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VIETNAM: a fragmented history

Updated: Sep 12, 2023



The history of cocoa in Vietnam is often narrated by the local chocolate makers, although there is no academic account of the French colonial importation of the first trees, and only a few testimonies about how local farmers took over cocoa cultivation after the French failure to make it a profitable crop.


A French import

Cocoa is alien to Vietnam and its local history is linked to the French colonization and French-Vietnamese relations that started from the 17th century with Alexandre de Rhodes. The exact origin of the first cocoa trees brought in the country is unknown, but the French grew cocoa in areas such as the Mekong Delta and the Central Highlands as an experimental crop.


We have the testimony of a French catholic priest named Father Gernod (1836-1912), who planted cocoa in the Ben Tre Province. Father Gernot (pictured above) arrived in Saigon in 1862, where he died. He was a charismatic orator and an active member of his community, erecting churches, an orphanage, schools as well as a small hospital. He is known for having developed the culture of cocoa as well as coffee and fruits like sapotes. With the help of the local administration, he also built roads and a canal to favor irrigation in the Mekong Delta.


Another source comes from Dr. Alexandre Yersin, a Swiss-French physician and bacteriologist, who has also cultivated cocoa in the late 19th century. Dr. Yersin established a research center in Nha Trang, known as the Pasteur Institute of Nha Trang, in order to study tropical diseases and agricultural practices in the region. Dr. Yersin recognized the potential of cocoa cultivation in Vietnam and conducted experiments to introduce and promote cocoa as a cash crop. He is credited with successfully cultivating cocoa plants in areas such as the Central Highlands of Vietnam, demonstrating the viability of cocoa production in the country's climate and soil conditions.


A marginal crop

With cocoa, the French aimed to develop a cocoa industry in Vietnam, hoping to tap into the growing global demand for chocolate and cocoa products. However, cocoa cultivation in Vietnam did not reach the same level of prominence as other crops like rubber or coffee, which were much profitable. As such, cocoa cultivation did not expand and did not become as significant as other colonial agricultural practices, and the French government stopped supporting its development.

For decades, most of the trees were left abandoned and the fruits were probably only enjoyed locally, eaten fresh and not transformed into chocolate.

During the war, many were destroyed, and there is no trace of cocoa cultivation in Vietnam.


The 1980s revival

After the independence of the country and the reunification, Vietnam received some economic support from the Soviet Union as part of their broader efforts to support agricultural development in the country and strengthen economic ties between the two nations. Under Soviet guidance, Vietnam established pilot cocoa plantations in certain regions, particularly in the southern part of the country. The aim was to develop a cocoa industry that could contribute to Vietnam's agricultural sector and generate export revenue. The Soviet Union provided technical assistance, training, and equipment.


In addition, Vietnam benefited from its close relationship with Cuba as both countries were socialist states and had aligned political ideologies. In particular, Cuban experts provided technical expertise and knowledge on cocoa cultivation and processing techniques. An example of their collaboration is the establishment of the Trinitario Cocoa Research Center in Ba Ria-Vung Tau province in southern Vietnam. The center focused on studying different cocoa varieties, testing their adaptability to Vietnamese climate and soil conditions, and developing cultivation methods suitable for local farmers. Research activities included improving planting techniques, optimizing fertilization, disease control, and post-harvest processing.


However, Vietnam's cocoa industry in the 1980s was still in its early stages, and the production levels were relatively low. The main goal was to develop a self-sustaining cocoa sector that could meet domestic demand and potentially generate export revenue in the future.

With the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, these exchanges and supports ceased.


From 2000s onwards

In recent years, Vietnam has seen increased interest and investment in cocoa production. Efforts have been made to improve productivity, quality, and sustainability in line with international standards. Farmers and cooperatives have adopted modern techniques, including better planting practices, post-harvest processing, and quality control measures.


In parallel, Vietnam's cocoa industry has also witnessed initiatives to promote value-added cocoa products. This includes the establishment of chocolate factories and the development of domestic chocolate brands. These efforts aim to tap into the growing domestic demand for chocolate and cocoa-based products, as well as to explore export opportunities.


This second revival is partly due to the involvement of the Nong Lam Agricultural University (now known as Vietnam National University of Agriculture) which has been actively involved in research, education, and extension activities related to cocoa cultivation and the overall cocoa value chain. Most of the work has been initiated by Dr. Pham Hong Duc Phuoc, who notably began experimenting with hundreds of trees to find the perfect cacao varietals for Vietnam. Through research and breeding programs, the university has worked to identify and develop cocoa varieties that exhibit traits such as disease resistance, high yield potential, and superior bean quality. This contributes to the availability of improved cocoa varieties for farmers, promoting higher productivity and better quality cocoa beans.

As sustainability is a key focus in the cocoa industry, Nong Lam Agricultural University has also been actively engaged in promoting sustainable cocoa production practices. The university works with farmers to implement agroforestry systems, which integrate cocoa cultivation with shade trees and other crops. This approach helps enhance biodiversity, soil conservation, and carbon sequestration, while also providing economic diversification for farmers. Besides, the University supports initiatives related to certification programs, fair trade practices, and environmental sustainability in the cocoa sector.



Government & NGO support

While cocoa cultivation in Vietnam has not reached the same level as other crops like coffee or rice, it continues to be a part of the country's agricultural landscape. The government has recognized its potential as an alternative crop and has provided support through research, training, and extension services to farmers. International organizations and NGOs have also been involved in initiatives to promote sustainable cocoa production, improve farmers' livelihoods, and enhance the overall cocoa value chain in Vietnam.


One such initiative is the implementation of agricultural extension programs specifically targeted towards cocoa farmers. The government has established agricultural extension centers and stations in cocoa-growing regions to provide technical assistance, training, and knowledge sharing to cocoa farmers. These extension programs aim to enhance farmers' understanding of modern cocoa cultivation techniques, including improved planting practices, pest and disease management, and post-harvest processing. Additionally, the government has collaborated with international organizations, such as the World Cocoa Foundation and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), to implement projects focused on sustainable cocoa production. These projects not only provide technical support but also address social and environmental aspects of cocoa cultivation, such as promoting fair trade practices, improving farmers' livelihoods, and implementing sustainable farming practices.


Today's production

Vietnam's cocoa production reached approximately 180,000 metric tons in 2020. The country has been expanding its cocoa cultivation areas, particularly in regions such as the Mekong Delta and the Central Highlands, which offer favorable climatic conditions for cocoa cultivation. Vietnam's cocoa production has been driven by both small-scale farmers and larger plantations. Smallholder farmers often cultivate cocoa as an intercrop alongside other crops, while larger plantations focus solely on cocoa production.


Today the cocoa production in Vietnam represents roughly 1 to 2% of the global production.


In recent years, the consumption of cocoa and cocoa products in Vietnam has been increasing due to growing interest in chocolate and confectionery products. Vietnam's rising middle class, urbanization, and changing consumer preferences have contributed to the increased demand for cocoa-based products. Based on available data, the annual per capita consumption of chocolate in Vietnam was estimated to be around 0.5 kilograms (500 grams) in 2020, compared to about 11kg in Switzerland.


There is an increased number of local chocolate makers. See the section dedicated to these producers.


Notes:

For Father Gernot biography, see (in French): https://irfa.paris/en/missionnaire/0794-gernot-charles/


About the role of the university, see for example Le Cao Luong, “Growth of Cocoa Production in Vietnam,” The Manufacturing Confectioner June 2013


The websites of some local chocolate makers are also including historical facts, for instance Alluvia, Marou or, more generally, the well documented website Dame Cacao about all chocolate across the world.


FIELDWORK NOTES



Below are some notes from a fieldwork in Dak Lak in February 2023.



Here, the indispensable machete that opens the pods and allows farmers to extract, by hands, the fresh cocoa beans.

It is essential to understand that cocoa cultivation occurs mostly manually.


In Dak Lak, TBros collects fresh beans from local farmers, often families who grow cocoa on very small plantations.


The fermentation process is key to develop the flavours of the chocolate, so it takes place under the guidance of Mr. Truong Minh Thang who founded the company with his classmate in 2017.



On the right, fresh beans have been poured into large wooden boxes, which bottom has been previously covered by banana leaves.


They will remain there for about one week before being spread on larger grid and let dry under the sun.


As you can see below, farmers move them every day to make sure they dry properly.




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