|Main ingredient: Villagers select anchovies to make fish sauce. — Photo iatlat.com
Making fish sauce is a way of life for residents in this village near Da Nang, but can they make the traditional product successful in modern Viet Nam or around the world? Cong Thanh reports.
Situated at the foot of the Hai Van Pass, 17km northwest of downtown Da Nang city, Nam O village boasts pristine beaches and a thriving fishing industry. The village of 5,000 has produced fish sauce since the 19th century, and the trade still earns villagers their livelihood.
March is anchovy fishing season. The small fish and salt are the only materials needed to make what is considered by many the best fish sauce in the central region of Viet Nam.
The family of Tran Ngoc Vinh, 65, has been making fish sauce in Nam O for four generations. Vinh has been fishing since the age of 20 and is a founder of the village's Fish Sauce Trade Association, which includes 110 households practicing the traditional technique.
|Time for fishing: March is anchovy fishing season.
Some of the fish Vinh and others catch is sold to wholesalers at the village market, while the remainder is fermented along with salt in terra-cotta or jackfruit wood jars.
"It seems to be an easy formula: four kilos of salt to one kilo of anchovies. All villagers know that formula. But the best sauce makers know that there is more to it," said Vinh.
Materials must be carefully selected. The salt comes from two major salt marsh areas: Sa Huynh in Quang Ngai Province and Ca Na in Ninh Thuan Province. Just one rotten fish can spoil a huge lot of fish sauce.
After 10 months to a year, the first drops of amber liquid run out from a small tap at the bottom of the jar, and the product can be eaten or sold at the market. The best quality fish sauce has a honey colour.
"We still follow the traditional way of mostly manual work. We don't use any food additives or monosodium glutamate," Vinh said.
Annually, the village produces 100,000 litres of premium fish sauce from nearly 200 tonnes of anchovies. Each ton of fish produces 550 litres of fish sauce and a VND10 million (US$480) profit.
Pham Sy Tan, 77, said fish sauce has been his family's main source of income since he entered the trade 40 years ago.
"My wife and I grew up in the fishing village. Strong men sailed out to sea for fishing, while women undertook the processing of sea products," Tan said.
"My wife died last year, but I still make fish sauce with my children. My family produces 2,000 litres per year for revenue of VND120 million ($5,700)."
"We still follow the old recipe. Hygienic production keeps our product top-quality and safe," Tan explained.
|Saucy: Nam O fish sauce offered for sale. — Photos Hoai Nam
Hoang Van Lan, an agent in central Quang Ngai Province, said Nam O Village was recognised as one of the top producers in Viet Nam alongside Phu Quoc, Phan Thiet, Nha Trang and Cat Hai.
"Fish sauce from the village has built a famous trademark due to its premium quality. Most villagers can produce fish sauce and there is a lot of potential for boosting production," said Lan.
"However, reliance on manual labour and poor competitive packaging as well as price are major obstacles for business. The village needs a comprehensive strategy for production, marketing and advertising."
He added that the village should diversify its production to create more options for consumers.
"Premium fish sauce from Nam O Village costs VND60,000 for a one-liter bottle ($2.8), while buyers often favour low-quality products that sell for about VND25,000," Lan said.
However, he made the case that since many consumers prefer premium fish sauce because they know that it does not contain any food additives, the village should take advantage of this opportunity to market its distinctive product.
|Coastal community: Nam O Village, where most residents make a living from the sea.
Fish sauce production in Nam O declined after the country's reunification in 1975. Many villagers switched to making firecrackers, which was a hugely profitable trade. While fish sauce production revived in 1994 when firecracker making was banned, the central city's rapid urbanisation once again threatens the traditional occupation.
Land demand for resorts and industrial parks bit half the village, and 550 households had to be resettled. The remaining population faces a shortage of land for production.
The village's fish sauce association is working with companies to set up modern production facilities.
Le Thi Aùnh Nguyet, manager of HCM City-based Tram Anh manufacturing and trading service company, has inked a co-operation agreement with the village to invest VND2 billion ($95,000) in building a 2,000sq.m. processing facility.
"It will change fish sauce production in this village when all households get together in an automated production line," said Nguyet, whose family also produced fish sauce in the late 1980s.
"I know that villagers could produce 300,000 litres of fish sauce per year if they made use of new production methods.
"I'm familiar with the village's fish sauce trademark and I want to make it known worldwide. We're joining hands with the local administration to set up a fish sauce factory, from investing in a fishing fleet and collecting good quality anchovies and salt to working on packaging and design as well as promotion campaigns," she explained.
Nguyen Huu Thiet, vice chairman of Lien Chieu District People's Committee, said the district would invest VND4 billion in fishing vessels to help villagers improve their catch and send their fish sauce to supermarkets nationwide.
"We hope that villagers' income will increase along with the increased output," he said.
Fisherman Vinh has been assigned to cover quality control at the new factory.
"We will make sure that fish sauce production follows the traditional recipe we inherited from our ancestors," Vinh said.
"We hope our produce will someday be sold at supermarkets around the world." — VNS