The Rice Fields of Hoi An, Vietnam

Right before harvesting, the rice fields are a stunning mix of gold and green.

Right before harvesting, the rice fields are a stunning mix of gold and green.

Sometimes the most memorable part of living in a new country turns out to be something entirely unexpected.

The Sassi in Matera, Italy. The sunsets in Koh Lanta, Thailand.

Here in Hoi An, Vietnam, it’s the rice fields.

Before arriving, we knew we’d be staying near some rice fields. Our lodging is called Rice Field Homestay.

But we didn’t expect the beauty. Or the bike trails that crisscross them. (Or that sometimes crazy drivers would take their cars down them!)

And we definitely didn’t expect to be able to watch almost the entire process of rice being grown.

Turns out it’s pretty interesting, not to mention very labor intensive. Most of the farming is still done by hand.

But beware the water buffalo! They are usually pretty easygoing, but become more aggressive at night, and even occasionally knock a bicyclist off their bike.

Fun to look at—most of the time!

Fun to look at—most of the time!

We arrived about a week before the harvest began. Everywhere we looked, we saw fields filled with green and gold rice stalks swaying in the breeze. It was truly gorgeous.

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Then within a couple of days, the rice was gone, cut down. Some of it was done by machine, some of it by hand.

Next, the rice had to be dried out. It’s spread out on plastic sheets along the bike trails, in courtyards of the local houses, and even on the local streets. But that didn’t stop everyone from walking or biking—sometimes even driving!—over the drying rice.

Yep, you ride your bike right over this!

Yep, you ride your bike right over this!

A friend back home heard this and said, “So this is why they always tell you to wash the rice before you cook it!”

Next the Vietnamese farmers put the dried grains of rice in baskets and tossed the rice into the air in order to separate the rice from the chaff — the useless part of the plant. Bonus—it had that wonderful nutty, brown rice steaming smell. Then they bag it up and take it home to eat during the year. Most of the rice, we learned, isn’t sold, but is eaten by the farmers’ families. Only the surplus is sold to locals.

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Then it’s time to get the fields ready for replanting. That means first burning off all of the stuff left behind. Which meant a couple of very smoky days — but also some very impressive fires.

One time, I rode into a thick cloud of smoke—and flames leaped out, nearly scorching me.

One time, I rode into a thick cloud of smoke—and flames leaped out, nearly scorching me.

Next is one of the few tasks done solely by machines. Large tractors come through and churn up the soil into big mounds of dirt.

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Then the fields are flooded using the stone channels running alongside the trails. And this flushes out a lot of rats. Thankfully, they are the cute Ratatouille kind of rat and not the New York subway kind of rat, which is both fun, but sad, because this is not a good time of year for them.

Looks like someone forgot to move the tractor before flooding the field.

Looks like someone forgot to move the tractor before flooding the field.

The flooded fields are left alone for a couple of days to soften the soil. It’s a great time for the flocks of ducks as they can paddle around to their heart’s content. At least until…well, let’s just say things don’t end great for the ducks here.

Enjoy it well you can, guys!

Enjoy it well you can, guys!

Then the farmers come out and mostly just by using hoes, shape berms out of the mud to create borders between the fields and smooth out the rest of the fields.

It’s very intensive, very mucky work.

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After letting the fields dry for a couple of days, it’s time for planting, which is done by spraying seeds over the muddy ground.

And since things grow pretty fast here in SE Asia, new green shoots appear pretty fast!

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As I said, it’s pretty fascinating to watch. I’m also not sure how much longer the rice fields of Hoi An will be around as this part of country is developing rapidly. Along the nearby coast, resorts and hotels are springing up, which leads to even more development in the entire area.

And that presents another challenge to Hoi An’s rice fields—every year there are fewer and fewer farmers as young people decide they’d rather work in one of the hotels or pursue one of the any other of dozens of opportunities that are popping up. And why wouldn’t they? After watching these farmers every day for almost two months, I can say they work hard. And they do it in heat that is stifling. Trust me, the vast majority of westerners wouldn’t last an hour working out in these fields.

So it wouldn’t surprise me that if in ten years, Hoi An’s rice fields are gone. That feels like a loss, but it’s probably also a sign of the kind of progress that is good for Vietnam.