Residents of a remote commune in the central province of Quang Tri have spent the last decade investing heavily in banana plantations. The result has been a whirlwind success, with the dreams of once-poor farmers finally coming to fruition.

The rainy season has started in the central region. In Huong Hoa district in the central province of Quang Tri, the roads are scattered with thick basalt mud.

Farmer Nguyen Van Tuan and his wife drive carefully across the sludge on their old Honda motorbike, heading for market. On the bike's luggage rack sit bunches and bunches of bananas.

Tuan, 52, comes to Tan Long market - known as one of the biggest banana market in the central region and along the border with Laos - every day to sell his products.

Today, Tuan completes his business quickly by negotiating with a wholesale agent to sell six bunches of bananas for 400,000 VND (19 USD).

He says that this is a very fair price and he often makes a lot more. During the Tet (Lunar New Year) holidays, he can capitalise on the increased demand for the fruit and make as much as 30 million VND (1,400 USD) from his bananas.

"We have been living well over recent years thanks to banana farming. It has changed our lives. I can earn 10 million VND (476 USD) from bananas planted on 2ha of hill land. This is quite good productivity compared to other crops like cassava, ginger and sugarcane," Tuan says.

"Farming bananas does not need much investment. I tend to saplings until they grow and are ready for harvest after one year. The fruit, stems, and flowers can be sold for at least five years, while bananas produce saplings constantly. The only business risks are price instability in the market and the threat of natural disasters."

Market magnetism

Situated 70km away from downtown Dong Ha city, the bustling market of Tan Long is a magnet for the region's banana traders.

The business has bloomed in the area over the past decade as the crop has become increasingly profitable for local farmers.

In the 1990s, cassava and maize were the two main cash crops in the commune, while bananas were grown in gardens for daily dessert.

In 1997, sugarcane and ginger were planted widely as farmers looked to increase their income. Their success was limited so they turned their attention to banana. The abundance of the fruit and the low investment required soon paid dividends.

The commune, which has a population of 3,900, increased the area of banana from 410ha to over 1,000ha between 2005 and 2010. Banana farming has now spread to the neighbouring communes of Lao Bao and Lia and even crossed the border to some villages in Laos on the other sides of the Se Pon river.

"Tan Long market provides around 50 tonnes of banana each day, creating a revenue of 25 billion VND (1.1 million USD) per year," said chairman of Tan Long commune Do Van Khai.

"Farmers here have improved their income from banana plantations, as have farmers from the Pa Co and Van Kieu ethnic groups in nearby communes.

"They (ethnic communities) lived off rice farming, hunting and exploitation of the forests for many years, but now they consistently grow bananas and no longer need to shift cultivation year after year. Banana grows very well on sloped terrain in mountainous areas, so each household from these communes can grow up to 10ha."

Growing a trademark

The fruit in Tan Long has become famous throughout Vietnam for its taste, quality and ability to be preserved for a long time.

Wholesale agents often buy bananas directly from farmers at the market before selling them on via retail traders. About 70 percent of exports go to China.

The plant has drastically contributed to the socio-economic development of the commune and local people enjoy an annual income per capita of 11 million VND (524 USD).

The commune's poverty rate reduced from 29 percent in 2000 to 6.2 percent in 2009 and many households have became prosperous.

A farm of 8,000 productive plants brings a staggering income of 600 million VND (28,000 USD) for Doan Trang in Tan Long commune.

Meanwhile, Vo Hoanh in nearby Long Thanh village said bananas turned his impoverished life around.

From a 2ha farm in 2003, Hoanh developed 20ha of profitable land and now earns a monthly income of 50 million VND (2,300 USD).

"Banana has sold well over the past years because wholesale buyers flock to Tan Long with big contracts. They even pay advances for farmers," Hoanh said.

"The plantation process is easy, but requires large plots of land to produce the best quality fruit."

Hoanh added that the arable land in the commune is limited due to rough terrain so he had to broaden plantations at other communes and farms in Lao border villages.

Potential banana skins

Recent storms have damaged swathes of banana farms in Tan Long, but they are expected to recover quickly. However, bad weather poses an almost constant risk, as do unstable prices and wholesalers' demand.

Nguyen Thi Kieu, 39, said she collects two tonnes each day from farmers, but faces the possibility of incurring heavy losses if wholesale agents refuse to pay the best price or lower their demand.

"I only pay 2,500 VND per kilogram of banana to farmers. Therefore I can earn a big profit through trading, especially when market demand reaches its peak at the end of the year," Kieu said.

"The price of bananas is now half of what dealers paid in 2008, so the profit margins are widening all the time.

"China is still the biggest market for Tan Long bananas, while domestic sales are limited. I think business could be improved even more if the commune developed a processing plant to preserve the fruit. Dried banana, for example, is a favourite snack of Vietnamese customers."

Farmer Vo Van Tam also shared his hope for a processing plant to be built in the area.

"Such a factory would lure local people and larger farms could produce bumper harvests. A processing line would help ease worries of crops preservation for farmers."

Tam said that a drying factory was built in Tan Long a few years ago, but soon stopped working due to poor technology.

He added that investment in post-harvest technology is out of reach for farmers and big loans are required.

"With more investment we could select appropriate areas for growing banana with higher yield. The selection of saplings can be more focused, while co-operation with businesses can be strengthened to ensure sustainable development," he said.

While Tuan is happy with the current situation, he is still hoping for further growth.

"I wish to make a permanent income from banana as I'm the breadwinner for my family. That is six children to provide for! If my banana sells out, I will invest in technology and saplings to intensify my farming. Sustainable farming can make us truly prosperous farmers. We have come a long way already in just a few years, so we have very high hopes for the future".-VNA