Chopsticks in Viet Nam. Boys hard at work. 

Another bamboo pole came rolling down the hillside and splashed into the river. I had been ridding my motorbike southwest along highway 15 from Mai Chau exploring various side roads for a chance to meet the local people. At Than Mai I turned right over a new bridge toward Laos. The country was spectacular under a setting sun, high jagged mountains rising like roaring lions above the Nam Na River. The mountains and river seemed to go on forever. In various places, construction workers were improving the road stretching it out to twice the original width. One of the workers I spoke with claimed the road was being widened to help facilitate trade with Laos. That seemed unlikely, since there are so few villages along the way, and I suspected the road was mostly for military deployment, a good idea in such a remote area. Helping trade is also important and, in either case, the road is a welcome addition to such a remote and beautiful area.

Bamboo poles had been tumbling from various hills along the route as I enjoyed the scenery. The rocks beside the hills and occasional small waterfalls tumbled down the mountains before scurrying under the road to the river. In one place a pipe carried fresh water, open to anyone who wants it, something unusual in an area where water is usually tainted with parasites. Powerful boats fought against the currents of the river in several places trying to reach bamboo poles bundled along the bank. Workers fought to keep the poles together so they would not wash away downstream. Poles had also been gathered at the few small villages along the way. I wondered what would be done with them? After riding several miles I decided to turn around and see where they were being taken.

I followed the trail of open motorboats back across the bridge to Than Mai. I turned right on highway 15 and drove through the remainder of town. The river flowed just down the bank behind the houses and beside the road. The sun was low by now and cast a pleasant yellow light, warm and glowing, on the thick air. Children played in mud near the road as chickens scratched about and two pigs rooted through some brush between buildings. Women served tea to groups of old men playing Chinese Chess and young men drank beer, smiled and waved as I passed. A woman in traditional dress pulled a wooden cart through the mud and a young dog followed closely behind, his tail curled in a half circle.

As I topped a small rise at the outskirts of town I encountered a solid fortress of rolled and bundled chopsticks. Men and women were piling them in the small fields, stacking them beside the road, and loading them onto huge trucks. There must have been millions of chopsticks scattered about the area.

 Most historians and etymologists believe the word chopstick came from Chinese Pidgin English used by English sailors. Chop chop means to move quickly and the sailors transferred the name to chopsticks because they could be used to quickly move food around a plate. The proper words for chopsticks are different in different countries. The Chinese call them kuaizi, the Japanese say hashi, and the Vietnamese use the word dua.

The Vietnamese workers in the little factories were cranking out thousands of chopsticks every hour. The process is fascinating. Bamboo poles are floated to the river’s edge below the factories. A man wades in the water and feeds the poles to several men on shore who carry them up over the bank and prepare the wood for cutting. They are placed on a long table and fed into a saw where a worker, an expert with a saw, cuts out the hard joints. The short poles are taken to another saw and cut into exact sizes for chopsticks and ice cream sticks.

The newly cut pieces are placed into a slicing machine that peals away the wood, one chopstick at a time. The machine sounds like a sewing machine and cuts the wood so fast that an entire tube of bamboo is reduced to chopsticks within seconds. The wood is gathered together, tied into bundles, and stacked outside where it dries for several days before being loaded onto trucks and taken to the final finishing plant, sanded down, and painted or lacquered.

All the left over scrapings of bamboo are gathered up and shoveled onto trucks. Nothing is wasted. The scrapings are turned into pulp and used for bamboo paper.

It is believed that Chopsticks were first used in China during the Shang dynasty around 1766 BCE and the first archeological discovery of chopsticks were several bronze ones discovered in ruins near Anyang. They may first have been used to move food around a hot pan during cooking. Vietnamese still use long chopsticks for cooking and shorter ones for eating.

Unfinished and unvarnished bamboo chopsticks are inexpensive, hold food very well, but have a tendency to warp and deteriorate rapidly. In restaurants, these chopsticks are often attached at one end, as a safety and health precaution, to show that they have not been used.

Plastic chopsticks are also inexpensive, but cannot be used for cooking because heat tends to melt and warp them. Anything slippery, like noodles, can be difficult to pick up making eating difficult.

Expensive chopsticks are often made of bone or wood tipped with silver. Wealthy and important people often used silver chopsticks because they believed that silver turned black if it touched anything poisonous.

Metal chopsticks are fairly common today because they can be roughed-up for a good grip and they last forever.

Making chopsticks appears to be a good business since there is a shortage around the world. New plants are currently opening in the United States, where good trees are abundant, and the chopsticks are being sold in China. Vietnam also appears to have a ready supply of good bamboo trees so they should be in a decent position to expand their chopstick business.

On the way out of town I stopped for a bowl of pho and a chance to talk with the local people. Well, not talk, exactly, since I do not speak Vietnamese. Of course, most of the people in Than Mai are ethnic people and also do not speak Vietnamese. But it was a good chance to laugh at our repeated attempts at conversation and to chase noodles with a fresh pair of chopsticks. 


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