Truong Thi Gai carries bamboo baskets filled with salt crystals in her salt field. (Photo: UCA News)
In the burning sun as the temperature hits 40 degrees Celsius, Truong Thi Gai and her husband and two children hurriedly fan out across shallow seawater pools to harvest the precious mineral.
They spend all their daytime pumping salty seawater into rectangular plots before dawn and ferrying heaps of the saline crystals in bamboo baskets along reflective ponds against a setting sun.
Wearing a conical hat, gloves and socks, Gai, 52, carries two bamboo baskets filled with salt crystals on her shoulder to a handcart on a ledge. The two baskets weigh 20 kilograms.
After emptying the salt on to the cart, she stands relaxing for a few minutes, wiping the sweat from her face which has turned red in the heat. Her four-member family produces salt on a 3,000-square-meter field.
“This year the weather is very sunny and we have a good harvest,” the mother of two said. “We produce 600kg of salt per day and earn only 350,000 dong [US$15].”
She said they have earned 14 million dong since May, less than half of the 30 million dong they made from the previous harvest. “Local traders buy salt at low prices due to declining domestic demand,” she said.
Next to Gai’s salt field, Tran Van Kinh, wearing two hats to shield from the searing morning sun, uses channels to supply seawater to his field, gathers salt into piles and packs them into bags while his wife and two daughters carry them along narrow ledges to a nearby road and sell to traders. They start work at 4am.
“We harvest around 700kg of salt each day, 200kg more than one day last year, but the market price is half less than last year’s price,” the 45-year-old farmer said. They sell their harvest to traders for 590 dong per kilogram at their salt field.
Kinh, whose tan skin is weathered from a decade working in the fields, said his home commune of Gio Viet in the Catholic stronghold of Quang Tri province, central Vietnam, is home to 30 households taking part in an industry that depends on sunny and dry days for maximum production.
He said they sell their harvests to local traders who pass them up the value chain until they reach dining tables or factories in the province and its neighboring province of Thua Thien Hue. Local people use salt to preserve fish and concoct the country's popular, pungent fish sauces, make pickles and other foods.
He said they toil in the field during the annual harvesting season from May to June and their income is only enough to make a meager living. “My daughters have to catch small crabs on the seashore to supplement our daily meals,” he said, adding that they save a little money for medical treatment in case they get sick.
The salt farmers are from Bac Cua Viet parish with 270 members among the total population of 17,000. Seven Catholic families are among 30 families working on the salt fields.
Salt farmers are off during the cool and rainy season when the sea is rough. Some use their fields to raise shrimp while some move to other places in search of work.
“When it starts to rain in July, we all go hungry,” Kinh said. He will seek a job on fishing boats in Hai Lang district while his wife will work at a local market and his daughters move to Dong Ha city for work.
He said he plans to prepare his salt field to raise shrimp in September, but he is not sure whether he can borrow money from the bank.
Vo Thi Thu Suong, one of the largest salt retailers at Quang Tri market, said she sells on average 100kg of raw and powdered salt per day. They are priced at 1,300 to 2,500 dong per kilo. In the past, she sold 600 to 1,000kg of salt per day ranging in price from 2,650 to 5,650 dong per kilo.
Le Thi Tho, a fish sauce producer in Quang Tri province, said this year she has bought only 200kg of salt to produce fish sauce since she could not purchase much fish from fishermen who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
Tho said she bought over one tonne of salt for fish sauce production last year.
The province is home to 160 fish sauce producers.
Le Thi Phuong, a fish sauce producer in Thua Thien Hue province, used 2,000kg of salt for fish sauce production last year but this year only 400kg. “Local fishermen have caught only one quarter of a few fish like anchovies, sardines and scad compared with last year. We don’t have enough to make fish sauce,” Phuong said.
Tran Thi Hue, one of 20 people who produce pickles in An Hoa ward of Hue city, said the output of vegetables in the locality has dropped due to long dry seasons. “We lack vegetables to make pickles, so we could not buy much salt,” Hue said.
Pham Van Doi, a senior fisherman in Vinh Linh district, said there has been a rapid exhaustion of the sources of fish and sea creatures since 2016 when local waters were poisoned by toxic waste from the Taiwanese-run Formosa unit based in Ha Tinh province.
Doi, 54, said in recent months many local fishermen could not catch fish in waters around the disputed Paracel Islands as they feared being attacked by Chinese boats.
In 2019, Quang Tri province recorded 2,300 fishing boats and vessels catching over 27,000 tonnes of fish.
The Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry reported in 2019 that Vietnam produced over one million tonnes of salt and imported another 550,000 tonnes from abroad, causing a huge oversupply of salt.
Francis Le Dinh Tao, whose family has worked in the salt fields for generations, said four families who had moved to other places in 2000 returned home and started to develop salt production in the area.
“This year we have good harvests thanks to stable sunny weather, but our incomes are insufficient because the market price slumped by one third and domestic demand fell almost 50 percent,” the 73-year-old salt worker said.
“Our work is punishing and our incomes are volatile, but if we stop production we will go hungry because salt production remains our main income.”