Sea Juice. Searching for fish sauce in Vietnam

Even though Vietnam stretches along the coast of the South China Sea, the country is not a mecca for beach-goers. The turquoise waters of Thailand draw a much greater number of tourists. Nevertheless, if you like having the beach to yourself and prefer jumping on the waves or peeking into fishing boats to gazing at the blue beyond, Vietnam will not disappoint.

When we ask about Long Hai at our hotel, the lady can’t understand us at first. Finally, when she does, she pretty much laughs her head off. Apparently, we are able to pronounce these two syllables so wrong, it makes a great anecdote, one worth sharing with the family. Unbaffled, we ask her if she’s been there. She nods and says: “Quiet.” OK, we can go with quiet.

I’ve been thinking about why people are so drawn to the sea and I think it’s more than a promise of vacation and getting away from the daily toil. It’s also more than simple means of connecting with nature, something we lack in the city (with no dense thickets or bugs). To me, the ocean is where life on the planet started. This means that all the minerals people need are in that salty soup. Iodine, for example, sometimes absent in landlocked areas. For people of Asia, seafood is a concentrate of goodness, a source of essential minerals and fat-soluble vitamins. But for me, right now, there is one thing that makes all the treasures of the sea pale in comparison: it’s fish sauce, or nước mắm.

Long Hai, probably because of it’s proximity to Ho Chi Minh City, fills with weekenders already on Fridays. We’re a bit worried that it may be busy during the week as well, but once we get there, hundreds of empty chairs and folded sunbeds dispel our fears. At the hotel we ask for a room with a window and get the biggest room yet, for 6 people, with a balcony, for a very reasonable price. We truly feel “out of season” here. Since we’re not in a mood for sunbathing, we go instead for a walk along the beach. We pass the enormous but empty hotel restaurants and reach the edge of the town. The colorful fishing boats are all on the shore, with people sitting over fishing nets, repairing or winding them. It’s like a parallel reality. Luckily, a smile and a simple “hello” is enough to bring light into the stern eyes of the locals. When we pass the rugged faces smile and nod in greeting.

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My (un)healthy fascination with the fish sauce began already in Cambodia, when I started to read this book. To me, fish sauce is a concentrate from the sea. It’s made with only two ingredients: fish and salt. In Vietnam, the kingdom of fish essence, the sauce is made from long-jawed anchovies. Layers of fish and salt are placed in huge barrels, than weighted down from the top. Whole fish are used, with skin and organs, providing the sauce with precious nutrients. The ingredients ferment over very long periods but the barrels are opened from time to time and allowed some sunlight. What comes out is a dark and thick liquid.  The final product though is amber-coloured because it can be of various dilutions and variable protein content (up to 40 per cent!) The best sauce is used directly on the food, while batches from latter extractions are used in cooking.

From Long Hai we travel to Phan Thiet, a city famous for making nước mắm. Though the Phu Quoc island is the most famous place producing fish sauce, we hope that in Phan Thiet we’ll be able to tour a factory, too. Unfortunatly, the city is rather big and modern and the factories are nowhere to be seen. Neither can we find the tourist information office, while the travel agents have no idea what we’re asking about. Maybe there aren’t many people interested in walking along tons of fermenting fish? These setback make us a bit depressed and we don’t even go to the beach. Instead, we go shopping and are able to buy a few bottles of nước mắm, with intent of sending them back to Poland. We heard earlier that the sauce is not allowed on planes, so we quietly hope we’ll be able to send it overseas. The lady at the post office, though nice and helpful, is unforgiving. She checks the package thoroughly and the hidden bottles, along with Bizot’s book on Cambodia, we’ll not be sailing to Poland.

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The shops don’t stock traditionally made sauce. The stuff we find in supermarkets is diluted and spiked with MSG. In the past, the sauce was not only a source for the fifth, much sought-after, umami taste (one that makes everything taste… well, more tasty), but it also helped Vietnam get through the difficult after-war years of poverty and hunger, when the large protein content, along with vitamins and minerals, was priceless. At that time, a bowl of rice with nước mắm and some wild plants was sometimes the only meal a person could afford. Today, there is no food shortage in Vietnam, but I do wonder where the best sauce goes. Majority of sauces available in the West come from Thailand and only their labels pretend to be Vietnamese. On a side note, after the American War the export of fish sauce was embargoed and perhaps the Vietnamese producers never mana‬ged to breach the foreign markets…

After Phan Thiet we’re due north, to another quiet sea-side town — Ca Na. We go there because it was supposed to be peaceful. And it is. To the point that we are a bit surprised, how much “in the middle of nowhere” we find ourselves after getting off the bus. The strong wind blows incessantly here, on one side of the highway there are mountains, on the other huge, empty restaurants. It’s a place where tour buses stop for lunch. Independent tourists are few and far between. There isn’t much beach to speak of because the coast is rocky. Yet, the views are very nice. The biggest attraction for us is that we can sleep at the edge of the sea. We enjoy it very much when the boom of waves lulls us to sleep. The next day we go for another walk and this time we meander the narrow streets of Ca Na. It’s very ‘local’, maybe even “too local”, but we still feel very safe here and have no close encounters. On the way back to the hotel, we find what we’ve been looking for. There are family-owned fish sauce factories on both sides of the highway. It’s a hot afternoon and all the people seem to have disappeared somewhere. One of the factories has its gate open but at the last moment we don’t have the courage to trespass and look around.

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