2000s Archive

Getting Sauced

Originally Published April 2004
The beaches are spectacular, the water pristine, and the climate ideal. But the real attraction of Vietnam’s largest island comes from wooden vats ranged inside anonymous buildings.

Sitting on sand so smooth, fine, and white that the locals call this Ice Cream Beach, I watch as first one and then a whole stream of ten-year-old Vietnamese boys galumph noisily through the water and surround my friends Rick and Susan. Laughing and splashing, the children cavort as if they have just discovered a pair of giant, bizarre sea creatures that are not only harmless but actually friendly. A few minutes later, one of the seemingly sullen teenagers hanging out under the palm trees at the edge of the beach comes quietly forward, lays a branch of small, round, green fruits down in front of me, smiles shyly, and backs away.

It is late afternoon on a day during which we have realized nearly every fantasy of travelers to a tropical island. We have sailed in a gaudy, dilapidated wooden boat to an archipelago of tiny islands, where we snorkeled through the magnificent underwater canyons of a coral reef. We have picnicked in solitary splendor on a palm-fringed arc of sand a quarter mile long. We have swum in aquamarine water as clear as a mountain stream and as warm as spring rain. But this giddy outpouring of spontaneous friendship is the pinnacle. When we leave the beach an hour later, our van surrounded by a crowd of children laughing and chanting our names, I am sated with equatorial pleasures, ready at last to embark on the mission that has actually brought me to Phu Quoc.

Thirty miles off the coast of southwest Vietnam, tear-shaped Phu Quoc, known as Emerald Island, is the country’s largest island. Blessed with every physical attribute that tourists crave, it nevertheless remains unspoiled by tourism, although the Vietnamese government recently announced plans to develop the requisite infrastructure, and word among devotees of sand, sun, and surf is that it may soon become a hot destination.

Like most other languidly gorgeous tropical destinations, though, Phu Quoc has another, more prosaic face, a daily life unrelated to the presence or absence of visitors in search of paradise. And much of that life centers around a particular product: Throughout Southeast Asia—from the remote mountains on the Vietnam-China border to the farthest islands in the vast archipelago of Indonesia—the name Phu Quoc is synonymous with fish sauce.

This thin, light-brown liquid, though indispensable to the cuisines of the region, is unfamiliar to many Westerners. The sauce is made by taking small fish (usually some variety of anchovy), drying them in the sun just until they start to ferment, then layering them with salt and leaving them in wooden vats for three to four months. The salt draws the liquid out slowly, drip by drip; it is then poured back over the fish to drain out once again over the course of another several months. Finally, it is aged in new vats for a month or so to further ferment and deepen the flavor.

I admit that initially this did not sound all that attractive to me. I knew that the ancient Greeks and Romans were big fans of a very similar concoction, called garum. I knew that modern tomato ketchup evolved from a sauce much like this. I was not interested; to me, it sounded like so much rotten fish juice.

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