I fell in love with durian during my first few months in Vietnam and I've been eating it ever since.
This woman sold me my final fruit of the journey - a massive heart-shaped durian - from her small warehouse attached to a car wash/fighting cock stable just south of Bao Loc
If it weren't so expensive, I'd eat nothing but durian every day. Indeed, I'd turn to other foods only to keep me alive long enough to eat more durian.
For me, it is the happiest of fruits, a bringer of endless mirth and good times. But, for Vietnam, it is sorrowful and romantic.
According to legend, sau rieng (durian) takes its name from one man's grief.
The story goes that a Dong Nai martial arts master encountered the fruit while rowing a boat away from one of the saddest chapters in Vietnam's history.
The master had aligned himself with the Dynasty begun by three brothers from Tay Son Village who led a populist uprising against official corruption and the Confucian hierarchy.
During the late 18th century, Tay Son forces overthrew the nation's ineffectual emperors, fought to redistribute land and reunify Vietnam. As their power increased, their loose organization frayed.
The tables officially began to turn in 1782, when the future Emperor Gia Long (the last surviving member of the Nguyen Dynasty) enlisted help from French mercenaries, Catholic missionaries and Siamese troops to topple the Tay Son, which had been weakened by internal purges and political intrigue.
In exchange for their hoodlumry, the French were given economic and missionary rights throughout Vietnam"”a deal that would plague the nation for the next two hundred years.
By the dawn of the 19th century, Tay Son's surviving officers were scrambling to flee Emperor Gia Long's executioners.
Vietnam's Father of durian (whose name is not remembered) was supposedly among the survivors and fate found him paddling up the Bassac River into Khmer-controlled territory, where he stopped to purchase provisions.
There, in a shop along the river, he encountered a beautiful woman who had become terribly ill. The master (of medicine, as well, it seems) helped nurse her back to health. When she recovered, they were married and spent the next ten years living a quiet life on a small farm.
A Tu-Ren (Khmer for durian) tree hung over the house, dropping fruit that the hero found terribly offensive to the nose.
His wife urged him to eat it, promising a flavor "as powerful as my love for you."
He did and fell doubly in love.
Soon afterward, illness struck again and she could not be saved. In death, she returned to him again and again, in dreams. The hero decided to return to Dong Nai to heal. On the day he departed, a single durian fell from the tree and landed by his side. He picked it up and brought it back to Vietnam.
In Dong Nai, he opened a studio and began teaching and planted a small orchard using the seeds from the single durian he'd brought with him.
A decade later, he invited his neighbors to a massive banquet on the anniversary of his late wife's death.
At the center of it all sat Vietnam's first durian harvest.
His neighbors held their noses at the odd smell. He urged them all to try the fruit, which he promised to be as potent as young love. As he told the story of its origin two tears fell from his eyes onto the fruit. As his tears hit the flesh, they sizzled, like wine on a frying pan.
Everyone partook and agreed it was good.
The hero died three days later. After his death, the village continued to eat the fruit, which they renamed sau rieng, (my sorrow).
Fruits that yielded segments containing two seeds (a symbol of the master's tears) were deemed the best.
From then to now
There certainly appears to be some degree of truth (or coincidence) to the legend.
According to Dr. Tana Li of Australian National University, durian and mangosteen were first introduced to Vietnam by Hokkien trade ships moving up the Bassac River just as the Tay Son were fighting their last fight.
The fruit spread, rather mysteriously, by seed, yielding wildly different results"”flavors that evolve and change dramatically depending on the tree.
Little is known about the fruit's development in Vietnam.
Many local scientists admit that they don't know where it came from or how it spread. Most agree that cultivation only began in earnest about thirty years ago.
A couple from Portland embarking on a worldwide durian tour (and chronicling their adventures at yearofthedurian.com) estimated that Vietnam is home to roughly 20 or 30 native varietals "most of them unnamed."
Only recently have farmer's organizations held regional contests to attract cuttings of some of the named varietals that you see on handwritten sign-boards: Sua Hat Lep (milk small seed), Cai Mon (a place in Ben Tre Province), Com Vang (golden flesh).
I worry, however, that more consistency might usher the decline of Vietnam's regional smorgasbord of wonderfully different durians.
I began my own durian binge at the end of July, in a friend's family orchard in Ben Tre Province's Cho Lach (spleen market) District"”a sleepy farm community built atop an island in the middle of the Mekong.
The district's fruit can be spotted a mile away"”small Kermit The Frog colored beauties with fine spikes and bone-colored flesh.
We sat in the shade of rambutan trees and ate durian (flavored like rich whipped cream, butter and maple syrup) while dogs eyed us with jealousy.
The Mekong Delta has proven an unlikely breadbasket for the fruit.
"Durian trees don't like to get their toes wet," wrote Lindsay Gasik, the driving force behind yearofthedurian.com "They flourish in mountainous regions with good soil drainage and dry weather. The tree is especially susceptible to root rot and fungus, and doesn't tolerate flooding."
Mai Van Tri, vice director of the Southeast Fruit Research Institute, advised me to head for the hills.
At my next opportunity, I hit highway 20 and raced north toward Bao Loc, which Tri believed housed the oldest (and tastiest) trees in the country.
Along the road, I stopped and ate delicious breakfasts of durian and coffee at roadside stands. I bought fruits of all shapes and sizes from family farms and tied them to the back of my bike with no clear idea of how I'd manage to eat them all.
The season was over, they all said, so I'd better keep moving north.
I arrived, in Bao Loc, to find a population that had become deeply jaded by their reputation. Few people seemed interested in eating durian and the friendly owner of my guesthouse refused to let me take my generous haul into my room.
"It stinks," he said.
I spent days crossing wooden suspension bridges, sliding down mud roads and needling townfolk to take me to their family orchards.
Most just told me the season was over"”a fact that seemed constantly refuted by branches that hung heavy with spiky fruit.
In the end, I received the tastiest fruit from a husband and wife from Hue, who had settled down into a tiny brick and tin convenience store after losing all six of their children during the war.
They planted a small garden in the back with a single durian tree.
When I told them about my mission, they handed me a perfectly round, grey-green beauty that required two women and a butcher knife to open.
The flesh tasted of something I couldn't begin to describe. A combination of the creamy sweetness I loved so much in Ben Tre and an explosion of familiar flavors"”pineapple, raw Christmas cookie dough and walnuts.
The flavors seemed to bleed together, with no single taste dominating my palate for longer than an instant.
Indeed, it tasted like falling in love.