We traveled for almost three hours to reach the province of Tuyen Quang in the north of Vietnam. The economy of the province is primarily dependent on agriculture and some light industries such as quarrying and making of red bricks used to build most of the Vietnamese houses. It was quite odd to see these precious red bricks being finished using ugly, gray concrete and later to be painted with equally odd colors such as purple and bright yellow. The bricks look more elegant and classic, but sadly, most preferred their houses to have a more western appearance.
But what was more conspicuous was not the red soil and the big ovens literred around the province used to bake the bricks; it was the almost unobstructed horizon of newly planted rice plants that will fascinate one’s sight. And being in this little-known province taught me lessons about not taking for granted fundamentals. After leaving the place I begin to see rice like i never saw it before. It has become more precious, more necessary for the existence of the three billion plus of the human population, and more sacred.
Although my father’s family are farmers in the Philippines, I never had a chance to till the soil or plant rice. We were raised in such a comfortable home where nobody expected us to wake up at four in the morning and bring the buffalo to the field to prepare the soil for the coming planting season. Rice for me was such a given. A sack of it was delivered to our house every two weeks or so. I never had an opportunity to see the process each grain had to go through before it reaches our plates.
With me are my two friends Le, a Vietnamese girl and JP a Belgian guy who lives in Germany. All the three of us never tried to plant rice before, so we asked a friend who is in-charge of the cultural aspect of the district to ask a group of farmers if they could allow us to plant rice on a narrow strip of a rice paddy.
The author with a girl farmer named Phoung Anh who will go to Hanoi in August for university to study Tieng Anh (English); Chi Le, a Vietnamese friend; and JP, a Belgian who is so “obsessed” with Vietnam.
Planting rice is tedious, back-breaking, as well as farmers having to endure heat and sunburn while working under the sun. The entire process can never be fully captured by the word “difficult”. We had to make the line for the planting as straight as possible to facilitate faster growth by giving enough room for the plants as well as to make harvesting easier and more efficient. Not only that, we had to face the threat of leeches sucking all the blood out of us since the entire place is infested by the blood-sucking organism.
I also noticed that all the farmers who were doing the planting were women. I reasoned that maybe there was a division of labor, that is to say, that the men did the more difficult tasks such as preparing the field, weeding, and plowing. But upon introspection, it occurred to me that nothing can be more difficult than the task of planting rice seedlings, and women are burdened to do the exacting task of planting the source of the food I cannot live without.
In my halting Vietnamese, I tried to tell the women farmers how beautiful they were and how difficult their job was. I know it was never enough to show them my appreciation for the toil they have to go through to feed half of mankind whose staple food is the labor-, water-, and nutrient-intensive crop.