Who: The village of Sa Chau
What: Fish sauce
Where: Sa Chau, Nam Dinh, Vietnam
In Vietnam, it’s common for entire villages to be occupied in making one thing. Bat Trang village makes pottery. Chuong village makes the famous conical hats called “non.” Phu Do is the home of rice noodles. And, as we saw yesterday in a profile of fish sauce makers Vu Thi Hoa and Vu Van Hai, Sa Chau, a small town off the coast of northern Vietnam, makes fish sauce.
Sa Chau (pronounced “sah cho”) is home to about 1,500 families. The whole village is Roman Catholic and centered on a huge, ornate new church that opened the week before I visited. The village used to be right on the coast; nowadays, the water has receded, but the village tradition of making fish sauce remains.
Walking down the streets of Sa Chau, the first evidence of fish sauce is the fishy smell. I followed my nose and talked to two fish sauce makers, Mrs. Vu Thi Hoa and Mr. Vu Van Hai, to ask them about their village’s tradition. Both Hai and Hoa have been making fish sauce for 30 years. It’s in their blood.
Making fish sauce is not easy. It requires a huge investment up front — both Hoa and Hai buy between 30 and 40 tons of fish each year, and then the fish sauce-making process takes between 9 months to one year before they can sell their sauce. And selling it is hard, too; they sell mostly locally, so they have to find all of their customers themselves.
Plus, the process of making fish sauce is just plain hard work. There used to be more households employed making fish sauce in the village, but now more people are leaving the tradition behind to look for different kinds of work with more stable pay.
And the competition isn’t helping either. Larger companies can make fish sauce more cheaply, although not by hand in the traditional way. A vital step of making traditional fish sauce is to separate out the salt from the fish extract by letting it dry in the sun, but factories aren’t at the mercy of the weather like Sa Chau fish sauce makers are. Some factories add preservatives or other additives to speed up the process, reduce the amount of fish needed to make their sauce, and cut costs.
All of this means a bottle of fish sauce made by a large company might cost 15,000 Vietnamese dong (about 75 cents), while a bottle of Sa Chau sauce sells for 60,000 dong (about $3.00). Loyal customers can tell the difference, but for Sa Chau’s small businesses, one year of bad sales can have a big impact.
Hoa hopes to pass on her business to her son one day. Hai would like to expand his operation and sell his fish sauce outside of Vietnam eventually, but he needs to find more customers first. They’ll both produce about nine or ten thousand liters of fish sauce this year, and then start the cycle again. Neither has any plans to quit.
Thanks, Mr. Hai, Mrs. Hoa, and translator Thu Duong, for your invaluable help!
(Image credits: Lisa Pepin)