In this region, beyond a lively aquaculture industry, the core counterpart of “wetworking” is rice production. The Mekong Delta produces the majority of rice in this country, which is the one of the largest rice exporters in the world. Thus, the delta is known as Vietnam’s “rice bowl.” Whereby, water defines the country, rice defines the practice and work of the largest ethnic group living here—the kinh or the Viet people who brought wet-rice cultivation to this land that had once been part of the Khmer Empire and the Kingdom of Champa. In the Vietnamese language, “doing business” comes attached to eating for its phrase làm ăn, literally means “to make to eat.” Following that, the term for eating a meal is ăn cơm or to literally “eat rice.”
Rice surrounds us in Vietnam. It consumes us and we consume it. Part of every meal, it turns up in bags, bowls and on plates in every geometric shape imaginable—the flat rounds of wrappers, as sticky rice logs, as flat or round noodles or simply as the grain that it is. But what we see of it on the table has been transformed and this happens here. Only about 70 percent of a yield of rice ends up as whole rice grains for human consumption. The various handling of its products and byproducts are at the center of an ingenious system of sustainability that becomes clear when stopping the boat at places along the Mekong Delta. Luckily, we had the opportunity to do so.
Down one canal, we disembarked from the boat and stepped into a family-run rice mill. Mesmerized by the custom design and engineering of the different machines that noisily shook and shimmied, we watched one contraption remove the husks while another one ground off the nutritious brown bran and germ. Yet another one sifted out the broken bits. Finally, we watched the rice as it danced, zigzagging in a shiny geometric polisher.
The husks are used in places, such as a family-run pottery factory. Fueling and heating huge kilns, the resulting ash would be returned to fertilize the Delta’s rice patties. The germ and bran would feed animals, like the chickens at the pottery factory we visited.