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Agriculture

Lychee land Vietnam savors first taste of Japan market

World's No. 2 exporter commands big premium at supermarkets

A street vendor sells lychee in Hanoi. June is the peak season for the tropical fruit. (Photo by Atsushi Tomiyama)

TOKYO -- The smell of freshly picked lychee fills the streets of Hanoi each June, when the tropical fruit is in season. Now, growers have picked up the scent of a new opportunity: selling their local delicacy to Japan.

The opening of the Japanese market is the biggest thing to happen to Vietnamese lychee farmers this year. Vietnam is the world's third-largest producer of lychee, after China and India, and ranks second only to Madagascar in exports of the fruit.

On June mornings, motorbikes laden with bundles of the fruit fill roads in Luc Ngan, in northern Vietnam's Bac Giang Province. Growers go from buyer to buyer in search of the best price.

"Wholesale prices are high this year," a 40-year old grower says. "Last year was a bumper crop that was bought up for next to nothing. We were better off letting it rot."

Vietnamese-grown lychee is known for its rich aroma and sweetness, with a quality described as "top class" by some connoisseurs at an international trade show in Hanoi last year. This correspondent become addicted to the fruit's almost alcoholic scent during his days as a Hanoi reporter.

A grower carries lychee to market in Vietnam's Bac Giang Province last month. (Photo by Megumi Katsu)

Fresh lychee are hard to find in Japan. Most of the fruit sold here is frozen. Past plans to export to the Japanese market faltered after Vietnamese growers failed to clear agriculture-related quarantine requirements.

But that has changed. Agriculture ministries from both countries have confirmed the safety of lychee grown on 19 designated farms in Bac Giang. The approved fruit meet certain farming standards and post-harvest criteria, such as fumigation with methyl bromide, a pesticide.

Vietnam is set to export 100 tons of lychee to Japan this year. The first ton arrived last month and was sold at retailers including Aeon

A pack of about 10 sold for about 500 yen ($4.70) at Aeon supermarkets. That works out to a nearly 10-fold premium compared with a retail price of about 30,000 dong to 50,000 dong ($1.30 to $2.20) per kilo in Hanoi.

Vietnamese-grown lychee on sale at an Aeon supermarket in Tokyo last month. The store charges 498 yen ($4.70) per pack. (Photo by Keiichi Furukawa)

Farm and fisheries trade between Vietnam and Japan has soared since the countries entered an economic partnership agreement that took effect in December 2008. Under the trade deal, Vietnam lowered tariffs on Japanese apples to zero from 20% by 2019. Japan's apple exports to the Southeast Asian country reached about 320,000 tons in 2018 -- 18 times the level of 2015.

Meanwhile, Vietnam's exports of tra -- a freshwater fish known by various names, including swai -- to Japan have surged. Japan has emerged as a new market for this fish alongside leading buyers U.S. and China.

Vietnam accounted for 19% of global lychee exports in 2018, behind Madagascar's 35% and close to China's 18%, according to the International Society for Horticultural Science.

Much of Vietnam's lychee farming takes place in its northern provinces, close to China. Southern China has been known throughout history for lychee -- so much so that Yang Guifei, a consort of a Tang dynasty emperor famed for her beauty, was said to have dispatched horses there to fetch her favorite fruit.

But many Vietnamese warn against eating too much lychee on an empty stomach. It is said to be bad for one's health.

Atsushi Tomiyama is Nikkei's former Hanoi bureau chief.

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