Bac Ha plum tree gardens lure visitors for harvest in late May
People from the south – especially big cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho – think of plums as a Ha Noi specialty. But in reality they're grown on Bac Ha Plateau, 340km from the capital.
After four of my friends and I left Ha Noi's noisy streets in the scorching heat one summer morning, we arrived in Bac Ha District in the afternoon. The region's climate was much cooler – with an average temperature of 21 degrees. Luxuriant plum tree gardens flanking the mountain pass made a strong impression on us.
We booked a night at the Sunday Hotel and later, while we were taking a walk, the receptionist invited us to her family's plum tree garden.
We followed the receptionist, Nguyen Thi Ha, to Na Hoi Commune – 2km from Sunday Hotel in the centre of Bac Ha District.
Ha said she left her hometown in Nam Dinh Province's Hai Hau District 10 years ago. She went to Lao Cai and married a man from the Day ethnic minority.
The couple came to Bac Ha District centre and settled on a mountainous plot of land.
We parked our car at the foot of a sloping street and walked to Ha's 30-tree plum garden next to her one-floor corrugated iron-roof timber house.
We felt relaxed there walking around the garden. Like her neighbours', Ha's house was built in the middle of her plot of land.
Ha let us pick the ripe fruits and eat them for free. The trees were weighed down with the fruits. Bac Ha's climate is suitable year-round for growing Tam Hoa plums, apricots and herbs.
Ha and her husband, a carpenter, gave us a warm welcome. Ha told us about tree-growing, farming and selling. "I have a stable income from working at the hotel, and we farm plums to save money and support our 7-year-old daughter's schooling," Ha said. "I'll take her to a high school in Lao Cai, 70km from Bac Ha. I hope she can learn a foreign language to prepare her for her career."
Bac Ha's plum season starts in late May. The mountain fields are always lush with ripe fruit in June and July.
Plums in Bac Ha, called Tam Hoa plums, are different from those in other regions. Bac Ha's plums are greenish-red, while those of Lang Son District are pink.
Out of all of Viet Nam's different plums, most say Bac Ha's are the tastiest because they're so sweet and have small pits. The region is called the White Plateau because it's home to more than 1,000ha of plum trees. It's the northwest region's biggest plum-growing area.
Tam Hoa plum farming has helped thousands of ethnic minority households in Bac Ha District escape poverty. Bac Ha is home to the Mong, Nung, Tay and Phu La ethnic minority groups.
Plum season is prime tourist season in Bac Ha. In recent years it has lured a huge number of foreign and domestic visitors.
A friend of mine, a professional phuot (backpacker), told me that if I had a chance to visit the region in early March I could gaze down at the entire Bac Ha valley covered in a carpet of white plum blossoms – an image straight out of a watercolour painting.
Ha and her husband sold their fruit in bulk to traders at Coc Leu Market in Lao Cai City's centre.
Ethnic minority women carry plums on their backs to central markets early every morning. A seller told us that the price of one kg of plums fluctuated between VND20,000 to 40,000 (about $1 to $2) depending on the fruit's size and ripeness. — VNS