Stay afloat: how the Vietnamese from the island of Phu Quoc connected their existence with water

They build houses and businesses on the water. They get food from water. Even domestic Fukuoka dogs come from the water

Noon. Near the shore, from the muddy water of the Gulf of Thailand, similar to the “primary broth”, sticks out like a strange squid, the head of an old woman in a straw hat with a turned-up brim. Nearby floats a can of boat fuel with a hole in the middle. It can be seen that it is filled to the top with shells. Passing American tourists gasp and throw money into the water like food. The old woman smiles with her toothless mouth, grabs the banknotes and tucks her soaked dress through the collar.

Stay afloat: how the Vietnamese from Phu Quoc connected their existence with water

—Who is this woman? —I ask his guide Tien, a native of Fukuoka.

— A fisherwoman from the village of Ham Ninh. She's over 70. She catches sea snails all day and then sells them on the pier, – Tien yawns. – But she already figured out that you can earn money in other ways.

Other fishermen in non-la conical straw hats, wary like seagulls protecting their prey, place basins with their catch along the pier: scallops, mussels, seahorses.

— Do they eat seahorses?

< p> — They should be soaked in rice wine and drink tincture. Gives strength to men! Well, it's actually an energy drink. Invigorates.

Phu Quoc is waking up

The only eatery in the fishing village of Ham Ninh resembles a clumsy ship assembled from plywood, tin, boards – everything that came to hand. Inside, hammocks are hung near the wall. In each of them, like an oyster in a shell, a person curled up. The people of Fukuoka are so sound asleep that they do not hear either the roar of motor boats or scooters rushing along the road.

Stay afloat: how the Vietnamese from Phu Quoc connected their existence with water

At five in the morning, fishermen go to sea. They get tired. Quiet time in hammocks is an alternative to seahorses: in a dream, strength is restored. The locals are malnourished. The fish either bite or they don't. Money is not always found. Phu Quoc has still not recovered from the bloody storms. When the wars ended in the 1980s, the island fell asleep along with the economy, like a fish.

However, now Phu Quoc is starting to wake up – it smells of tourism. Today is a holiday in the Ham Ninh eatery. Tien brought a Russian delegation & nbsp; – sellers of tours. Large white women float sedately to a table immersed in food: grandmother's snail soup with chili, freshly caught and fried lobsters, shrimp, mussels, squid. And suddenly a flock of flies clings to the plates. Some guests frown in disgust. I, out of solidarity with the starving people of Fukuoka, start eating.

Stay afloat: how the Vietnamese from Phu Quoc island connected their existence with water

— Don't forget that!  Tien hands me a saucer of brownish-rusty odorous liquid. -Nueoc-mam fish sauce, our pride! Pour them rice. It will be more satisfying.

With the sauce, rice becomes spicy, spicy, thick. It's like diving into the thickness of sea water after a small fresh river. Unexpectedly delicious.

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Anchovy secret

It's hard to breathe in a factory in the suburbs of Duong Dong where nuoc mam is made. Feeling like I was in the stomach of a giant rotting fish. Its insides – 300 three-meter-high wooden barrels – are tied with ship ropes and filled with sauce. At the entrance, a girl named Lan sits silently, as if taking water in her mouth, and sells bottles of sauce for 45,000 dong apiece (about two dollars).

Staying afloat: how the Vietnamese from Phu Quoc connected their existence with water

— How do you handle the smell? — I wrinkle my nose.

Lan shrugs:

— I like it. He is marine, native, homely. My Fukuoka ancestors came up with a recipe for fish sauce 200 years ago.

At first, the people of Fukuoka prepared the sauce at home, for themselves. In the 19th century, the French colonialists – lovers of savory seasonings – put production on stream: they opened factories, established exports. Deliveries continued until 1975. After the victory of Vietnam in the war with the United States, the US government imposed an embargo on all Vietnamese products, and Phu Quoc sauce producers switched to domestic sales. In the 1990s, the embargo was lifted, but the “ship sailed away”: a similar sauce from Thailand had already taken its place on the world market.

— Similar, but not the same, — Lan frowns.  . As soon as we resume exports, the Thais will be left with nothing. Our sauce is the best!

— What is the difference between your sauce and Thai sauce?

“In each tank we put 9,000 kg of Pacific anchovies and 3,000 kg of sea salt. Nothing else. Stir and wait for the fermentation process to take place. A year later, the sauce is ready. And Thais can mix other fish and add chemistry. It's because they don't have Fukuoka anchovy. He is special. Strong. And it has a lot of minerals, protein. Even pepper grows from our anchovy!

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Pepper from fish

Black pepper grows all over Fukuoka. In the 19th century, the seeds were brought from India by the French. Pepper trees float outside the car window along the road. And there is no end to them. Tien, who volunteered to give me a ride, assures me that 60% of Phu Quoc residents have their own plantations.

Occasionally, the thickets part, revealing the squalid huts of fishermen on pontoons by the muddy canals. Patched tin roofs, faded linen on strings, filthy bowls, peeling boats. Looking at all this, you remember how it happens at low tide, when the sea leaves all kinds of evil spirits on the shore. But now the bottom of life is again closed by pepper groves. I ask you to stop at the first farm you see in Suoi Mei.

Stay afloat: how the Vietnamese from Phu Quoc Island connected their existence with water

Hoang, a skinny “nerd” with glasses, leads us between two dense rows of pepper trees.

 – Trees begin to bear fruit when they reach three to five meters in height, – he says. – For growth, fish fertilizer is a must. We stick a seedling into the ground, make holes around it and pour a mixture of rotten anchovies with water into it. Fishermen bring us worthless, old fish. For fertilizer – just right. The procedure is repeated every two months. We harvest in two years. Seven kilograms per tree!

Hoang hands me a bunch of green and reddish peppercorns. Reminiscent of fish caviar.

 – Four months to wait until they turn red. We assemble by hand & nbsp; – according to peppercorn. This makes it easier to sort. Part of the harvest is immediately packed. We first dry the other part in the sun for a couple of weeks so that the seeds turn black. And another part goes to white pepper: you just need to remove the skin from a ripe red one. There is no such pepper anywhere in all of Vietnam. Because the right anchovy is found only in Fukuoka, – Hoang frowns, as if he had bitten through a peppercorn. – Merchants from the continent beat off buyers from us. Their peppers are worse. You can't sell it for a normal price. And I don't want to be cheap. So they add up to 70 percent of papaya seeds to it in order to make money on the volume. Selling cheap. And tourists do not distinguish papaya seeds from peppers. They do not understand that a kilo of good pepper costs at least 100,000 dong! Yes, it's expensive. But what a seasoning for mangoes!

Stay afloat: how the Vietnamese from Phu Quoc connected their existence with water

Near the plantation, in a shop with no windows, two peasants hid, as if in a grotto. In front of them on the table are saucers with yellowish, greenish, brownish slurry. The peasant takes a slice of mango, dips it in the liquid and hands it to me. The delicacy stings the tongue, and immediately a very complex sour-sweet-salty-spicy taste arises.

 — There are different combinations in the saucers: salt, lime and pepper; salt, sugar and pepper; salt, garlic and pepper. You were treated to a condiment of pepper, sugar, lime and fish sauce,  – Hoang explains.

 – Why do you need to dip the mango in the condiment?

 – This is an insidious fruit. It is either too sour or too sweet. The seasoning corrects the taste. In general, ours eat everything with pepper. And iguana. And dogs. Their meat is delicious. And free, because they are wild. Caught and ate. Many of my compatriots used to satisfy their hunger this way. True, times are changing. The Vietnamese government is about to ban the capture of iguanas and dogs for food.

Strife Island

The Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc is located in the Gulf of Thailand, on the border with Cambodia. The first mention of it as part of the Khmer Empire is found in Cambodian documents of 1615. In the 19th century, the French formed the colony of Cochinchina in the south of Indochina, which included Phu Quoc. In 1949, the island became part of the State of Vietnam, formed in opposition to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam proclaimed by the communists in 1945.

From 1953 to 1975, the largest concentration camp in South Vietnam was located on Phu Quoc, where communists and prisoners of war were kept. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communists, captured the island, and Cambodia again declared Phu Quoc its own. In 1976, she renounced her claim to the island. Phu Quoc passed to Vietnam.

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A dog is a friend of Fukuoka

The Fukuoka jungle is humid, stuffy and gloomy. The sky is not visible: it was covered with crowns of evergreen dipterocarpus, myrtle trees and creepers. Mossy boulders and bunches of lemongrass resembling algae come across on bare slippery soil. It's like I'm at the bottom of the sea. Only instead of fish – dogs with woolen combs on their backs: ridgebacks. Grey-brown and yellowish, the colors of earth and sand. They roam, sleep, whine, bark in mesh cages. Their paddocks are like the fishing shacks I've seen along the road: shabby, with patched tin roofs and partly decayed decks.

Stay afloat: how the Vietnamese from Phu Quoc connected their existence with water

— One good man named Tuan decided to save Fukuoka Ridgebacks from destruction. They ran, wild, through the mountains, the jungle and the streets, the locals hunted them. Tuan rented five hectares of jungle and opened a nursery-reserve in 2005. Organized a dog hunt. I started breeding them,  – says the nursery worker Tan, who smelled deeply of dog.

Locals ask not to confuse Phu Quoc Ridgebacks with Thai and Rhodesian relatives, although the breed has not been officially recognized. Island dogs are smaller than overseas brothers.

– And smarter. One of our Ridgebacks named Dom won the title of champion at the World Dog Show in Paris in 2011! – happy Tan.

At the entrance to the nursery there is a board describing the nature of the Fukuoka Ridgebacks: “They know how to hunt. Find and bring things. They collect garbage. Respect the owners. Organized. Amenable to training. They survive in caves. They have an excellent memory. Strong jaws. They react to any change: an unusual noise, a darkened sky or a too bright moon. They are able to climb mountains and swim.”

– Swim  is the most important thing in our conditions, – believes Tan. – By the way, the first ridgebacks came to us by sea. They say that 200 years ago, local fishermen saw a pack of wild dogs swim up to the island. Perhaps they were taken somewhere on a ship, the ship sank, and they escaped.

Tan shows me the paw of a three-month-old puppy: between the fingers there are membranes like those of a seagull.

– This is a real Fukuoka ridgeback, waterfowl!

No one controls the birth rate of puppies. Males and females live together. Now there are about 400 dogs in the kennel.

– What do you feed such a horde?

– Anchovies, of course. Two bowls a day – and the dog is full. And when it is no longer enough to feed, we sell.

The most expensive ridgebacks  are brindle. Such a dog costs 500–700 dollars.

— Who buys them? The people are in poverty.

“People are starting to realize that Ridgebacks are au pairs and friends. A lot of people save up money for them. And if the color, sex and age of the dog is not important to someone, we can give it away for a symbolic amount or even for free. Fishermen often buy puppies from us, those who live on floating farms. They're lonely, – says Tan.

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Catch before the storm

The muffled barking of Ridgebacks swims over the sea. Dogs feel the approach of guests. I am sitting in a bright grassy green boat shaped like a seashell. I try to row, as my guide Dan shows. The guy works at a boat station in Bay Kem, south of Fukuoka.

Staying afloat: how the Vietnamese from Phu Quoc connected their existence with water

Mooring at a rotten raft. Two bronze-hued Ridgebacks scurry back and forth, sniffing, grumbling. Their owners are the brothers Lan and Hai, the same bronze Vietnamese of about 50 years old.

Somehow getting out of the boat, I step on flimsy boards. They sway and roll underfoot. In the middle of the raft are two huts covered with tin. Sea salt gradually corrodes the walls. Instead of windows and doors & nbsp; – crooked slots. In one building there are two dilapidated hammocks, in the other a rusty electric stove powered by a solar battery.

 – What else do you need for life? – says Hay. – The main thing  – a shelter for sleeping and a place for cooking fish.

Behind the huts is something like a screen that closes a hole in the raft from prying eyes.

 This is a toilet. A typical Phu Quoc fishing toilet, Hi explains. No cesspool needed. Everything goes into the water. There is no roof so that the head of the seated person can be seen. Immediately clear: busy. In the villages, too, such toilets are placed near the shore on poles.

The brothers live on a raft for three years. On dry land they are rare. Sometimes they go to fairs to sell fish.

 – We have a fish farm here. We usually go fishing in the open ocean. There are more species than in the Gulf of Thailand. If we catch it, we'll bring it to the raft, release it into the pools and start fattening it, – says Hay.

Stay afloat: how the Vietnamese from Phu Quoc connected their existence with water

Three pools were carved into a raft. Tackles are invested in them so that the fish do not go back to the sea. Huy leans over one and tosses a handful of anchovies into it. Long silvery fish whip the water with their tails, jump up, greedily swallow food.

— Cobia. My favorite fish. If you fatten it up to 10 kilograms, you can sell it on the market for 200,000 dong apiece! – proudly reports the fisherman. – These will be taken to the market one of these days.

Storm season is coming in Bay Kem . It's not safe to stay here. In two weeks, the brothers will order a barge for one and a half million dongs, attach a raft to it with all the belongings and move to the north of the island, where the winds and waves have not yet come. You have to move every six months, following the weather.

— And when will you go completely dry? — I ask Khaya.

—Maybe never. What is land compared to ocean? A piece of land. Our home is water, concludes the fisherman.

Phu Quoc, Vietnam

Stay afloat: how the Vietnamese from Phu Quoc connected their existence with water

Phu Quoc Square 589.23 km²
Population~ 179,000 people
Population density 305 people/km²

Vietnam area

Vietnam area strong> 331,212 km² (66th in the world)
Population99,460,000 (15th place)
Population density 295 people/km²

ATTRACTIONSMuseum “Coconut Prison” (former concentration camp); an eight-kilometer cable car leading to the island Hòn Thom; Suoi Tranh waterfall in the suburbs of Duongdong.
TRADITIONAL DISHES soups pho-bo (beef), pho-ga (chicken), pho-ka (fish with noodles, herbs) and lime) nem rice pancakes stuffed with pork, carrot, onion, garlic, ginger, cilantro.
TRADITIONAL DRINK filter coffee with condensed milk.
SOUVENIRSnon-la hat ; a set of jars with colorful peppers; pearls.

DISTANCEfrom Moscow to Fukuoka ~ 7600 km (from 11 hours in flight excluding transfers)
TIME ahead of Moscow by 4 hours
VISARussians do not need
CURRENCYVietnamese dong (100,000 VND ~ 4.25 USD)


Material published in the magazine “Around the World” No. 7, July 2019, partially updated in April 2023

Katerina Mironova

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