Khanh Phan

Join us on a trip to the salt fields of Bac Lieu

Each year, when the final spring tide recedes, leaving behind fertile alluvial riverbanks, and the December-to-April dry season drops its first rays of sun upon the Mekong Delta, my mind wanders back to Bac Lieu. Bac Lieu is at its most stunning when every field is filled with busy salt farmers preparing for a new harvest.

Salt farmers work under the hot sun

Deemed the capital of Vietnam’s salt trade, Bac Lieu is among the country’s largest salt production areas. Thanks to its location on the Mekong Delta’s coast and its clean and sweet seawater with high salinity, Bac Lieu has earned a fine reputation for its salt across Vietnam’s South. Settlers of Chinese ethnicity were the first to lay the foundations for this region’s salt trade. During the resistance wars against the French and Americans, only wealthy households were permitted to farm salt in the riverside fields. To this day, many huge mansions owned by salt tycoons during the French colonial era still remain.

My love and longing for Bac Lieu surges every salt-harvesting season, not only because of the poetic and unique beauty of the salt fields but also thanks to the salt farmers’ dedication. The labor-intensive and low-income salt trade has never deterred them. The manual salt-making process is arduous and involves many steps. Despite this, these admirable people still choose to toil in the salt fields, devoted to the craft that produces clean salt, a seasoning indispensable to our everyday life. As if the love for this traditional trade is in their blood, they have never opted for a less laborious occupation, upholding their integrity and responsibility to preserve this livelihood that has been passed down through the generations.

Harvesting salt

The prominent salt-making localities of Bac Lieu, Hoa Binh, and Dong Hai districts have production areas spanning 1,600ha, yielding over 90,000 tons of salt each year. With a hundred-year history of development, the practices of this exceptional craft have been passed down through generations. The “Bac Lieu salt trade” has been certified as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage. Bac Lieu’s salt fields are near and dear to my heart and serve as my go-to sightseeing and photography destination.

After a long ride from Saigon to Bac Lieu City’s bus terminal, I crossed precarious roads running along square paddy fields filled with murky water and arrived in the salt production zone. The peak harvest period is between March and April, when salt farmers begin working from 3 a.m. to avoid the day’s scorching heat at the start of the dry season.

Salt farmers rake the salt into piles

As soon as I arrived in the capital of the salt trade, the briny smell of seawater invaded my nostrils and roused my senses. I saw lights flickering in the mist and vast salt fields strung one after another. I heard footsteps and laughter as salt farmers called out to each other in the dead of night. Wooden rakes scraped against the fields in constant rustles as the village’s strongest men combed the salt into large piles, creating white trails like flower petals. The saltiness permeated my skin and hair.

My heart suddenly swelled with nostalgia and the night’s salty chill nibbled my skin. My eyes filled with tears as I was overwhelmed with fatigue and emotion, recognizing the salt farmers’ struggles.

As the sun rose, the farmers began to pick up the pace. Neatly stacked piles of salt lay radiating under the early sun, like sparkling diamonds. The higher the heat, the quicker the salt dries. The field resembled a giant mirror glinting in the light while the shadows cast by the working farmers created an idyllic and lively landscape straight out of an oil painting. Thoroughly captivated, I snapped an endless number of photos to capture every inch of the scene. To me, humans reveal their glorious beauty when they work.

This trade involves low wages and hard labor

For every Vietnamese person, salt is a familiar seasoning and a crucial part of their daily meals. Salt is used to create well-known dishes handed down for generations, from grandma’s pickled veggies to salted rice paper. Soy sauce and fish sauce, braised dishes, vegan foods and meat dishes all use salt. Though not exclusive to Bac Lieu, the grains of salt produced here carry a particular flavor. Its distinct taste and high salinity make it ideal for marinating seafood. This unique salt is popular across Vietnam’s Southern and Central provinces and all the way to Cambodia.

Sunrise in the salt field

After raking the salt into piles, salt farmers transfer them into storage using cần xé (a type of bamboo basket) and carry them on their shoulders. This is the weight of the salt-making craft. Despite the exhausting work, I spotted bright smiling faces glistening with sweat as the farmers worked with good cheer.

Across the sun-beaten and wind-filled salt fields of Bac Lieu, the wavering heat of vaporized sea salt and the salt farmers’ weary footsteps  touched my very soul. The heart of Bac Lieu’s people is imbued in every grain of salt. Their devotion to this craft in the face of hardship is sincere and filled with love for their homeland.