From Bali to Cha Pa, how farmers can promote their rice beyond the staple food

Rice yields provide livelihood to millions of individuals in both countries. In Vietnam, rice exports equaled US$1.43 billion in the first quarter of 2024, while exports to Indonesia reached nearly half a million tons of rice, with an average price of $640 per ton.

This year, Vietnam hopes to increase rice production to 43 million tons, while 20% of it will be exported. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, rice production has recently declined and harvests have been further delayed due to water shortages caused by the El Niño event. Rice production in Indonesia in 2023 is expected to be around 30.9 million metric tons, significantly lower than the expected yield in Vietnam this year.

Farmers in Indonesia, especially in tourist areas such as Tekallalang in Ubud and Sesantan in Tabanan, have found alternative methods to monetize their crops beyond the conventional methods of selling for consumption.

One of the world’s leading tourist destinations, Bali creates a very different experience for tourists visiting the rice terraces. There are endless delights, including huge cafes with balconies perched over the green sea, giant rope swings that send customers skyward above rice fields, and western and local cuisine available to tourists.

Driving north to Ubud, Bali’s popular destination that welcomes millions of tourists every year, you’ll see „Free Parking for Rice Terraces” signs on the road for several kilometers. The tourism has fostered a unique market to profit from visitors with farmers and vendors selling refreshments to adults, opportunities to pose as a local farmer with woven hats and high-adrenaline activities such as zip-lining.

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If you decide not to indulge in any of these activities, you can take a short 30-minute walk on the terrace to a rice field in Bali, especially the most popular part of Tekalalong. The whole experience feels very artificial and forced, with very little sense of wonder as you are surrounded by tourists with little local life around you. Unfortunately, it also feels gimmicky.

In Vietnam, there is an immense and endless feeling when visiting the rice fields. Green or golden rice covers a part as far as the eye can see, with a strong feeling that you are completely cut off from contemporary society. These areas are incredible opportunities to see local life and interact with locals who are just as curious as you about each other’s daily lives.

Farmers in a terraced rice field in Cha Ba, July 2023. Photographed by Nguyen Van Ngo

Places like Mu Kung Sai and Cha Ba in Ha Giang have a markedly different experience from Bali, where you can hike with ethnic minorities and explore remote villages. Tourists in Vietnam can stay in local homestays as long as they like the interesting aspects of their daily life, without the feeling of forced tourism and ultimately for profit.

Some regions in northern Vietnam, such as Ha Giang, Lao Cai and other neighboring provinces, are among the poorest in the country. Local farmers and residents of remote villages will want to reap the financial benefits of the relentless monetization of photo opportunities and the brief, highly profitable visits of tourists. I am not suggesting what is right or wrong for the citizens living there.

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From a visitor’s point of view, my fondest memories of the country were the time spent visiting the rice fields in Vietnam. Whenever visiting similar places around the world, it definitely leaves a bad feeling, usually small in size and lack of real connection and engagement with the people living in these beautiful parts of the world compared to the rich experience available. Vietnam.

*Darren Barnard is an editor in Hanoi.

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