Where ginseng keeps ethnic minority people in rude financial health

By Dac Thanh   March 20, 2019 | 12:45 am PT
From paying for house construction to everyday needs the Xe Dang people in south-central Vietnam use this medicinal root as cash.

Early in 2019 Ho Van Diu in Quang Nam Province’s Nam Tra My District, five hours south of Da Nang, was busy supervising a group of workers building his three-storey wooden house on an area of nearly 100 square meters.

Diu said it would cost him around VND700 million ($30,345) for the house to have modern amenities, wooden ceilings, granite floors, hot water, etc.

In 1997 he started working at the Ngoc Linh Ginseng and Quang Nam Medicinal Development Center. Years of work there allowed him to learn to grow ginseng, and he began to cultivate the herb himself.

He, his wife and five sons went up the 2,000m Ngoc Linh Mountain and built a home there and planted thousands of ginseng plants under the canopy of the primeval forest.

Twenty years later the government developed transport infrastructure on the mountain, and Diu’s family came down from the mountain and built a house next to the then newly built road.

What makes Diu’s story unusual is that the building contractors agrees to take payment in Ngoc Linh ginseng. The ginseng is grown by the Xe Dang ethnic minority atop the highest mountain in south-central Vietnam for medicinal and commercial purposes.

If the house he is building is around 100 square meters, Diu goes to his ginseng field on the mountain and harvests 5 kg of the root to give the contractor.

"10 Ngoc Linh ginseng type 1, each weighs about one kilogram, and a kilo is worth VND120-150 million  ($5,180 - 6,480)," he explained.

Not only has he built his houses with the ginseng, he has also booked a car with it.

"I deposited money to buy a car in Da Nang for more than VND1 billion ($43,200). I’m waiting for them to send me the car and I’ll pay with 10 kilograms of ginseng," he said.

In Tra Linh Commune, beside Diu’s family, dozens of other Xe Dang households have also upgraded their homes and bought cars with ginseng in recent years.

According to the 2009 census, there were 169,501 ethnic Xe Dang people.

Visitors to Tak Lang village in Tra Linh Commune will be surprised to see how many buildings there are on top of the mountain. Among them is Ho Van Hinh’s, the biggest in the place.

Hinh invested in this construction that has an area of nearly 100 meters for parking space, for a rice milling machine to be placed, a warehouse, a kitchen, a two-storey 100 square-meter and a smaller house equipped with air-conditioned rooms. Below the construction is five-meter embankment to prevent landslides.

Ho Van Hinh’s property. Photo by Dac Thanh.

Ho Van Hinh’s property. Photo by VnExpress/Dac Thanh.

"The cost of my family's house was over VND10 billion ($432,000), with the embankment costing VND2.4 billion ($103,700)."

He paid with 100 kg of ginseng. "The cost of construction in mountainous areas is five to 10 times higher than in lowlands due to the difficulty in transporting materials," Hinh said.

Hinh said: "When we need something in exchange, we go up and pluck old [ginseng]. Before Tet [the Lunar New Year] I swapped more than 10 kg of ginseng for a car."

Ho Van The, chairman of Tra Linh Commune, locals rarely pay in cash whether for building houses or buying everyday items and use ginseng instead.

The said: "In the near future there will a bigger road leading to the village, and there will be a lot more cars and big houses. People often call it billionaire village, which is not wrong after all."

Tak Lang billionaire village is located in the middle of the forest. Photo by Dac Thanh.

Dozens of Xe Dang households have upgraded their homes and bought cars with ginseng in recent years. Photo by  VnExpress/Dac Thanh

According to statistics from the Nam Tra My Social Policy Bank, as of the end of 2018 the ethnic Xe Dang people in Tra Linh Commune had saved nearly VND200 billion ($8.6 million). Many households have savings of VND2-5 billion ($86,000-214,960).

In 2015 the government approved a 15-year national project for Ngoc Linh ginseng that seeks to expand the farming area to 30,000 hectares in seven communes in Nam Tra My District, Quang Nam Province, at a cost of over VND9 trillion ($38.9 million).

In June 2017 Ngoc Linh ginseng became a national product and since has been commonly referred to as Vietnamese ginseng.

Nam Tra My District currently has 1,300 ha of land under the ginseng and more than 1,500 households in seven communes have registered to plant 2,500 ha more, while seven enterprises have registered to plant nearly 300 ha.

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