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My Short Career as a Smuggler

Duong Dong market place egg shop
Fish sauce is the very foundation of Southeast Asia cuisine. Thai people call it nam pla, Cambodians teuk trei and in Vietnam it's called nuoc mam. It is somewhat close to soy sauce, at least when it comes to its culinary role as a substitute of salt. It also adds its extraordinary character to Southeast Asian food. Like so many world class delicacies, instead of being just your ordinary, common, regular, everyday fish sauce, it just has to be something weird. I mean, say, haggis is basically ground innards, and oysters look like living snot. Fish sauce's weirdness comes from the making process.

The fresh catch of anchovies is put into giant containers where it is let to ferment for months ending up - not so fresh. Lots of salt is used. The process extracts liquid from the fish, and its slowly pressed so that very old, very pungent dark fluid oozed down through small plastic hoses. There are actually several ways to make fish sauce, the time of fermenting and ingredients varying a lot, but that's about the way I saw it being made when I had a chance to visit a fish sauce factory in Vietnam.

Factory gate
Phu Quoc island in Vietnam produces nationwide famous fish sauce. The factory is set in the harbour of the island capital, Duong Dong. Just walk past the vast piles of eggs, meat, fish and fruit at the market place, pass the body shops and the little booths selling souvenirs, toys and household supplies, cross the little bridge, turn left and you're there. We could hardly recognise anything resembling a fish sauce factory, but a small group of westerners puffed out of a gate nearby, so we got a quick confirmation that this was the right place.

Fish sauce barrels from below...
The only people inside the factory were two little girls, probably watching over that stupid tourists won't do anything... stupid. Otherwise the hall was filled tens of huge (and I mean HUGE) wooden barrels, which, judging by the appalling stench were filled with rotting or, um, fermenting fish. At the feet of the barrels there were small plastic buckets collecting through small hoses the end product, the praised Phu Quoc fish sauce. There was no shop beside the factory to buy the sauce itself after the fascinating visit. Back to the streets, then. At the crossing, near the small river bridge at the corner of the market place there was a shop, a real shop-like shop instead of an ordinary small-time booth, that seemed to be focused on selling mainly fish sauce. I purchased three bottles of about 2 dl each. What a great culinary gift for friends, huh? Pure Phu Quoc fish sauce straight from the crime scene!

...and from above.
Speaking of criminal activity, I was well aware that Vietnamese airline forbids having fish sauce in your luggage. Yes, that includes also the hold luggage. But alas, I strayed from the straight and narrow. I carefully wrapped each bottle in plastic bags so that any leakage should stay inside the plastic. Then I used jeans and other heavy clothing as wrappers for shock-proofing the fish sauce containers. I placed the heavily stuffed bottles in the middle of the suitcase so that they didn't touch each other and weren't near any inner surface. Additionally, I used other stuff like footwear to prop up the contents of the suitcase so that nothing could move much but there would be some elasticity to absorb possible shocks. I could have beaten the suitcase with a baseball bat not being able to break the fish sauce bottles. And surely the other containers (shaving foam, deodorants etc.) among the luggage provided perfect camouflage for the puny sauce bottles, in case they X-rayed the luggage, right? But who would search any fish sauce in anyone's luggage? Of course they have more important things to look for, eh?

The end product
At the tiny Duong Dong airport, end of the island part of the trip. We checked in the hold luggage, went through the security check and waited for our flight back to Saigon. An announcement crackled in the low quality speakers of the passenger hall. Wait a minute? Did I hear my name mentioned? I thought the announcement was spoken in Vietnamese, can't be my name. Wait, there it comes again. And is it English? And there my name again! Please come to the... somewhere. Shit, they must have found my precious fish sauce, what do we do now?

We went back to the security check, and I explained I heard my name in the announcement. The clerk pointed a lonely door at the end of the lobby. 'Staff only', it read, but we entered a area with big machinery and conveyor belts criss-crossing the room. A man in the distance was clearly waiting for us. There was a familiar suitcase on the table next to him. Again I said I heard my name in an announcement and he, hands crossed, asked me if that was my bag. After I admitted it was, he inquired, with a slight grin on his face, if I had any fish sauce inside it. Aw busted!

I conjured a confused expression on my face saying:
- Yes I do sir, why, is there a problem with it?
The grin on the man's face grew wider, as though he knew I knew it was forbidden. Which I knew, of course. We both knew.
- It's forbidden to carry fish sauce in your airline luggage in Vietnam, he confirmed.
I went on with my 'dumb tourist' act saying
- I thought it was ok in the hold luggage as long as it's not in your carry-on. Why on Earth would it be forbidden also in the big suitcase?
- Because of the smell, sir, gave the man the reason I already knew. Too many cases of broken fish sauce containers in airline luggage made Vietnam Airlines forbid transporting the stuff for good. It makes the whole cabin smell like... fish sauce, which made people more or less sick.

The correct way to do it
I removed all the three bottles from the suitcase. The man seemed impressed of my careful packing, but no can do, no means no. The bottles had to stay aground. The plaque on the wall forbade also transporting durian fruit for the same reason. I said I had durian only in my belly so I got away with that. It seemed there were no further sanctions for attempted fish sauce trafficking, so I wished the cheerful chap and his colleagues some tasty moments with my confiscated fish sauce and we left Phu Quoc without it.

In the plane I was already planning my next scheme to bring the stuff from Saigon to Finland.