Tran Quynh Giao claims a supernatural understanding of bamboo.
The 44-year-old director of the "Grass Company" in Tay Ninh Province says she can tell how old the bamboo is without seeing or touching it.
"Many times, when my workers unload the bamboo at night and put them down on the front yard, I can tell how old it is and whether it is old enough for production, even though I am in my bedroom," Giao says.
Giao's love for bamboo, if not her understanding, is shared by her husband and they are hoping to put Vietnam's bamboo, a national motif, on the world map through high quality products.
Giao said her supernatural understanding and love did not happen overnight. It took a series of big and costly failures and working with the grass for more than 11 years.
Giao said she first "got to know bamboo" when a German lawyer asked her to provide his wife's shop based in Germany with Vietnamese handicraft items. As many of the local items were made of bamboo, she gradually became attracted to it, and decided to open a company mainly producing bamboo products in 1998.
However, it "slashed me harshly" at first, Giao said.
The first batch of goods exported to Hungary was damaged in transport because her outsourcing partners did not dry it properly. She lost the batch and had to pay compensation to the importer.
The second batch was also a failure, because the bamboo furniture was over-dried and their parts had fallen off by the time the shipment reached its destination.
There was no third time luck for Giao, with the consignment developing problems with paints and mould.
Somehow, the failures failed to deter her. Instead, they made her learn more about bamboo, and she finally figured out why Vietnamese bamboo products had not gained world recognition.
She learnt the secret of keeping bamboo dry enough and old enough to free it from worms and moulds.
Giao and her husband also faced the problem of coming up with designs that find approval in international markets, a bugbear for the industry as a whole.
But they were able to overcome this hurdle as well, and the company has since won many prizes at world famous exhibitions for interior and exterior furniture like the Spoga Furniture Fair in Germany. Now their products have found stable markets in US, Germany, and France, among other countries.
In the past two years they have taken bamboo houses costing hundreds of thousands of dollars each to Israel and Latin American countries.
Hao, a Vietnamese-American who returned to Vietnam in 1997 and settled down here, said their houses passed strict quality tests in Israel, and, furthermore, their bamboo have proved to be better than some species of wood like pine and oak there.
Despite its overseas fame, the Grass Company's products are nowhere in the local market.
"For most Vietnamese people, bamboo is a product of the common people so it's not a choice for the middle and upper class," Hao said.
Moreover, people are yet to care much about the environment while people in other countries are using less wood to protect their forests from being destroyed, he said.
While bamboo is helping them earn good profits, Hao said their love for the tallest member of the grass family, from the very beginning, stemmed from a desire "to live sustainably."
Showing this reporter around their 2,000 square-meter house almost totally of bamboo in Tay Ninh, Hao, who used to work for Apple Inc. before settling down in Vietnam, said he was most satisfied with the bathroom.
Apart from having a bamboo toilet seat he uses a system of collecting and mixing the waste with bamboo shavings leftover from the manufacturing process in an outdoor tank. A year later, the tank's content is used as fertilizer, Hao said.
"It's scientific. Human waste is nitrogen, while shavings of bamboo or wood are carbon. Together the two will make a chemical reaction, eliminating smell and turning the waste into fertilizer," he said
This practice has been applied in the US, he said, adding that it is also being applied in the bathrooms of over 300 workers of his company.
"I want to promote a way of life that is in harmony with nature. If we look closely enough, we'll realize that nature gives us all we need."