Khai Hoan Fish Sauce Factory

Among the top things to do on Phu Quoc Island is paying a visit to one of the famous fish sauce factories. Fish sauce is one of the key ingredients in Vietnamese cuisine and the products of Phu Quoc are considered some of the best of Vietnam.

The enchanting smell of anchovies in a process of autolysis, which is the name for enzymatic self-digestion, indicates the proximity of a fish sauce factory on Phu Quoc Island. Usually you can get a peek through the doors and see the huge, wooden tanks, where the fish are slowly fermenting for months, until the clear liquid that accumulates on top, can be filtered and bottled.

Phu Quoc island is famous for traditionally produced, flavorful fish sauce, without the chemical additives. The most important ingredient is time. It takes between eight and nine months for the amber-colored liquid to be ready for sale.

Its relatively high content of natural glutamate adds an umami flavor to dishes, the reason why it’s so popular in Vietnamese cuisine. During our stay at Phu Quoc island, we actually visited two fish sauce factories. One is called Phung Hung. It is on Nguyễn Văn Cừ street, right opposite Phu Quoc Prison. The other one, Khai Hoan, where we bought our supply of the tasty ingredient, is on 11 Hung Vuong street in Duong Dong.

Sardines in Phu Quoc for fish sauce 

The latter is located at the riverside, where we could see one of the boats delivering the raw material - tons of anchovies in sea salt. Now, that might be a bit much to stomach for some travelers, but I found it pretty interesting.

fish sauce in Phu Quoc

A lady runs a durian stall right outside the gates of the shop, and where the smell of fermenting anchovies and durian mingles, that’s the place where even I was not really eager to spend more time than necessary.

There is actually one more fish sauce factory that is accessible to visitors, Hung Thinh, which is on 30 Thang 4 on Phu Quoc island.

If you want to get your supply of fish sauce, or nước mắm how it’s called in Vietnamese, you can buy the best quality at the showrooms and shops. (Be aware that many airlines don’t allow liquids in the hand baggage.) Here you see an assortment of nước mắm at the shop that is attached to the Khai Hoan factory:

Khai Hoan fish sauce factory in Phu Quoc

They sell two grades of the delicious, amber-colored liquid. 40 and 43, which indicates the strength and saltiness of the concoction. The 43 grade fish sauce is more expensive, but lasts longer.

If you are unsure what type of delicious Phu Quoc fish sauce to purchase, you can try both of them first with disposable straws they provide at the desk.

Dip your straw into the nước mắm and taste it (just don’t suck in the liquid through the straw…).

At first it may sound odd. Why should pay VND 99,000 or VND 155,000 for a big bottle of nước mắm, if you can get the same amount for VND 39,700 at the local supermarket? The Phu Quoc fish sauce is the real thing. Anchovies, salt and that’s it. No preservatives, no additional flavors, food coloring or artificial MSG. It’s not only healthier than the enhanced stuff, it also tastes much more balanced.

Did you know that the Vietnamese were not the only culture to invent fish sauce? The Romans actually had a similar condiment, called garum or liquamen. In Campina in Italy, they still produce a type of fish sauce, called colatura di alici.

Similar to modern Phu Quoc fish sauce, garum was made through the process of autolysis, but they only used the blood and intestines of fish, while in Vietnam, they use whole anchovies. Garum was very popular, because it contained a good amount of minerals, proteins and amino acids, as well as B vitamins. But many Romans found it disgusting.

The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote:
“Do you not realize that garum sociorum, that expensive bloody mass of decayed fish, consumes the stomach with its salted putrefaction?”

But Seneca was known as quite old-fashioned, so the garum-lovers probably didn’t care much.

And similar to ancient Rome, the people nowadays have divided opinions about nước mắm. Some love it, some hate it, but for most Vietnamese it’s just what generations of housewives used to create the Vietnamese signature dishes. Vietnamese fish sauce is usually used as a dipping sauce, a mix of nước mắm, lime or kumquat juice, sugar, chili and/or garlic and water.

Enjoy!

Addresses of fish sauce factories on Phu Quoc island, that are accessible for tourists:

Phung Hung

Nguyễn Văn Cừ street

Opposite of Phu Quoc Prison

Khai Hoan

11 Hung Vuong street

Duong Dong

Hung Thinh

30 Thang 4 Street

Duong Dong

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Fish Sauce Factory

Follow your nose on 30 Thang 4 and you will soon find the fish sauce factories that Phu Quoc is known for. There are three factories open to visitors, with Hung Thinh being the easiest to access. The huge vats of fermenting fish are an oddly interesting sight.

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Phu Quoc Prison

Phu Quoc Prison, also known as Coconut Tree Prison, is one of the tourist attractions in the south of Phu Quoc Island. Depending on the intentions of your trip to Phu Quoc and how much time you have at hand for tours, you might want to visit the historical site.

Opening times:

from 7:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. and

from 1:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

The admission is free of charge.

Phu Quoc Prison is a depressing prison camp, built by the French from 1949 to 1950 and kept running during the American War. Around 40,000 people were imprisoned on Phu Quoc Island during the war alone.

Nowadays it’s a tourist attraction for those interested in Vietnamese history and the dark side of humanity.

Prisoners of war as well as everybody who was supposedly dangerous to the government was kept there and subjected to a horrible array of torture methods.

Life-sized dolls show scenes of torture and violence in the prison, from the tiger cages, small cages made of woven barbed wire for humans, to the boiling of an inmate. In the main building you can see a small museum with relics and torture devices. A movie shows footage and the conditions in the prison camp, but it’s in Vietnamese. On the walls you see artwork and pictures of prominent prisoners, as well as the recent discovery of a mass grave.

The intentions of Phu Quoc Prison nowadays is to show how atrocious the invaders of Vietnamese territory were. But it’s the same worldwide: Torture, cruelty and inhuman conditions show a good deal of the dark side in all of us.

The only scene that was able to lightens up the mood here was the scenario in the “basement,” showing prisoners digging an escape tunnel and a group of them successfully jailbreaking.

On the opposite side of the street is a monument for the roughly 4,000 people who perished in Coconut Tree Prison under terrible circumstances.

There is also a fish sauce factory right across the street from the main entrance that is open for visitors and offers souvenirs, fish sauce and a nose-full of the interesting aroma that is unique to the famous Phu Quoc fish sauce.

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