Plastered over every local travel brochure, tourist office and photographer’s Instagram feed recently are pictures of vast swaths of golden Vietnamese countryside, stacked in rows like interminable layers on a cake. The spectacle, also known as “golden season”, occurs every May and October, where the rice paddies are drained and dried in preparation for harvest and the rice stalks turn yellow, transforming the overarching landscape into an amber-green wonder.
Rice has always played an integral role in Vietnamese life, due to its sheer variety of forms. The grain can be flaked, puffed, steamed or boiled and can be turned into anything from pudding to paper. It can be used for cosmetics, cooking oil or wine, and the stalks can be transformed to straw and used for making sandals, hats, and even thatched roofs. Rice features in food offerings and ceremonies, and the food is even thought to resemble Vietnam as a country, with many believing it to look like two rice baskets placed at the end of a bamboo pole from above.
The Vietnamese penchant for legends, superstitions and ancient tales comes in many forms, and when it comes to rice there are no shortage of customs and beliefs to adhere to. Habits range from avoiding sticking your chopsticks in the middle of your rice bowl, to finishing the entirety of your meal to respect the rice farmers’ efforts in harvesting the crop.
Le Ly Hayslip’s memoir When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, an account of the author’s childhood during the Vietnam War, details a particular legend she came into contact with in her younger years, that is acutely telling of the country’s relationship with the ubiquitous ingredient.
The folk tale explains that the gods didn’t intend for humankind to work so laboriously in cultivating rice, rather it was meant to grow abundantly and naturally. The gods sent a messenger spirit to bring rice to humanity, giving him two magical pouches, each containing a different type of seed. The first pouch contained seeds that would grow as soon as they hit the ground, free of any effort, and was meant to be rice. The second pouch, intended for grass, although requiring more work, would provide the earth to be more habitable and picturesque if catered to properly. The messenger however, an absent-minded character of sorts, confused the two pouches, causing extreme hardship for humans.
While grass grew freely and effortlessly, cultivating rice was a back-breaking task, demanding lengthy periods of attention and labour. The gods, angered at this mistake, instantly kicked the negligent messenger out of the heavens and sent him back to earth in beetle form, made to scurry about in the grass forever dodging the heavy step of meandering humans. In an effort to make amends to humankind, the gods ordered the rice to ball itself up and present itself in conveniently shaped rolls on people’s doorsteps, avoiding the arduous task of cultivating the ingredient. Like clockwork, the rice rolls appeared in the first house of the first village. Understandably, the woman of the house that answered the door was so aghast by the scene that she struck the rice with her broom, flinging the grains in a thousand directions. The rice, understandably bitter over this sign of ungratefulness, decided to take to the fields to spurn humankind. It is thought that this is the reason why still to this day rice harvesting is a difficult and time-consuming trade.
In true legendary fashion, often a single human will be the perpetrator for a lifetime of punishment of the rest of humankind. Interestingly in this tale, that character happens to be a woman, who, in Vietnam, is more commonly known in rural areas to be the one to dedicate her life to ploughing the fields and harvesting one of the most essential staples of the Vietnamese diet. After facing a chronic food shortage during the war, Vietnam has become the second-largest rice exporter in the world, an impressive feat for a trade that still to this day remains labour intensive with little, if any, automated machinery.
Although folklore is of course meant to be taken with a pinch of salt, the tale is poignant in being a testament to the resilience and physical toughness exhibited in the workers of the picture-perfect fields that turn golden year after year.