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In Suburban Hanoi, With Summer Comes the Red-Purple Cascade of Mulberries

In suburban Hanoi, this is the season when mulberry branches heavy with bright red fruits dangle in the summer wind.

The sunshine of April arrived with blasts of sweltering heat, dispelling the waterlogged curtain of March’s humidity. It was officially summer in Hanoi, a time for countless types of fresh fruits to showcase their vivid ripeness on the streets in town, competing with the mauve of jacaranda and the golden yellow of hoàng yến.

Ripe mulberries are a harbinger of summer.

Compared to the season’s usual players like pineapple, lychee, longan and mận hậu, mulberry’s entrance to the capital’s fruit shops and traditional markets has been quicker than most. Northern Vietnam’s mulberry season spans not even a month from the end of March to the beginning of April. Mulberry ripens fast, and falls and bruises easily, so its shelf-life is short. Each day’s mulberry harvest must be shipped off within a few hours. Mulberries are juicy, refreshing, and full of good vitamins, so families often process them into preserves and syrups to increase their life spans. Ice-cold, sweet-and-sour glasses of purple mulberry juice are a popular way for Hanoians to soothe their parched throats in the summer, dispelling the heat and stuffiness of weather changes.

Mulberry juice is a fantastic third-quencher.

Behind the flashy appearance of mulberries at mobile vendors is throngs of farmers hard at work at their plantations just 30 kilometers from central Hanoi. In patches of land by the Đáy River such as Dương Liễu Commune (Hoài Đức District) and Hiệp Thuận Commune (Phúc Thọ District), mulberry plantations pour greenness towards the horizon. The quietude of the countryside poses a stark contrast with the chaotic traffic and people of inner Hanoi. Amidst the vastness of the land, one can only hear the buzz of cicadas, the soft hum of the wind, and the occasional call of farmers on the fields.

The banks of the Đáy River are the home of Hanoi's major mulberry plantations.

Here, farmland is irrigated year-round by the placid Đáy River. The riverside delta is home to Hanoi’s sought-after mulberries, believed to be juicier and sweeter than anywhere else. As one walks farther into the plantations, the air is thick with the aroma of ripe berries, natural vegetation, and toasty summer sunlight. Rows of mulberry trees are planted neatly, though they barely exceed the average human height. Ripening fruits hug the branch in scarlet clusters. From the main trunck, small offshoots meander over the ground, interweaving like red garlands.

Pickers must hurry to race against the mulberries' delicate constitution.

Each mulberry is just a few knuckles long; the smallest is as tiny as the pinky finger, while the biggest can reach the size of the middle finger. How productive the trees are highly depends on the weather. Sunnier years will yield sweeter, juicer harvest than those when rain is the prevailing weather pattern. In between picking sessions, I can see the bright smiles of the berry pickers when they get to reap the sweet rewards of their labor.

Ripe berries cover every branch.

Mulberry is easy to grow and to care for.

Only after I managed to pay a visit to the hometown of Hanoi’s mulberries could I bear witness to the urgency in the farmers’ work in order to beat the ripening rate of the berries. Paying no mind to the searing sun, they can’t waste any moment, toiling in the plantation from 6am to 6pm to pick berries. Larger gardens might need additional workers to catch up, even with a picking speed of 20–30 kilograms per day. Their fingers nimbly maneuver in between branches to pluck out the mulberries, careful not to bruise them before they get into boxes. Every palm is painted with the intense red-purple of mulberry juice. The fruits are boxed up immediately to catch the next bus trip to the city. Each mulberry tree can provide around 80 kilograms of fruit per season. “Picking mulberries is not difficult, but you must be really delicate so they get to consumers when they’re still fresh,” Vân, a picker, told me.

Harvesting the berries is not tough but the fruits bruise easily.

“Mulberry is the only fruit that’s immediately polished off the moment we finish picking. I’m never afraid nobody would buy them. People take these home to make preserves and syrup. Some manufacturers of canned drinks and fruit wines also buy straight from the plantation,” the farmers shared as they were weighing their harvest. Thanks to suitable weather, this year’s yield is 1.5 that of last year.

Freshly picked berries are immediately bought by wholesalers.

Mulberry likes humidity, sun, and heat, so trees are often cultivated next to rivers. It’s also easy to care for with relatively low costs involved. The delta by the Đáy River has been the most major birthing ground of Hanoi’s mulberries. Here, traditionally, farmers merely grew mulberries to collect their leaves to feed silkworms; planting them for fruits has only been around for the past 15 years. This experiment has been fruitful in both meanings of the word. Since then, Dương Liễu and Hiệp Thuận berries have traveled all over Hanoi and even southwards. Mulberries emerging from the Đáy River delta not only lend their sweet taste to the northern summer, but also contribute greatly to the local economy.

Each plant yields about 80 kilograms per season.

After a fruiting season, heritage mulberry trees are pruned to help them preserve energy for next year’s summer. The cycle continues every year: with summer comes the verdant green of mulberry plantations, and then the striking red shade of ripening berries. Mulberry season goes away as quickly as it comes, leaving fans yearning for a taste for the rest of the year.

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