Ha Nam's 'royal' banana

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Chuối ngá»±, Ha Nam Province's "˜royal' banana, being sold in a market in neighboring Nam Dinh town

Visitors to the northern province of Ha Nam should not miss the chance to enjoy chuối ngự, a banana variety that grows best in the area.

According to locals, the fruit, whose name means "royal banana," got its name in the 13th century. Legend has it that when a Tran king was on his way to his homeland in a nearby area - now Nam Dinh Province - people in Ha Nam brought their specialties to offer him. A poor farmer couple in Dai Hoang Village only had a bunch of ripe bananas from their garden to offer him. To their pleasant surprise, the king loved the wonderful flavor and taste of the fruit and asked locals to grow more of it. And since then this banana has been called chuối ngá»±, and used to be chosen to make offerings to the sovereign.

Chuối ngự is small and has bright yellow skin and a sweet smell when ripe, and, of course, a wonderfully sweet taste.

Though the fruit can be seen all year round, summer and early autumn are the best times. Visitors to Dai Hoang Village during this period will have a chance to enjoy this specialty and the peaceful, green rural scenery.

"We are very proud that our land is home to this precious banana variety," a local man named Hoang Trong Dung told us when we visited the village.

"Our banana was not only a favorite fruit for the Tran kings but has also found mention in many famous films and novels."

THE VILLAGE

Dai Hoang village is locally known as Vu Dai, since it is the original setting for one of Vietnam's most famous short stories, Chi Pheo. The classic, written by Nam Cao in 1941, is set in Vu Dai, where a poor and lonely man named Chi Pheo is turned into a "monster" by the bullying of corrupt authorities and rich people.

Tourists visiting the village often go to a century-old house, the original dwelling of Ba Kien, the "evil" rich man in the story. The house now belongs to the Ha Nam People's Committee, who bought it for VND700 million (US$33,300) for preservation.

Another attraction for literature lovers is the commemorative site for Nam Cao, where many of his belongings as well as his works are displayed.

Besides the royal banana, ca kho (braised fish) is another specialty of the village. A traditional dish that can be found in almost every corner of the country, the braised fish made in the village is said to have a special taste that lasts five to 10 days without preservatives.

Thanks to this, the Dai Hoang braised fish, better known as the Vu Dai braised fish, is in demand around Vietnam and is even exported to Europe.

 
Dai Hoang braised fish

Taking a tour through the village, we were amazed by the lush banana gardens and fields that run around the vast ponds and lakes.

The alluvial soil nurtured by the Chau Giang River, a branch of the Red River, is believed to infuse the special flavor and taste to chuối ngự.

"We usually grow new crops in spring, and thanks to our rich soil, we do not have to use much fertilizer, just mud from our ponds," Dung said.

"However, ripening bananas is a complicated task that requires experience. Due to their very thin skin, we have to cut the unripe bunches, and ripen them carefully by burning rice husk or incense."

That is why the fields and gardens were still green while the banana markets were full of bright yellow fruits. Apart from being sold in local markets, chuối ngự are also very popular in neighboring provinces like Nam Dinh and Thai Binh.

The demand for the fruit has increased especially during Tet and on the first and 15th of every lunar month.

"People are not only buying chuối ngá»± to put on the altar to offer their ancestors, but also choosing them as a special gift to far-away friends and relatives," Dung said.

Growing stronger

While talking about his village's specialty, Dung said that though their banana had always been treasured, there were times its popularity was low.

"I can remember one time during the 1980s when we had to chop off the trees to create land for rice," Dung remembered. "The trees had nearly disappeared from our fields and gardens.

But now that they are no more threatened by hunger, people grow the banana again, not only to preserve a precious variety but also to earn a stable income.

Since 2001 a project to preserve and develop this banana, funded by the UNDP's Global Environment Facility, has helped expand the fruit-growing area to neighboring villages, turning them into areas specializing in growing chuối ngự.

The royal fruit has been granted an appellation of origin by the Office of Intellectual Property under the name "chuối ngá»± Dai Hoang," and this is expected to take it to places it has never previously been.

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