You might not be able to book a flight to Vietnam this year, but you can travel there on the taste of these chocolate bars.
Vacationing in Southeast Asia calls to mind images of fresh coconuts on sunny beaches or motorbikes winding around mountainous plateaus, not necessarily chocolate factories. So you might not have guessed that Vietnam is the home of multiple award-winning cacao origins and chocolate makers.
For ten years now, Marou Chocolate has been working their Willy Wonka magic in Vietnam. In fact, if you look closer at those coconut groves in the Mekong Delta and the mountain plateaus of Dak Lak, you might just see the cacao trees that provide Marou’s raw materials. The six brightly coloured dark chocolate bars in Marou’s collection each contain cacao from a different province of Vietnam, from the coast to the highlands, each with its own flavour profile.
In the Mekong River Delta, narrow boats glide along the many canals, converging at floating markets where you can buy a dizzying array of tropical fruits, cooked meals, and handicrafts woven from palm leaves. The delta’s rich soil makes this region the center of fruit production – trucks and scooters overflow with rambutan, mango, guavas and dragon fruit. And of course, there are cacao fruit trees. The small farmers of Tien Giang, who grow and ferment cacao, have been honing their craft for over 30 years. The resulting cacao has an amazingly complex flavour of spices, honey and dried fruit, even before it’s made into chocolate bars. A Marou farmer from this province was awarded Cocoa of Excellence in 2019, placing him in the world’s top 50 cocoa producers.
Continuing in the Mekong Delta, the province of Ben Tre is famous for coconuts. Huge stacks of coconuts lie along the highway, waiting to be brought to the city or turned into coconut candy or dried coconut milk. Cacao trees grow in the shade of coconuts, giving farmers the benefits of both crops. Given the visual cues, it might come as no surprise that chocolate made with cacao from Ben Tre tastes intensely nutty and spicy, almost as if it contained some coconut.
Travelling east, you reach the province of Ba Ria, a popular beach retreat from the city of Ho Chi Minh. Bumping along the dusty and sunny back roads before reaching the beach, keep your eyes open for cacao farms. Here the climate is drier, although storms can still roll in off the ocean at a moment’s notice. Cacao farmers here have adapted to the unique conditions with a quick-drying process that gives the cacao beans a juicy red fruit flavour.
Turning away from the coast and heading north into the interior of Vietnam, you first reach the province of Dong Nai. Along the road, vast stretches of rubber trees flash by, bare trunks that are poor habitat for native wildlife. But after crossing the Dong Nai river, you near Cat Tien National Park, a green oasis of native trees and animals, including endangered primates. Some towns nearby are home to ethnic minority groups who once lived nomadically in the forest. Farmers outside the national park have planted various crops in agroforestry, mixing cacao with jackfruit, coffee and black pepper. Chocolate made with this cacao has warm flavours of cream, malt, and stone fruits.
Beyond lies the province of Lam Dong, famous as one of the few regions growing Arabica coffee. Vietnam is the second largest coffee producing country in the world, but most of it is the low-quality Robusta variety. The Arabica coffee of Lam Dong has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, with new Vietnamese coffee roasters focused on producing high-quality coffee that celebrates its origin. It’s a perfect mirror to how the pursuit of fine quality cacao has led to higher prices for Vietnamese farmers. The flavour of cacao from Lam Dong doesn’t disappoint either, producing chocolate with rich flavours of balsamic, bread, and raisins.
Finally, reaching the Central Highlands plateau of Vietnam, a good 8-hour drive from the city of HCM, you are in Dak Lak Province. This region is cooler, especially at night. The names of towns and the province itself are from the language of the E De people. These indigenous people practiced a matriarchal society, living in communal longhouses. Their architecture and food influences can be felt throughout the Central Highlands. At 500 meters above sea level, the plateau’s cool weather creates unique conditions for cacao production, resulting in a chocolate that is incredibly smooth and buttery, with subtle flavours of green pea and the nuttiness of mushrooms.
Vietnam surprises first-time travellers with how many different landscapes, ethnic groups, and food traditions one small country contains. For the chocolate explorer, it will surprise you with the number of different flavours of chocolate you can find.
Sonia Gregor is a writer and consultant in the craft chocolate industry, with over four years working at cacao origins in Asia and Latin America.