by Phước Bửu
In early December 2010, Vietnamese tra fish (basa fish) made headlines when the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) placed it on its red list, which names produce that is farmed under unhygienic conditions or traded illegally.
The red label on Vietnamese basa fillets meant that WWF’s suggestion to refrain from consuming the product could affect the lives of millions of farmers, workers and traders in the Cửu Long (Mekong) Delta, where basa fish farms and processing factories are based.
At that time, local newspapers printed many stories in favour of protecting the product, stating that WWF’s red labelling was unfair. I read most of them and questioned whether Vietnamese basa fillet consumers in other countries could read these articles and others published in Vietnamese.
I then decided that Việt Nam News, the country’s leading English newspaper, should serve as a pioneer in proving the unfairness suffered by the basa fish industry. But at that time, I was only a junior reporter, and I doubted I would be assigned such a challenging story.
However, when the newsroom’s head asked for a volunteer to investigate the issue on a three- or four-day field trip, I raised my hand first. I then left the meeting in a hurry to pack at home, leaving behind the surprised, sceptical faces of my seniors.
The accusations reported in newspapers helped me collect information for counter arguments, in which I planned to show that fish farms met hygienic requirements, including a clean farming environment, hygienic processing factories and proper waste treatment. The second point was that Việt Nam’s breeding system no longer relied on fish naturally-sourced from Tonle Sap, which meant the industry did not harm nature.
Without any contacts, I hopped on a bus and first stopped at the Cái Bè Breeding Centre in Tiền Giang Province near HCM City. Later, I travelled to the adjacent Đồng Tháp and spent the rest of the day working with the Department of Fishery Protection. I ended the first day with an empty stomach and headache from the 38 degree Celsius heat.
My second day was consumed by visits to fish farms around Đồng Tháp and a return trip to Tân Hồng District, 60km from the municipal city, to visit some prominent fish farms and processing factories. The second day ended at Vàm Cống ferry station for the last return trip at 9pm. I said goodbye to the young lady from the Department of Fishery Protection, who lent me her motorbike and guided me around the area.
After reaching the opposite river bank and walking in the dark for almost a kilometre, I took a motorbike taxi, which passed me off to another driver. The second driver left me in the dark with his motorbike as he disappeared into the bushes without a word for almost 20 minutes. I feared he would return with some weapon to rob my brand new Canon 60D, but luckily, he returned tiredly saying he suddenly saw a snake and tried to catch it. I finally arrived at a hotel in An Giang’s Long Xuyên City with funny memories.
The next morning was tough. The dean of the environment faculty at An Giang University refused me, suspecting I had bad motives. However, a female lecturer confidentially showed me the process to treat wastewater using water orchids at a fish farm where she supervised the hygiene and environment. I then took a bus back to HCM City with a big question in mind: "Why did the dean get irritated with me when I was trying to do a good thing?"
I spent the next two days in HCM City’s newsroom developing the story, with several long pauses to sleep on the floor. The air conditioner felt cool, although I was coming down with a fever. On December 15, 2010 when Việt Nam News published my story in the morning newspaper, I was in the hospital with a fever and stomach inflammation.
But it was still a great day because it was the first time my byline appeared on Việt Nam News’ front page. In addition, I learned that a WWF official arrived in Việt Nam that day and read my story, prompting him to visit the Mekong Delta and ultimately concluded that basa fish should be removed from WWF’s red list.
Right person, right time. The sense of fulfilment gained from this story inspired following trips. I believe that in journalism, visiting a place to see, hear, feel and investigate always makes a better story. — VNS