Van Ha, a film producer and CEO of the Redbridge TV & Film production company, put a short message on her Facebook page: ‘There will be about 50 kilograms of fresh shrimp coming ashore in Haiphong on the weekend. Please contact Van Ha’s Garden to place an order!’ Attached was a video showing how fresh the shrimp will be. In just a few hours her post had attracted hundreds of people and the orders began to flow in.
It seems her passion for safe food is as great as her passion for producing documentary films. Her passion is shared by Khanh Thi, a typical ‘housewife of the internet age’, a Facebooker on Ha’s fanpage. The white-collar housewife seldom visits the market anymore to buy food, instead ordering from trusted online sources providing safe green vegetables and chicken and pork from rural areas. ‘I have complete faith in the quality of these ingredients, more so than with what’s available at the market, even though I have to pay extra for shipping,’ she said.
Warnings about unsafe food have begun to appear more regularly in the media and on the internet and more people are paying attention.
Figures from the Ministry of Health’s Food Safety and Hygiene Department reveal that 1,386 people suffered from food poisoning in the first four months of this year, with two fatalities. Last year there were 4,965 cases and 23 fatalities. The main causes were bacteria and toxic chemicals used in food preparation.
Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Tran Thanh Nam told a recent meeting that ‘dirty’ food such as vegetables with pesticides, contaminated meat and substandard slaughterhouse techniques have become difficult and time-consuming issues to resolve. The ministry has pledged to support initiatives to set up a Food Transparency Association aimed at connecting producers in providing clean and safe foodstuff to consumers.
Meanwhile, rising demand for food due to the population increase is leading to additional but questionable food sources, he said.
As for Van Ha, she set up the ‘Van Ha’s Garden’ fanpage to provide updates on unclean food as well as to sell safe seafood and agriculture products. ‘The shrimp is completely fresh and recently caught by fishermen in Haiphong,’ she said of the recent post. Her becoming a trader of safe food came about by accident. She was producing a documentary on life jackets for fishermen and asked a few of them if she could buy some of their catch. She bought too much, and sold it on to her friends. From this she realised she could become a trader.
Van Ha also brings home-grown products from ethnic minority women in Bac Ha town, Lao Cai province, to housewives in urban areas. She works directly with a number of H’Mong, Dao and Tay ethnic women who also featured in her documentary on people traffickers. The women are members of the Di Thang Cultivation Cooperative and receive guidance from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) project. ACIAR’s strategies are linked to environmental sustainability and the development of human resources, and the women have been trained by Australian experts on how to increase their agricultural output. Produce includes H’Mong cabbage, Khai tu vegetables, green peas and green cauliflower, among others.
‘The problem for my business is the lack of supply,’ Van Ha said. ‘Vegetables are seasonal and in limited amounts due to family-scale production. Demand is huge but supply is small. The cost is also higher as products must be transported from remote areas.’
She didn’t even have sufficient supply for her own needs, so she decided to transform her family’s 3,000 square metre garden into a real farm to cultivate organic vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes, and aubergine and even some medicinal herbs such as basil, peppermint and citronella and hired a local farmer to take care of everything. ‘Growing vegetables has twin benefits - creating a beautiful landscape while providing fresh produce,’ Ha said wisely. ‘What we don’t use we can sell to cover the cost of having a farmer on hand.’ At harvest time, her American husband, Dr. Michael R. DiGregorio and his friends from the Asia Foundation come and give Van Ha a hand.
Van Ha isn’t only the only one keen to ensure hygienic food for their families. Hang Bui, or Hang Karose, a lawyer in Hanoi, has a similar mindset.
‘The greed of dealers and the lack of knowledge among people have led to the prevalence of unsafe food,’ Hang said. ‘Low quality products are still being grown and are easily found, even in supermarkets.’ Despite earning a good income, Hang prefers to consume rural agriculture or ‘DIY’ products of trusted origin more so than imports.
She turned her spacious home and garden in Xuan Mai town, Hoa Binh province, into a ‘red rose valley’, planting more than 3,000 roses. ‘At first my aim was to create a beautiful landscape for the family’s weekend escapes by cultivating dozens of my favourite roses,’ she said. As the flowers grew, she decided to invest VND200 million in expanding the garden and purchasing machinery to make rose lotion.
Hang’s rose garden provides four to six kilograms of roses each day for making hundreds of millilitres of rose lotion. ‘The roses are picked in the early morning when they’re in bloom and at their most fragrant,’ she explained. The petals are separated from the stems, rinsed and places in a distillation machine. The distillation process takes three hours to complete, with boiling water extracting the essence from the roses, before sudden cooling makes the distilled rose water drop into a glass bottle to make the rose lotion. Each 100 ml bottle brings Hang VND200,000, which is enough to cover labour costs and operate her online sales system.
The by-products from the distillation process can be used as feed for her free-range chickens. Chicken manure then becomes natural fertiliser for the roses, creating a perfect production cycle. The chickens are a hygienic food source for her large family and she sells eggs as well.
Both Van Ha and Hang guarantee their output comes only from organic fertilisers and is organically protected from pests.
‘Our Karose rose lotion features a tiny amount of solvable rose essential oil, which is extremely beneficial for moisturising the skin and is even drinkable,’ Hang said. Her homemade rose lotion was recently confirmed to ‘not contain heavy metals and residues from plant protection products, non-alcoholic or chemical additives’ by the Vietnamese Centre for Quality and Measurement Control.
‘It’s time for action, not for just letting things run their course,’ Hang said. ‘People need to work together to tackle the scourge of unclean food and have safe products for their families.’