The mussel men (and women)

(No.2, Vol.7,Apr-May 2017 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Rinsing mussels at the Hen Village, Ha Tinh Province. 

Photos: Nguyen Minh Son

In the paleness of winter days, looking down from Tho Truong Bridge, the calm water of La River with lush foliage along its banks is like an idyllic oil painting.
In Hen (mussel) Village of Truong Son Commune, Ha Tinh Province, almost all of its nearly 200 households earn their living from the mussels. Early in the morning, Hen Pier is hectic with people buying and selling. Looking at baskets full of delicious stuff about to be carried by boats or mothers’ and sisters’ shoulders to bazaars, villages and towns, few can realize the tremendous hardship endured by Hen villagers.
Village head Le Kim Trong told us that this is an age-old trade of the village. Family records of the Le family of Truong Son Commune say that the trade has been there over 300 years. In spring, the men begin to cruise up and down stream to catch the mussels. The 4th to 5th lunar months are the prime mussel season. In winter, they retreat to rest, only combing a few small rivulets nearby from time to time. There are two kinds of mussels; freshwater mussels from the areas of La River, Lam River, Ngan Sau and Ngan Pho, and brackish water mussels from under Ben Thuy Bridge and downstream.
In the past, all the work was manual, with wooden boats and bamboo and rattan tools. Villagers formed cooperative groups to support one another, and each boat used to harvest 10-14 quintals a year. In recent years, their life has gotten easier with 24-horse power boats, iron tools and parachute fabric nets.
Iron-framed raking rackets, about 1.2m with 20cm-long teeth, are attached to a 3m-long net. As they rake the riverbed, sand is washed away, leaving only the mussels. The work thus becomes less dependent on nature. In a good season, each boat can catch a ton a day, and about 70-80 tons are collected at the pier each day, enough to provide for Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces.
Live mussels are gathered at the village river pier. Mothers and sisters rinse them very carefully and then soak them in water for 8-10 hours to make them spit out all the dirt and mud. At 3 a.m. the next morning, they get up for the most important part of the job. The cleaned mussel is cooked in big pans. The keyword here is ‘three boils, two overflows,’ after which they stir the pan with a circular movement until the mussels ‘open their mouths.’ The mussels are rinsed again, this time to separate the meaty inside from the shell. This is when women apply their patience and dexterity. The finished product is carried on mothers’ and sisters’ shoulders to be distributed all over Ha Tinh and Nghe An provinces.
Nothing of the mussels is thrown away. The meat is used to cook broths, stew or porridge, or mixed with rice flan, or fried with shallot to make rice wafer sandwiches. Refreshing mussel broth can be drunk instead of water on hot days. The shell can be mixed with poultry food or burnt to make lime.
In the 10th lunar month when the mussels are scarce and scraggy, the mussel labourers can spend some time with their family. The next spring, the boats will be drifting again to plough riverbeds.

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