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Charcoal a Binh Thuan mainstay

By Viet Quoc   June 4, 2020 | 02:30 am PT
Tran Minh Tuan produces charcoal for a living, earning around VND10 million ($429) a month to support his family and educate his kids.

They work inside a Ham Duc Commune forest in central Binh Thuan Province off the road leading to the proposed Phan Thiet Airport. Early each morning, Tuan and his three friends use a hoe and shovel to quickly scrape off the top layer of soil in a kiln to reach the hot charcoal beneath, manually collected in an aluminum basin.

Trần Minh Tuấn collects charcoal from the kiln. Photo by VnExpress/Viet Quoc.

Trần Minh Tuấn collects charcoal from the kiln. Photo by VnExpress/Viet Quoc.

Face covered in soot and pointing to a pile of charcoal over a meter high, Tuan says they wake up at 3 a.m. to work. "This is the second kiln. I have to come here early to take advantage of the cool weather. It will be unbearably hot at noon."

Three kilns were built and lit next to each other 10 days ago. Occasionally, the rising wind stokes the embers.

Do Van Thanh, 37, a hired worker, says they make the charcoal manually. In the past, they used to burn wood from the forest, but now use acacia and eucalyptus.

The local sandy soil is suitable for the cultivation of both, allowing for thousands of acacia and eucalyptus plantations to spring up in the past 20 years. Mature trees are harvested with their owners taking only the trunks. Tuan's group usually acquires the discarded branch wood to produce charcoal.

 Acacia and eucalyptus wood from local plantations is readied for burning. Photo by VnExpress/Viet Quoc.

Acacia and eucalyptus wood from local plantations is readied for burning. Photo by VnExpress/Viet Quoc.

The group hires a tractor to carry the wood to a clearing. A pit 2.2 m deep is dug to make the kilns. The hole widens as it goes down.

"If you make the kiln rectangular, it will take up too much wood," Thanh explains. "Wood burns slower at the bottom if it is wider."

After digging the pit, they chop and place the wood into neat blocks and cover it with a 25 cm thick layer of dry cajuput leaves. They then fill the pit with soil. When the furnace is finished, they dig holes in the front and back for ventilation.

After lighting the fire, Tuan uses a bunch of leaves to fan it for 15 minutes. Tuan says the direction of the holes depends on the season. "This is based on experience gained over generations. The wind comes in and the wood burns evenly."

In around 10 days the wood slowly transforms into charcoal.

A kiln produces around 600 kilograms of charcoal. Photo by VnExpress/Viet Quoc.

A kiln produces around 600 kilograms of charcoal. Photo by VnExpress/Viet Quoc.

On average, a kiln produces 600 kg of charcoal. Over a month, four people work together to produce over 10 batches totaling 6,000 kg.

Charcoal now costs VND7,000 ($0.3) per kilogram. Thus, they earn a profit of VND40 million ($1,720) a month, divided equally among the four.

"Producing charcoal is very demanding, but the income is enough to support our families and children's education," Tuan says.

In his neighborhood, over a dozen people utilize the same traditional coal-making method. "The word ‘lam than’ (miserable) is a play on ‘than,’ referring to the hardships of producing coal," Thanh, carrying heavy bags of charcoal and waiting for buyers, says.

"The work is difficult but I am used to it. I will keep producing charcoal until I grow too old."

 
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