￼Greengrocer Bob Allen speaks about his experiences as a farmer in Vietnam.
If there’s one name synonymous with fruits and vegetables in Vietnam, it has to be Bob Allen, owner of Veggy’s, a specialty produce store with locations in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Phnom Penh and a godsend for vegetarians who want the freshest produce around. With a background in farming, trading in produce and the air freight of perishable items, Bob describes his decades-long obsession with fresh fruits and vegetables as “an innocuous pursuit. I’ve always liked being around green stuff”.
Residing in Vietnam since the mid-90s, Bob initially started with strawberries. That venture has now grown into Golden Garden Produce (golden-gardenvn.com), a four hectare farm in Dalat and Bob’s personal agricultural laboratory.
“From the beginning, I said we were going to produce in a clean, green manner, with no residue in our products. In those early days, there were lots of problems [in the news] with poisoning, mostly coming from vegetables. While our objective isn’t to be organic, it is to keep everything residue free, to go for quality, to add nutrients to give our products good leaf structure and a better shelf life,” says Bob.
In the book Communion: A Culinary Journey Through Vietnam, Bob talks about the early days of experimenting with new crops, including one time when he was shipping broccoli out of Vietnam, only to be asked by the customs inspectors why he had painted his cauliflower green. Fast forward 20 years and Bob’s still tinkering with what Vietnamese soil can produce. “We’re always trying to come up with something new and exciting. Right now, we’re growing rhubarb – although it’s not working out very well – and Jerusalem artichokes. We’re also looking at colored Swiss chard and micro vegetables ― tiny little carrots and radishes. We’re trialing a new mix of heirloom cherry tomatoes which are really magical.”
While Bob describes his operation as small but intensive,” sowing, planting, harvesting and shipping six days a week, 52 weeks a year with a relatively large range of products, there’s a continual focus on innovation. “We’re getting more serious about using a soilless culture system and we’re installing hydroponics for all our salads [which include exotic varieties like Salanova and mizuna]. We also use things like coconut coir and burned rice husk. At the moment, we have 16 different varieties of tomatoes in the ground and 12 varieties of romaine lettuce in the testing stage.”
Bob’s efforts have borne fruit, not only with the expat community who crave a taste of home, but with the Vietnamese community at large. “Back [when I started], there was a very limited amount of fresh produce coming out of Dalat ― mostly cabbage, onions and carrots. In those early days, there were only two kinds of lettuce in the whole country, butterhead and escarole. But things have changed over the years. People here now eat a lot of zucchini, more salads, broccoli… I think we’ve changed eating habits quite a lot.”
There is a limit to what can be grown in Vietnam, however. “Here, everyone and their brother claims to grow organic [fruits and vegetables], but that’s nonsense. In Dalat, there’s acid rain and lots of nitrates in the soil and water. At our main farm, we use a borehole and can drink water from the ground, but most people are dealing with less than perfect water. [Organic] is not really feasible.”
And has being surrounded by some of the country’s finest fruits and vegetables made him a vegetarian? “My wife and mother-in-law get on the vegetarian Buddhist thing at times and I see lots of vegetarian restaurants opening up. People want to eat healthier, they have more money, and they travel more. But I just eat whatever. I haven’t been suckered into it yet.”
Images by Ngoc Tran