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The Ephemeral Grace of Trái Vải

Is scarcity a source of beauty?

Mountain plum, mango, papaya, pineapple, durian, dragon fruit, cherry, langsat and custard apple — certainly the market's treasures are more valuable for their inability to be hoarded. Is vải, or lychee, not the perfect example of this? Available for a few brief weeks on the cusp of summer, the aromatic fruit arrives like a whale breaching the surface for air before descending back into the impenetrable depths.

Gold, diamonds, Picasso paintings and first-edition comic books all owe some of their value to their scarcity. Are vải thiều any different? Do we hunger for them solely because of their sweet, rose-grape-pear-perfume flavor or does the fact that we can only buy them in abundance for such a short time make us crave them more?

Does the fact that we can only buy them in abundance for such a short time make us crave them more?

If you asked Yang Guifei (Dương Quý Phi), one of China’s infamous four beauties, perhaps their value is even more profound, and receiving them is a tangible profession of love and devotion. Back in 8th-century China, treacherous rebels were amassing support in the outskirts while licentious interlopers lounged in teahouses and corruption lurked in every alleyway and courtyard in the capital. The Tang Empire’s unparalleled prosperity could have continued for centuries but Emperor Xuanzong allowed it to crumble all thanks to Guifei’s love of vải.

One might think Emperor Xuanzong had already revealed the depth of his feelings, as she was originally his son’s wife before he fell for her and gave his son a new wife in exchange. Rather than attend to his court duties or matters of diplomacy, Xuanzong worried only about lavishing her with gifts and attention to satisfy her fickle preferences. If lychees could make her smile, he would do whatever it took to provide her with fresh ones every day, even if that meant establishing a pony express spanning the length of the kingdom.

Fun Fact

Xuanzong established a system where a relay of perpetually sprinting horses raced the vải thiều across the nation so they would arrive fresh.

An ancient Chinese text claims that within one day of being picked, vải’s color rapidly diminishes, its fragrance disappears on the second, the flavor on the third and after that, it hardly retains any of its original virtue. This presented a problem for Xuanzong and his daughter-in-law/bride because they resided in the Eastern capital of Chang-an while the fruits grew in Sichuan, more than 700 kilometers away. To conquer such a distance, Xuanzong established a system where a relay of perpetually sprinting horses raced the vải thiều across the nation so they would arrive fresh.

Rather than create this lychee transfer route, Xuanzong should probably have been keeping a closer eye on Guifei’s relatives who were gathering power and ultimately sewing the discord that would topple the dynasty and necessitate Guifei’s execution. Nevertheless, his devotion is remembered and exemplified by the lychee road, so much so that it was immortalized in one of the country’s most famous poems 'Passing Huaqing Palace' by Du Mu:

Viewed from Chang’an, Mount Li seemed a piece of embroidery;
Countless gates opened one after another on a hilltop.
At a horse raising red dust the imperial concubine smiled;
No one knew it was for the lychees it had brought.

While such imperial expenditures are no longer needed to secure fresh lychees today, the three-thousand-year-old fruit native to northern Vietnam and southern China is still a marvel of transportation. Nearly all of the 200,000 metric tons grown in Vietnam every year come from orchards in Bac Giang and Hai Duong provinces, home to the spectacularly sweet lychee cultivar vải thiều. During the notoriously short growing season, 60% of the harvest stays within the country’s borders and it will travel a dizzying voyage from grove to warehouse to truck to wholesale market to the bicycle basket of vendors stationed at intersections. And yet, such a journey pales in comparison to the way the taste of vải thiều instantaneously travels from flesh to tastebud to nerve to brain cells.

Vải rely on Spring’s drastic shift from cold to warm to ripen

My own wait for vải was far longer than Guifei’s. When I received my driver’s license at age 16, one of the first places I traveled was the nearest Asian grocery store, the only place to find the fruit in my area at the time. However, Because vải rely on Spring’s drastic shift from cold to warm to ripen, they were too fragile and thus expensive for their pure form to have reached the midwest American city where I grew up in the late 1990s. But I was elated to find the next best thing: canned lychees. 

Thanks to the 19th-century invention of canning, preserved lychees slowly made their way across the world, often used for cocktails or to garnish desserts. I remember staring at the can on the seat next to me as I drove home, wondering exactly how they might taste, my tongue quivering with the possibilities; imagining a new taste is as impossible as trying to picture a color that you’ve never seen.

Upon opening the can, I laid eyes on the fruits bobbing in a thick, sugary liquid which they had been absorbing for who knows how long. I’d had enough canned peaches, pears and cranberries to know I was not about to taste anything like the fresh version. But in the same way people hang up prints of famous paintings they could never purchase the originals of, I savored it nonetheless. 

I’ve always loved food that I’ve never had before the most in the moments before I taste it for the first time. Once I’ve taken that bite, the mystery is gone, one less unknown remains in the world, and existence is ever-so-slightly less interesting. So it was with trái vải

Since moving to Asia, vải thiều has become one of my favorite fruits. I eat it frequently, but it will never hold the same mystery it once did. Its short season, however, offers a sliver of the anticipation that accompanied that first bite twenty years ago. After nearly a year without it, I can almost trick myself into thinking I don’t know what it tastes like. Thus, I wait for its annual arrival like Guifei standing out on her balcony, straining for the sound of horse hooves in the distance. Kingdoms will not collapse due to my hunger for vải, but eating them allows me to convince myself, for a few precious seconds, that I am royalty spoiled with a rare treasure.

Graphics by Jessie Tran, Hazel Phan, Patty Yang, and Hannah Hoang.