Vietnam is the world’s second-largest coffee producer—exporting an estimated USD3.5 billion of the commodity in 2018. They are second only to Brazilians, who exported USD5.2 billion worth of coffee in the same year.
However, just over thirty years ago (back in 1986), the republic only managed to grow some 300,000 60kg bags of coffee beans. In 2018, volumes had sky-rocketed to over 30 million bags: a hundredfold increase.
In comparison, Indonesia’s production only rose from 5.9 million bags in 1986 to just 10.2 million bags in 2018.
Property rights – an anathema in most Communist nations – have been critical to this expansion, with the 1986 “Doi Moi” reforms setting the stage for a major reversal of the disastrous farm collectivisation policies of the 1950’s – 60’s.
Team Ceritalah recently visited the coffee-growing region of Dak Lak (seven hours northeast of Ho Chi Minh City), spending time with Nguyen Van Tuyen, a 64-year-old former soldier and his wife Thang.
Discharged from the military in 1979, Tuyen initially returned to his hometown, An Lao in the north. However, realising that he had to support an ever-expanding family (he and his wife eventually had eight children) he chose to venture into the south, arriving in the town of Buon Ma Thuot to look for new opportunities.
“I came here to start my own career,” he said.
Working initially as a labourer, Tuyen managed to save money and in 1993, he bought a 7-hectare plot of land for VND50,000,000 (USD4700 at the time), planting short-term crops such as corn and eggplant.
In 1994, he turned to coffee. Not having the capital, he did everything himself.
As he told Team Ceritalah: “I had to do the planting on my own. I also raised cattle to get manure for fertiliser. There were also hot, dry months. Coffee farms have to be irrigated continuously—that’s the main chore and cost. In the past, there was no plumbing system: I had to irrigate all night, from 7:00 PM until 5:00—6:00 a.m.”
After 3 years, his first harvest came in, marking the beginning of his successful coffee plantation business.
Tuyen makes about VND31,500,000—36,000,000 (USD1340—1550) per hectare. During the hottest months, he spends VND300,000 (USD13) on irrigation (still the main expense) and around VND200,000 (USD9) per worker per day during the harvest season (he usually hires 2—3).
However, times have not always easy. Coffee prices can be volatile. He still remembers having to plead with buyers, often to no avail. Indeed, there have been times when he was tempted to just chop down all his coffee plants.
What kept him going were his children. He wanted to make sure he could send them to school. He began to do other jobs on the side, “I just tried my best, worked hard and did many jobs.”
Tuyen eventually did chop down some of his trees to make way for other cash crops, such as pumpkins, beans and corn, for his wife to sell at the local market. He also started fishing at the lake behind his house: his catch would also later be sold.
“I’m a determined guy,” Tuyen says of himself, “I’m always looking for solutions. During the Vietnam War, I served as a truck driver, transporting weaponry and supplies destined for the southern battlefront.”
To this day, he is very proud of the tactics drivers like him employed to evade US detection (and bombing) while transporting supplies from Hanoi to Hai Phong.
Indeed, Vietnamese farmers have had to be very independent. They’re mainly smallholders and there isn’t much government support.
While the authorities do provide aid in-kind to their farmers, in reality, it has had little impact.
“The implementation is not done well,” explains Tuyen.
He feels that rather than just provide them with low-quality pesticides and fertilizers, it would be better if the state simply gave them cash or training.
Coffee-growing, then combined with hard work and a strong dose of ingenuity, has enabled the couple to raise and educate their eight children, all of whom have grown up and started their own lives.
As he laughingly told Team Ceritalah: “Coffee has raised my whole family, I must thank it. [Now all] my children are grown up, it’s just me and my wife—thus I have a lot of money.”
His only regret is that none of them wish to take over the family business.
Indeed, his children have very different aspirations.
The Vietnamese traditional veneration for education means that farming has little attraction to them. Some have become teachers, while others have joined the military or are in business.
In their own way, Tuyen’s children’s determination to make something of themselves mirrors their father’s fight to keep the family farm going. So, in a sense, the same dogged spirit has continued across generations, albeit in a different form.
When people wonder how and why the Vietnamese are doing so well economically, it is important to bear in mind the extent to which a society scarred by decades of war has emerged with a hunger for work, peace and prosperity.
While many point to Vietnamese achievements in manufacturing and industry; the same spirit and irrepressible drive for success is undoubtedly also present in farms and towns across the country.