Adventures in Fresh Sugarcane Juice

Sugarcane Juicer

photo by grooble/flickr

Every time I drink freshly squeezed sugarcane juice (nuoc mia), I reminisce about to the spring of 2002. Mom and I went with to Vietnam in the spring hoping to visit my aunt for the last time. She was fighting metastatic ovarian cancer here in the US but given not long to live, she wanted to spend the rest of her time go back home, to the home of her childhood and memories. But she died a month before we got there so we never really got to say goodbye. So we used that time to visit her burial but also to visit several orphanages around Saigon. This was when I discovered fresh sugarcane juice. I didn’t recall it when i went back in 1998, but now it was ubiquitous, on every street corner. Each cup was about 1000-2000 Dong, at that time about 10-20 cents US. Freshly squeezed with a touch of citrus from kumquats (tac). I devoured it like my life depended on it.

On one occasion, we visited Co Nhi Vien Thien Binh outside of Saigon. This was Catholic orphanage with about 70 kids ranging from 6 months to 18. It was headed by a single priest and self sufficient. The older children grew there own vegetables, tended to livestock. They took turns cooking, doing other chores, and teaching sunday school lessons. When food wasn’t enough, the priest would go around to the surrounding villages asking for food donations. He said there was no government support for orphanages in Vietnam.

Immediately as we stepped inside the orphanage, the priest treated us like royalty. He asked what I wanted to drink and despite my misgivings, my mom chimed that I love nuoc mia. So he immediately sent one of the kids to go bike down the road to bring me back some. Immediately, I wondered if these kids ever enjoyed this ubiquitous nectar that I’ve been drinking on an almost hourly basis? Perhaps, maybe never…

So I immediately asked him how many kids in the orphanage–he replied quizzically, 70. So I said, I “Father, can you please send out more kids and tell them to get 70 bags of nuoc mia, one for each kid?” Before I finished the sentence, I could see the kids hovering around the door squirming excitedly and as soon as the priest gave the ok, they immediately hoped on dilapidated bicycles with the money we gave. Within a short time, they came back, overflowing with nuoc mia in plastic “to go” bags. It was like Christmas in July. They were literally dancing around with joy. Some took small sips and then saved it in empty plastic bottles. Some even shared when others ran out.

Sharing Nuoc mia (suger cane juice)
Sharing nuoc mia. 

Sharing bunks
Multiple kids sleep together on makeshift bunks line with straw mats.

Cooking for others
Only 14, he cooks lunch for the rest of his “family”

Despite their clear hardships and disadvantage, they were so well mannered and outwardly happy. I left thinking they deserve so much more… 


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6 Responses to “Adventures in Fresh Sugarcane Juice”

  1. 1

    Tien — May 12, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

    I was so touched by your generosity with the kids. They all look so sweet and happy drinking fresh sugar juice.

    Sincerely, Tien

  2. 2

    Ravenous Couple — May 12, 2009 @ 10:31 pm

    Tien–Thanks for the comments and reading our blog. It’s so common in Vietnam, but I doubt these kids ever had the pleasure of enjoy it. Food and drink can bring some happiness. Hope to you visit us and write again.

  3. 3

    Christine — May 16, 2009 @ 10:42 am

    What a wonderful story! I’m going back to visit family in Vietnam next month and I’m unsure of how I will see things through adult eyes. The last time I went I was a whiny child, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to handle seeing these sorts of things. Thank you for the heartwarming glimpse!

  4. 4

    Ravenous Couple — June 19, 2009 @ 2:09 am

    christine: OMG, so sorry for the delay we've been busy doing so many things and forget to reply to this comment. We noticed you're in VN now (mugged in Danang? hope you're ok!!) If you do find the time, visiting local charities and orphanages are a great eye opening experience that you won't soon forget!

  5. 5

    Mimi — May 20, 2011 @ 9:40 am

    Your story touched me deeply. Thank you S0 much for sharing. My husband and I always wanted to go back to our roots in Vietnam and share our past with our 3 teenagers. We hope to go in the near future and show them our history and culture. One of the places I always wanted to visit was the orphanage. It was S0 wonderful to know you and your mom brighten their day.

  6. 6

    The Ravenous Couple — May 21, 2011 @ 8:28 am

    Thank you for your feed back–yes, it would be wonderful for all the younger generation to get to know and feel their’s much different then just trying to tell them.

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