Vietnamese teacher revives traditional fish sauce craft

Nam O, where Bui Thanh Phu hails from, has long been known for making tasty traditional fish sauce

Bui Thanh Phu (right), a high school teacher and director of Hong Huong Co., is seen learning from a seasoned fish sauce maker who represents fish sauce making households in Nam O Village. Photo: Tuoi Tre

A high school teacher has persisted in his personal quest to give fish sauce produced in his home village in the central city of Da Nang a face and a name it deserves.

While younger generations in Nam O, a centuries-old village in Lien Chieu District, have turned away from making traditional fish sauce, Vietnam’s signature condiment, Bui Thanh Phu, 33, has been fighting to bring the long-standing craft back to life.

Phu teaches computer science at Pham Phu Thu High School and has obtained the nickname ‘Phu fish sauce’ in recent years.

Upon his graduation from university with a degree in information technology in 2009, Phu declined several job offers to become a high school teacher while pursuing his dream of developing his family’s four-generation-old fish sauce factory. 

The aspiring young businessman also completed a business administration program and obtained his master’s degree to best prepare himself.

He would ride his bike around on his own and to other fish sauce making villages to meticulously study the craft.

Phu’s house is nestled in the craft quarter on Nguyen Luong Bang Street, which has maintained its reputation for conventional fish sauce for decades.  

The quarter brims with wooden barrels and ceramic containers filled with layers of fish and sea salt – producing the distinctive smell of fermented fish, and from which the amber-colored, flavorful dipping sauce is extracted.

Unlike most young people, including Phu’s three siblings, who have opted to find office jobs elsewhere or at local state agencies, the teacher has taken the less-frequented path despite his parents’ objections.

In 2010, he gave up his position as secretary of his high school’s Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union chapter to focus on his teaching job and fish sauce business.

His decision astonished his school principal and his colleagues as the position would guarantee promotion opportunities during his teaching career.

Before he launched his startup based on his family’s small-scale fish sauce facility in 2011, he talked to owners of other household operations throughout Nam O Village to discover their needs and wants.  

“We consider fish sauce not only a means of livelihood but also a legacy passed down from our ancestors,” Phu shared.

A number of retired fish sauce producers still make several barrelfuls of the condiment once a year to give as gifts to their relatives and friends and as a piece of nostalgia, Phu added.

A crushing blow was dealt to the local industry in 2014 as a project to expand Nguyen Tat Thanh Street along the coast ‘encroached’ on houses in Nam O Village, shrinking the number of fish sauce makers from more than 100 to 52.  

Bui Thanh Phu is pictured at his fish sauce workshop. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Bui Thanh Phu is pictured at his fish sauce workshop. Photo: Tuoi Tre

For the past six years, in addition to his teaching, Phu has spent the rest of his spare time on his fish sauce barrels.

“He’s more infatuated with making fish sauce than his parents,” Phu’s 62-year-old mother, a seasoned fish sauce maker, said.

The teacher-turned-entrepreneur works between 12 and 16 hours a day and undertakes everything himself, ranging from managing the production process to shipping his product.

With his parents’ counsel and trade secrets, his company has secured a firm footing in the industry and attracted a wide clientele throughout the city and in neighboring Quang Nam Province as well as Thua Thien-Hue and Quang Binh Provinces.  

Phu revealed that in order to distill the premium sauce that pleases even the most discriminating of palates, he hand-picks the fish and buys quality salt from salt hubs in the south-central province of Ninh Thuan.

He also goes to great lengths to scour for decades-old ceramic or terra cotta containers from households across the central region.

“Based on the science, such age-old holders give the seasoning sauce a distinctive taste and enrich its flavor,” Phu said.

The determined businessman promotes his product on Facebook and has bought a domain name for Nam O to develop their brand.

“Making quality traditional fish sauce products is quite a challenge, as it requires considerable expertise and resolve to keep the products free of chemicals and additives,” Phu noted.

Local authorities and the municipal Department of Industry and Trade have enthusiastically hailed Phu’s startup model and provided him with the machinery to expand his operation.

“Thanks to enterprising young people like Phu, Nam O products have made their way much further,” Tran Ngoc Vinh, chair of the Nam O Traditional Fish Sauce Village Association, said.

The village currently processes approximately 200 metric tons of fish for use in fish sauce every year.

Phu’s company sells thousands of liters across the country each month.

High sales volumes have necessitated the need for expansion, however, the municipal People’s Committee is planning to relocate the village from its current residential area to a more concentrated zone.

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