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Thanh Long: How Dragon Fruit Proves Beauty Is Only Skin-Deep

Of all my accomplishments in life, my greatest may be the creation of The Banana Line. This is a ranking tool, based on the belief that if all fruits were lined up from worst to best, taking into account taste, availability, price, consistency, portability, ease of consumption, versatility, etc., the banana would represent the exact middle; the precise median. The dragon fruit (thanh long) falls well, well below the banana line.

Editor's note: This article includes the writer's personal opinions and does not reflect Saigoneer's view. We're deeply sorry about Paul's incendiary food takes.

Growing up in America, I didn’t encounter dragon fruit until my early 20s when I traveled to Southeast Asia for the first time. The bright pink orb with graceful, flame-like tendrils appeared to be straight out of a video game. When split, the searingly white flesh festooned with black seeds would surely serve as some sort of real-life power-up, potion or immunity elixir, right?

Wrong! Dragon fruits are aggressively bland with a flavor that can be accurately likened to walking the wrong way on an escalator in an empty shopping mall. They offer a non-existent aroma and their taste is akin to a lullaby whispered beneath a jet engine, so considering its stunning appearance, dragon fruit may be the most disappointing fruit to ever grace a market stall.

Dragon fruits are aggressively bland with a flavor that can be accurately likened to walking the wrong way on an escalator in an empty shopping mall.

To the surprise of many here, myself included, dragon fruit is not native to Vietnam. It instead originated in South or Central America where it is called pitaya. The French brought it to their colonies at some point, perhaps as ornamental plants for the homes of kings or the wealthy. The fruit’s resemblance to a dragon’s scaly, fiery skin resulted in both its English and Vietnamese names with the latter involving the Sino-Vietnamese term for dragon. And since it was introduced widely to English-speaking countries relatively recently, crafty marketers concocted the story that before a dragon is vanquished, it spits out a final ball of flames in which the dragon fruit is contained.

Despite its actual origin, dragon fruit, a species of cactus, seems designed to thrive in Vietnam’s southern provinces thanks to its propensity to grow in hot, moderately dry climates. Bình Thuận, in particular, grows approximately three-quarters of the nation’s dragon fruit, though one will notice it elsewhere, particularly if flying into Saigon at night when the eerie pink lights of dragon fruit farms resemble an extraterrestrial outpost. The waxy, tangling vines rely on nocturnal pollinators such as bats, moths and bees; they feed in dragon fruit flowers which bloom at night. If maintained carefully, they can produce numerous harvests per year. They are easy to cultivate as pieces of broken stems can grow into new plants, so in the right conditions, they grow so well that they escape their designated areas and become weeds.

Dragon fruit is not native to Vietnam. It instead originated in South or Central America where it is called pitaya.

As Vietnam’s economy improved in the 1980s, farmers and co-ops began to pay more attention to the fruit, experimenting with cultivation and fertilizing methods. In the early 1990s, one researcher claims that a single kilogram cost VND80,000, enough to buy a bicycle back then. Times have changed, however, and a kilogram of dragon fruit is routinely one of the cheapest fruits available in markets and grocery stores in the country.

In recent years, witnessing the great domestic and foreign demand for dragon fruit, coupled with the ease of cultivation, farmers throughout the country have begun producing it. On a recent trip to Hà Giang, for example, I was startled to see it on roadside vendor stalls and growing wildly amongst the stone walls of a H'Mông village. Locals explained to me that it was introduced into the area about 10 years ago. And while readily available in stores throughout the country, the somewhat sweeter red-flesh variety is cultivated primarily in southern regions, though it makes up only 10% of Vietnam's dragon fruit output. Researchers are also investing more in the yellow-flesh variety which is more common to producers in South and Central America.

Vietnam is now the world’s top dragon fruit producer with more than 1.4 million tons brought to market each year. From 15 to 20% of fruits remain here while the rest are sent abroad as an increasingly important part of Vietnam’s ambitious fruit export plans. And as Vietnam works to establish better name recognition for agricultural products, ranging from coffee to shrimp to rice, to increase value, the dragon fruit represents an important case study for how foreign markets can be made to associate Vietnam with safe and high-quality goods.

Photo by Alberto Prieto.

Vietnam is now the world’s top dragon fruit producer with more than 1.4 million tons brought to market each year.

Vietnam exports the fruit to more than forty nations with an emphasis on diversifying their markets, but China consumes approximately 70% of dragon fruit leaving Vietnam's borders. A friend from Bình Thuận Province explained to me the dragon fruit farms near her home hire laborers to bend back the "petals" on the fruit every day so that they grow in a way that Chinese shoppers consider an aesthetically pleasing homage to dragons. She also notes that dragon fruit farmers don’t actually eat from their own harvests because they know about the extensive use of chemicals and pesticides required to grow them.

The heavy reliance on Chinese markets had a catastrophic impact on the dragon fruit industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. As many will remember, when China shut down its borders, tons of crops began to rot in fields, warehouses and shipping containers. Citizens began buying as much dragon fruit as they could consume, and local bakeries and restaurants pitched in as well, with hundreds of pounds of the fruit replacing water in various recipes. When I look back on the whole COVID-19 period, perhaps I will most remember KFC chicken placed between two fluorescent pink buns. Practically all the nearly-neon bánh mì, hamburger buns and rolls have long since disappeared from menus, but for a moment it was a feel-good story reflecting creative and resolute communities. But don’t give dragon fruit any credit here, the fact that it could be added to so many different foods without changing the taste at all underscores what a worthless fruit it is in the first place.

In 2011, America heralded dragon fruit as “A fruit with a future,” as it began to appear in drinks and supplements as a “superfruit,” as well as on promotions for high-end cocktails with pricy celebrity endorsements. Recent discussions with family back in the US reveal that it is still seen as a “trendy fruit” that makes unnecessary appearances in beverages ranging from health smoothies and teas to overpriced mixed drinks. But unlike in Vietnam, where I would say its low price is somewhat in-line with its value, people in America are splashing out upwards of US$10 for a single dragon fruit. Madness!

Farmers around the world are rushing to take advantage of dragon fruit’s cachet and high prices. For example, it is grown in places like Kenya where, until 2010, all dragon fruit would have been imported. The attractive profits that the fruit would bring have enticed farmers to scoff laws on importing non-native species without permission and illegally bring in dragon fruit seeds for local cultivation. Such expansion, however, comes at a cost. Already volatile harvests and market prices can result in over-production. For example, this year, America is experiencing a dragon fruit surplus combined with inflation amongst growers who are now watching their investments rot in unsold piles on roadsides.

Photos by Alberto Prieto.

Farmers around the world are rushing to take advantage of dragon fruit’s cachet and high prices.

But back to the banana line. Surely my placing it as a low-tier fruit will offend some, but let me assure you that I’ve given dragon fruit many opportunities to change my mind. I even purchased one to eat while writing this article and for the past year, out of a contrarian urge to get the least value for my client-funded visits, I’ve heaped dragon fruit on my plate at every expensive buffet I’ve attended. Dragon fruit has not risen a single notch on the line.

Yes, dragon fruit is thirst-quenching, but so is a glass of water. And sure, it has a few decent stories to tell and exemplifies some interesting modern-day trends; the pink bread is a decent anecdote too. But what fruit doesn’t have those traits — after all, that's the philosophy behind this entire series, isn't it? At the end of the day, I want my fruit to have a taste that grabs me by the taste buds and brass-knuckles my brain in its pleasure sensors, not one akin to a guest whose party attendance you only learn about when photos surface a few days later and you see them lurking in the background behind a potted plant. I’d forgive dragon fruit for its blandness and deem it no different from mãng cầu, đu đủ or khế, if it didn’t look so damn magical. Because of that, dragon fruit is unique in that it makes a better pattern for a nightclub mood board, a design theme for a football team's alternate jersey, or a rare item to be scoured for in a video game than it does a tasty snack. That’s worth something, but not enough to place it above the banana line.

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