Salt of the earth in Hoi Khoi, Nha Trang

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Just 30 km from the excessively touristy resort town of Nha Trang, and right next to Doc Let beach, also a very popular attraction, lie the salt making fields of Hon Khoi. The industry of natural salt production is one traditional craft that is still thriving, modernization affecting the tools and to some extent – the method, but not the essence, or the market demands. Large factories have taken over the central part of Hon Khoi, but even they employ local workers for the manual collection of salt from the earthen evaporation ponds. All around, smaller fields are used by local co-operatives, and there the work is carried out much as it used to be centuries ago – by local women, using baskets suspended from shoulder poles. Still, stagnant salt ponds reflect the surrounding hills like perfect mirrors, white crystals of the ready product glitter under the rising sun, creating the subject for those famous shots, that photographic cliché of Vietnam. Perhaps of limited interest to holidaymakers, a visit to the salt fields of Hon Khoi is a must for a travel photographer.

© Mark Levitin

Hard work

Like any manual labor, the production of salt involves a lot of hard work. Evaporation ponds are dug in the soft soil and lined with sheets of plastic to prevent it from absorbing the water. Water is taken from the nearby liman, where salinity is higher than in the sea. It takes 10 to 15 days for most of the liquid to evaporate, leaving a thick layer of white crystallized salt on the bottom. Workers wearing rubber boots and gloves, to protect them from the corrosive brine, then begin to rake this residue with wooden tools, similar to perpendicular shovels, forming rows of shining white mounds. Those are left to dry for a day or so, and then the collection begins: the salt is shoveled into baskets, taken out of the pond, and piled up to be eventually packed and taken away by the co-operative. A loaded basket weighs about 10 kg, more if the salt is still wet. Workers take two at a time and transport them on a shoulder pole. One peculiarity of Hon Khoi is that while the raking is mostly done by men, the collectors are all middle-aged women - apparently, they took up this craft when the villages in the area relied on fishing for sustenance, and their husbands were out at sea for days.

© Mark Levitin

Visiting the salt fields

While not intended as a tourist attraction, the salt fields in Hon Khoi draw a steady stream of travelers, mostly with a keen interest in photography. A few agencies in Nha Trang run photographic tours, but it is just as easy to visit Hon Khoi independently. Bus No. 3 runs to Doc Let from Nha Trang and passes by some of the fields. However, most of the manual production is carried out around sunrise to avoid the midday heat. This makes it more practical to stay in Doc Let, which has a number of simple guesthouses and one posh resort, all within walking distance from the fields. A very lovely beach and traditional fishing villages will be an added bonus. The workers are friendly and will likely let you mingle with them in the small, semi-private ponds. In the large factory fields, the guards might force you to stay on the earthen dikes between the ponds, but those usually provide the best vantage point anyway.

© Mark Levitin

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