Part 4: The long expected vineyards
A bit past the salt fields, the household gardens of garlic and onions spread a comfy green color in front of us. Unlike the vast salt fields we saw earlier, the gardens here were mostly family-owned that looked nothing more than decorative lawns. If the houses were big pretty ones as those on Yen Ninh street instead of this slum, the area would look just like Beverly Hills.
“Garlic is one of the specialties here, recently increased 3 times in prices. The reason for such significant rise is that Ly Son garlic is in so high demand that merchants hoarded Phan Rang garlic to fake it.”
Ly Son is a small island about 500 kilometers North of Ninh Thuan. The whole island is known for only 1 thing: garlic, which is sold for 6 bucks per kilo, and the black garlic could be priced as high as 100 dollars a kilo. The special feature of this kind of garlic is that their cloves are super tiny, and when fried, they are extra fragrant.
“Any difference between Phan Rang and Ly Son garlic though?” – I asked.
“Not at all.” – Huy confirmed, and somehow sounded a bit too proud that his hometown products were good enough for conmen to pass for the more famous brand.
Wandering this area were herds of goats and lambs, the animals known for their ability to survive the harshest climate. They slowly walked across the road, leisurely chewed on the bushes, no matter whether they were road-side or all the way on top of some mountain rocks.
About 30 kilometers from the city of Phan Rang was the Nui Chua national park, the savanna of Ninh Thuan, with cactus, coarse grass, boulders, and millions of rock formations. In this area, no sea, no tall trees, no greenness could be found, just cactus and their prickly spikes that could kill any person careless enough to fall on them.
“There are tours exploring this national park. It would take a whole 2 days and 1 night.” – Huy told us, pointing at the unique rocks laying on top of each other as if they could fall down anytime with just a breeze.
Suddenly, the cactus withdrew for a short time, leaving the vineyards in our sight. Huy was right, the vineyards looked miserable at this time of the year. Leaves were brown or dark green as if smoked in a fire. We had to look hard to find a vineyard with some grapes left, but that was more than enough to wake my joy.
“Hold on, let me ask the owner if we could come in to visit their vineyard.” – Huy said as he opened the car door. The outside heat immediately stroked me, reminding me of the real temperature without this aircon wind.
A young girl greeted us with a smile. She was probably just my age, covered in long sleeves and a conic hat. The grapes didn’t boast the lively, shiny beauty that I expected. They were small and wrinkly, like an old person surviving the winter. I walked on the sand, under the shadow of the vines, reaching my hands out to touch the crimson fruits, feeling a layer of dust.
“Can I try one?” – I asked the young girl and she kindly nodded.
Picked one grape from the tree, I carefully rubbed it in my palm to remove all the dust. The grape, just the size of my knuckle yet so juicy, stroked me with the sweetness and its rough skin.
“The best month to visit our vineyards is July, at the mid of summer. At that time, the sun drained all the impurities from the grapes, and the grapes taste purely of sweet juice. It is also the time of the international wine and grape festival.” – Huy commented.
“We saw in the market they sold huge seedless Ninh Thuan grapes though, not small ones like these.” – My aunt asked.
“Those are fake. Grapes in Ninh Thuan are always this small size, with seeds. When you bring an exotic grape type here to grow, it will need 12 years to adapt to the climate here in order to produce edible fruits, and after that long, even the seedless turns seedful.” – Huy confirmed, an interesting piece of knowledge.
My favorite type of grapes was the green American ones, average in size but sweet, seedless, and I could almost not taste its skin – the type of grapes that took Cat Thu’s grandfather’s grapes out of business. I read her moving words and yet I would still choose the green, big, pleasing sweet ones over these purple ones covered in dust and smelled of gasoline. Nostalgia nurtured your soul, but living in the past would only hold you back.
“The yard owners used to refuse tourists into their gardens. They were concerned tourists would ruin their grapes. But overtime, they realized even with all the damages done to the vines and fruits, tourism was still a more profitable option since tourists usually buy grapes for prices three times as high as wholebuyers would.” – Huy explained after we had returned to the car with a bag full of the wrinkly fruits.
After all, everyone lived for their own lives. Grapes will regrow, as long as the growers are fed enough to live with their vineyards.