The workers at this rice depot were a little baffled when I pulled in at around 8:00 PM and wanted to take some pictures with my smartphone. I made some polite overtures, mustered some of my best broken Vietnamese and then poked around for a few minutes.
Each of these bags weighs 50 kilograms (that’s 110 pounds for you imperialists), with this relatively small depot being just one of thousands of such depots in the Mekong Delta alone. In other words, there is an insane amount of rice in Vietnam, a country that is only twice the size of Florida with five times as many people.
Since the early 90s, Vietnam has been the world’s fifth largest producer of rice, while recently the country became the world’s third largest exporter of rice. According to recent studies, in 2013 the country produced 44 metric tons of rice—25 metric tons of which came from the Mekong Delta, which produces half of the country’s rice yield on 11% of its land area. An Giang Province, which is just north of Cần Thơ, is widely recognized as the rice capital of Vietnam, with its largest city, Long Xuyên, featuring a 20-foot sculpture of a rice plant in the middle of a roundabout just down the street from its government offices.
The ubiquitous presence of rice in Vietnam is staggering—from fresh rice noodles and rice moonshine to countless rice-based dishes and more than 1,600 varieties of rice that are available in varying degrees at small rice shops in every city and village, from Sa Pa to Cà Mau. Even the general catchall Vietnamese phrase for eating (ăn cơm) translates directly as “eat rice”.
And eat I do. My inner rice fanatic is always full and happy, yet nonetheless astounded by the sheer volume of Vietnam’s rice production. It seems the French colonialists had it right when they observed that it’s the Vietnamese who plant the rice, the Cambodians who tend it and the Lao who listen to it grow.