Nước mắm tĩn
Fish sauce of the old days

Fish sauce waiting to be loaded onto the boat. Phan Thiết 1920s. Unknown photographer.

Fish sauce waiting to be loaded onto the boat. Phan Thiết 1920s. Unknown photographer.

Nước mắm tĩn was a common sight in old Sài Gòn when tĩn refers to the clay vessels used to contain fish sauce. Before plastic and glass bottles, these earthenware pots were the primary containers used to store and transport fish sauce. Việt Nam has two regions famous for their fish sauce production: Phan Thiết (Bình Thuận) and Phú Quốc (Kiên Giang). While there is limited evidence about how fish sauce made its way to Phú Quốc, we can share the long history of Phan Thiết fish sauce, which has been around for more than 300 years.

Workers at a fish sauce factory. Unknown photographer.

In the late 17th century, General Nguyễn Hữu Cảnh led his army southward to expand Việt Nam’s territory. As the result, fishermen from regions such as Quảng Nam, Quảng Ngãi, Bình Định, and Phú Yên made their way to Bình Thuận in search of a new home. With its favorable location and geography, fishing villages soon sprang up in the area. The fishermen learned the fish brewing and fermenting technique from the Chăm people, who had long inhabited the land prior to the arrival of the Vietnamese. Over time, generations of fishermen honed and perfected this technique to produce the fish sauce that we know today.

In 1906, patriotic Confucians from the Duy Tân movement led the charge for large-scale fish sauce production in Phan Thiết and formed Liên Thành Thương Quán. Their intention was to revive the local economy and expand production facilities. And fish sauce production was one of the trades that they invested in. Trần Gia Hoà (or Bát Xì as the locals called him), who popularized the use of tĩn, made moving fish sauce a whole lot easier by sailing through Cà Ty river.

Hồng Sanh factory - one of the most popular fish sauce brands at the time. Unknown photographer.

From the 19th century to the 1930s, the fish sauce industry thrived and became the region's leading economic force. By the 1930s, makers in the region produced about 40,000,000 liters of fish sauce annually. Some famous brands included Hồng Hương, Hồng Sanh, Mậu Xuyên. Cửu Phùng, one of the fish sauce OGs, later moved to Phú Quốc to spearhead his own production on the island. His brand Ba Con Cua (Three Crabs) was one of the most recognized brands at the time. And nope, it's not the same Three Crabs brand commonly found in modern U.S. stores.

The tĩn were made at factories typically constructed near the clay and water source to save on transportation costs. Each factory cost around 300,000 đồng to build ($4,000 in today's currency) and employed about 100 people contributing to different phases of the production. To create the tĩn, the pots were shaped with clay and then sun-dried for 48 hours before being fired. After they had cooled, workers inspected each vessel for any cracks before applying two coats of quicklime glaze. Any cracks would be repaired using a mixture of fish oil, cement, and quicklime. Finally, the pot makers added labels to the lid and tied dried ropes to create handles for easy transportation. 

Left: Fish sauce being filled into tĩn

Adding labels on the tĩn in Chợ Lớn 1965. Photos by William Foulke.

The tĩn, filled with fish sauce, became a ubiquitous and endearing sight to many as boats transported them through a network of rivers and canals in Southern Việt Nam. These vessels were distributed to local markets and then households in Sài Gòn. Each pot contained about 3 liters of fish sauce. For people who could not afford the full pot, they were able to buy fish sauce in smaller quantities. After the contents were used up, the pots were then sold to scrap collectors who repurposed them. The tĩn remained popular well into the 1960s and 1970s. They were eventually replaced by glass and plastic bottles as production got cheaper and more efficient.

Fish sauce made its way to Sài Gòn

The traditional fish sauce industry in Vietnam has shrunk due to various factors including climate, cost, and labor. Commercial brands are now able to produce fish sauce at a much faster rate for less cost. However, a number of producers have been working tirelessly to preserve the traditional techniques and educate the public on fish sauce production. In the U.S., Red Boat and Sơn fish sauce are the two brands that use traditional method.