After gaining an MA in "Green growth and sustainable development" at South Australia's University of Adelaide, Dao Thi Hang, 28, was offered a prestigious PhD scholarship. Surprisingly, she declined the offer, opting instead to return to Viet Nam to produce a new fish sauce with locals in coastal Quang Tri Province. Hang speaks to Hai Yen about her surprising career change and plans for the future.
Inner Sanctum: Why did you decide to skip your studies and return to Viet Nam? Surely if you had chosen to pursue your scholarship, you would have had more opportunities to serve your homeland's poor in the future?
I always ask myself the question what is the 'purpose of my life?' A job and an income are important, but helping people is much more so. This was the only motivation for me to pursue my dream of helping the people in Quang Tri. When you have a dream, you should do all you can to make it come true while you're still young and have less commitments holding you back. I feared that by the time I finally finished my PhD, I would be too old to pursue my passion.
One of the factors that greatly influenced my decision was the example set by my friend Duong Quang Thien. He studied computing in France, worked for International Business Machines (IBM), and then got married to a foreign woman. Yet, he decided to return home to Viet Nam as he thought his country needed his help more than other more developed nations. Since 1989, he and his wife have issued more than 2,000 scholarships to disadvantaged students, including me. I once discussed with him about the ways I could help people in Quang Tri and it was he who raised the idea of restoring the traditional fish sauce trade and creating sustainable employment. I loved this thought so much that I soon became determined to do exactly that.
Inner Sanctum: Could you tell us about what you did first when returning to Viet Nam? Surely you spent a lot of time studying how to make fish sauce?
Indeed I did. I spent five months travelling the coast from Ha Tinh to Binh Thuan, researching and collecting 20 different types of fish sauce. I discovered lots of regional specialties, some of which were once regularly sampled by the country's kings.
These days though, few people make special fish sauces such as mam thu, mam doi and mam nhum. They have fallen into obscurity, which is very sad because they taste incredible. Now many of the people in these central areas are living in poverty. Therefore, my dream is to re-popularise the special fish sauce across the country and bring benefits to the people here.
Inner Sanctum: Have you ever thought of exporting fish sauce overseas?
A friend of mine who studied in Russia told me that Vietnamese sauce is rare there. Once she made fried fish but had nothing to go with it, to her dismay. From that very moment, I began to understand how important fish sauce was to Vietnamese people. Therefore, the slogan of Thuyen Nan is "keeping fish sauce the way it's meant to be".
From what I have read, archaeological sites in Ha Tien town in Kien Giang Province have uncovered Roman coins, relics and fish sauce jars, suggesting that there must have been a trade exchange between our country and European countries as long as 3,000 years ago.
To me, preserving the traditional fish sauce technique helps maintain a unique part of Vietnamese culture.
Recently I have started selling my product via Facebook, mostly through my close friends. I am also sending my products to customers in Ha Noi, Da Nang and HCM City. After finishing the registration to certify the food safety of the product, I will open my distribution channel. I hope that soon I will send my sauce to Australia.
Inner Sanctum: Why did you choose to label your product Thuyen Nan?
Although these days Thuyen Nan - small bamboo boat - are rarely used, they remain an image associated with Vietnamese fishermen, so it is a nice connection. It is also symbolic; although the bamboo craft is small and unsteady, it represents the thirst for knowledge of the Vietnamese people.
Inner Sanctum: You once used the famous saying about 'giving villagers the fishing rod, not the fish.' How did you carry your plan to develop their capacity?
Inspiring someone to work towards a long-term goal can be a difficult process. In this case we started with an advantage; the local people already knew how to fish. They just needed better equipment and organisation.
For example, Nguyen Thi Ro, a single mother in rural Hai Lang district, has made the most delicious fish sauce in the area for 37 years. Her first son got sick and all she wanted was to successfully sell fish sauce to help him and to put her second son through school. I hope I can help her achieve that success.
Inner Sanctum: It is fair to say you are a workaholic and have become addicted to your fish sauce project. Do you find any time for love and family?
To be honest, I am still single. Due to work commitments, I rarely spend time at home. However I am very close to my siblings and my parents. —VNS