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BackEat & Drink » Food Culture » A Food Folk Tale: Mai An Tiêm, CEO of Vietnam’s First Watermelon Startup


If you’ve been around a traditional Vietnamese household during Tet, you have probably noticed the presence of gargantuan, child-sized, dark green watermelons on the altar.

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These behemoths are both intimidating và delicious; that is, if one remembers to lớn cut them up during the holiday and not leave them out for months like my mom did one year. However, not many know that the origin story behind this juicy berry — yes, watermelonsare, indeed, berries— is rooted in a fascinating folk tale that takes place in ancient Vietnam during the days of the Hung Kings.

There are currently many versions of the tale about how watermelons came khổng lồ be a common crop in Vietnam, but it’s impossible khổng lồ verify which one is closest to the truth because it was so long ago. Despite the existence of some geographical locations mentioned in the story, take the following tale with a grain of salt.

Once upon a time, during his reign, the 18th Hung King had an adopted son whom he named Mai An Tiem. Some sources suggest that Tiem wasn’t adopted but bought from a foreign merchant when he was just seven years old khổng lồ be a house servant, and only after Mai An Tiem grew up lớn be a well-adjusted, intelligent và a mild-mannered young adult did the king decide to adopt him.

However, as young Tiem became more favored by the king, whom he showered with wealth & luxury, he reportedly changed into an ungrateful, haughty brat. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when he said of the favors bestowed by the king: "Của biếu là của lo, của cho là của nợ,” a proverb many took lớn mean “receiving gifts is being indebted ”.

The king, of course, was incensed by the allegedly offensive remark, and if the course of world history is any indication, you don’t want lớn anger a king. He banished Mai An Tiem’s entire family, including his wife và children, khổng lồ a desolate island.

The island was secluded and filled with strange flora and fauna. Having been used to lớn the opulence of the palace, the couple initially struggled in the wilderness. However, an optimist at heart, Mai An Tiem kept a bright outlook và made use of his wits in hopes of making a life on the strange island. These were probably the characteristics that lead khổng lồ Mai An Tiem being Vietnam’s very first food start-up entrepreneur, but more on that later.

Tiem và his wife, Ba, went paleo with their food & sustenance, an understandable dietary choice given that they were practically sent back to lớn the Neolithic era. Every day, Tiem went foraging for wild vegetables và fruits while his wife took to lớn the sea to lớn find sea urchins, clams & other types of fish.

Little did they know that their fate would change forever. One day, during one of his usual foraging trips to lớn the forest, he noticed a flock of birds feasting on a fruit on the beach. Tiem thought lớn himself: “If these birds can eat this fruit, maybe humans can, too.” The risk paid off because the unidentified fruit was sweet và juicy with red flesh & a white rind.

That, ladies & gentlemen, was Vietnam’s very first watermelon. Tiem decided to lớn save the seeds to plant in his garden. After months, his efforts proved khổng lồ be fruitful – get it? – và the family had another steady source of food to complement their paleo lifestyle. After a few harvests, the watermelon plantation was very successful và churned out a surplus of humongous fruits every year.

Tiem’s homegrown watermelon eventually reached mainland Vietnam, however, there are different accounts of how this happened. One source suggested that Tiem was a kinh doanh marvel and decided to lớn carve his name on the fruits và released them into the sea. Some came into contact with locals, who quickly jumped on the watermelon bandwagon because of the fruit’s sweet, refreshing taste and also realized that Mai An Tiem didn’t perish after being exiled but instead turned out to lớn be a successful farmer.

Another trương mục mentions a shipwreck that brought visitors lớn Tiem’s watermelon paradise. Upon tasting the magical new fruit, the castaways were instantly in love. The family gradually started a successful business trading their crop for amenities from the other side of the sea, such as furniture, clothing and rice.

Regardless of how Mai An Tiem’s agricultural products found their way to land, the king eventually heard about his adopted son"s survival. He also loved the melons. Surprised by his estranged son’s success and robust business, the king decided khổng lồ forgive Tiem và invited his household back lớn settle down in the kingdom once again. The way lớn a man’s heart is, indeed, through his stomach.

Once Mai An Tiem was back in the country, he continued his watermelon legacy by giving out seeds to lớn local farmers. Thus, gardens & plantations throughout the country began to lớn see the presence of sprawling vines & ludicrously sized melons.

According to lớn Soha, the island where Mai An Tiem was exiled is a real location. However, in today’s Vietnam, centuries of sedimentation have created sandy routes linking the island with Thanh Hoa province in northern Vietnam. Nga Phu và Nga An Communes in the province’s Nga Son District trang điểm most of the island in modern Vietnam. Some deem watermelons grown in this locality khổng lồ be the best in the country. It’s a rather bold claim, but experts bởi agree that Nga Son soil is very suitable for growing the fruit due to lớn its sandy nature.


Nga Son District in Thanh Hoa province. Image via Google Maps.

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However, cultivating watermelons is unfortunately no longer a Nga Son tradition: farmers have forgone their ancestor"s cash crop for more convenient options that have short harvest cycles & better yield. Dan Tri reports that in 2013 there was only one farmer who still grew the fruit in that district: 67-year-old Hoang Van Hue, who might be the true descendant of Mai An Tiem.