A fishy affair on the ’Roof of Indochina’

April 08, 2018 - 09:00

A precious variety of fish, which, according to locals, exist only within the Hoàng Liên Sơn mountain range, dubbed the “Roof of Indochina”, is considered to possess beneficial medicinal properties due to its peculiar bitter taste.

The upper area of Chảng Phàng Stream is where the bitter fish take shelter. VNS Photo Khánh Kiên
Viet Nam News

by Khánh Kiên

Located in the northern province of Lai Châu, the Hoàng Liên Sơn mountain range, dubbed the “Roof of Indochina”, has always posed challenges to travellers.

The primitive condition of the mountains nurtures many mysteries of creation, one such being a precious variety of fish, which, according to locals, exist only within the range. The fish is considered to possess beneficial medicinal properties due to its peculiar bitter taste.

“There are many explanations for the name of the mountain range,” said Lý Vần Xiên, chairman of the People’s Council of Sin Suối Hồ Commune.

“According to local belief, the mountain is named after Hoàng Liên or Goldthread, precious ginseng that used to grow abundantly in the mountain range. But due to extensive trading in both domestic and international markets, the herbs have been over-harvested and has now significantly reduced in number.

“Elderly people say that the water flowing by the ginseng has bitter taste, which is why the fish in the water also tastes bitter,” Xiên said, adding that the fish is called “bitter fish” by locals.

The determination to verify the existence of such precious fish motivated us to visit Sìn Suối Hồ Commune on a beautiful sunny day.

We were told about how the local people unanimously worked for thousands of days to build a new road to the commune.

As a result of their hard labour, the commune today has a beautiful, clean and concrete road bordering the traditional stilt houses of the ethnic Mông people. Gardens of cymbidium in full blossom welcome visitors to this fairy-tale land.

On being received by the village chef, Vàng Anh Chỉnh, we were told that only the elderly knew about the fish and only the locals knew how to catch them. He also told us that rarely had the villagers led people from other areas to find the fish as they considered it their treasure.

In search of rare fish

We set off on our journey to find the precious fish the next morning, accompanied by three strong local men.

According to Xiên, the fish only live in two streams - Hoàng Chù Van and Chảng Phàng - located deep in the forests. It took us many hours to reach the streams on motorbikes, manoeuvring hundreds of potholes and abysses. But we hardly paid attention to the bumpy roads as we were too busy admiring the beauty of the villages of the Mông, nestled among gardens of cardamom and peach blossoms.

On the way, we were told that the rare fish in the region were also called tonic fish or ginseng fish, which explained why they were much sought after. No wonder it required luck to spot these fish.

We ventured further into the wilderness of the Hoàng Liên Sơn. The higher we climbed, the more overwhelmed we were with the stunning beauty of the scenery below. The forests are home to beautiful species of orchids, such as Dendrobium aphyllum, Vanda concolor and, particularly, Dendrobium lituiflorum, which is facing the risk of extinction and is rarely found in Lai Châu’s forests due to over-exploitation.

As we went deeper, we passed by a small cluster of Goldthread, after which the mountain is named.

“There was a time when Goldthread grew abundantly in the mountains, but due to its high demand by traders, it has reduced significantly in number, which is why it is also hard to find the bitter fish,” said a local resident, Vàng A Của.

A bitter fish is as large as a finger, with red-striped scales, white belly and shiny black back. VNS Photo Khánh Kiên
Fishy fortune: Only lucky people get the chance to taste the bitter fish, which is a specialty of Hoàng Liên Sơn mountain range. VNS Photo Khánh Kiên

Our group stopped by a stream on reaching a height of 2,300m. It was the upper area of the Chảng Phàng stream. At such height, the water was as cold as if taken from a refrigerator, even though it was mid-day.

Based on his experience, Của confirmed that this stream was where the bitter fish live. Each one of us was assigned a task - erecting the tent, damming the stream, fetching fire wood from the forest.

“The bitter fish are quite clever, so it is hard to catch them with a fishing rod, because they are not likely to take the bait. It is possible to catch them with a net, but that can be dangerous in the stream with so many obstacles. We have to follow the Mông people’s method to catch the fish,” Của said.

Test of patience

With incredible strength, the young Mông men hauled the heavy rocks in the stream and forced the water to flow in another direction. The stream is located on a steep terrain, so as soon as the water ran dried, the stream bed was quickly exposed.

While we were absorbed in observing the young men change the water flow, we heard flapping sounds on the other side of the stream. The man who had gone to collect wood had returned with red-coloured bark and was pounding it to turn the bark into powder. This would be mixed in the stream, making its water blood red.

A few minutes after the powder was sprinkled on the water, it penetrated all inside the stream. A few lampreys jumped out.

“This resin is both easy to find and process. Its toxicity is not high, so it does not kill the fish or affect human health. After its effect dissipates, the fish will regain consciousness,” Của said.

Each lamprey jumping out of the water could be easily caught with the rackets, but there was still no sight of any bitter fish.

Our guides told us to be patient. They explained since the bitter fish swam in waters flowing by Goldthread plants, they were quite strong and not easily affected by the resin.

Fifteen minutes later, the first bitter fish swam out of the rock holes and got caught. Unlike my imagination, this fish was as large as a finger. At first sight, the fish looked like a goby, but it had red-striped scales, white belly and a shiny black back.

We were fortunate to have caught dozens of bitter fish. Needless to say, we were excited to have finally enjoyed the specialty of the Hoàng Liên Sơn right in its forests.

Our guides turned into skilful cooks. Seeing the Mông men carefully scoop out each fish, which had been cooked with wild vegetables and poured into bowls, we reckoned that the special dish was reserved for distinguished guests.

The fish lived up to its name. It had a light bitter taste in its meat, but this was not due to its bile since its bowel had been removed completely. The bitterness, however, melted in the mouth and seconds later, we could feel the sweetness of its meat at the tip of our tongue. We could actually taste more of ginseng than fish meat. Mixed with the flavour of wild vegetables, the dish was indescribably delicious.

“Every fish has a bitter bowel, but the species with bitter meat can only be found in the Hoàng Liên Sơn mountains,” Xiên said, adding that we were among the lucky few who could taste the specialty. VNS