Vietnam is a fishing nation. With more than 3,000 kilometers of coastline, and countless lakes, rivers and streams, it’s no wonder that the average Vietnamese consumes upwards of 40 kg of fish per year, not to mention the seafood that is processed for export.
In earlier posts, we wrote about the (smelly but) photogenic Phan Thiet Fish Market as well as the many fish brokers who play middlemen between the fishermen and the markets. Today, we’re off in search of the fishermen of Phan Thiet and nearby Mui Ne.
We start our journey from the Phan Thiet Fish Market and drive north towards the tiny fishing town of Mui Ne. Meaning “cape of escape,” for centuries fishermen have taken advantage of both sides of Mui Ne’s promontory to find safe harbor. A drive up the coast reveals boats of all sizes moored in the calm waters.
But our goal is to get past the postcard-pretty bay with its colorful boats and to talk with actual fishermen. Depending on the season and the weather, pop up communities of fishermen can be found around the cape of Mui Ne, on either side of the promontory. As we pull in, we find the quickly built shantytown of makeshift huts, cafes and ragtag convenience stores catering to the fishermen who are here just for the season. It’s not a pretty sight, but it speaks to the reality of the difficult life of the local fishermen.
Some of the homes are decked out with televisions and modern appliances while others are just three walls topped off with some corrugated metal, the front open to the elements. We make our way over to a small cafe cum convenience store and sit down for a cup of strong Vietnamese coffee. It’s just about three in the afternoon and we watch as the boats begin to go out for the night. The traditional circular boats, or coracles, tend to stay closer to shore and go out for shorter amounts of time.
While the husbands go out, the wives tend to the little bait balls, emptying the ones from last night and preparing fresh ones.
Mending and untangling nets is also a never-ending chore. A little hand-held shuttle quickly repairs holes.
While some very big boats can stay out for weeks, the ones launched from this beach only stay out for the night. We notice one fisherman sitting away from the others, waiting patiently for his crew to assemble. We find out his name is Tam and he’s 42. Over a cup of coffee, he shares his story with us.
“I started fishing when I was 17. When I first started, I thought it was a great job, not like the farming work I did before where it was backbreaking work and you only got paid at the end of every harvest. Here, you go out in the afternoon, come back in the morning, and you get paid right away because there are always buyers waiting on the beach to take whatever we catch. Sometimes we bring in VND3 million – VND5 million (USD 150 – 250) worth of seafood. On a lucky night, we might even bring in VND9 million – VND10 million…
“Two million goes to the boat owner right off the bat for expenses and what’s left is divided into two: one part for the owner and the second part is split between the rest of the crew. I used to work on some of the bigger boats where we’d be out for weeks at a time, but my back started hurting. Bigger boats mean bigger, heavier equipment. I stayed home for a few months to rest, but staying home means no income, so I started up again going out with the smaller boats…
“Sometimes it’s scary. I remember one time we got caught in an F5 storm and it took us hours to get back to shore. That was the one time I thought I might die. But nowadays, it’s rare to be caught out like that with the more accurate weather forecasts. I mean, it’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s not worth your life…
“The work isn’t so hard. We work with 15m-long nets which drag along the sea floor. We’ll leave them in the water for about three hours each time. We rest in between, and then we haul them up. Sometimes we’ll catch 100kg or even a ton of squid, small shrimp and fish. There are lots of boats that go out, but the ocean is vast, so it’s like cars driving on the highway – we learn to stay out of each other’s way.
“Every boat’s different, too. The coracles go out for the night and come back early. Our small boat goes out at about 3 in the afternoon and gets in at around 7 am. We’ll spend an hour or two sorting out the nets, mending them and doing other types of maintenance, and then you get to go home. It’s not a bad life, but my son is now 17, the same age as me when I started and I’d never let him do this. I’m not sure there’s a future in it.”