Former doctor restores Phú Quốc fish sauce to traditional glory

Update: January, 27/2019 - 09:00
Hồ Kim Liên, chairwoman of the Khải Hoàn Trading Joint Stock Company and the Phú Quốc Fish Sauce Association. VNS Photo Xuân Hương
Viet Nam News

Hồ Kim Liên was an obstetrician at the Phú Quốc General Hospital before becoming chairwoman of the Khải Hoàn Trading Joint Stock Company and the Phú Quốc Fish Sauce Association. Liên and other members of the association have made great contributions to reviving and developing the traditional Phú Quốc fish sauce. Xuân Hương spoke to her.

Inner Sanctum: Why did you give up a job that is the dream of many young people to become the chief of a traditional fish sauce company? Are you pleased with what you have achieved since?

I am the eldest of eight children in a family that has been making the traditional fish sauce for many generations.

But none of us took up my parents’ business of making traditional fish sauce.

Then my father died suddenly, and my family had to temporarily close the business.

In 2005 I went to France to attend a professional training course. I had a chance to visit the Bordeaux wine making region. I realised that making wine was similar to making fish sauce since they also brewed in large wooden vats. I wondered why France’s wine industry had such success while Phú Quốc traditional fish sauce industry had not developed.

This question was in my mind for years. Finally I decided to revive my family’s traditional craft and develop our fish sauce brand – Khải Hoàn.

In 2007 we started to expand production and from an establishment of 12 large wooden vats (12 tonnes of fish capacity) we become one with 800 vats in 2008.

Today Khải Hoàn comprises one private enterprise (Khải Hoàn Fish Sauce Factory) and one joint stock company, and is the largest traditional fish sauce production company in Phú Quốc.

We manage our products with a closed chain from fishing and checking the quality of anchovies and salt to brewing the anchovies in vats and bottling the sauce.

Our fish sauces are now shipped to many countries, including the US, Australia, Japan, and Thailand, and exports account for 5 per cent of our total revenues. We are targeting increasing the ratio to 10-20 per cent by 2020. I am fully satisfied with Khải Hoàn’s results.

We [she and leaders of other traditional fish sauce makers] also made significant contributions to getting Phú Quốc fish sauce accepted by the EU for protection of geographical indications. This was the first product in any ASEAN member country to get protection for appellation of origin in all member countries of the EU, and was also the first Việt Nam geographical indication to be recognized and protected in the EU.

This is a big honour for traditional fish sauce makers in Phú Quốc. Our efforts paid off.

Inner Sanctum: What is the difference between Phú Quốc traditional fish sauce and fish sauce labelled with the protected designation of origin Phú Quốc? How is demand for Phú Quốc fish sauce with protected designation of origin?

It took six years for Phú Quốc fish sauce to be accepted by the EU for protection of geographical indication.

According to the protected designation of origin (PDO) certificate, Phú Quốc fish sauce products will be subject to a rigorous production process from selection of raw materials to fish sauce bottling without using any additives while ensuring traceability. The main material used to produce fish sauce is anchovy fished from the seas of Kiên Giang and Cà Mau. The proportion of anchovy as raw material must be at least 85 per cent. 

Genuine Phú Quốc fish sauce products must have three stickers: a sticker with words “Nước mắm Phú Quốc truyền thống 100 years” (100 year traditional Phú Quốc fish sauce) with the words Phú Quốc larger than enterprises’ brand name, a product number sticker on the bottle neck, and a geographical indication logo.

Currently sales of Phú Quốc fish sauce with the protected designation of origin in the domestic market are still very modest because we have not done a good job of promoting the products.

Consumers have yet to distinguish between fish sauce with protected designation of origin and other kinds of fish sauces available in the market.

Inner Sanctum: How do you assess the current status of the fish sauce market?

There is a wide range of fish sauce products and fierce competition in the market.

The traditional fish sauce industry in Việt Nam in general and in Phú Quốc in particular, will develop in a sustainable manner.

Our association has joined hands with the Việt Nam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers, the Food and Foodstuff Association of HCM City, the Vietnamese High Quality Product Business Association and many large traditional fish sauce companies to develop the traditional fish sauce industry, including Phú Quốc traditional fish sauce, in a sustainable manner. We have discussed who is in charge of promoting the products abroad and in the domestic market and who will lobby [authorities for] policies to sustain the industry’s development.

Inner Sanctum: What is your plan to promote Phú Quốc fish sauce?

We will enhance communication so that local and international consumers understand more about fish sauces with protected designation of origin as well as distinguish between them and other traditional ones.

Khải Hoàn in collaboration with the Phú Quốc Fish Sauce Association plans to organise a biennial fish sauce festival to promote the industry in Phú Quốc, with the first festival scheduled to be held next April.

In addition, we are applying to UNESCO for recognition of Phú Quốc fish sauce as a cultural heritage of the world.

Inner Sanctum: Visiting Khải Hoàn Fish Sauce Factory is included in the list of top things for visitors to do on Phú Quốc Island. Do you think collaboration between the traditional fish sauce craft village and tourism is important?

Preserving and developing the traditional fish sauce industry in association with tourism is my wish because fish sauce is one of the island’s tourism products, contributing significantly to its economic growth and the entire province’s.

In the past Khải Hoàn has succeeded greatly in promoting its products through tourism. Thanks to visitors, more and more customers know about Phú Quốc fish sauce. VNS