|Expensive seas: A farm where fishermen are cultivating marine shellfish called tu hai, a species of bivalve mollusc, in Van Don District in northern Quang Ninh Province. — VNS Photo Doan Tung
by Thanh Duy
Several poor fishermen in Van Don District in northern Quang Ninh Province have become dong billionaires thanks to a marine shellfish called tu hai, or geoduck, a species of bivalve mollusc.
One of them, Hoang Van Thu, 46, from the town of Cai Rong, now owns a spacious house, a ship worth hundreds of millions of dong, and the largest and most successful aquaculture farm in the district.
One of the pioneer breeders of tu hai in 2003, he has weathered many difficulties and failures. But today, Thu harvests more than 10 tonnes of the shellfish each year.
Each crop is worth about VND1 billion (US$47,600), making him the king of shellfish - and a hero to many local fishermen. Ten years ago, Thu's family never even dreamt about such large amounts.
"I was born and grew up on a timber fishing vessel owned by my parents in coastal Van Don District. My mother was good at collecting various species of shellfish. However, I never wanted my life to be tied to the sea. I only got into breeding shellfish by chance," he said.
After getting married in 1991, Thu moved into a small house in Van Don District inherited from his parents. But he made his living as a xe om (motorbike taxi) driver while his wife did small business.
"Yes, life was not always a peaceful river," Thu said. At that time, he gambled, which made things difficult for his family.
He eventually lost all his family's savings, the house, even his motorbike. Thu's life became even more stressful after his wife gave birth.
Borrowing a sum of money from relatives and friends, Thu bought a small "basket boat" (coracle). "I don't know what induced me to go to sea," he said.
He paddled and sailed to nearby Dong Chen Island, which was uninhabited. All he possessed were a few kilos of rice, some pots, a knife, and a hunting gun.
"Fortunately, God gave me the ability to hunt. I went after wild deer, monkeys and boars on the island and carried them back to the mainland to sell. I lived like this for one year," Thu said, adding that he had visited every nook and cranny on the island and others surrounding it.
As a little money started to come in, his family also moved to the island. Thu bought fruit trees to grow on the island. Fortunately, in 1994, he was asked to manage some State forest land on the island. He was also told he could clear it and replant with timber trees.
Besides hunting, Thu made extra income from selling native timber, and planting eucalyptus. Eventually, the eucalyptus plantation stretched as far as the eye could see.
|Rich hitch: Fishermen check up on their tu hai crop. — File Photos
The family suffered many difficulties, especially from storms, as they tried to wrest a living from the soil. "One day, I couldn't make landfall even though my little boat was close to the island. Strong winds pushed it away from the shore and I drifted for four days. It was a worrying time. My wife was on the island alone," Thu said.
In 2003, officials from the provincial Fisheries Department and a team of foreign experts appealed to local residents to pilot the cultivation of tu hai molluscs. They were told that, if successful, the plan would be an instant escape from poverty. Thu was one of the people chosen.
After being given some basic skills in aquaculture from the experts, and some breeding stock, Thu and the others separately began cultivation. After making a small profit from the first crop, Thuï began to realise that the shellfish could indeed offer his family a far better life.
"At that time, the shellfish were extremely expensive and the prospects were good. Even today, they cost hundreds of thousands of dong per kilo, making them a luxury flood," he said.
To develop the scale of his aquaculture farm, Thu met many difficulties, especially in finding sufficient breeding stock. At the time, the Research Institute for Aquaculture 3 in Nha Trang City propagated some baby bivalve molluscs, but there was never enough.
Therefore, Thu spent most of his savings plus borrowings of more than VND80 million (US$3,800) to buy baby geoducks from China. But the crucial batch died after a couple of months because the Chinese shellfish couldn't adapt themselves to the local seawater.
Undeterred by the failure, he took some of his own geoducks to China for propagation. While this worked, he decided to be self sufficient and gradually learned the propagation techniques himself. He gradually achieved success.
Dang Khanh Hung, an official from the provincial agricultural ministry's Aquaculture Sub-department, has kept a close eye on the development of shellfish cultivation. He said: "Thu was always creative, enterprising, and undeterred by failures. He is now one of the area's most experienced bivalve mollusc farmers. — VNS