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A Pilgrimage to Sơn La, Vietnam's National Mận Capital, as a Devoted Fan

There’s a kind of sweet, sour, and slightly tannic fruit that never fails to make our mouths water every summer.

The sweltering heat has begun to spread across the atmosphere. Under the fluttering lilac petals of bằng lăng blossoms, I walk amid a sunset awash in crimson and summer showers that peter out as fast as they arrive. That’s how I realize that we’re really in the thick of summer. I listen to the sounds of the season in my surroundings: the chirpings of cicadas and quiet clinks of ice cubes rattling inside refreshing tea glasses on sun-soaked pavements.

Apart from the shifts in natural elements, summer also comes to me in the colorful blocks of fruits that have inundated local markets and mobile vendors who slowly spread the summer spirits all over town. On Hanoi’s fruit-laden bikes, there’s the pinkish red of lychees, the golden yellow of pineapples and melons. However, more popular than most is probably the crimson shade of mận hậu, a treat from the highlands.

Naturally, whenever plum season is here, mận hậu immediately climbs to the top of the list of office workers’ most favorite snacks. It’s hard to rationalize why this humble stone fruit can connect with people’s palates that well. People gather around baskets of red plums to banter cordially while gnawing on fresh, crunchy fruits. Mận hậu is present in rustic wicker trays in the center of the living room or dinner platters.

When the time comes, it’s near impossible to stop snacking on these tiny sour fruits if you’ve been bewitched by their flavors. It’s partly because they can be found at any fruit seller from supermarkets to street corners, but the main factor, I think, is probably because mận hậu is just so damn tasty. Its flesh has a juicy crunch, holding its texture better than other stone fruits. That heady mix of sweet and sour and tannin is so powerful that you might already start salivating just looking at them.

The allure of mận hậu also lies behind the cascade of building anticipation, because it’s only available during the plant’s fruiting season. When I was staying in the south, every time my friends sent down some plums from home, I was overwhelmed with joy. Just a bite with a bit of chili salt makes me happy for the whole day. The presence of mận hậu is the harbinger of the northern summer, just like how green cốm signals the advent of Hanoi autumn. The vast geographical distance it has to travel only serves to amplify my excitement.

There are many cultivars of plums in Vietnam. Mận tam hoa might sport a deep purple coat while mận cơm is perpetually lime green. Mận hậu, on the other hand, looks deep red and glossy on market displays in the summer sun. The more profound the color, the sweeter the fruit is. The mận flesh is yellow and quite sour if not fully ripe and those with specks of green are predominantly tannic.

Mận often goes better with shrimp salt than any other condiment. The combination of juicy sweetness, sourness and the umami spiciness of muối tôm is impossible to resist. A fancier way of consuming these plums involves peeling the skin, dicing the flesh and giving it a thorough shake with salt, chili flakes and sugar.

Mận hậu’s mystifying lure compelled me to visit Sơn La. Just 175 kilometers from Hanoi, the province is widely considered the national capital of stone fruits. Here, mận cultivation is spread across districts like Mộc Châu and Vân Hồ. Thanks to the natural presence of plum trees, for the past 40 years, the livelihood of local farmers has significantly improved.

Originating in China, mận hậu was first grown in Sơn La in the 1980s at the Cờ Đỏ Military Subdivision, in today’s Mộc Châu Farming Town. The history of how plum trees took root in Mộc Châu bears the mark of Lê Văn Lãng. In 1981, Lãng, the then director of the state-run Cờ Đỏ Dairy Cattle Farm, was visiting Lạng Sơn Province in the northern border when he ha the chance to try a delicious local plum. He took some cuttings back to the subdivision and encouraged farmers to experiment with the new tree. Only Nguyễn Tiến Dũng, a local farmer at Pa Khen Subdivision, took the leap to try with some success. Dũng then expanded the plum-growing area and became the first household to own a plum plantation in Pa Khen.

Thankfully, Sơn La’s climate and soil proved to be conducive to the proliferation of mận hậu, which is relatively hardy, can withstand droughts and frosts, and bears ample fruits every year. Many locals started seeing the value in growing plums and asked Dũng to share his cuttings. Gradually, Pa Khen has become a famous plum-growing region today.

Apart from the fruit’s commercial potential, Nà Ka Valley in Mộc Châu has turned into a popular tourist destination thanks to mận hậu. Tourists from all over Vietnam flock to the area every plum season to see blossoms and sample fresh fruits. From those first cuttings 40 years ago, Sơn La today has Vietnam’s largest mận hậu-growing area with over 3,200 hectares. From mid-May to the end of June, Mộc Châu buzzes with activities during plum harvest season. Piles of freshly picked plums dot the town, waiting to be boxed for shipping across northern Vietnam and even down south. Plums dominate streetside stalls and overflow trucks. Of course, nothing is fresher than plums ripening right on the trees, vying for the hands of visiting tourists.

Strolling along the dirt path, I walked by many plum plantations in Tân Lập Commune. True to the moodiness of summer weather, it started raining even though the sun was blasting just minutes prior. After the shower, the atmosphere was cleansed of any dust, replaced by the smell of plants and wet soil. Not as fiery red as lychee or rambutan plantations, mận hậu gardens still looked quite lush and green from afar. Hidden beneath bushes of emerald leaves were bundles of blushing plums covered in a layer of white wax.

When it’s harvesting season, plantations are filled with the bobbling nón lá of farmers. To grow a batch of tasty plums, caretakers must channel a lot of time and effort into the fruit trees. My visit to town included meeting Nguyễn Duy Hận, a resident of Tân Lập, while he was in the process of picking and arranging the plums into a basket.

As he was painstakingly plucking and handling the fruits, Hận told me: “In order to ensure the trees bear lots of fruits, I have to trim frequently and apply organic fertilizers. If I don’t, the plums will still be abundant, but tiny. I also have to monitor them for pests and weeds.”

Bigger and prettier plums will fetch more money, he shared. Thanks to a high level of care, Hận’s fruits were all plump and elegant, some as big as a child’s fist. “A few days ago, a wholesaler came to place an order and my plums measured 20 fruits per kilogram,” Hận couldn’t hide his giddiness to see that his garden was still bountiful despite the year’s fluctuating weather. Each year, their mận hậu trees could bring back hundreds of millions of dong to the family.

After sitting down for a quick chat with me, Hận returned to his task for the day: removing weeds from his garden. I left his cozy garden, left Sơn La with my luggage several kilograms of mận heavier and my lungs filled with the pristine air of the Mộc Châu Plateau.

 

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