kernels.
Normally bustling roads were fringed with rice-coated plastic sheets; most courtyards were covered too and offered easy pickings for a lone cockerel. Even the gates to the military cemetery for soldiers and fighters of the Vietnam War were opened and the path leading up to the memorial was blanketed with more rice grains…
If I was expecting to see farmers toiling with scythes and sharp knives to cut down the rice, I was in for a surprise. With plenty of low-lying land on the coastal plains, small combine harvesters have made light of that side of the rice harvest. New technology and mechanisation are slowly but surely transforming how rice gets from the paddies onto the table.
Nevertheless, there still remains a lot of manual labour involved in the rice harvest and the fields are busy with people…often only too happy to pose for a picture..