A group of men neatly wrapped themselves in three layers of clothing in the middle of a summer night in July, quietly chatting. They each had a cup of hot tea.
|Members of the Tra Linh Medicinal Herbs Station on Ngoc Linh peak, Quang Nam Province take care of the Ngoc Linh ginseng grown there. — Photo tuoitre.vn|
The men were awaiting their turn at guard-duty over the treasured garden of ginseng on the top of Ngoc Linh mountain in Quang Nam Province. The garden, covering about 50ha, contains up to 250,000 top-quality ginseng seedlings.
The guards were among 15 members of the Tra Linh Medicinal Herbs Station – a part of the provincial Quang Nam Centre on Developing Ngoc Linh Ginseng and Medicinal Herbs – located some 1,800m above sea level. Their sole job was to take care of the ginseng garden – the only national supply of ginseng seedlings besides one other garden in the Central Highlands province of Kon Tum.
The seedlings are distributed to various businesses and ginseng farmers in Vietnam – many of the Xe Dang ethnic minority, who appreciated the valuable roots as a way to lift them out of poverty.
All of the station’s members were men and did everything, from preparing the soil and sowing the seeds to carefully tending the baby plants. They also took turns watching over the garden to prevent theft – not only by humans who drooled over the highly-valued ginseng but also mice who unexpectedly had a taste for ginseng.
“We are in the middle of a new ginseng season so we are very busy now,” 37-year-old Tran Xuan Huan, deputy chief of the Tra Linh Medicinal Herbs Station told Tuổi Trẻ (Youth) newspaper.
Huan is a member of the Xe Dang ethnic minority in Quang Nam and has worked at the ginseng garden for the last 13 years.
Everything at the garden started from scratch, he said, remembering his first days on Ngoc Linh mountain in 2006. There were no roads to the station, and he normally spent hours climbing the mountain on foot from his house.
“We called it a ‘station’ but actually it was then just a little shack in the middle of the forest. Without electricity, we struggled every night to fight the bone-chilling cold,” Huan said.
His first assignment was to make sure not a single ginseng was lost – either to theft or rodents – with a monthly salary ranging between VND200,000 and VND300,000 (US$8-13).
“I stayed at the garden all day so living in the forest was normal. Because of my duties, I rarely had time to come home, maybe just once a month,” Huan said.
Ho Van Dem is the most senior employee at the ginseng garden with 26 years of experience. The station became his second home which he loved dearly.
“It was extremely hard in the old days. There were nights of patrol when we were so tired and slept on the ground in the forest. Sudden rain woke us up cold and wet and we had to look for shelter,” he said.
Without love for the forest and ginseng, no one could have held on for long, Dem said.
Ngoc Linh ginseng is considered to be the best ginseng in Vietnam, and arguably among the best in the world in terms of the number of ginsenosides, also known as ginseng saponins, found in their roots. Scientists discovered that Ngoc Linh ginseng roots contain up to 52 ginsenosides substances of which 24 were unprecedented in any other types of ginseng in the world, including the famous Korean one.
The ginseng saponins were the active ingredient in ginseng and were scientifically proven to exhibit anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and anti-apoptotic mechanisms as well as have various effects on the immune system and the nervous system.
Ngoc Linh ginseng was widely used by ethnic minorities in central Vietnam, particularly the Xe Dang people, as traditional medicine long before separate researches scientifically recognised the effectiveness of the ginseng.
Authentic Ngoc Linh ginseng is currently sold for around VND80 million ($3,400) per kilo and might reach hundreds of millions for ginseng roots of best quality, said the Quang Nam Centre on Developing Ngoc Linh Ginseng and Medicinal Herbs director Tran Ut.
The Tra Linh station’s garden was tightly guarded 24/7 and the burden on the station members was tremendous. The mountain chill that could plummet to just 5-6 degrees Celsius and the loneliness of living far from home were not attractive sides of a job that an ordinary person would willingly choose.
But those men at the Tra Linh station did, for generations.
29-year-old Ho Van Chinh used to go to the ginseng garden to visit his father who worked there in the 80s. Going back and forth to the garden for years, he unwittingly fell in love with the ginseng, he said.
After his father’s retirement, Chinh decided to apply for the job and has now worked at the garden for nine years.
“We will feel so guilty to the provincial leaders and the residents if any ginseng is lost. This garden is the supply of seedlings for the Xe Dang folks to help them get out of prolonged poverty,” he said.
“Protecting the ginseng garden is not simply a job or a responsibility but also my passion and love.” VNS