Hoàng Liên Son mountain range

A day in the life of a rice farmer

On the hand-sculpted terraces of north Vietnam, hunched rice farmers toil in the mud cultivating the food that will feed a nation.

By Adrian Guerin

We’d been hiking for almost 4 days and I’d barely taken a shot. It wasn’t from lack of opportunity, it was because this trip was not about photography, it was about simply being away. It was about being ‘in the moment’. But there’s a strict limit to how long a photographer can spend in Vietnam’s Hoàng Liên Son mountain range before an addict’s instinct will kick in. ‘Just one shot, just one shot’ (of photography that is, not crack). Before you know it, ‘one shot’ has turned into a binge that ends with you knee-deep in mud, covered in blood, sweat and buffalo shit. How did it come to this?

The story of my relapse begins near a small village in northwest Vietnam called Sử Pán. This is a part of the world where nature, scientific knowledge and ancient spiritual beliefs harmoniously interact to produce enough food to feed an entire nation. In Vietnam, almost every meal involves rice. And it’s on the winding terraced fields in the valleys of Muong Hoa that farmers dig, plough, plant and pull to cultivate the rice that is so deeply rooted in the nation’s national psyche.

The picturesque scenes of farmers toiling away in the mountains had been taunting me for days. Each winding valley was to be outdone by the next, until midway through our hike I said, ‘Enough! We need to stop. Either we abandon this hike or I start shooting’ (cameras, not guns). My guide, Phay, was dubious, ‘I don’t think you’ll be able to get down the slope to photograph those farmers. It’s very muddy’. That’s when I took my shoes and socks off and decided to go all ‘intrepid photographer’ on everyone. As I climbed down the mountain, the soundtrack to my life started playing (think ‘Yakety Sax’) and an 80s-style movie montage ensued.

Phay was right, the ‘climb’ down the mountain was more like a slide, a mud slide to be precise. While sliding down the mountain saved time and energy (and was actually quite fun), it meant that I’d not only lost my camera upon arrival, but also my dignity. The camera could be recovered but my dignity was gone; it’s very difficult to stage-manage your public persona when you’re covered in mud and buffalo shit. But the nice thing about being at the bottom – of both the mountain slope and the table of shame – is that you can’t sink any lower.

After a few brief introductions by way of hand-shakes and giggles, the farmers generously granted permission for me to document their work. And while my fragile back was grateful to be photographing the rice – rather than farming it – it must be said that photographing rice farmers hard at work is harder work than you’d think. It’s incredibly awkward balancing on soft, muddy terraces at the best of times. But when you’re frantically fumbling and flailing while searching for the perfect angle; balancing on a muddy terrace is the straw that broke the photographer’s back. Suffice to say, I fell. Thankfully I only suffered minor bruising, albeit to my ego. And while my bruised ego did require treatment, I decided to keep my head in the sand about it all (or, in this case, the mud). That’s when one of the farmers said, ‘Enough with the puns!!’.

The process of digging, ploughing, fertilising and harvesting is one that takes many months.

It was after one of these theatrical falls that I stopped to review the shots. Comparing the spectacular reality of the scene to the stale stills on my camera was a moment of despair. ‘These shots are crap’, I lamented. ‘Why am I so shit?! Also, why am I covered in shit?!’ Cue existential crisis where my ability and decision making are questioned. Amongst the chaos, personal recriminations and self-loathing, I thought it might be an idea to actually stop and pay attention to what was happening – the centuries-old tradition of rice farming – rather than gallivanting around like a clown at a kid’s party. I wiped the shit off my brow, carefully picked the jumping spiders out of my ears, untangled the snakes wrapped around my neck and returned to ‘The Moment’. Camera not included.

It’s just as well I’d conditioned myself to step back, because stepping back to observe really allowed me to appreciate how painstaking it is to uproot and replant hundreds of rice plants in a single afternoon. Phay later informed me the farmers had planted rice seedlings about a month ago and today was all about taking steps to maximise the yield. They do this by uprooting every single rice plant before replanting them 15cm apart. Unfortunately, there is no automated way to do this, meaning each and every plant needs to be redone… by hand. This particular terrace is managed by just 3 farmers, between them they prepare thousands of rice plants each day. As the farmers meticulously prepare each plot, a man is in the terrace below preparing the next terrace with a shovel. They’ll slowly but surely work their way down the terrace until the entire area has been replanted. Around 3 months later the rice is ready to be cut from the top of each plant

After about an hour I bode farewell and trudged back up the mountain. Covered in blood, sweat and yes, once again… buffalo shit, Phay looked at me with dismay. ‘Oh Adrian, what have you done? You’re a disgrace to your people’. ‘Which people?’, I asked. The photographers, the Australians, or… the short people?’. ‘All of them’, he said. The troika of shame, ouch. ‘But you know what, I actually had some perspective out there’. ‘Oh yeah, like what?’, asked Phay (as he put his headphones on). Well, there were several lessons. The first lesson is for the westerners: appreciate every meal you have the privilege of eating, because behind each meal there’s a story. Whether it’s the story of the animal who sacrificed its life for you, or the story of the rice farmers who toil in sweltering heat for 10 hours a day, it’s worth pausing to stop and reflect. Two: don’t take yourself too seriously. And three: a little bit of self-doubt can actually be a good thing. Not only does it keep you humble, it drives you to prove your inner critic wrong. So, to my inner critic who asks what the hell I’m doing covered in mud on a rice paddy in North Vietnam? I’m doing what I love, that’s what.

Thanks to Phay, the farmers, the buffalo and the people of Vietnam for sharing their beautiful country with me. I came back on a high.

While the farmers uproot and replant, a man is in the terrace below preparing the next terrace with a shovel.

Rice farmers take care to ensure there is 15cm between each plant.