Back Society » Natural Selection » 10 Species of Lesser-Known Fruits to Get to Know Vietnam's Biodiversity

10 Species of Lesser-Known Fruits to Get to Know Vietnam's Biodiversity

In the Vietnamese language, the suffix “cỏ” — meaning “grass” in the literal sense — is often used to signify that something is locally grown, no frills, and charmingly rustic; grassroots, if you will. Chó cỏ is the general term for the adorable mutts, usually mixes between Vietnam’s native dog species, born without the prestige of named breeds, while gym cỏ and net cỏ denote the casual gyms and internet cafes in one’s neighborhood. In the same vein of logic, may I put forth a new name for a special genre of Vietnamese fruits: trái cỏ?

The fruit industry is now a multi-million dollar sector that makes up significant portions of national GDP figures across the world. We have all read headlines heralding the astounding prices of specially bred Japanese grapes or cantaloupes, brought up with classical music playing in the background and watered using ultra-precise drip methods. Malaysia and Thailand have made a name for themselves as leading world exporters of durians, while Vietnam is also gradually building a reputation overseas for tasty dragon fruits and lychees.

Trái cỏ are wild, untamed trees and bushes that exist in unexplored patches of the jungle or homestead backyards, bearing fruits purely for the survival of their species and not for the insatiable appetite of fruit-loving humans.

Over centuries, thanks to major technological advancements in genetics and agricultural practices, the fruit cultivars that we produce today have been bred to be sweeter, larger, prettier, more bountiful, and more shelf-stable than ever, so it is fascinating to learn that at one point in history, they too were once trái cỏ — wild, untamed trees and bushes that exist in unexplored patches of the jungle or homestead backyards, bearing fruits purely for the survival of their species and not for the insatiable appetite of fruit-loving humans.

A 17th-century painting by Italian still life painter Giovanni Stanchi is particularly beloved by botanists, for his depiction of a half-cut watermelon reveals a curious snapshot in the cultivation history of the cucurbit: Stanchi’s melons are nearly white in the middle, save for the usual pitch-black seeds and a few swirls of pinkish-red that radiate from the center. Watermelons first took roots in Africa as early as the eras of ancient Egypt; while they have always been sweet, the inviting shade of crimson red of watermelons enjoyed these days is the result of aesthetic-minded selective breeding, and past pharaohs were likely to have feasted on dưa hấu cỏ that looked closer to those in Stanchi’s painting than at today’s Co.opmarts. 

Giovanni Stanchi, ‘Watermelons, peaches, pears and other fruit in a landscape,’ oil on canvas, 98 x 133.5 cm. Image via Wikimedia.

Vietnam’s tropical climate and diverse biomes have bestowed us with an abundance of native fruit-bearing species, many of which have been developed and engineered to be very commercially viable while others have remained relatively untouched by the hands of agriculture, happily swaying alongside rural paddy fields and in meandering alleys in townships and hamlets. I have loved fruits since the moment I discovered the magical existence of taste buds; with every fruit species I’ve had the pleasure of sampling, a new friend is made, and a new sweet, tangy, tannic, velvety, spongy core memory is made. The 10 types of trái cỏ I’ve selected to highlight in this Natural Selection feature belong firmly in the latter category, as one probably will never find them in supermarkets and decorated fruit baskets, but in bamboo trays and styrofoam boxes in wet markets and on the pavements, arriving straight from someone’s backyard trees.

1. Lêkima | Pouteria lucuma

Native: Andes Mountains, South America
Distribution in Vietnam: Mekong Delta, South-Central Coast

Photos via Ascension Kitchen.

No fruit in this list is as famous nationwide as lêkima, whose presence is intertwined with the wartime legend of Võ Thị Sáu, a guerrilla fighter who was executed by French colonists on Côn Đảo Island. Her resistance was immortalized in a song that happens to feature lêkima blossoms, a common flora in Đất Đỏ, her hometown. Lêkima is also known in Vietnam as the “egg fruit” thanks to its turmeric-colored, and rich, buttery flesh that brings to mind the texture of cooked egg yolk.

Read Saigoneer’s Natural Selection feature on lêkima here.

2. Trứng cá | Muntingia calabura

Native: From southern Mexico to western South America
Distribution in Vietnam: Nationwide

Photo via Flickr user Forest and Kim.

I grew up with the shade of trứng cá canopies enveloping our front yard, thanks to our neighbor’s particularly fertile tree. Trứng cá, meaning fish roe in Vietnamese, gets its name from its tiny, plump, juicy fruits that burst out their honey-sweet, sandy content upon a bite — like a salmon roe or crystal pearl in a boba tea. As trứng cá fruits ripen, they turn from whitish-green to scarlet orbs peppering the tree’s neatly arranged leaves. During trứng cá’s most prolific fruit-bearing days of my childhood, waking up every day was a joy, as we got to our yard each morning welcomed by a carpet of fallen trứng cá fruits on the terracotta tiles, ready for our little fingers to pick up, to be snacked on as summer’s sweetest offering.

3. Xay | Dialium cochinchinense

Native: Borneo Island and mainland Southeast Asia

Photo via Peckish Me..

Xay might have many different spellings for its name in Vietnamese, but is known in several languages as “velvet tamarind.” The fruit turns black when ripe, spotting a soft, mossy, velvety texture around the shell. To eat xay, crack the carapace to retrieve the flesh inside, a powdery nugget awash in a light coral color that tastes like tropical Tang drink mix. Once the initial tanginess is gone, a subtly sweet flavor remains on your tongue. You munch on the inner membrane, spit out the seed, and pick up another, another, and another — until there is a small mound of xay shell fragments in front of you. Xay is a textbook trái cỏ, as few localities in Vietnam cultivate it commercially; when it’s xay seasons, local natives venture deep into the forest with baskets on their back and return with branches heavy with xay’s velvety black shells.

4. Bình bát | Annona glabra

Native: Florida, US and from the Caribbean to South America
Distribution in Vietnam: the Mekong Delta

Photo via Long Châu.

Bình bát belongs to the same genus as soursop and custard apple, but if the latter two are greatly appreciated by Vietnamese young and old, and are featured prominently in Tết fruit platters and smoothies, bình bát remains an obscure rural treat only known by those hailing from the Mekong Region, like my father’s side of the family. On the boat ride along the canal towards my grandma’s farm in Kiên Giang, I distinctly remember the yellow pops of ripe bình bát like stars dotting a green galaxy. Similar to soursop, the inside of bình bát comprises numerous black seeds enveloped by a layer of thin white flesh that turns sunshine-yellow when ripe. In the delta, it’s most common to peel the fruit and macerate the pulps with sugar or condensed milk. The result, with added shaved ice, is a cooling treat that’s as fragrant as summer itself.

5. Trâm | Syzygium cumini

Native: the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia

Photo via Báo Long An.

Judging by the reactions of my coworkers to trâm, it might as well be renamed “fool’s grape.” Trâm might look like a grape, but instead of a juicy bite, one is immediately taken aback by how big trâm’s seed is, for the fruit is at least 80% seed. The taste, which is concentrated in the peel, is tannic, subtly sweet and sour, the combination of which might prove to be quite astringent to eat on its own, but surprisingly delightful when shaken with chili salt. Walking through markets in Mekong Delta provinces, one will inevitably bump into vendors sitting on the floor beside pot lid-sized bamboo trays padded with banana leaves. On the top, of course, is a purplish black mound of trâm berries that are well-marinated in spicy salt. I am already drooling. 

6. Ô môi | Cassia grandis L.f.

Native: Southern Mexico, Central America, and northern South America
Distribution in Vietnam: Southern Vietnam

Photos by Lâm Long Hồ via Người Lao Động.

Instead of the bright yellow of mai flowers, families living near ô môi trees look at the pink shower of their blossoms as the harbinger of spring. Once the pink arrives, ô môi’s giant fruits will show themselves soon after, first as pods that resemble gargantuan green beans, and then, as the pods ripen, they transform into hardy shells as black as tree bark. To eat ô môi, kids often look for the easiest harvest: fallen pods on the floor. In the middle of the arid black fruits are segments, each housing a seed and sticky pulp that tastes like molasses with a slightly bitter aftertaste. Ô môi is not a particularly delicious fruit, but in the minds of Vietnamese children, it is always free and can double as a sword for make-believe Power Rangers play sessions. What more could a kid need?

7. Tầm bóp | Physalis peruviana

Native: Chile and Peru
Distribution in Vietnam: Central Highlands

It’s hard not to be astounded by tầm bóp. At a glance, it might pass for a withering flower bud with brittle petals, but once the “petals” are removed, a golden-yellow orb pops out in the palm of your hand, as shiny and smooth as a gemstone. For years, tầm bóp has existed as bushes that proliferate across Vietnam’s bucolic countryside, but since 2021, social media has elevated its status from wild forages to “superfruits” sought after by wellness blogs. Tầm bóp hails from the same nightshade family as tomato, eggplant, and chili, so I have found that it tastes vastly similar to a cherry tomato with a tropical touch.

8. Nhót | Elaeagnus latifolia

Native: the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia
Distribution in Vietnam: Northern Vietnam

Photos via Người Lao Động.

Every March and April, there’s one thing to expect walking on the streets of Hanoi: the carpet of bright red nhót on mobile vendors, as referenced by poet Phạm Tiến Duật in his poem ‘Lửa đèn’ (Lantern Fire): “Nhót is like a guiding light / shining the path into summer.” The oblong, pudgy fruit epitomizes a success story in which a homely countryside snack has become a serious means to make a living for northern farmers, as urbanites in Hanoi have recently developed a fondness for the sweet flavor of nhót. Unripe nhót is also a popular children’s snack for it allows maximal dipping in chili salt, while homemakers often borrow its distinct tartness to flavor canh chua nhót.

9. Chùm ruột | Phyllanthus acidus

Native: Madagascar and the Indian subcontinent
Distribution in Vietnam: Nationwide

Photo via Wikimedia.

There’s an indescribable joy in looking up into the luxuriant canopies of a chùm ruột tree just to spot clumps of ripening fruits dangling in the air. While apples or mangos grow in separate stalks that might be hard to spot, chùm ruột surfaces in clusters peppering all over the branches, forming a bright yellow scarf that brightens up wherever they appear. Even ripe, chùm ruột is incredibly tart to be eaten raw, but its crunchy flesh means it is great for candying and pickling.

10. Thị | Diospyros decandra

Native: Indochina and South-Central China

Photo via Lao Động.

Thị is a fruit of extremes: it is perhaps one of the most fragrant fruits in the country, but may also take the crown for Vietnam’s least edible fruit. Even though munching on a slice of thị might not kill you, it will not be a pleasant experience, for the fruit’s high tannin content will coat your tongue and cause bowel obstruction if consumed in large quantities. For this reason, thị is fated to be a trái cỏ, existing just to perfume humanity but not to feed it.

Read Saigoneer’s Natural Selection feature on thị here.

Related Articles

in Snack Attack

An Ode to Dried Fruit, Vietnam's Parent-Approved Way for Children to Sugar Load

I first knew dried fruit as a category of munchy snacks that had my parents’ approval.

Khôi Phạm

in Natural Selection

Trái Thị: The Fruit of Heavenly Smell and Infernal Taste

If you had to pick a national smell that represents Vietnam, what would it be? There are a host of strong contenders: durian, lotus-scented green tea, fragrant pandan sticky rice, that enticing aroma ...

Khôi Phạm

in Culture

Xe Trái Cây: If You Can't Find Lovingly Sliced Fruit at Home, Cart-Bought Is Fine

Nature has numerous ways to make itself known: male peacocks fan out their glorious tail made up of iridescent eye-patterned feathers to attract peafowls; blue-ringed octopuses don’t need to invent an...

in Saigon Hẻm Gems

Hẻm Gems: In D5, a Family Durian Xôi Xiêm Recipe Inspired by Cambodia

At first glance, xôi xiêm sầu riêng — or sticky rice with egg custard and durian — may appear plain-looking, but apart from being a tasty sweet treat, this simple dish also holds stories of life durin...

Paul Christiansen

in Natural Selection

Trái Vải: The Intoxicating Harbinger of Summer

Is scarcity a source of beauty?

Thi Nguyễn

in Snack Attack

A Tale of Two Fruits: The Colonial History of Durian and Mangosteen

Although both durian and mangosteen are native to Southeast Asia, their reputation — especially from a western point of view — leads two very contrasting fates: the latter is considered a luscious del...

Partner Content