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The aroma of a new-found love

Cinnamon trees have become the next big thing for the Hmong community in Vietnam's Yen Bai province
Hmong community members in Yen Bai province receive cinnamon seedlings on Jan. 17

Hmong community members in Yen Bai province receive cinnamon seedlings on Jan. 17. (Photo: Supplied)

Published: April 01, 2023 04:01 AM GMT
Updated: April 01, 2023 04:11 AM GMT

Clad in shabby clothes, Joseph Sung A Tu and his wife spend time daily looking after their cinnamon seedlings. Their new-found love for their cinnamon farm, one kilometer away from their home in Yen Bai province in Vietnam, is due to their hope that cultivation of this light-loving tree can lift their fortunes.

A Tu and his wife are new to cinnamon cultivation even though Yen Bai province has been well-known for it worldwide. The province in northern-central Vietnam has earned enough laurels for producing high-quality cinnamon because of its advantages as a mountainous area of 300-700m altitude, heavy rainfall, and high humidity. 

Cinnamon bark, branches and leaves are used to produce oil and other products from this perennial woody plant, averaging 18-20m in height. Its bark is rough and brown to reddish brown in color.

A Tu’s dealings with cinnamon seedlings started this month with 10,000 seedlings planted on his farm which was hitherto reserved for the cultivation of corn and rice.

“We decided to grow cinnamon trees hoping that they will generate more income for us in the coming years as we cannot put enough food on the table by growing traditional crops,” A Tu said.

The 45-year-old father of six said infertile soil has wreaked havoc, resulting in poor harvests of traditional crops like rice and corn.

Last year, they harvested 2.4 tons of rice and corn that lasted only seven months. For the rest of the months of the year, the family fell on hard times.

A pale and thin A Tu said they still owe a local bank 30 million dong (US$1,280) after they failed to raise pigs years ago.

Citing advantages of cinnamon trees, A Tu added that they need fewer fertilizers but they can only be harvested after five years.

Local people, mainly from the Hmong community in Khe Ken village in Yen Bai province’s Van Chan district, live in poverty and each family has at least five to seven children to feed. 

Their main food includes rice, corn, vegetables, bamboo shoots and salt. They rarely have square meals with poultry and mouse meat.

For the children of this Southeast tribe, schooling ends with a higher secondary level and then they move to other places in search of a job.

Many families borrow money from lenders to cover medical treatment, funeral, and marriage expenses. However, to repay the loan, they had to sell their farms.

Father Joseph Ma A Ca, who launched the Sowing Green Seeds Of Hope Project in 2019, said he has supplied 4 million cinnamon trees to Hmong households in the parishes of Dong Heo and Sung Do in Yen Bai province. Each household was given 2,000-10,000 cinnamon seedlings. Together, both parishes are home to 3,000 Catholics. 

Ca, an assistant priest in Dong Heo parish, said benefactors foot the bill for seedlings. Around 20 seedlings cost US$1, added the priest, who hails from the Hmong community, mainly found in Vietnam, Laos and China.

The priest said locals do not have enough savings with them to buy cinnamon seedlings. 

Yen Bai province is the largest cinnamon-growing area in the country. It is often called the capital of cinnamon in Vietnam. 

Cinnamon produced in Yen Bai has a strong aroma with a mild sweet and spicy taste.  Vietnam churns out superior quality compared to cinnamon from China and Indonesia. The nation exported US$252 million worth of cinnamon in 2021. Cinnamon seedlings are planted in the Southeast Asian nation in January-March and July-September.

Joseph Giang Vang Sang, a lay leader from Sung Do parish, said local ethnic groups have planted cinnamon trees for a living for centuries and lead a better life compared with the Hmong community, who moved to Yen Bai province in the 1970s.

“The project offers favorable opportunities to Hmong people to earn more income in the coming years as cinnamon trees are suited to their hilly land,” he said.

Sang, 60, expressed optimism that cinnamon trees will help his Hmong community improve their life in the coming years.

Anna Vu Thi Thom, who works in the tourism industry, said she highly appreciated Ca’s project because it is expected to bring economic benefits to the poor in the long term.

“Father Ca provides us with a real lifeline when he offers us cinnamon seedlings,” Sang, a father of 12, said with a smile while removing wild grass from his new cinnamon farm.

Some of the new farmers from the Hmong community said they will sell one kilogram of cinnamon bark for 30,000 dong (US$1.3) and one kilogram of leaves for 2,000 dong, and could earn 300 million dong per year from growing 10 hectares of cinnamon.

They have enough reasons to be optimistic about cinnamon trees with green leaves all year round.

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