Nov 14, 2022

Vietnam Field Report

SEPTEMBER 2022    The first smell of Hanoi was this: fish sauce, pineapple, wet pavement, rubber. The streets of the Hanoi old quarter have a specific aroma, a particular tropical smokiness – dozens of food stands with focused chefs making soups and grilled delicacies like bún chà and Bún bò huế at the height of a milk-crate, while inches away mopeds whiz by in a braided dance with cars and busses and pedestrians. To enter the flow you have to trust the dance – assess the speed and density of traffic and rest assured that it’s not in anyone’s interest to run you over. A construction site squeezed between two old building boasts a gaggle of workers wearing flip flops while they build scaffolding and guide a dump truck filled with sand. Everything about this inner-city experience reveals vulnerability, ambition and an effort to live fully. 

The last time I was in Vietnam was the spring of 2014, about a year before I founded Curio. Being back here, post-covid, was an odd paradox – it felt at once nostalgic, and at once like a different world. When I first set out to understand the artisan spice trade (in comparison to the commodity industry), I visited restaurants and obscure botanical experts, trying to make connections and establish an understanding for what I now appreciate as an immense and complex web of spice. I was carefree then, filled with ideas and plans and seemingly endless amounts of time. There were no masks and vaccine cards, either.

Nine-ish years later, with a seven year old spice company and two young children, the context has changed. The pang of being away from my family is intense – as a mother I now had this more urgent sense of distance – if anything went wrong in either place, I was a full 30 hours away from being able to hold them in my arms.

But it was time to get going, and with a dazed sense of urgency my colleague Josh (Curio's Marketing Manager) and I visited a handful of farms, fighting jet lag and language barriers. En route to the spice farms, we passed rice paddies dotted with tomb stones. I ask my interpreter about it. She says “Sometime we cut into a fish and find gold, because of the tombs under the water.” I smile and nod, this being a typical explanation for things I won’t ever fully understand. I think of my own tooth fillings, and how they are not made of gold.


Star Anise from Lang Son

After three or four hours we reach the mountainous region of Lang Son, where the hills look like they were crafted by my four year old out of sand and then covered in moss.

The farmer we met here is named Hai (seen below with the white hair), and he’s been growing star anise for forty years. He has three kids – two daughters and one son. At the time we visited, his wife Mao was in the forest with one of their daughters (Yen) but we stayed and ate a lunch he'd prepared himself (he says his mother taught him to cook), including homemade sausage from a pig he raised, as well as chicken and livers, cucumbers with lime and salt, pickled bamboo, sautéed greens, tinned fish. We drank tiny cups of corn wine he brews himself, and sat on a bamboo mat over which he had laid newspapers and the myriad of dishes. It was a feast, and I felt at home despite it all being so foreign. 

The star anise pods are fleshy and green when ripe – such strange stars to appear amidst the dense green leaf cover of trees. We find Yen twenty feet up a tree harvesting the last of the autumn stars for the season, and her mother Mao organizing the bags. The flowers are dainty but somehow robust - thick white petals with a pink center no larger than a nickel - and when you eat one you get the sweet, anise-like flavor but with a hint of flowers, like jasmine tea. I want to gather these up and decorate a cake.

A cow grazes nearby in the shade, her bell clanking peacefully. Hills roll gently in the distance, and the air is warm but not hot, humid and full of forest scents, soothing such that I could almost lay down and take a nap if it weren't for the fact that I was so energized by the site of raw star anise. 


Cinnamon from Yen Bai

The cinnamon from Vietnam is a specific species Cinnamomum loureirii that produces higher aromatic oils than any other type of cinnamon – resulting in a sweetness and intensity that is unforgettable. When visiting the cinnamon forests of Yen Bai, crunching across the forest floor littered with cinnamon leaves created an aroma like baking cookies, which felt odd given the tropical environment, the sound of a waterfall in the background, and a spider to my left the size of my hand. Cinnamon is harvested from trees that are eight to ten years old, and after the outer rough bark is scraped off, the next layer of the tree is the highest grade of cinnamon, pale and green-ish yellow when fresh, and then sliced into thin pieces that curl up as they dry and turn a deep reddish-brown. 

My contact here in Yen Bai is a woman founder who sources from smallholder farmers, most of whom are part of minority ethnic groups. She seems ageless to me, but has four kids, and I am humbled by all she has accomplished in her efforts to start a new wave of organic cinnamon farming in this region. She told me about how she is specifically interested in assisting women, many of whom didn’t have financial security prior to working with her company, which processes the cinnamon grown by the small farmers. She is working to improve the value chain by teaching small farmers about organic agriculture, protecting biodiversity and reducing deforestation. Her company is certified by the Union for Ethical Biotrade.

For lunch they hosted me with a colorful array of gorgeous offerings that left me wishing I could come back here every day. We ate crispy beef with pepper, chicken with herbs, some type of ‘apple’ that tasted more like watermelon, steamed mushrooms, corn on the cob and tiny glasses of homemade cinnamon wine. I tried my hand at peeling cinnamon, using a huge curved blade that you hold with both hands while straddling the tree trunk. I was reminded of my visit to Sri Lanka ten years ago now, where I learned to peel Cinnamomum zeylancium - a citrusy, delicate variety that is so different than this Vietnamese cinnamon. 


On the flight home, somewhere in the airspace over the North West territories of Canada, an intricate pattern of snow and rock - I keep thinking of my daughters, and my heart feels like it might burst. I'd only been away eight days and yet it felt like an eternity. And yet I feel so full of gratitude for the stories and meals shared with the spice farmers, the generosity they offered by welcoming me and my colleague Josh into their homes, dedicating countless hours to preparation and forest treks - that I think my heart might burst from this, too. Like my journal held together with an old rubber band, a bit battered by rain and dust, I hold it together, but just barely.

photos by Claire Cheney and Josh Mamaclay, 2022