Most produce in Vietnam is sold on the wet market; high-end, imported fruit are sold in western-style grocery stores.
Vietnam, though still a Communist country, has one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia. High quality, imported fruits like table grapes, apples, citrus, and kiwis, have recently become popular with consumers, and for the first time, Pacific Northwest pears are also being shipped directly to the country.
Rob Peterson, sales agent for Duckwall-Pooley Fruit Company in Odell, Oregon, traveled in February to visit a new client in Vietnam, Promitor Trading, Inc. While there, he participated in their grand opening of a large, produce terminal-type market called AgriPark, which is open to both retailers and consumers. The new market is located in a park-like setting and features everything from orchids and bonsai to pottery, peppers, coffee, fashion, and fresh produce. Eventually, a theater will be built on the grounds.
Promitor Trading is unlike most fruit importers. Company owners Los Angeles, California, attorney Dale Washington and his wife, Le Thi Giau, successful Vietnamese businesswoman, are new to the produce business. They began experimenting with air shipments of grapes, kiwis, and oranges to Vietnam in 2005. Thi Giau’s family are prominent landowners in Vietnam, involved in a large fertilizer business and farming, but they have no background in produce marketing.
In 2006, the husband-and-wife team attended trade shows in the United States to connect with marketing associations for growers and shippers. The contacts resulted in business relationships, and they began bringing ocean containers of fruit into the country, using port facilities and warehouses of the Thi Giau family fertilizer business. New, state-of-the-art cold storages for the imported fruit were built, and they now have more than 36,000 square feet of cold storage available, with space rented to others.
Years ago, unclassified pears (nongraded) were used to open new markets, Peterson explained. "You opened a new market with very, very cheap product and then slowly moved the market up to better sizes and grades.
"The thing that’s unusual here is that they’re paying top dollar. They want nothing but the best."
The new market will definitely help the pear industry, said Peterson, who sees the recent interest in pears as the tip of the iceberg and predicts that other shippers will be exporting in the coming season. "It’ll never be a huge market, but it should be a good one for red pears, and we need a market for reds."
Dale Washington said fruit has a different status in Vietnam than fruit in the states. "Fruit is used to eat, but if consumers have money, they will buy imported fruit, something that’s different and distinct from common fruit like mangos."
As in other Asian cultures, people give fruit as gifts, with apples and grapes being popular. Fruit is also used as an offering to Buddha, he added.
"USA Pears are sold next to Chinese pears for two to three times the price," Washington said. "To sell imported fruit, it has to be distinct and very high quality. We selected American pears because of their shape and color, knowing that they would be recognized as different and better."
By the end of February, Duckwall-Pooley had shipped five containers of pears; StarCrimson was the first variety shipped. Other varieties that have been popular include Comice, red and green d’Anjou, and Bosc. Bartlett didn’t work well because of the warm, humid temperatures. "But they really like the Bosc. The humidity and russetting of the skin make them glisten," Peterson said.
Peterson said that the Vietnam export "fell out of the sky into my lap." He had no connection to Washington and was simply returning a call from someone who was interested in pear exports. Unbeknown to Peterson, Promitor Trading had contacted the Pear Bureau for a list of exporters that had the Packham variety, and Peterson was the first to reply to Washington’s query.
"Fruit sales guys don’t typically return phone calls promptly to people that they don’t know," said Washington. "I had fond memories of eating sweet pears when visiting my grandfather in southern Oregon, and I wanted to buy Oregon fruit if I could."
The first container of red pears sold out immediately, so another container was put together, Peterson said.
Washington, who has imported grapes, kiwis, citrus, plums, and apples from the United States, said, "Adding pears has been my favorite project because no one had done it before." He hasn’t imported Northwest cherries yet because of what he believes to be high risk and expensive airfreight, but he is interested in looking at cherries in the near future.