On the Gac Trail in Vietnam

The Gac is a unique Vietnamese fruit known for its rich vitamin content.

| Summer 2014

It is 6:30 a.m., and my dad wakes me up with his classic, “Start waking up, honey.” We are in Hanoi, Vietnam, having arrived only the night before from Amsterdam, Holland. I have terrible jet lag, but even though it is only daybreak, my dad has already organized a driver with a car and a Vietnamese English-speaking translator and is ready to head out of the big city. 

In communist Vietnam, it is still impossible for tourists to rent their own cars so the only option is to hire a driver — something my father loathes, because he usually finds himself educating the driver to understand a whole new set of objectives. It is always a stitch to watch him gesticulating for the driver to stop (this happens when dad sees something along the side of the road, on a cliff, or in a market stall). The driver, of course, is oblivious; but through a series of jerks and stops he starts to understand the whims of his newest passengers.

It's 7 a.m. and we are set to go — hoping, of course, that our translator, just arrived, really speaks English! We leave the cacophonic city and our plan is to travel a few hundred miles to the northern-most region of Vietnam. Our expedition is focused on finding the incredibly bizarre Gac fruit (Momordica cochichinensis). Our destination is SaPà, a town in a region that is famous for its lush green rice paddies that are carved intricately into each surrounding mountain, having been planted for at least hundreds of years.

Poisonous Roots

The journey to this realm has been full of its surprises — from dirty sheets in the hotel rooms, to the fascinating fruit, vegetables, and plants that we found along the roadside or in little villages.

One of the more interesting encounters we had was with an old medicine lady who had an eclectic collection of what she called “medicinal plants” — an assorted and sundry presentation of roots, twigs, bark and powders. One of the roots caught my dad’s eye. “What is this?” The lady ignored him. My dad asked a passerby, “What is this?" The man replied, “We use that in chicken soup.” My dad’s look was dubious, “I don’t believe him, Alicia. This root looks familiar, but not for food!” My dad mumbled that he would never try an unknown root without better proof.

Later that evening, after having bought almost the entire selection of the old lady’s “medicinal plants,“ my dad says he has identified the root: “Aconite sinensis, that’s what this is. And guess what, Alicia? It is deadly!” Turns out that the “chicken soup root” is used in Northern Vietnam by traditional fighters in order for them to take the pain of hand-to-hand combat. The prescribed method of application is to rub the cut root on your arms and legs and other areas. The root sap numbs you, so you don’t experience the pain of being pummeled. If used indiscriminately it can cause death. But, stranger than fiction, it is also used to make porridge — the aforementioned “chicken soup.” The local name is hard to translate but phonetically looks something like this: “AyyuuTa-Csu.” Good thing Dad is an old pro at finding out which plants are edible! This deadly one is edible — but only with the right processing.

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