A rocket fragment opens a jar of nuoc mam

Bruce Weigl. Photo: Keith Berr

Vietnam Heritage, May-June 2011 -- At home on leave from the war I used to stare out of the windows of my father’s house and watch the yards fill up with snow and know that no one was hiding in the trees who wanted to kill me. I felt safe but I missed Vietnam as well, something I never could have said to my fellow soldiers or even to my own family

The first time I smelled nước mắm, or fish sauce, was in the middle of a fierce rocket and mortar attack at a place called Camp Evans, a base camp for the 1st Air Cavalry during the American War in Vietnam, thirty-five kilometres north of Hue on Highway No 1.
Across from our bunker, which saved our lives more than a few times, was a tent and bunker that the ARVNs – the soldiers of the South Vietnamese Regime – used. We had taken two very close hits with 122 mm rockets, and a large piece of one of them had torn into the tent the Vietnamese soldiers slept in, although they were safe in their own bunker at the time. After the attack I walked the fifty or so yards with a few other soldiers towards where a large piece of one of the rockets had torn into the ARVNs’ tent. Before we were even fifty feet away, we were overcome by a stench that was worse than anything I’d ever smelled in my life, and I could only believe that something large had died nearby, and had now become rotten. I coughed uncontrollably, which forced me to take a deep breath in, which in turn caused me to gag and cough uncontrollably again. I moved as quickly as I could away from the rocketed tent where the ARVN soldiers had stored their large, twenty-gallon jar of nước mắm, a sauce impossible, I would later learn, not to have in Vietnamese meals. The pungent fish sauce had spilled there when a rocket fragment had smashed into the jar, and it had spread out of the tent and down a small gulley nearby.
But there was something about the odour that I liked, too, and that stayed with me. A few times at that base camp on Highway No 1, or at a fire base or landing zone nearby, I shared a meal with the ARVN soldiers who had kindly welcomed me to their company. I was grateful and hated c-rations supplied to American soldiers. During one of these meals, I asked about the fish sauce. They were joyful when I brought it up – I had learned the Vietnamese – and they quickly produced some, sprinkled it over a small cup of rice and handed it to me. It was delicious: a wonderful combination of pungent and sweet, and the richness too of the taste of the river that flows back into the darkness where time is.
From then on I ate fish sauce whenever I had the opportunity in Vietnam, which wasn’t very often; of course it wasn’t included in our c-rations or in our base camp meals cooked for American soldiers. Still, somehow, I kept a taste for it in my mind, and only had to think of it to make my mouth water. I learned that you could do a lot with fish sauce: it is a wonderful dipping sauce, and can be used in cooking to add taste and to replace salt. During the war, some Vietnamese soldiers I had met even drank it to keep themselves warm, especially if they had to be in the water for a long time. With its special smell, you can also use it in a trap as bait, and, most importantly, you can use it to make practically any food you can think of taste better.
When I left the Vietnam battlefield for what I thought at the time was forever, I didn’t bring very much of the Vietnamese culture with me, largely because that culture had been kept from us. I know now that it was kept from us because it is a rich and very old culture, and it was kept from us in order to keep us from seeing the Vietnamese as real people, at least the Vietnamese who fought on the side of the North, which in turn made it easier to kill them. I didn’t bring much Vietnamese culture back with me after the war, but I brought a love for what I thought was a beautiful green paradise of a country, whose people seemed sweet and kind and generous of spirit. I brought back, too, a sack full of sorrows, and a lack of trust in my government. I also came back with a real taste for nước mắm.
In Lorain, Ohio, the steel mill town of my childhood and adolescence, there was no nước mắm to be found in December of 1968. There wasn’t any in Cleveland either and no Vietnamese restaurants or shops or markets that sold Vietnamese food; not even any Vietnamese in the surrounding area yet.
At home on leave from the war I used to stare out of the windows of my father’s house and watch the yards fill up with snow and know that no one was hiding in the trees who wanted to kill me. I felt safe but I missed Vietnam as well, something I never could have said to my fellow soldiers or even to my own family; they would have thought something was wrong with me, that the war had made me lose my mind, so I kept it to myself. And as the weeks and months passed by me like debris on a river, I was lost in some kind of reverie I couldn’t name. I was not the person I had been a year earlier; I had left part of my soul back in Vietnam.
When spring came I did what I always do in the spring: fish for big lake trout that spawned in the nearby rivers, streams. After one lucky day I brought home three large, five-or-six pound fish, and as I cleaned them behind my father’s garage I smelled the fish and I remembered a conversation I’d had with an ARVN solider in Vietnam about nước mắm, about how it was the most special and important ingredient in Vietnamese cooking, how it was almost mystical in terms of its power to transform the flavour of different foods in different ways, and how it was made. He told me this last thing to illustrate that I could make it at home. I’d forgotten until the moment I was cleaning the fish, the spring after I’d come home from the war, leaving much of my memory behind. He’d told me that all I had to do was clean the insides of the fish, open them up, salt them, and stretch them out across some sticks to ferment, and then basically wait for them to rot into a pan below. Once they had completely fallen apart, he said I should then cook the remains very slowly over a low flame until the fish had completely broken down and condensed into a beautiful liquid. Just thinking about the nước mắm that had spilled in the ARVN’s tent at Camp Evans sent me back to Vietnam, and that strong smell that was in fact for me the smell of a country.
I decided then, without much thought, to make my own fish sauce. At the hardware store I bought some chicken wire and nails, and using scrap wood from my father’s garage I built a small drying rack. From my mother’s kitchen I brought a flat and shallow pan, and, using bricks, stacked it under the rack to catch the fluids from the rotting fish.
I knew I only had to wait, and so I came inside the house and forgot about my own personal fish sauce, fermenting behind my father’s garage in Lorain, Ohio, twelve thousand miles from a war that still ground on. I forgot about it the way I lost most of my memory with that war. I forgot about it until one evening, I was sitting in my father’s house, looking out of the window. I don’t remember what I was thinking about then, but I know I was lost, and was having a hard time finding my way; I know the war had gotten inside of me somehow and was never going to let go. Sitting there in my father’s house I heard a ruckus outside and walked to the window to see half a dozen police cars parked sideways on the street and the yards blue with policemen. Outside on the street where my neighbours had gathered, I asked some cop I recognized from the block what was going on.
‘Someone said there’s a dead body in one of these houses,’ he said.
‘Why do they think that,’ I asked.
‘Jesus,’ he said ‘because of the smell. Can’t you smell it?’
Standing there in the middle of the street at night, my neighbours gathered around as if at some kind ritual, the yards and fields filled with police, I took my first deep breath since coming outside. I knew immediately what the problem was, and told the cop that I knew where the smell was coming from. Three cops and a handful of neighbours followed me like a squad to my drying rack behind my father’s garage. Before they could even see what I had done, they were overcome by the smell and had to turn back.
‘That’s your dead body,’ the cop from the neighbourhood said from afar, pointing at the rotting fish.
After everything had been straightened out with the police and with my kind neighbours and I had promised to get rid of the rotting fish as soon as possible, I gathered up the remains of three trout and put them into a pan. Outside I made a fire and cooked the fish slowly for a long time until the rotting fish had almost completely liquefied. I strained the liquid through a fine sieve and then cooked it slowly again. In the end, the colour was like the colour of the sun the moment before it sets into the horizon. I sealed a jarful and kept it hidden in my bedroom.
In 1968, in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, some ARVN soldiers had shared with me their meagre rations, and had taught me about a sauce made from fermented fish that was like a magic elixir, like a cure-all for your body and your soul. It has become the smell of Vietnam for me in my mind when I’m home and lonely for my second country. That same spring I made my own fish sauce in the back yard of my steel worker father’s house, and sealed it in a jar as if it was some kind of essence I needed to hold there, forever. I used it secretly on my food but had to be careful because the smell was so strong and I had already had the police called to the neighbourhood.
All these years the war has stayed with me; no matter how much you want to forget, some things stay imprinted on your brain. When I eat at Vietnamese food shops and restaurants around the US, I always say that I don’t want the American fish sauce, but the real Vietnamese version. I’ve learned that Vietnamese food tastes better when cooked with better fish sauce, or eaten with fish sauce skilfully mixed with the right amount of garlic, chilli, lemon, sugar and water. I’ve gone from being a fan of fish sauce to being a connoisseur, searching in Asian markets around the country for the best fish sauce. In my country, in the 80s and 90s, although Vietnamese people started to come to the US, it was very difficult to find good fish sauce.
Some varieties of fish sauce seem to have been made with water, salt and food colouring, but they have still sometimes tricked the big noses. Only after my thorough research
could I find reliable stores to supply my fish sauce. Sometimes, when I cook for my friends, I use a little nước mắm in a European recipe that they love, and often after the meal they say how special and delicious the food was, and then ask, ‘But what was that spice in there . ., that special flavour?’ I never tell them. I want it to be my secret, still.

About the author
Professor Bruce Weigl fought in the battlefields of Quang Tri in 1967 to 1968 and witnessed some of the most terrible events of the American War in Vietnam. Returning home, he sought refuge in poetry. Bruce Weigl once said, ‘the war has robbed many things from me, but it has given me poetry, and love for Vietnam and its people’. Weigl’s first full-length collection of poems, A Romance, was published in 1979. He is now the author of thirteen poetry collections, most recently The Abundance of Nothing and the best-selling memoir The Circle of Hanh.

Fish sauce for a purpose
On 5/12/2010, the article ‘My Own Personal Fish Sauce’ was published on the Weekend
Edition of Tuoi Tre newspaper. The editor immediately received a phone call from the Director of Thanh Ha Company, who specializes in making Phu Quoc’s traditional fish sauce and who was touched deeply by Bruce Weigl’s article that she wanted to invite Professor Weigl to Phu Quoc, to witness Vietnam’s traditional methods of fish-sauce-making. Due to his time restriction, Professor Bruce Weigl promised to visit Phu Quoc island next time, but he asked Thanh Ha Company to give a scholarship to an outstanding Vietnamese student, instead of paying for his trip to Phu Quoc. On 22 December 2010, Professor Bruce Weigl presented the first scholarship of the Nguyen Weigl scholarship programme, established with the launching of his book ‘After the Rain Stopped Pounding’ (compiled and translated by Nguyen Phan Que Mai, Tre Publishing House 2010). The scholarship receiver is Le Anh Duc, a student from Ho Chi Minh City University of Arts.

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