It’s just after four in the morning and I’m greeted by an overpowering smell of fish and brine and diesel that hits me like a wall. Bright lights slice through the darkness to reveal a flurry of activity, a strange, purposeful symphony that is the Phan Thiet Fish Market.
The Bay of Phan Thiet is recognized as one of Vietnam’s most productive fisheries, with more than 50,000 tons a year of seafood hauled up from its waters. The 2,000 or so registered trawlers often go out for weeks, returning only when their holds are full. The proceeds from the catch are divided roughly into thirds. A third for the boat owner, a third to cover expenses and a third for the crew of 12-15 men. But they are only the beginning of a long line of people who handle the seafood before it finds its way into homes and restaurants across the globe.
First in line are the fish brokers who’ve bid on the entire boat’s catch. With a notebook at the ready, they record everything taken off the boat. The fish brokers have a small army working under them, unloading, sorting, weighing and cleaning the fish to make them market-ready. The work is backbreaking but pays anything from VND100,000 – VND300,000, as long as you’re ready to put in a 15-hour day. On the docks, hands expertly sort the catch by type and size, poking out from under conical hats and rubber boots. Some of the seafood is processed to be flash frozen and exported, some is destined for local markets as far away as Saigon. As black turns to grey, the next set of middlemen gather to bid on the seafood laid out for display ― tuna, rays, eels and an occasional shark among the offerings. Voices are raised, staccato bursts of back and forth, giving rise to the Vietnamese expression of “dan cho bua,” or “people of the market”, an often derogatory expression to denote someone loud and brash. But it’s only money, and once the deal is done, all is forgiven, because there’s always more to be bought and sold tomorrow.
Images By James Pham