The perfumed kingdom

(No.6, Vol.2, June 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

I let fall a drop of fish sauce into my cup of black coffee, a culinary trick not widely known outside of Phú Quốc island, the home of the most special fish sauce of Vietnam. I was sitting on the veranda of Mr Nguyen Huy Hoang’s family home. A light breeze blew from the harbour. The company’s four fishing boats were docked, waiting for the moon to tell the fishermen when to put to sea. I was surrounded by a rich variety of bird song from dozens of birds indigenous to this island southwest of Vietnam, kept in decorative cages all through the garden, and by roosters calling all afternoon long. At my feet were four half-sleeping Phú Quốc dogs with their distinctive whorls on their backs. Sitting opposite me was an 84-year-old woman, Madam Nguyen Thi Thanh Xuan, who founded the famous Thanh Ha Fish Sauce Company together with her husband. She was preparing for the afternoon meal, and telling me about her life on the island, about the days when her husband and she had to work hard to raise their nine children, relying on the traditional occupation of making fish sauce to take care of them all. She told me about the several times her fish-sauce facility had been burned down during the war, about the times she had risked her life supplying food for her husband and his VC [Vietnamese Communist] comrades, who had escaped into the forests to fight against American and South Vietnamese Army forces. Madam Xuan also told me about the struggles and hardships she had endured in reviving the methods of making Phú Quốc fish sauce after the war. I was sitting in front of a woman who had lived most of her life for fish sauce, which she loved like her own flesh and blood.
Fish sauce are two words strange to most Americans but most familiar to me. They have haunted me during the past 43 years. I became devoted to fish sauce while I was a soldier in Quang Tri, at the 1st Air Cavalry, during the American War in Vietnam. A group of South Vietnamese Regime soldiers once shared a meal with me on a base camp called Evans, 35 kilometres north of Hue, and introduced me to Central Vietnam’s version of this ancient sauce. After returning to America, I even tried making my own version at home, much to the dismay of my neighbours, who called the police, complaining of a terrible ‘death smell’ coming from somewhere in the neighbourhood. I had to explain that the only ‘bodies’ were those of the fish that I was allowing to ferment behind my father’s garage in the summer heat. The police made me promise to get rid of the stink and left.
I imagined I would have to endure the stink of fish sauce in the making once more when I set foot on to the kingdom of fish sauce, Phú Quốc. However, much to my surprise, the whole island was radiating a sweet and attractive fish-sauce perfume when I came out of my airplane at the Phú Quốc airport.
For some years, I have been able to buy Phú Quốc fish sauce from supermarkets and Asian markets in America. A half-litre or one-litre bottle is amazingly cheap. On Phú Quốc, I come to realise that each drop of fish sauce is as valuable as gold. It glitters with the labour of the fishermen, who spend days drifting across the sea to catch the best long-jawed anchovies – the only type of fish used for making Phú Quốc fish sauce. A long time ago, these anchovies were abundant around Phú Quốc, and fishermen did not have to travel far. However, the supply had now diminished, and the fishermen had to go out at least a hundred kilometres, embarking on risks and high seas, to be able to catch the tastiest fish, and preserve them during their transportation back to the dock to make the purest fish sauce. Going on board Thanh Ha’s fleet, I had the opportunity to talk to the fishermen, who warmly told me about their use of lights to bring the fish to the surface during nights without moonlight, the skill of using large nets and preserving the fish immediately. I was surprised to find out that these fishing boats were very clean and did not smell at all. The salt was carefully prepared before each voyage, which lasted from one to five days. Strict hygiene was followed during the catching and transportation, and when the fish were unloaded, the boats were washed and scrubbed.
The nets, 600-700 m long and 75 m deep, are inspected for holes that can be caused by bigger fish and strong currents. Menders quietly repair them under parachute-like tents in the hot sun. In the tropical heat, I see drops of sweat glitter. The women work diligently and swiftly. They happily invited me to lunch, served right at the net-mending spot, and it was delicious, with salad, stewed pork and fish sauce. It was even more delicious because of their interesting stories and their laughter. I learned that many of these women had come here from the mainland, and were able to support their families with the net-mending job and other work in fish-sauce-making. I realised that the traditional Phú Quốc fish-sauce industry was sustaining their lives and providing opportunities for many Vietnamese families.
Visiting the fish sauce factories in Phú Quốc, I also realised my method of many years ago had been ridiculous. Instead of letting the fish ferment on sticks to drain into a cooking pan like I had, the traditional Phú Quốc fish sauce is fermented in golden wooden barrels. These huge barrels are 1.5 to 3 metres wide and 2 to 4 metres tall. One barrel can contain 7 to 13 tonnes of fish. Following the 200-year-old tradition of making fish sauce on Phú Quốc, only wooden barrels are used to ferment the fish. These barrels are cleverly assembled by hand in Phú Quốc, using bời lời trees, vên vên, or chai trees (as it is harder and harder to find bời lời trees these days). The staves that form the body of the barrel are held not by hoops of steel but twine made from Phú Quốc rattan. The barrels do not leak, and can last 60 and sometimes 100 years.

Bruce Weigl visits a fish sauce factory.
Photo: Nguyen Phan Que Mai

My own method of making fish sauce was to cook the fish slowly for a long time until the fermented fish becomes completely liquefied, put the liquid through a fine strainer and then cook it slowly again until the colour is like that of the sun the moment before it sets into a distant horizon. The traditional Phú Quốc fish sauce is made completely via natural fermentation. When the boat docks, the salted fish (called chượp in Vietnamese), are transferred into the barrels. After each barrel is filled, a thick layer of salt covers the surface and fermentation begins. A barrel of salted fish needs a year to 18 months to ‘ripen’ (chín). During this time, the fish need to undergo several stages; most importantly stages when their juices are drawn from the barrel and pumped back into it continuously, to encourage the breakdown of the flesh and increase the protein level in the liquid. After this juice meets protein, smell and colour standards, it is bottled in Phú Quốc or transferred to Ho Chi Minh City, where it is bottled and distributed globally.
Madam Nguyen Thi Nguyet Ha, director of Thanh Ha Company, told me that before he died, her father had got her to promise to maintain the tradition of fish-sauce-making and never to compromise it because of greed, money or the demands of the marketplace. Madam Ha and her brother have kept this promise, and their mother told me that the fish sauce made these days was better than it had ever been. She told me that fish sauce was not only used for cooking, but had medical properties. Buried deep in the ground for months, fish sauce became the very dark mắm lú. Many famous singers of Vietnam had come to Phú Quốc to look for her and asked her for mắm lú, to soothe and bring back to life tired and strained voices.
There was a breeze off the ocean but it would not cool things down much. This was a tropical island and the temperature rarely cooled down enough for most Americans to be comfortable.
I don’t know whose dreams I dreamed last night, but I don’t think they were mine, for how peaceful they were and how they carried me away on a dark river into some kind of strangely familiar place. I was sitting at a table with Vietnamese friends in a lovely garden. Vietnamese seemed to flow out of my mouth as if I were as fluent as a native speaker, and although the table was set with a wonderful meal, all accented with a variety of types of fish sauce, instead of eating, we all seemed to be talking at once. Then the dream changed and we were all singing songs in Vietnamese that celebrated the sea and what it gave to the people who lived there and how it sustained their lives. Flowers and birdsong were everywhere. I could see the boats rock in the harbour, and hear the quiet voices of the women who repaired the nets.
Then I was awake, and in the real garden with my new friends. They didn’t mind that I had been an American soldier in the Vietnam War. Perhaps not so amazingly, a strong friendship between an American veteran and a Việt Cộng family has been established partly because of our common love for fish sauce.
Madam Nguyen Ha joked with me that if I had met her father more than 40 years ago, for sure I would not have been visited by the police, and my own personal fish sauce would not have stunk so badly, but rather, radiated the sweet perfume of the sea. Achieving success after a very difficult childhood where she had had to live inside a factory full of fish-sauce barrels, and been mocked by school friends because, they said, her white school uniform (Vietnamese áo dài) always smelled of fish sauce, she talked very passionately and proudly about her family traditions of fish-sauce-making. Her eyes shone the light of a strong belief: that the values of the traditional Phú Quốc fish sauce would be preserved and developed sustainably.
I was now in another world, so different from my own. I felt I did belong to this world – one that allowed all my senses and feelings to come alive. I watched the handsome grandson of Madam Nguyen Thi Thanh Xuan play with a bird whistle that he filled with water and then made sing. The birds in the garden began to sing the song of goodbye, too. But goodbye is not good enough a word here, so I instead I said ‘See you again,’ as I was certain that I would come back, together with many friends, to the kingdom of fish sauce.

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