Saving the Soul of Vietnamese Cuisine, Da Nang

Written by Resilient Cities Network
Tuesday, 11 July 2023
  • The City of Da Nang and Resilient Cities Network are supporting key households that represent an ancient culinary tradition of fish sauce in Vietnam that is in danger of being lost.
  • By strengthening their market opportunities, together with other stakeholders and community members, we aim to protect this heritage and help them achieve economic resilience.
  • Initial results show a 15-20% increase in production.

Nam O is a small fishing village and one of the oldest fish sauce producers in the world. Located on the coast of Da Nang, the community is one of the most respected in the country for the uniqueness of its product, considered ‘the soul’ of Vietnamese cuisine. Part of this reputation has to do with a recipe that has been passed down from generation to generation. It is made from black anchovies that are caught in the third month of the lunar calendar. The fermentation process takes 12 months, and no artificial ingredients are added which accounts for its stronger taste. 

About 6,000 people live in Nam O and there are 93 active fish sauce producers, 64 of whom are members of the Nam O Fish Sauce Traditional Craft Village Association. After determining that the product and production techniques meet criteria related to local cultural identity as well as human creativity preserved through generations, the government recognized Nam O Fish Sauce as Vietnam’s National Intangible Cultural Heritage in July 2020. The heritage status is based on the authenticity and the value it represents for the country’s cuisine.

The challenge

In recent decades, the 400-year-old industry has suffered a steady decline due to a combination of factors. First, changes in weather patterns affected the ability to produce good quality fish sauce. In addition, a restriction on the types of vessels that are allowed to operate affected the availability of raw materials for fish sauce production. This situation caused young people to move away from this industry and choose other types of work.

The Resilient Cities Network’s Catalyzing City Resilience Solutions (CCRS) program is working with Da Nang’s local government to help the industry rethink its business model. Four areas of concern to ensure a more resilient and sustainable future for Nam O are the impact of climate change on their traditional fishing culture; the impact of rapid urbanization; the vulnerability of their livelihoods and the risk of losing a valuable cultural tradition.

The assessment was conducted by the local implementing partner: Building up Sustainability Center (BUS), in close coordination with the Da Nang Agency of Sea and Islands (DASI) of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DONRE). One of the main challenges was to help participants create a self-sustaining product market system and develop a greener business framework.

Da Nang’s solution

To date, the CCRS program has worked with Da Nang City officials and local SMEs on a number of recommendations to support Nam O’s small fish sauce businesses. These include creating a stronger brand for environmentally conscious consumers, standardizing the production process for better quality control, and developing community-based ecotourism models to increase economic resilience while preserving the traditional culture of Nam O fish sauce village.

Our impact

The first step in the pilot project was to develop a green business standard operating procedure for making fish sauce, which involved replacing plastic fish sauce bottles with glass bottles. The project worked with 24 SMEs who received an initial investment of US$300, or 50% of the cost of the glass bottles. For a community with an average monthly income of US$160-200, this was a significant step forward. The change allowed the SMEs to expand their markets to potential customers who are concerned about food safety and hygiene. As a result, the consumption rate increased by 15% to 20%, and the total volume sold during the pilot phase was 720 liters (equivalent to 1440 bottles), with total revenue of approximately US$3,000.

A second intervention was a fish sauce event organized in collaboration with local authorities. This gave small producers the opportunity to showcase their fish sauce production system and Nam O culture to more than 100 visitors. More than 100 liters of fish sauce were sold during the event. The participating villagers also learned about the various opportunities that ecotourism can offer, with visitors interested in their culture, customs, and food.

A stronger production and marketing system, access to a larger market, and a greater awareness of their cultural value and the uniqueness of their way of life are all signs of increased resilience. In this way, the villagers are making progress in ensuring the continuity of their livelihoods, while guaranteeing the continuity of this heritage for hundreds of years to come.

In Da Nang, Resilient Cities Network is running the Catalyzing City Resilience Solutions program with support from the Citi Foundation to help the local economy recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. This recovery will catalyze urban resilience by empowering and strengthening a selection of critical small and medium enterprise (SMEs) to develop locally relevant solutions.

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