#004: Fruit in Vietnam (Part I of II)Tak's dispatch released on 11 November 2014

Rambutan and Longan Fruit in Vietnam

A General Vietnamese Fruit Overview

You are walking down a narrow street and will inevitably pass a Vietnamese fruit dealer of some sort, or perhaps one passes you by, wearing the traditional nón lá hat (those conical hats many equate to rice paddy workers) and pushing some rickety cart full of red rambutans or ripe, albeit green, oranges.

(Speaking of which, the nón lá is quite the accessory. Take it off and flip it and you have a basket. Wave it in front of yourself and you have a fan. Put it back on your head and you are protected from the sun.)

Ripe, Green Oranges?

Orange Fruit in VietnamYou’ve seen a lot of green oranges in Vietnam, what is the story? If you are familiar with the foliage of certain trees changing colour in autumn, then half the battle is won, because oranges work the same way. In a tropical environment with constant heat, an orange—like deciduous foliage—will stay green, due to the constant presence of chlorophyll. However, when the air temperatures cool (which doesn’t happen in tropical climates like that of southern Vietnam), oranges lose their green colour and turn to orange. So an orange orange might be perfectly ripe and a green orange might be perfectly ripe; it just depends on where the orange was grown.

“If this is true” one might quickly remark, “then how come the exterior of the oranges you find at your local supermarket, which hail from warm-weather climes like Brazil and Florida, are orange in colour?”

You explain that yes, this rebuttal seems quite logical, but in reality, the vast majority of those Brazilian & Floridian oranges are indeed green at maturity. However, because most people in the non-tropical world incorrectly believe that green oranges can not be ripe oranges, they would not buy a green orange. Orange producers, knowing this, thus make their green oranges, orange. One way they do this is by putting them into large room pumped full with ethylene gas (which is typically created from ethanol). The gas destroys the chlorophyll in the skin of the orange, which causes the green pigmented chlorophyll to disappear. Without the chlorophyll, we instead see the pigments that make orange, and have an orange orange (that consumers will readily buy). Other options are subjecting the oranges to cold, or dying them orange.

A couple more details are somewhat interesting. First off, once citrus fruits, including oranges, are picked, they generally do not ripen any further. Thus, the degreening process primary purpose is to destroy the chlorophyll—thereby changing the colour of the orange—and not as a means to speed ripening (as might be the case with tomatoes). Second, the destruction of the chlorophyll reduces the shelf life of the oranges. On the other hand, producers lengthen the shelf-life by waxing the fruit with a variety of types of wax. Lastly, the whole process of making already ripe oranges different colors increases the amount of time from the tree to your hand, and increases cost for no reason other than meeting consumer demands based on erroneous expectations. You suppose we have veered off from fruits in Vietnam but alas…

Imported vs Domestic Fruit

It is difficult to figure out what produce is imported vs grown locally; most Vietnamese consumers rely on their fruit dealer for such information. But, even if the fruit dealer truly knows, you don’t know Vietnamese well enough to take that route. And when you turn to researching import and export numbers, the data and thus conclusions are murky. So here you are, in Vietnam for a short vacation, desiring the best fruit.

Sometimes somewhat clear conclusions can be drawn via research. For instance, you can find actual data that while Vietnam grows mandarin oranges, the domestic demand outstrips that domestic supply and thus a good percentage of mandarin oranges here are imported, in this case, from China. Thus, if you want to try local Vietnamese fruit, mandarins are not a good bet.

But on the flip side, there are many fruits where conclusions are much harder to solidify. Vietnam is one of the top-ten banana producers, so you can only assume that bananas sold here are from Vietnam without more than supposition to back it up. The pineapples? The coconuts?

This is further complicated by which month you find yourself visiting, just as blueberries in New York might be locally-grown in July (“Blueberries are a locally grown crop”) yet flown in from Chile in December (“Blueberries are imported”). You note that Vietnam grows kiwis, and has been for decades, but do they import most of what you find here, cause you keep seeing kiwis from New Zealand, but very little information about Vietnam kiwis? You thus have to assume that most kiwis you find here, at least in October and November, are imported.

Given this data chasm, and given that local fruits in season should be more rewarding than having an apple shipped from the USA or China, even if just psychological, in the next two editions, we will focus on Vietnamese fruits that appear in Vietnam, with this edition looking at some of those that have narrow seasons or usages such as mangosteen, durian, strawberries and calomondin; and next week looking at fruits that are more widely grown domestically, such as bananas, coconuts, pineapples, mangoes, pumelo, sapodilla, soursop, star apple, papayas, dragon fruit, watermelon, logan, rambutan and jackfruit.

Vietnam is currently flourishing as a fruit export market. While currently approximately 25% of produce exports go to China, Vietnam is increasing exports to the USA, Australia and other countries. Recently, it was announced that the United States would begin importing lychee and longan fruit, which will join other exports such as coconut-related products and dragon fruit. Part of this process is modernizing the harvest and distribution process, which you realize has its benefits as well as consequences.

As for imports into Vietnam, you can safely conclude from research that Vietnam imports most of its apples, pears and peaches from China (as well as the aforementioned mandarin oranges). Due to short seasons, Vietnam also imports many of its durian and mangosteens from Thailand.

You also may note that while USA, Australian and Thai fruit is considered good quality by the majority of Vietnamese, Chinese produce is seen as low quality, partially due to various reports of the use of illegal chemicals such as toxic grapes and cancer-causing plums.

Consumers, per this report, appear to be bucking Chinese produce for Vietnamese (on the low-end) and preferring US and Australian produce (on the high-end) but then again, dubious sellers reportedly remedy this issue by affixing fake “Made in USA” labels onto Chinese fruit.

Fruit in Vietnam — Outdated or Cutting Edge?

Since Vietnam does not use preservatives such as “Diphenylamine (DPA), Ethoxyquin, and 1-MCP (1-methylcyclopropene)” on its fruit, Vietnamese consumers expect fruit to go bad when it naturally would. However, when fruits, such as apples and pears, are imported that have been treated with (supposedly safe) chemicals like 1-MCP, it lasts much longer. As a result, local consumers assume the fruit has been treated dangerously, as to allow for such an unnatural result. Interestingly enough, the non-usage of preservatives is seen as “a big disadvantage for Vietnamese fruit growers and traders”. It also severely hinders Vietnam’s export market.

This creates an interesting dynamic. While the “more developed” world has adapted “high tech” mechanisms to outwit nature and meet customer expectations—such as gassing green oranges and coating apples with preserving chemicals—Vietnam’s produce industry hasn’t updated many of their techniques. Thus, while many in the industry see Vietnam’s produce industry as outdated, Vietnam could also be considered on the cutting edge by those who want purer fruits.

If Vietnam were able to effectively brand and sell its fruit as “heirloom” or “organic” or likewise, and could command premium pricing for it, perhaps the market would be considered cutting edge. But without the branding and pricing power, it is instead considered a backwater industry in need of investment and technological advancement to ensure efficient production (e.g. using preservatives, using mass-approved cultivars, etc).

Whatever the case, Vietnam has been steadily increasing its production and export of a wide array of fruits and vegetables. It is just a question as to when they will throw out their special differentiators and join the soulless fruit mob who judges the quality of fruit by the money, efficiency and productivity it achieves.

Specific Fruit in Vietnam

In this edition, we will start our journey through a bunch of Vietnam’s fruit. This week we will look at a handful of less-widely grown fruits in Vietnam, such as the calamondin, mangosteen, durian and strawberry.

Calamondin (Cây Tắc, Quất / Cay Tac, Quat)

Calamondin (Calamansi)You first noticed these at the sugar cane juice cart. They are small—like a grape tomato back home—but round and green like a lime (or green like an oranges). Perhaps kumquats here also are green? Or perhaps these are just miniature limes? Or maybe something else?

So the next day you head down to a specific street that fills daily with the chatter of hard-working produce vendors and quick-witted customers. After passing just a handful of stalls, you quickly spot them, piled high in large baskets, adjacent to the limes. You motion to the older woman manning the stand and point from the lime to the mystery fruit, and ask, using circular hand gestures, if the “miniature lime” is just a smaller version of the traditional lime. She looks at you, shines a slight smile and shakes her head no.

You slowly glance around, thinking about your next move, when the older woman grabs you by the arm, points to her left, says something loudly in Vietnamese and walks you to the adjacent stall. She then directs your attention to a younger worker who is helping with the produce-related tasks at hand. You ask the girl, who is perhaps just a couple years younger than you, if she knows some English. She shakes her head, delivering a timid “no”. With that hope dashed, you then notice that the older ladies are ramping up further in excitement when the older woman grabs your hand, points at your ring finger, and flies through more Vietnamese jargon. You have apparently edged closer to an eternal lifelong pairing, but remain just as far in solving your mystery citrus identity quest.

Come to find out, you eventually identify these as calamondin, aka calamansi (it seems quat is the Vietnamese word used for both these and kumquats which adds confusion to the matter), which is an Asian-derived, citrus fruit that is believed to have lineage related to the kumquat—hence that similarity (and confusion). However, whereas a kumquat is sweet, calamondin is highly acidic, marrying very well to sweetened iced tea, or any foods that call for an acidic pop (e.g. fish).

Interesting uses of the calamondin are noted by Purdue University:

The fruit juice is used in the Philippines to bleach ink stains from fabrics. It also serves as a body deodorant.

The fruits may be crushed with the saponaceous bark of Entada Phaseoloides Merr. for shampooing the hair, or the fruit juice applied to the scalp after shampooing. It eliminates itching and promotes hair growth. Rubbing calamondin juice on insect bites banishes the itching and irritation. It bleaches freckles and helps to clear up acne vulgaris and pruritus vulvae. It is taken orally as a cough remedy and antiphlogistic. Slightly diluted and drunk warm, it serves as a laxative. Combined with pepper, it is prescribed in Malaya to expel phlegm

Mangosteens in Vietnam (Măng cụt / Mang cut)

Mangosteen Fruits in VietnamYou’ve wanted to eat mangosteens, one of those treats you look forward to when arriving in southeast Asia. Mangosteens are purple fruits with a white interior. The edible portion is the white sections within the fruit. It has a complex and beautiful taste, and is nicely balanced. It is really hard to describe what it tastes like—maybe a combination of strawberry, lychee and peach?

Unfortunately, Vietnam is only a minor producer of mangosteens due to the mangosteen requiring year-round water. As such, while some mangosteen is grown in a specific area in Vietnam’s southern regions, with the best quality being harvested between late-April and early June, (along with some slightly lower quality local variants in Central Vietnam (Hue) in January and February), most is not. Today, you spotted some outside of the large and touristy Bến Thành Market (pictured above). Based on the timing, and the worn condition, it would be intelligent to suspect those are coming from the Philippines (whose mangosteen season runs August to November), Indonesia or Malaysia (who both have mangosteen harvest between June and August and November and January).

To eat the mangosteen, you know of two ways:

You make a cut around the fruit’s deep purple exterior and twist it apart to unveil the sections of white fruit or,

Push down on the underside of the mangosteen, peel off the side of the skin and work your way around, while you hold the green part (which holds the white fruit).

Seeds, and the bitter skin, are not eaten. Also, if the mangosteen is very fresh, you won’t need much of a knife whereas if it has been off the tree for a while, then the exterior will be harder, and thus a knife is preferable to using your hands.

Durian in Vietnam (Sầu riêng / Sau rieng)

Durian in VietnamAlongside the mangosteen, the durian is frequently mentioned. Whereas the mangosteen is without reproach, the durian, when cut open, has a very strong odor to it. However, the complexity of flavours of both of these fruits in addition to their historical appeal has them often labeled the king (durian) and queen (mangosteen) of fruit.

You are in southeast Asia and you are going to try durian (just like you are going to try the affable mangosteen). It is grown in the south and comes into high season between May and July. The texture is something close to ice cream, a custard or a whipped banana. There is a pleasant sweetness to it. On the back end there is a wrinkle of something sulfuric, which is slightly offputting, but then, of course, the next bite brings sweetness back to the fore. Overall, it is a nice fruit and definitely worth the try. Is it your favourite fruit? You surmise not, but it is definitely a fun flavour worth exploring more.

Strawberries in Vietnam (Dâu / Dau)

Strawberries are pretty much only grown in Dalat, Vietnam, a city located in the highlands northeast of Saigon. Due to the elevation—nearly a mile (1500m) above sea level—it is one of the only places in Vietnam with the ability to grow cooler weather crops. Some of the strawberry farms have shifted production to growing strawberries in hanging baskets which protects them from rats and other pests, and allows them the ability to skip applications of pesticides. Approximately 10% of Dalat Strawberries are grown in greenhouses, and thus some year-round production is feasible. Otherwise, late winter and early spring seem to be the apex for harvest.

Several difference between Dalat strawberries and fake Dalat (Chinese) strawberries are reported by VDeltaExpress

  1. Dalat strawberries have uneven shapes where Chinese strawberries are “perfectly” shaped
  2. Dalat strawberries are unevenly colored whereas Chinese strawberries are uniform and deep red
  3. Dalat strawberries are more tender and prone to shipping damage whereas Chinese strawberries are more durable
  4. Dalat strawberries last up to 2 days in summer temperatures whereas Chinese strawberries are treated to last up to 10 days without spoiling.
Juices in Vietnam

If you aren’t going to eat fruit, you might as well crush it, blend it, smash it and drink it, especially since fruit juices and smoothies seem all the rage these days. Juices in Vietnam are a pretty nice thing to have, and a good way to try fruits that you otherwise wouldn’t. The juices and smoothies are—in comparison to Western pricing—affordable, made with fresh fruit, and refreshing (especially given the humidity-laced heat that continues to linger here at the end of the wet season).

Due to a fruit addiction, many combinations have been explored. In case you missed it, you can see more of that habit in last week’s photography-laden Edition #003 report.

Edition Five Ahead

In the next edition we will explore a large number of Vietnamese fruits as you make arrangements to head off to Southern Vietnam. In the coming editions, we will bring some Vietnamese island life to your desktops.

Keep enjoying life wherever you may be! Thanks for reading!

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New York, NY
Internationally-published photographer with a passion for creative food, fine products, unique cultures and underground music. Twitter / Instagram / Email

Questions & Comments

1 Comment

  • Anders Grahn says:

    Interesting post! I recall the green orange from when I spent half a year in Asia. By that time I had no idea of why they were green. Now I know, thanks for sharing!

    BTW, I am not sure if you convinced me about the smelly fruit Durian. It really has the worst smell out there! I recall that the busses and trains had signs with a big red cross over them which I thought was quit hilarious.

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