You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Vietnam’ tag.

IMG_23218.jpg

Ghosts do not seem to care about cultural appropriation.  That is one of the many eye-popping crazy lessons of An Bang Cemetery, an up-to-the minute ultra-necropolis in Phu Vang district of Thua Thien Hue province, Vietnam.  The graves in the cemetery are a mixture of Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Indian, Thai, and American styles.  The monuments reflect religious traditions of Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Đạo Mẫu, Cao Đài, and probably other more esoteric faiths and sects.

IMG_23219.jpg

The fishing village of An Bang is on a beautiful white shore in Hue.    In 1975, the reunification of Vietnam caused a diaspora which swept away many of the “boat people” who lived in An Bang.  In the 80s and 90s cash began to flow back into the community from all around the world.

city-of-ghosts-an-bang

An Bang Village is not very far from the vaunted imperial tombs of Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty which lie along the Perfume River (the ancient imperial tombs are a UNESCO heritage site).  The contemporary villagers took some of their inspiration from the majesty, size, and beauty of the classical imperial graves, but they took the rest of their inspiration from…everywhere.  At first blush the American influence may seem to be lacking…but look at the ostentation, the gaudiness, the competitive one-upmanship among the dead (plus where do you think that International money came from?)

26iFrGt.jpg

There is a riot of styles and color and meanings, but yet I am not sure I have ever seen anything more distinctly Vietnamese.  I don’t think there are many sculptural installations anywhere that could compare with the utter Baroque riot of An Bang…and that is to say nothing of the corpses, mourners, phantasms, spirits, and what not!  Most of the intelligent people whom I know believe that there is nothing after death, and cemeteries are pointless.  My rejoinder would be that cemeteries are not for the dead, they are for the living.  Plus just look at this color, art, and form!  Of course Vietnam is a developing country, and it could be argued that this money could be spent better elsewhere, but in America we spent 6.5 billion dollars on the 2016 election (to say nothing of the corporate money that went into buying influence) and look what we wound up with.  Maybe the dead are better off with the money after all. They sure know how to live it up in style at least!

The-colorful-An-Bang-cemetery-just-outside-Hue

 

It is unclear whether the subject of today’s post actually exists.  That would not be such a shocking statement if this article concerned angels, true innocence, or honest politicians, but I am not writing about such abstract concepts–instead I am writing about a large ruminant animal from the bovine family!  The saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) is closely related to other bovines such as the aurochs, the wisent, the yak, and the zebu.  The creature was discovered by taxonomists only two decades ago, in 1992, in the remote Annamite mountains, a heavily forested range which runs along the sweeping curve where Vietnam meets Laos and Cambodia.  Unfortunately the biologists did not find any live specimens of the animal, but they discovered three saola skulls in the houses of local hunters.  An exhaustive three month hunt for the living creature turned up nothing.

A Man holds a Saola skull in Bolikhamxay Province (near the Laos/Vietnam border)

And yet saolas were subsequently spotted—and even hunted—by local mountain residents after that.  In 2010 a live male was captured by villagers, but the creature expired before scientists and veterinarians could reach him.  Scientists and rangers have occasionally captured pictures of saolas by means of remote hidden cameras, but the forest animals are so furtive and remote that we only know what they look like, not how they behave (although mountain people call them “the polite animal” because they are said to be so reserved and calm).

A male Saola photographed by hidden camera in 1999 (William Robichaud)

Saolas are dark brown with a fetching black strike running diagonally along their back and white slashes on their feet and faces.  Not nearly as large as wisents and zebus, adult saolas stand only about 85 cm (3 feet) tall at the shoulder they weigh approximately 90 kg (about 200 lbs). The most noticeable feature of the rare animals are their large antelope-like horns which curve slightly backward and grow to half a meter (1.5 feet) in length.  The saolas look like they descended from a common ancestor of antelopes, bisons, and cattle (although they are more closely related to the latter two creatures than to antelopes).  Based on their small teeth, saolas are browsers who nibble on tender shoots and berries (as opposed to grazers like cows).

A female Saola captured in 1996. She was apparently very gentle and trusting but she only survived a fortnight in captivity.

The first paragraph of this post was mercifully disingenuous:  the saola almost certainly walks the green earth even as you read these lines.  However the saola population is ridiculously tiny: the world population is estimated to be between a dozen and 250 individuals.  The government of Vietnam has mounted a spirited defense for the phantasmagoric ruminant by creating wildlife refuges and trying to educate native people not to hunt the last specimens, but deforestation and accidental trapping keep taking a toll (most saolas are captured in traps meant for other creatures).  It is possible that, like the wisent, the saolas will again flourish, but more likely we discovered them only to lose them again forever.

Basa in a Bucket

I have been writing a great deal about catfish–by which I mean any of the ray finned fish of the order Siluriforme.  There are literally thousands of individual species within this order—all united under the taxonomical rubric by certain shared features such as lack of scales, a well-developed Weberian apparatus, and a reduced gas bladder.  Unfortunately, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, only a tiny number of the Siluriformes are actually “catfish”.  What’s going on here?  Have I been lying to you about all of these fascinating catfish?

No.  Here is the ridiculous story of what happened.

During the 1990s, Vietnam began a widespread reform movement towards a market-driven economy.  The reforms were an instant and immense success:  the number of people living in poverty in Vietnam dropped from 70% of the population to 30% of the population.  Vietnam’s standard of living rose dramatically and the nations leaders began courting the United States as both a trade partner and an ally against the rising regional hegemony of China. One of Vietnam’s top exports was basa, freshwater catfish raised quickly and cheaply on fish farms along the tributary rivers of the Mekong. “Basa” can be used to describe several different catfish, usually Pangasius bocourti, Pangasius hypophthalmus, or Pangasius pangasius.  These fish are truly omnivorous and their ability to take sips of pure air means huge numbers can be raised in small spaces.

Pangasius

Vietnamese catfish exports to America exploded.  Thanks to cheap labor, inexpensive farm techniques (which probably involve a level of abuse to the Mekong river), and superior tasting flesh, basa quickly outcompeted channel catfish from the moribund catfish farms of the American South.

That’s when Catfish Farmers of America (an agricultural lobbying organization) lobbied Mississippi’s then Senator, Trent Lott, to act against the Vietnamese imports.  Lott duly appended a rider onto an important appropriations bill. This rider mandated that out of the thousands of catfish types, only the North American Ictaluridae could henceforth be called “catfish”. In the subsequent debate John McCain lashed out at this anti-free trade (and anti-ichthyology) legislation calling it, “a scurrilous campaign against foreign catfish for the most parochial reasons.” Senator Hutchinson of Arkansas, responded (and demonstrated a deplorable lack of taxonomical savvy) by stating that, “Vietnamese Basa is no more related to the Southern catfish than a cat is to a cow.”  [It is well known that cows are even toed ungulates and hence members of the order Artiodactyla, whereas cats are a member of an entirely different order of mammals, the Carnivora.  Both basa and chanel cats are in the same order of fish.].  Unfortunately the Senator’s failure to grasp biology was no bar to passing the anti-trade legislation and, in 2003, Congress passed laws preventing all non-Ictaluridae catfish from being labelled as catfish (as well as imposing additional tariffs on Vietnamese basa).

Say what you like about anti-trade agricultural lobbyists, but they have a neat logo and a great website.

There was a silver lining for Vietnamese fish exporters: basa is completely delicious and has continued to outsell “catfish”.  Indeed the Vietnamese began to rake in windfall profits because, despite punitive tariffs, their product was still cheaper than American catfish which soared in cost due to increased corn prices (corn, a catfish feedstock, became more expensive thanks to Congressionally mandated ethanol subsidies–but that is another story).  Also thanks to the noise and drama produced by Congress, basa acquired its own “brand recognition” and picked up a group of devoted consumers both here and abroad.

Pan-cooked Basa with Herbs

Indeed, when I buy catfish, I buy basa.  American catfish, particularly in the early days of aquiculture, could sometimes taste musty and dirty, whereas I have always found basa to have a clean, delicate flavor and wonderful light flaky texture.  After trying out a number of smear campaigns against basa (most of which ricocheted and cost consumer sentiment against all catfish) the Catfish Farmers of America have decided to rebrand their own product as “DELECATA™”.  This is (apparently) plain old channel catfish which has been rebranded and renamed.  To quote Saveur magazine,

Processed from larger fish, the custom-cut filets will be more than twice the size of regular catfish filets and sold at a higher price. ‘Let’s face it, catfish is not the best name, especially for people outside the South,’ says Jeremy Robbins, a marketer for the Catfish Institute, the industry group in charge of the makeover.

Astonishingly the Ramey Agency, a corporate consultant, worked for three years coming up with the DELECATA™ concept and was paid a substantial amount of money for doing so.  Having said this, DELECATA™  looks pretty tasty and will probably actually sell in a world filled with dim consumers willing to pay for organic potatoes.  I’ll happily try it if I win the lottery (or ever see it in a Brooklyn supermarket).

I guess we’ll see how DELECATA™ works out.  In the mean time the catfish wars continue.  Both American producers and Vietnamese producers are coming under the shadow of Chinese catfish exports.  China is enormous and, as anyone trying to do business anywhere knows, Chinese producers can undersell anyone (unless the products in question require extraordinary technological finesse).  The Chinese are capable of flooding the catfish market and crushing both Vietnamese and American producers.  An intriguing idea being floated by the Vietnamese catfish farmers is to create a super hybrid between the more humble species of Pangasius being farmed today and the Mekong’s elusive giant catfish (which is a close relative).   So it looks like giant mutant catfish lie in our near future.  In the mean time enjoy a plate of tasty catfish/basa/delacata/whatever.

A Pangasius Processing Line–Feeding the planet is ugly work

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

October 2020
M T W T F S S
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
262728293031