On the banks of the Mekong River.

If you (unlike me) are a big lover of frog legs, this is gonna be your favorite post ever. In the event that you (unlike me) are an eel sushi aficianado, you’ll probably think I should be Freshly Pressed. But if you just like stories about people succeeding against all odds, you’re also in luck. Because this is the tale of people with virtually no land, living by the mighty Mekong, and making their way with a lot of clever ingenuity and a little help from their friends at Heifer.

Not much land to farm here.

Ms. Vo Thi Kim Hoang is 39 years old and lives in Phuoc Loc in the heart of Vietnam’s 15,000 square mile Mekong Delta. Her tidy little house lies on a canal and she is using every square inch of her small back yard and water frontage to maximum advantage.

Ms. Vo Thi Kim Hoang: Frog Whisperer & Eel Queen.

In the canal, she’s raising 2,000 frogs (and tadpoles) in cages she and her husband built.

That’s a whole posse of frogs!

Kim started her enterprise with a $100 revolving loan she got from Heifer (and has paid back). She spent $150 on commercial feed to promote her frogs’ growth, and just sold 1,000 frogs for $250 (that’s just half her crop; she’s fattening up the others for larger profit), and she intends to double her production this year.

Ribbit, ribbit.

That includes selling tadpoles at $50 for 1,000 tadpoles –about the output of one couple’s eggs. Kim is really good at mating her frogs (they have a special “love room”) and 5 days after mating, the eggs hatch and the tadpoles develop. In three weeks, they’ll become baby frogs and four months later, they’re ready for… you know what.

If you’re going to mate frogs, you better be able to tell the boys from the girls.

There’s an almost limitless appetite in Vietnam for frogs’ legs so Kim has no problem selling her frogs to a food aggregator for the supermarkets. The same goes for eels, a big delicacy in this fish-loving land. But eels are a bit more demanding to raise than frogs.

The whole back yard is devoted to eels (and one heifer).

First, she and her husband built four big plastic-lined tanks in their backyard (at @$20 each). They paid $300 for 120 kilos of eel fingerlings (about 3,000), but they don’t need to buy commercial food because Kim feeds her eels snails, which the eels love.

Yep, those are the ones!

Snail eggs… eecchhh!

Snails grow wild in all the rice fields, and they’re a huge pest for the farmers, ravishing the tender rice plants. So every dawn and dusk, Kim does her farmer friends a favor and goes out to the fields and collects about 45 pounds of snails, scoops out their flesh, chops it up and feeds it to her eels. In six months, her 3,000 eels will weigh between ¼  to ½ kilo each, that she can sell for $5/kilo directly to the supermarket, netting her about $3,000. Now that will be a big slimy day!

Kim’s healthy crop of eels.

I love how the river people in Vietnam use absolutely every inch of their property to prosper– and grab every opportunity with both hands. Not only has the $100/family Heifer revolving fund allowed people in the Self-Help Group to start new enterprises and invest in themselves, each participant also receives 52 Heifer trainings in how to feed, shelter and breed their animals (or fish or amphibians)– and local representatives are also sent to other villages to learn their best techniques and good ideas.

Future eel farmer of Vietnam….

When you consider how quickly someone who’s raised themselves from poverty can sink back into it – with a crop failure, crash in meat prices, epidemic or natural disaster (this is flood country)—the logic of diversification deftly practiced by these river people of Vietnam is irrefutable.

Despite my fear of eels (of course they dropped one right on my foot, causing me to do the girly scream and 6-foot vertical leap), even I can see the beauty here. For one thing, what’s not to like about an animal that starts out female, lays eggs, then becomes a male (and has to raise the children)??

An eel and a snake met in a bowl….

Reely cool, right?

Categories: Animals, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Travel, Vietnam, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 29 Comments

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29 thoughts on “On the banks of the Mekong River.

  1. Another wonderful account of Heifer’s good work in Vietnam and your brilliant storytelling, Betty!

  2. I’m not a fan of frog legs or eel either, but what a booming business Heifer is helping this farmer develep! I have to admit, however, that the FUTURE eel farmer is the cutest! What a sweetie. Blessings to Heifer and efforts in the Mekong.

    • Isn’t he CUTE? His dad came across a one=board bridge with this little guy in his arms and a big cigarette cleched between his teeth and I just adored him. The entire village is totally built around the water, and everything and everyone revolves around the river –and the water provides — so fascinating a way of life!! Thanks for the comment, K!!!

  3. Reely, REELY cool Betty! Such an interesting post and great pics. And I love eel and frog’s legs too.

    • I’m so glad you do like eels and frogs legs, Rufina — and I kinda feel badly that I don’t, therefore I am not in the market for darling Kim’s products. BUT .. I think she’ll make it without me!

  4. We have such a Western bias about what is icky don’t we ? I am glad that Heifer helps people do what is appropriate in their culture and location and don’t insist they raise UN-yucky critters.
    Question. Why is there a snake in the bowl with the eel ?
    This is a really interesting post and your photos give such life to your words.

  5. Yes, we DO have a western yucky-bias to be sure, but plenty of Americans pay huge money for eel in their sushi so … guess we don’t all feel that way! I agree about Heifer’s non-yucky approach though– and have seen in it Cameroon with cane rats, Peru with guinea pigs, and here in Vietnam again … it’s a beautiful thing to help people raise what they eat!! The snake was in the bowl with the eel so they could show me the difference between fish and snakes (the eel is a fish, not a snake) … hey, THanKS for being interested, Sybil — you are such a fellow adventurer for me!

  6. Judy Huynh (friend of Jackson Kaguri)

    I’m enjoying your posts from VN, and I have forwarded them to my son in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). I told him he should contact you. If you have any free time when you are in Saigon, stop in at Tilleke & Gibbons Consultants Limited, Suite 1206,12th Floor Citilight Towers, 45 Vo Thi Sau Street, District 1 and ask for Eric. (www.tilleke.com) They also have an office in Hanoi. He’s speaks excellent Vietnamese, and knows Vietnam very well.
    I hope you have a chance to visit some of the markets in VN in the “meat” section. There are lots of eels, frogs, snails, slugs, and various other protein sources on display. I have some great pictures from there.
    Be sure to get some silk embroidery while you’re in VN. It’s really beautiful.

    Judy Huynh
    Heifer AVC for Michigan

    • Oh, Judy — I wish I could have met your son while I was in Ho Chi Minh City (even though I was only there for one short night!) … what an opportunity for him to really experience the Vietnamese culture!! I just love how so many young people these days are going abroad and learning about other countries and contributing their talents to the growth and development! (and it works both ways) … I have some gorgeous handicrafts and art from Vietnam from my first trip there in 2005 — but I’m really trying NOT to accumulate any more stuff. There is a limit !! ( :

  7. BJ

    ..you have an amazing talent for storytelling.. we all say just continue traveling round the globe enlightening us all with them…(a year’s way too short)

    • oh, from your lips to God’s ear, BJ — i really DO love learning all this esoteric but fascinating stuff … and I’m so glad GLAD that you like to read it!!!

  8. Martha Radatz

    I’ll put this entry right up there with the ones about the rats! Oh my. I had no idea Heifer did frogs and eels in addition to cows and pigs. I can’t imagine the work (or the slime) involved in scooping 45 lbs of snails out of their shells and chopping them up every morning. We staff Heifer tables at many Alternative Gift fairs around the city this time of year, and I will be sharing this story many times over! Thanks!

    • Hey Martha — it really WAS an impressive day — but the people there make such amazing good use of the resource of the river outside their door — and how about those eel ponds/? What an enterprise!!! The snail thing I had literally never heard of, but it’s such a symbiotic and beautiful way for farmers to get rid of snails and growers to raise eels — I just loved it. It’s like Integrated Pest Management on steroids, right??? So happy you liked the story, Miss M!!!

  9. Betty,
    You never cease to amaze me! When I think it is impossible to come up with another interesting post, here comes another fascinating story on eels and frogs! Your photography is so great that it captures my imagination. Congratulations on a year well spent traveling the world with Heifer. Love and hugs,

    • Kitty — it was an amazing day — I just couldn’t get over having driven on the back of a motorcycle for miles along these canals, how totally integrated into the water life these people were … they grow rice and farm on what little plots they have, but they really LIVE on the ducks, eels, fish, and frogs they raise… and if they can just get a little investment in their ventures — they can support their children getting an education and feed themselves and have a future. Sounds like a plan to me!!!

  10. Anonymous

    Very cool. Now YOU started it. How DO you tell the difference between a male frog and a female?

    • I think it has something to do with the size of their gills, but I could just be making that up! Let me get home and get back to my notebook and see if I wrote down the exact data. Sorry– it’s not like I’m a biologist!! (The Vietnamese people, however, could tell you in a heartbeat!)

  11. Wonderful to learn about people and what makes their day in other societies! I agree with the other posters about Heifer supporting the people in their countries with their choices, not imposing our ways on them. You make the best raconteuse 🙂

  12. Hi Betty – Sorry I’ve been MIA. Anyway, another great post. Those frogs are huge! And the baby is darling! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. We all have so much to be thankful for! (Hugs)

  13. Sherry — I’ve been reading your posts from SC and FL with complete rapt attention — even from the distance of Shanghai — love your photos and so happy we can track each other across the globe!!!

  14. Resourcefulness seems to be the key word in all the people you have profiled on your year-long journey. Whether with frogs or pigs, people manage to thrive thanks in no small part to Heifer.

    Do you know if Heifer sponsors any oyster farmers in Vietnam? There are tons of them in Halong Bay. The families who farm the mollusks live in huts right on the water. Tough life.

    PS: I had eel sushi for lunch! Mmmm. 🙂

    • I don’t think Heifer has projects in northern Vietnam — just mostly in the south in the Mekong Delta. BUT .. I love the mollusk oyster story and am sure if Heifer was up there, they’d be trying to encourage that — works so well for people without land! Wasn’t the feeding cut-up snails to the eels and frogs thing incredible? Works great for the farmers to be rid of ’em– and for the fishermen/frog raising folks. I love stuff like that!! Hey, HAPPY Thanksgiving, EOSR — please give all your family my love!!

  15. I’ve heard people say they have a house right on the river, but in Vietnam they must mean it literally. How do they keep their homes from rotting away and falling into the water?

    • BB — I don’t actually think they DO keep their homes from rotting away, but just replace the rotting foundation whenever it looks like it’s going to collapse. The rise and fall of the Mekong River is also significant (but controlled by dams and locks in Vietnam –unlike Cambodia) so it makes living ON the river even more precarious. It’s quite a life, right?

  16. I’m reminded of a frog joke. Ready? What did the frog say when asked if it had read Betty’s post about the Vietnamese woman who raises frogs? “Read it. Read it.” I don’t have one for eels – sorry. I love the photo of Ms. Vo Thi Kim Hoang holding that gigantic frog – I could never! And I would have done the 6′ vertical eel leap, too, Betty. Thanks for introducing us to another inspirational person. And teaching us the whole female to male eel thing! Wow.

  17. AA — I love your sense of humor!! But no eel joke?? Darn!! I do love all the frog photos but the eel operation was so elaborate with the tanks they could fill and filter and drain and populate with greens the eels like to hide in (they cluster together under big upturned saucers that rest on the greenery) — it was really fascinating even though they give me the total creeps. And how about that female to male switcheroo?? I think they’re the only critter that does that!

  18. Fascinating to learn that one can make a good living farming frogs and eels. I thought Heifer only worked with cows sheep goats pigs.
    I also wondered why the eel and the snake were in the same bowl, and love the picture of the Future eel farmer (what’s he eating?)

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