Vietnamese Chocolate & Cacao Culture

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In spite of the fact that Vietnam is not yet famous around the globe for its cacao production, the country’s locally produced chocolate has been seeing significant growth in popularity over the course of the last ten years. Vietnam is today considered one of the most desirable cacao origins in the world, despite the fact that a decade ago, no one had ever heard of the country. Despite this, the history of chocolate in Vietnam extends back more than a century, during which time it was derailed by foreign rivals, a civil war, and the overthrow of a government. Even if it has been brought back onto the world scene by an unexpected source, it is possible that this will not be enough to give the local chocolate industry adequate new vitality.

History of Cacao in Vietnam

Despite the fact that Vietnam’s bánh m, a sandwich made with baguette, may be more well-known than its past as a French colony, one cannot so easily erase a century’s worth of effect. Cacao was introduced to Vietnam not long after the French created the country as part of the colony that they formed in French Indochina (which also included modern-day Laos, Cambodia, and parts of southern China). The European colonialists, as was their customary practice, made an effort to establish a supply of cacao for themselves in Asia. This was similar to what the Spaniards had previously accomplished in the Philippines.

All of this took place at the same time that the British were introducing cacao cultivation in their African colonies, which is the same area that is presently responsible for producing more than two-thirds of the world’s supply of cacao. Samuel Maruta, the man who established Marou Chocolate in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, claims that the first cultivation of cacao in Vietnam was documented to have taken place in the 1870s. In the southern province of Ben Tre, a Catholic priest by the name of Father Gernot was responsible for the upkeep of that specific plantation. According to Sam, a directive from 1907 said that the French government should discontinue providing subsidies to the Indochinese chocolate industry because “it was regarded to be a failure.”

Even while modern-day Vietnam did ship abroad minuscule amounts of cacao throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the country’s total yearly production of cacao still amounted to less than one metric ton. As a result of their never being a concerted effort to eradicate cacao, many Vietnamese farmers have maintained cacao plantations on their property. We will never know if they ate the fruits or not or what they did with them. However, as a result of the Vietnam War, almost all of those older, smaller plantations were either wiped off or left to fall into disrepair, particularly in the most southern parts of the country.

Following the conclusion of World War II and before to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, arrangements were made to launch a farmer exchange program with Cuban agronomists. However, after money was pulled, the initiative was canceled very immediately. Numerous international organizations have made numerous attempts to export cocoa to Vietnam; nevertheless, on each occasion, they have ultimately been unsuccessful. The participation of three essential organizations has been the primary driving force behind the recent revitalization of the cocoa industry in Vietnam. These include agronomists and farmers from Vietnam, the government of Vietnam, and multinational chocolate producers from the West who are interested in investing in cacao farms in Southeast Asian countries. It seemed like they discovered what it was that they were seeking for in Vietnam.

Reviving Vietnamese Cacao

A researcher from Nong Lam Agricultural University in Ho Chi Minh City started a local agricultural initiative in the year 2000, which is credited with marking the beginning of the current recovery of the Vietnamese chocolate industry. Dr. Pham Hong Duc Phuoc, the investigator, had started his investigations some years earlier and had been doing experiments with hundreds of plants in order to identify the cocoa varietals that would work best in Vietnam. After narrowing it down to four varieties, he sought the assistance of twelve regional farmers from the province of Bà Rá in the south of the country.

These farmers were each given a gift of one thousand baby cacao plants by Dr. Phuoc, who also provided them with help in the form of seminars that taught them how to properly care for the trees and transform the cacao fruits into commodity-grade chocolate. The grafted plants thrived, and not long after that, an increasing number of Vietnamese farmers began cultivating cocoa. Out of all of the kinds that were brought from Malaysia, the four that were selected were the ones that tasted the best, were the least difficult to care for, and were the most resistant to pests. Larger levels of cacao planting extended to seven Vietnamese provinces: Đắk Nông, Lam Đồng, Đắk Lắk, Đồng Nai, Bà Rịa, Tiền Giang, and Bến Tre.

But this rise reached its height during the years 2008 and 2009, just around the time when the global economic crisis forced prices to fall. Farmers began removing their trees, and a great many of them never returned to growing cocoa again. The commodity pricing for a crop like as cocoa, which is often acquired at the price determined by the global market, simply weren’t high enough to justify all of the labour that goes into processing it. Not to mention the fact that cacao farmers need to be taught in the appropriate processing of their cacao before it could be sold, which is another expenditure that they were unable to pay.

When two Frenchmen appeared on the scene in 2011, the university’s program had already begun to see a decline in its level of success. Samuel Maruta and Vincent Mourou established Marou Chocolate in the same year, after coming to the conclusion that they would be more successful working together in the chocolate industry. The co-owners of the corporation with its headquarters in Saigon discovered cocoa trees growing in the southern region of Vietnam, and they started experimenting with the substance at Samuel’s house. It turned out that Marou’s discoveries were really a direct outcome of the cacao that had been planted in cooperation with Cargill and Mars back in the early 2000s.

The decline in cacao output in Vietnam caused the country’s cacao sector to never fully recover, and there is a valid explanation for this. Although some cacao farmers have been able to break into the premium cacao market and collaborate with regional chocolate manufacturers to trade a higher price for a better quality product, the vast majority of cacao farmers have not been successful in doing so. Because cacao requires much more labor and resources than other equivalent local cash crops, such as pomelo, rubber trees, and durian, it is imperative that the crop provide comparable returns to attract and retain farmers. Because it takes years before it gives fruit, it is much more difficult for farmers to rapidly return the substantial amount of money they have invested.

If Marou had not gotten engaged at the precise moment that it did, the fall in cocoa output in Vietnam very definitely would have been considerably more severe. Because the yearly income of the typical Vietnamese person is less than $1800 USD, and because wages in rural agricultural regions are much lower, any gain in income, no matter how little, may have a significant impact. On the other side, a terrible year for harvests may have a disastrous impact, leading to impulsive measures like pulling down all of your cocoa trees in an attempt to salvage the situation.

Turning Waste Into Wine

My travels have taken me to a number of nations that cultivate cacao, but Vietnam is the one that appears to have the most intense fixation with cacao wine. In contrast to the situation in many other countries, where the production of chocolate at the local level is the primary emphasis, the farmers in Vietnam are considerably more interested in finding uses for the other parts of the fruit. As a result of the prevalence of rice- and fruit-based sweets in Vietnam, even the present local consumption of chocolate is rather low.

The most similar native product for Vietnamese farmers is alcoholic beverages. Cacao liquor, sometimes referred to as cacao wine, is an alcoholic beverage that is produced by fermenting the juice of cacao fruits to produce cacao wine. Even while part of the liquid is required for the beans to mature in the correct manner, there is often surplus, which is typically made into an alcoholic beverage that has a tiny carbonation and is loved by the agricultural communities. The majority of Vietnam’s cacao is produced in only two regions: Dak Lak and Tien Giang. Because of this, there is a greater opportunity for local farmers to pool their surplus cacao juice and create something delectable.

It is important to note that cacao wine is popular not just on farms but also outside of them, despite the fact that not even close to enough of it is produced for it to be a large-scale commercial commodity. The previous year, Marou even held a cacao wine competition among farmers from all seven of the provinces that they worked with, and everyone sampled each other’s concoctions as part of the competition. There are a few types of cacao wine that are genuinely only available in Vietnam; nevertheless, this beverage belongs to a very specific niche and is much too costly to be purchased on a regular basis in the country.

Making Chocolate In Vietnam

The year 2018 marked the beginning of full swing for the current Vietnamese chocolate producing movement, which was inspired in no little part by Marou. Samuel Maruta said in our interview that “we’ve gone a long way from manufacturing chocolate in my kitchen.” This is an accurate description of how far the company has progressed.

As of the time of writing, there are more than a dozen bean-to-bar chocolate companies operating on a modest scale in Vietnam. Even though the majority of chocolate makers are located in and around the country’s most popular tourist cities including Saigon, Hanoi, Da Nang, and Nha Trang, a growing number of cacao growers are getting into the chocolate producing business.

One of these farmers is Van Thanh Trinh, who is also the chairman of the newly built Binon Cacao Park. He participated in the experiment conducted by Dr. Phuoc and was one of the first cacao farmers. His firm not only processes and sells local cacao, but it also develops value-added cacao goods, such as chocolate and cacao wine, out of the cacao that it processes. According to Mr. Trinh, who spoke to me via an interpreter, “many cacao growers are unaware that chocolate is derived from cacao beans.” They cultivate the land, then sell it to me, but they are clueless about it.

In the present time, Vietnam’s annual cacao production is only between two and three thousand tons, which is a negligible amount in comparison to that of other producing countries. Even though the number of chocolate manufacturers in Vietnam is growing at a rapid rate, the country’s supply of high-quality cacao has remained stagnant and is highly dependent on the vagaries of the weather. In the most recent few years, there have been problems with both extreme drought and catastrophic floods.

Other obstacles that must be overcome in order for chocolate to be manufactured in Vietnam include locating and importing necessary equipment, locating locally created packaging, coping with the consistently high levels of humidity, and finding dependable means by which beans may be transported. All of this happens before you ever attempt to sell your items on regional, national, or even worldwide marketplaces. Do not even think of starting a conversation with a chocolate manufacturer about the difficulties of attempting to sell chocolate to a new nation.

Even if the number of chocolate manufacturers in Vietnam is on the increase, the fact that nobody is purchasing their bars renders this statistic meaningless.

Chocolate Consumption in Vietnam

Vietnam, like Taiwan and Thailand, is located in Southeast Asia, although its history of cacao use and processing is minimal at best. Before the last eight years, practically all of the cacao grown in Vietnam was sent outside to be further processed by chocolate companies based in other countries. Even if the consumption of chocolate in Vietnam has unquestionably increased over the course of the last several years, the overall level of consumption is still not particularly high.

People who live in the wealthier sections of the city’s north desire to eat better, but they do not consider chocolate to be an important factor in achieving this aim. Cacao is consumed in the south, but people tend to choose considerably sweeter forms of the product, which reduces the favorable influence that cacao has on farmers. For instance, coffee, which is quite well-known in Vietnam right now, was formerly a relatively unknown beverage in the country.

Because there was essentially no milk in Vietnam until only a few decades ago, making the country’s famed milk coffee on a large scale was not even conceivable until just a few decades ago. Egg coffee, a specialty of Northern Vietnam, is said to have originated as a result of a shortage of beans. The beverage is a coffee prepared in the form of espresso, and it is topped with a sweetened egg creme that, in lieu of milk, imparts the creamy taste and texture.

In a similar vein, a significant portion of the chocolate that can be found in Vietnamese supermarkets and convenience shops is nothing more than a smoke show in reaction to the country’s long-standing shortage of cacao.

It has been a long process to teach people about the distinction between genuine and manufactured cacao now that there is cacao growing in the nation. A great number of the goods that are still marketed as “chocolate” are heavily sweetened, contain little to no cacao, and make use of milk powder or starches as filler in order to avoid melting. It was told to me that those local chocolates had a “chalk-like” consistency.

Other “chocolates” have the aforementioned chocolate present, but only as an ingredient or component of the total (like in a Snickers or a Kit Kat, for example). Compound chocolate, which differs from traditional chocolate in that it does not include cocoa butter but rather flavored oil, is rather prevalent. Bitter or dark chocolates are extremely uncommon, but there is at least one chocolate shop in both Hanoi and Saigon that sells bars produced by a variety of Vietnamese chocolate manufacturers.

People in Vietnam covet foreigners as a sign of wealth and status, just like their counterparts in many other Asian countries. Imported goods have traditionally carried a premium price tag due to the widespread perception that they are of superior quality. However, because local chocolate is based on an imported concept brought to life elsewhere, this can work both in their favor and to their disadvantage.

The Future of Vietnamese Chocolate

It is not yet apparent if the market for chocolate and cacao produced in Vietnam will expand or remain stable over the next ten years. Although increasing the amount of training for cacao farmers would help solve the problem of obtaining high-quality cacao, the question remains: who will teach all of those workshops? What will happen if there is another severe drought, and crop yields will be low? What preventative measures may be taken to prevent farmers from felling their own trees?

The land prices in Vietnam are already very high and are expected to keep rising. At the same time, the country’s most lucrative businesses and typical salaries are undergoing significant shifts. In spite of this, or maybe as a direct result of this, Marou is seeing an increase in the number of local visitors. Although I am unaware of the wages provided to staff at any chocolate shops in Vietnam, I do know that the average hourly salary in the service sector in Vietnam is 15.000VND, which is equivalent to around 65 cents US. The hourly wage for office employees is often anywhere between 70.000 and 100.000 VND. Therefore, although most people who work in the service sector would have a difficult time paying 100.000VND for a chocolate bar, office employees in the city might certainly consider this to be an affordable indulgence.

The same may be said for the chocolate-based sweets and beverages that can be purchased at the country’s scattered handmade chocolate stores. However, stores like these are quite uncommon; there are currently just a handful of locations where one may get bonbons, chocolate pastries, or other types of confections. The majority of the chocolate that is produced in Vietnam is now exported, with the exception of the chocolate that is sold at the companies’ own cafés. There are really no other options available in the immediate area to purchase it. Once, I was at a convenience shop and I saw that they were selling Marou brand minibars. However, chocolate manufacturers are still, for the most part, instructing chocolate customers on what it is they desire. It’s possible that this is simply the first step towards constructing a strong base, but only time will tell for sure.