There are several fish sauce factories on Phu Quoc Island that are accessible to visitors. Most of them however show only the giant wooden tanks where the anchovies ferment and the fragrant, salty juice gets bottled.
Addresses of accessible Phu Quoc fish sauce factories
11 Hung Vuong Street, Duong Dong
201 Nguyễn Văn Cừ Street, An Thoi
30 Thang 4 Street, Duong Dong
Fish Sauce – Nước Mắm
Fish sauce is a key ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine. Not many of the traditional signature dishes of the country are served without it’s salty and savoury goodness that adds umami flavour to the food, thanks to the comparatively high content of natural glutamate.
Fish sauce or nước mắm in Vietnamese has probably been invented right here in Vietnam, but it’s also popular in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries.However, the Vietnamese product is the strongest and is often used as replacement for salt.
The most famous regions for producing the salty condiment are Phan Thiet, Nha Trang and of course Phu Quoc island. The most popular brands (which doesn’t mean the highest quality ones) are Red Boat, Three Crabs, Golden Boy, Three Ladies and Hon Phan Thiết.
The traditional way of making nước mắm is simple: You put anchovies with salt in large vats. While the anchovies are slowly self-digesting themselves in a process called autolysis, the salt extracts the liquid from the fish via osmosis. The mixture then is pressed and the amber-colored liquid bottled and ready for sale.
Most, especially the afore mentioned “popular” brands add additional ingredients and while they claim that it makes the condiment taste better, it’s actually just diluting the liquid so it can be sold cheaper. We tried a variety of fish sauces and found the natural product to be pricier but the best in taste (and healthier of course).
Real nuoc mam contains only anchovies and salt.
Garum – The European Equivalent
The Vietnamese were not the only culture that discovered the savoury goodness of fermented fish. The ancient Romans produced something very similar to nước mắm and they called it liquamen or garum. Even today a condiment with the ringing Italian name “colatura di alici” is produced in Campina, a historically and culinary very interesting region of southwestern Italy. The process of making garum was very similar to the traditional method of producing nước mắm in Vietnam. Fish slowly digest themselves via autolysis in a very salty environment.
However, while in Vietnam the whole anchovies are used, the ancient Romans only used intestines and blood. Though garum was very popular, contained minerals, proteins and amino acids as well as B vitamins, many contemporary writers found it disgusting. Seneca the Younger, a well-known Stoic philosopher who lived from 4 BC to 65 AD and was advisor of Emperor Nero until he was forced to commit suicide wrote in his Epistle 95:
Do you not realize that garum sociorum, that expensive bloody mass of decayed fish, consumes the stomach with its salted putrefaction?
But since Seneca was notoriously old-fashioned, the lovers of the “salted putrefaction” probably didn’t care much.
Khai Hoan Fish Sauce Factory
11 Hung Vuong Street, Duong Dong
Travelling to Vietnam is not only a feast for our eyes, ears and taste buds, sometimes we also need to accommodate our noses’ sense of adventure. A visit to one of Phu Quoc Islands traditional fish sauce factories is exactly that: An adventure for your nostrils.
Authentic Vietnamese Fish Sauce
Fish sauce is a key ingredient in Vietnamese cuisine that is mainly produced in coastal cities and villages. The best fish sauce of the country is made in Nha Trang, Phan Thiet and – of course – on Phu Quoc Island.
As we draw closer to Khai Hoan fish sauce factory on 11 Hung Vuong Street, the captivating smell of anchovies in their process of enzymatic self-digestion that also runs under the name of autolysis mixes with the odour of a durian stall next to the entrance gate. We are lucky and there is a ship moored at the small dock. Upon closer inspection, the ship reveals it’s cargo: Several tons of anchovies in coarse sea salt.
The other factory we visited during our exploration of Phu Quoc Island was the Phung Hung factory. They are located opposite of Phu Quoc Prison and don’t have access to water ways, so their anchovies probably are delivered by trucks.
Anchovies in Autolysis
Using fish sauce for creating delicious Vietnamese food is one thing, but seeing tons of dead fish slowly fermenting in their own fluids is something completely different. A peek through the main gate of the factory reveals a hall with huge wooden tanks on both sides. These tanks contain the fermenting anchovies. The clear liquid produced in the process is collected and bottled for sale.
Phu Quoc Island is famous for it’s savoury, natural fish sauce that is produced in a traditional manner without the use of unnecessary chemicals. Until the amber liquid is ready for use it takes from eight to nine months, which makes time the most important ingredient for good fish sauce.
The reason for the popularity of nước mắm in Vietnamese kitchen is its relatively high content of natural glutamate that adds umami flavour to traditional dishes.
Seeing the raw anchovies in sea salt while being exposed to the intriguing smell of their fermenting cousins might be a bit much to stomach for the less hardened traveller, so let’s go back to the shop and showroom of this particular factory. Khai Hoan sells their fish sauce in two different grades, 40 and 43. These numbers indicate the strength and saltiness of the magic potion and while 43 is a little pricier, it lasts longer than the 40 variant since you use a lesser amount of it.
Taste and Purchase
For your convenience, you can taste the nước mắm right there and decide which one suits your needs best. If you are about to buy your year’s supply right there, please note that most airlines don’t accept liquids in the hand baggage, so either you put the bottles in your luggage or you use Khai Hoan’s delivery service to Saigon (and maybe other places, you have to ask them though). The delivery to your address in Saigon comes at a cost of 10% of the total value of your purchase.
You can also buy Khai Hoan fish sauce at one of the following addresses in Saigon (as researched 2015):
23 Mai Van Vinh, Tan Quy Ward, District 7
373/152/40 Ly Thuong Kiet Street, Ward 8, Tân Bình District
20 Ngo Thi Thu Minh, Ward 2, Tân Bình District
Pricing of fish sauce
If you are used to the cheap fish sauce in local supermarkets, which starts as low as 29,000đ for a bottle, you may ask why in hell you should pay Khai Hoan’s 99,000đ or even 155,000đ for grade 43 per litre. The answer is quite simple. The Phu Quoc fish sauce is real, natural nước mắm without preservatives, added flavours, artificial monosodium glutamate (MSG) or food colouring. Not only it tastes much better than the cheap stuff from the supermarket, it is also much healthier.
Phung Hung Fish Sauce Factory
201 Nguyen Van Cu, An Thoi
Well, Phung Hung is a little more touristy than other fish sauce factories you can visit on Phu Quoc Island. There are stalls that sell the usual souvenirs to passing travellers, like dried fish and other tasty morsels of Vietnamese cuisine. The reason for that is the close proximity of the famous Phu Quoc Prison that you can find right across Nguyễn Văn Cừ street.
About Fish Sauce
Nước mắm, as fish sauce it is called in Vietnamese, is a key ingredient for the best dishes a skilled Vietnamese housewife can create. The product they sell at the factory shop is salty, aromatic and adds umami flavour to the food.
While the smell of the fermenting anchovies is not the most appealing fragrance in the world, the juice once bottled and ready for sale is mostly used in combination with lime juice, sugar, chili, kumquat and water. People dip their morsels in that mix, be it meat, vegetables, sea food, fresh as well as fried spring rolls, banh kot, banh xeo and other treats.
Especially for Tet holiday, the lunar new year in Vietnam, skilled cooks use fish sauce to pickle unripe papaya and onions to be eaten together with the famous sticky rice cakes every household in Vietnam makes and receives for this particular holiday.
Myself, I prefer Khai Hoan fish sauce factory because it’s more focused on the product and you can see a little more of the actual process. However, if the prison is on your tour itinerary anyway, just pay a visit and follow your nose. Literally. If you have not smelled the self-digesting anchovies in the huge, wooden tanks, you have not experienced Vietnam as it is. On the same street side not far away is a memorial monument, dedicated to the around 4000 victims that perished while Phu Quoc Prison was actively in use.