By Alisha Falk
Vietnamese communities are very close to nature and local agriculture. In the south they harvest their food from the rivers, forests and family farms that span the southern tip of Vietnam. They depend on the richness and biodiversity of a tropical world so amazing that it is often referred to as one of the world’s richest ecosystems. Recently, I traveled with a group of University of Montana Students where we spent three and a half weeks exploring the Mekong Delta as well as natural areas around Ho Chi Minh City.
During our stay, many of the meals we enjoyed have been as fresh as you could ever hope. Surprisingly, meals we’ve had incorporated many flowers, stems and roots. My classmates and I loved trying new and exciting foods. In the process, we have also had opportunities to learn about commonly used plants in Vietnamese cuisine and even some uncommonly used plants that may have medicinal value. The plants we learned were historically used by the indigenous Ma people, who reside outside of Cat Tien National Park, just north of Ho Chi Minh City.
In Vietnam, the lotus flower or the “Hoa sen” is so esteemed that it is seen in artwork, on temple walls, and in home gardens. The lotus is even found on your plate, where the petals are used to wrap sweet rice cakes, and the seeds are served as a side dish or are mixed into salads. The yellow center of the flower can be used to garnish tea cups. Sometimes, the flower is dried and steeped to make a delicious tea. Lotus tea is incredibly pleasant to sip while admiring the beauty of a Buddhist pagoda with your new local friends.
The pumpkin flower, or the “bông bí”, is a little less stunning than the lotus, but is regularly eaten in hot pot meals or with beef and vegetables. The delicious male flower of the pumpkin plant is and harvested for cuisine because it doesn’t produce fruit. Bông bí is very popular and packs a lot of flavor. When we tried it, a few of us thought that it tasted similar to spinach. It was surprising to learn that farmers can usually get more money for flowers than they can for actual pumpkins.
Water hyacinth, an invasive plant species to Vietnam, has been increasingly incorporated into Vietnamese daily life. During our adventure we never ate the flower, but we did eat the stems. Stems are versatile can be woven into baskets or mats. Like the bông bí, stems are tossed into hot pot soups. Amazingly, hyacinth has been found to be a good resource for making biofuel, through a process of collecting methane gasses produced by the decomposition of organic materials. The gas can be used to fuel kitchen stoves for rural farmers and is a sustainable source of energy.
If you find yourself in Vietnam, and you travel a little bit north of Ho Chi Minh City, you would find it wonderfully enriching to stay at Ta Lai Longhouse, where we had an opportunity to learn about the Ma people. We were lucky enough to visit with an amazing woman named Ka Huong. During our stay she graciously introduced us to her culture and the local ecosystem.
Ka Huong guided us on a thirteen kilometer hike through the Vietnamese jungle. Along the way, she invited us to taste an interesting Licorice vine called “cam thảo” or Glycyrrhiza uralensis. Licorice vine is not the same thing that you would extract anise from, but it tastes similar. The vine, when chopped into tiny pieces can be chewed like gum. It has a potent, sweet flavor, and Ka Huong told us that it will help us to forget that we are thirsty, which could be nice while trekking through the hot and humid jungle, while on our way to explore local bat caves.
Deeper into the jungle we encountered beautiful white barked trees, which Ka Huong called “bang lang”. These enormous trees are some of the most beautiful trees you might ever see, with pearly white bark that appears to have been chipped at with a sharp tool. The trees are often hollow due to termite invasions, and in the past the Ma people used hollow trunks to make coffins. The bark was also traditionally used to make a tea that was effective in treating diarrhea. Today, the trees are protected and they no longer harvest them.
If you were describing Vietnam to someone who has never seen it, you might find it helpful to compare the country to a lotus flower. Vietnam is like a grand, fragrant flower that has been admired throughout history. To people around the world, the lotus represents beauty that has grown upward toward the sky from being deeply rooted and buried in the mud. Symbolically the lotus reminds us that out of the darkness there is always light, life, and love. From the muddiest of challenges, Vietnamese people have always found ways to bloom and enrich the world. Our short stay was full of memorable experiences and interactions with the local people and environments. We often shared stories during dinner, and most importantly, we made many new wonderful friends with the help of the lotus flower.