Vegetables and salads

Vegetables and salads

By
Andreas Pohl, Tracey Lister
Contains
32 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742705262
Photographer
Michael Fountoulakis

Greenhouse effect: Gardens of Dalat

‘My father was among the first group of north Vietnamese farmers to come to Dalat,’ says 62-year-old Ngo Van Phong. He proudly holds up a black and white photograph from the early 1940s showing Vietnam’s last emperor pinning a medal on the traditional tunic worn by his father, Ngo Van Binh, who received the award for his pioneering work in establishing market gardens in the central highlands.

Ngo Van Binh passed away not so long ago at the ripe old age of 94, but his son Phong still lives in the old family home made from pinewood in Ha Dong village on the outskirts of Dalat. The village is named after the district of the same name in Ha Tay province, now part of greater Hanoi, from where the first settlers came, and the story of how Ha Tay residents came to grow vegetables in Dalat is inextricably linked to Vietnam’s colonial past.

The famous French immunologist Alexandre Yersin reportedly discovered the location of what was to become Dalat as early as 1893, and recommended it to the colonial administration as an ideal site for a resort to escape the oppressive heat of the lowlands. The French displaced the ethnic minority who lived in the area, and over the next 30 years built a European-style town, replete with chalets, cathedral, an artificial lake, and even a replica of the Eiffel Tower. Da Lach, ‘the river of the Lach people’, turned into the French hill station Dalat.

By 1945, the town boasted 3000 villas, the summer palace of the emperor, and a population of about 5000 French, hungry for European food. Over the previous decade, Dalat had grown at such a fast rate that the small Vietnamese population struggled to provide enough food for the French inhabitants. In response, the townspeople decided to establish so-called ‘supply villages’ in a conscious effort to move away from the imported tinned foods so prevalent in the French diet in Saigon and Hanoi.

They also decided to tap in to an existing skill base and import labour from the northern provinces of what was then called Tonkin. There, farmers were already growing fruit and vegetables for the French living in Hanoi.

‘The first people from Ha Dong came here only for a very short time. It was too cold for them,’ chuckles Phong. ’But they brought seeds for European cold-climate vegetables, and cleared a lot of the land.’ Back in the north, his father, Binh, had temporarily left the family trade of farming and worked as a journalist at the time. He wrote about the migration scheme to the Central Highlands and this piqued his interest in moving there. When the French administration formalised the process of resettlement in 1937, Binh put his name down for a plot of land. One year later, he and his parents were among the first 33 families to move to Dalat.

This time, the French made sure the migrants stayed on and produced a good crop. Not only did they give the new arrivals enough land, they also stipulated what was to be grown on it. There was no direct contact between the colonisers and farmers, however. Instead, Vietnamese officials acted as go-betweens and even dispatched training officers to assist with setting up the market gardens and to advise on irrigation and the use of machinery.

The temperate climate of an area located 1500 metres above sea level, along with the rich volcanic soil, provided excellent conditions for growing Western vegetables and berries, and the success of the first group of migrants lured more and more farmers from the north to Dalat. Ha Dong proved to be the seed that over the years grew into the agricultural powerhouse that Lam Dong province is today. These days, more than 100 different types of vegetables and over 80 varieties of cut flowers are grown on approximately 20,000 hectares, of which about 10 per cent are covered by greenhouses.

Binh and his family started out with the same produce the family had previously cultivated in the north. Over the years, he became more adventurous and experimented with different crops. He even became the first farmer in the province to grow brown onions — which earned him a spread in National Geographic magazine in the early 1960s.

Over the past decade, however, agriculture in the Dalat area has undergone big changes, most notably due to the rise in popularity of cut flowers. The market gardens have moved further away from Dalat and many farmers in Ha Dong village have switched to growing flowers, Binh’s son included. Phong switched from cultivating cabbage and carrots to growing marigold flowers for the markets in Ho Chi Minh City. ‘The price fluctuates, but profit margins are better,’ Phong explains. Asked if he misses anything about growing vegetables, he smiles ironically: ‘Only the hard work.’

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