Fleeting catfish

Drain fishing for catfish in Saigon

Vietnam Heritage, March 2011 -- Below a rolling blind of the standard blue and white plastic slats and through a metal balcony fence we look down one floor to a drain with a rectangular concrete lid in the floor of the alley. The lid can be levered up a bit with a stick to allow the escape of floods, if there is a muscular, barefoot nephew on hand.
The curious thing about this drain is that it usually runs with unmuddy, perfectly clear water. Not infrequently, young fishermen lift the lid and drop lines in, after vigorous fish that I have seen flit between west and east, crossing through the box-like, metre-deep shaft. The Saigon River is only a hundred to two hundred metres away. The fish are quite big, some verging on half-a-kilo. They are said to be ca tre, or catfish.
One recent afternoon, fishing was going on, but, lo and behold, one of the spectators was a neighbour and friend of ours who happens to be the producer of exquisite delicacies in the kitchen, who knows all about making Vietnam’s extreme and exotic wines and such things as where to obtain the country’s best mutton and lamb. Five-star F&B managers start to look like apprentices again.
That afternoon she said four fish had been taken, with a total weight of one kilo.
I didn’t ask any further questions, but perhaps the water in the drain is purified and filtered by the lovely yellow sand that has come up from underground in the past during one of the fits and starts in the demolition and construction that has characterised the second half of the decade on the site of the former navy barracks, the gate of which you see in Le Thanh Ton Street.
The involvement of Madam E (which might as well stand for Epicure) – and I did hear that she might have been going to apply herself to the elevation of these elegant black fish into sublime grills and/or ginger fish sauce – changed the standing of this ‘drain’ to that of a trout stream in the Scottish Highlands.
Hence, what happened next was almost beyond belief. A young house-painter who was working a few metres away tipped a good-sized bucket of rinsing of beige paint over the drain, so that the thick dilution ran copiously under the lid.
Adulteration with melamine has been a problem in Vietnam as well as in China. Now are we to contemplate water-based beige paint in fish? Madam E did not witness the paint going in, but she is not a mediocre woman. Ochre is not seen within five metres of her. She is more to be associated with blanched almonds and cherries.
At first all I could do was step briskly into the premises that was under redevelopment and photograph the painter up his ladder and the team he belonged to – who could not have been gentler and were even willing to watch the birdie. What will the Saigon River, the country, the world become, at this rate? I promised to mention the matter to the police. (There was such a thing as the Environmental Police, on 1800588875, though on the three or four occasions I rang, over six months, I was not able to raise anyone).
As I walked on and was almost out of the residential area, called the Ghetto, I came across a muddy-green-uniformed people’s guard with the usual pushbike and stick. I showed him my pictures and he seemed to take up my complaint.
When I returned in the evening, I encountered what seemed like almost a dozen of the muddy-green-uniformed guards in the alley, a few metres from the drain. It was about a fracas, a domestic in which crockery and other things had been hurtled out a front door. It was the house of a man who in the past had taken a certain amount of exception to me. OK, I said to the police, let’s change the subject to renovators pouring paint swill down the drain. ‘What about Uncle Ho? What about the country?’ I said. They seemed to take my point. They left.
The man of the fracas said, ‘Today you and I are more friendly.’ This was a pretty big statement, given the basic dark and rocky expression of the face, gained over years of angst. I shook him by the hand, given what I believed, with sufficient exaggeration, and relatively speaking, and if only in potential, was a great leap forward.
The halcyon period of fishing with a net in pond on the navy site, which begins just across the alley from us, was not typical of urban fishing in Ho Chi Minh City, but must be recorded for being so picturesque and Walden-like. The land had become so overgrown during the hiatus in work that mothers used to take their children there in floppy hats to chase butterflies and toss stones to make ripples. A sojourner from New York said it was an extraordinarily good park.
Most urban fishing takes place on the banks of the black canals, where the sickening miasmas have declined over the decade, but where the water remains as black as ever, despite earnest and expensive hydrological works such as those that have been seen on the Thi Nghe Canal, on the northern side of the city centre, ever since I was a considerably younger expat.
On a Sunday afternoon, the joy of rod fishing over the dark-grey banks has only gained in piquancy. Water hyacinth sails jauntily sopping up the terrible carbon, often in company with Styrofoam reflected in a wet mirror so efficient that its back might was well have been created with silver nitrate.
Our stream resembling a tiny burn from a poem by Robert Burns is possibly a freak exception to the general turgid picture of urban fishing. Can the fish caught in the city nowadays really be edible? While Madam E may know her fish can go straight to the pan, or be fit for fermenting and gingering for a jar, what about the general people’s fish, the size of a finger, which, in sufficient numbers, make a meal? Should Madam E be helping the people out and revising Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management for the Industrial Revolution in Vietnam?

Text and pictures by James Gordon
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