Lam The Cuong – Mr. Chocolate
“I was the only one that did,” says the now 68-year-old from Can Tho. “All the others cut them down to grow other plants. In 1960 there had been a trend to plant cocoa in the whole country. Farmers here also planted a lot and my family put in 300 trees. After three years they began to bear fruit (beans) but by then the war was heating up so not many people bothered about them or knew their worth. Many farmers cut the trees down to grow other plants, but my father told my sister and I: “Try to make chocolate from them, children.
The family has worked this land for 200 years. Mr Cuong’s patch covers 1.2 hectares and was left by his grandparents. Thanks to obeying his father and his own initiative, he has left his own legacy. “Previously,” he says, “I worked in the fields but after seeing that hard work did not pay, I switched to planting trees and gardening”.
“Remembering what my father had said, I read books about cocoa trees published by the French Tropical Plant Research Institute. Helped by what I learned, my sister and I succeeded in making chocolate from the beans. Since then, whenever it is a family anniversary, we make chocolate to treat our relatives and neighbours. They all say it is delicious and love its distinctive flavour.”
After the war in 1977, the Foreign Trade Department in Can Tho began looking for goods to export and heard about Mr Cuong’s chocolate in Muoi Cuong. “When they sampled it, they asked for advice from Ha Noi,” he says. “A delegation came down immediately so I invited them to drink it. They also said it was delicious and straightaway started making plans to export it. Many people asked why I did not plant more trees and sell more of the product. That made me think and I managed to link up with Can Tho University Agriculture Department to sell trees to farmers. I also bought new ones to plant to keep the whole process going.
“At that time, I was selling my products to people like Bien Hoa Coffee Factory, Vinacafe and Bien Hoa Candy and Biscuit Company, but continued to process cocoa with the family recipe. But now in my old age, I sell only fermented beans. The processing is mainly for tourists”.
The chocolate did not just have the backing of local authorities, it gained fame abroad, too. And in 2012 the initiative was supported by the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA). A grateful Mr. Cuong says: “The Danish ambassador has visited my facility several times and supported projects for the classroom, how to do tours and how to run a homestay business. He gave equipment such as air conditioners, beds and mattresses that enabled us to expand and do homestays”.
“I started with only two rooms but now have four thanks to the European Union who came in to support community tourism in Can Tho. It provided classes and equipment. He also had help from the Tourism Promotion Center and Travel companies but he also used social media as a platform. As interest grew, he says: “The biggest surprise for me was that the best ‘advertising’ was word of mouth. Many tourists said that they knew about the Muoi Cuong homestay because of their friends’ introduction. A number of travel companies brought their guests here and then shared information with other businesses”.
Most of my guests are from overseas. When they come here, they enjoy cooking with families, being introduced to the cocoa garden and learning how to grow and process cocoa. They can also make chocolate directly with me. Each year about 1,000 visitors stay here.
“Although I had to learn about homestays, I have never attended classes or training programs on cultivation techniques. I have been farming since I was young and have acquired my knowledge from experience. The trees in my garden are grown organically - not by using chemical fertilizers.”
The reputation of Muoi Cuong garden is such that it has spread beyond tourists to farmers. And Mr Cuong now trains them on how to grow and process the cocoa themselves. In addition, he lectures students at the Faculty of Applied Biotechnology at Can Tho University.
Many international guests come to see cocoa processing by hand and also listen to him talk them through it. Fluent in French as well as English, he says: “I did not have much difficulty in business. Muoi Cuong homestay is a favourite destination for many travelers, travel agents and city leaders. Accommodation is still limited and sometimes I have to refuse a booking. But I do not want to hire people and prefer that only my wife and I serve the visitors.”
It is the personal touch with the chocolate, too, and that has attracted the “sweet tooths” of the world.