At five a.m. I walked outside into the cool Saigon morning to hop on a motorcycle with my friend and translator Long. An indigo tinted dawn was just breaking—it was still early by American standards, but Saigon before sunrise is surprisingly active. People were running down the streets and stretching, squeezing in some exercise before their work for the day began. Some people were already perched on the sidewalk selling breakfast foods, and coffee was being consumed under the florescent lights that spilled out of cafe storefronts. This was the start of a day of independent research I did in Vietnam as an American student studying catfish.
A study abroad class on Vietnam and America allowed me to participate in cultural exchange with a country I initially knew little about, as well as conduct an independent field study on catfish farming and food systems in Vietnam. For the class I was required to choose a topic to research, and after a little deliberation I delved into the idiosyncrasies of the 2001 “catfish war” between the United States and Vietnam. The “catfish war” was ultimately a trade conflict over the importation of Vietnamese catfish into the United States. American catfish growers were concerned about competition from inexpensive Vietnamese catfish and claimed that it was not really catfish – and sought legislation in the U.S. Congress that would force Vietnamese growers to use some other term. Vietnamese growers began calling their catfish the Vietnamese names for the subspecies of catfish grown in Vietnam—basa and tra—which in turn also sold well in the U.S. and Europe. The struggle over Vietnamese imports was part of larger negotiation between the U.S. over economic relations, however, that began with normalization in 1995 and ended in 2006 when Vietnam entered the World Trade Organization.
While studying the catfish trade specifically I became fascinated with the flow of food within Vietnam as well. Vietnamese food, especially pho, is famous in the United States. I wanted to know how this food was produced, marketed and consumed in Vietnam. What I discovered is that food identifies a people in a variety of ways. Food is necessary for us to survive; yet all of us establish different ways of distributing and eating food. By learning about Vietnamese food in Vietnam, I learned about Vietnamese culture and ate pretty well.
To learn more about the catfish industry, I explored traditional markets, wholesale markets, new supermarkets and a catfish-filleting factory. To contextualize the catfish market I took pictures of every meal I ate, asked my Vietnamese peers about their food shopping habits, and visited agricultural landscapes in the Mekong Delta.
Almost every day I spent in Vietnam I walked through one market or another, and saw the flow of food in Vietnam at its most intense. The only arrangement similar to Vietnamese markets in America are “farmer’s markets” where locals come to sell their wares, but they are not generally viewed as mainstream and are open only on certain days. So seeing permanent open markets in every neighborhood in Vietnamese cities was new to me. The food sold in the markets is visibly fresh, quite different from the packaged products commonly bought in the United States. To get to different markets around Ho Chi Minh City I had to maneuver through the endless motorcycle traffic, which might be just as chaotic as the myriads of connections in the food system. From the outside the markets are intimidating and confusing, but everyone seems to be able to communicate and food is distributed effectively.
To see where the vendors in smaller markets purchased their goods I visited Binh Dien wholesale market in Ho Chi Minh City early in the morning. There I observed the flow of fish from farmers, to wholesalers, to smaller market vendors. Some of the salesmen handed me a slimy catfish that I held with my bare hands. I watched as farmers dropped off their catches in trucks, wholesalers prepared loads of fish for smaller sales and the overseers counted the dong collected, all amongst a warehouse tinged with the scent of the sea and gleaming with water splashed across the entire floor. I was literally immersed in the flow of Ho Chi Minh City’s food systems when I went to these markets – and also learned how markets are places where all kinds of other exchanges take place at the same time.
If food in the traditional markets comes from the rivers and fields of Vietnam, it appeared to come from other directions in the new supermarkets of Vietnam. We traveled by motorbike to survey the offerings of several supermarkets. At a Lotte Mart, a Korean chain similar to American grocery stores, I found packaged foods imported from all over the world. I noticed food in these stores that had been harvested, processed and shipped from Europe, other Asian countries, South America and the United States. The supermarket is a marker of changing food systems in Vietnam; it represents Vietnam’s connection with the globe and with modern food systems in a way that is normal to Americans but I now understand is new to Vietnam.
To further understand the development of the catfish industry—and the modernization of food production in Vietnam—I visited Hiep Thanh, a seafood joint stock company that specializes in processing pangasius, the scientific name for Vietnamese catfish. There I saw the controlled processing of foods for export upfront, in rubber boots and a facemask. The company manages the making of its products from beginning to end, from raising fingerlings to maturity, to filleting and freezing them and then packaging them for export. The regimented factory system was a testament to the standardization of foods systems developed for export. Hiep Thanh is clearly processing their fish for an international market and for supermarkets all over the world, primarily exporting frozen fillets meant for places with freezer capacity and a market for value added items. They are producing for a different type of consumer than is found in traditional Vietnamese markets where the fish are bought live and gutted on the spot.
I didn’t answer the questions I brought with me to Vietnam: What are the current trade issues between America and Vietnam, and did the catfish war play a role in Vietnam’s success in the global catfish market? But I did discover that a world that I once thought was so separate from the one I reside is actually connected in more ways than I realized. When I began, my only knowledge of Vietnam were allusions and anecdotes I had heard about the Vietnam War from brief lectures in history classes and the generation alive during that time. I connected the trade dispute between the two countries to the war, predicting that it may have been an extension of unfinished business between the countries. But I now see that disputes between the U.S. and Vietnam now are more a consequence of a growing friendship rather than differences and negotiations with each other as we sit down and share food, for better or for worse, at the same table. All of us are what we eat, and there is no better way to understand Vietnam than to understand the food that the Vietnamese eat—or send out into the world for others to eat.