Cuong Pham's family left Vietnam by boat in 1979, after his father's association with U.S. agencies during the war made it too "difficult" to continue living there. Three decades later, Cuong returned to Phu Quoc, an island off the country's southern coast, to make fish sauce.
Fish sauce is the essential condiment of Southeast Asian cuisine. Made from fermented anchovies, it gives Vietnamese and Thai dishes their distinctive sweet-sour taste. More than 95% of Vietnamese households use fish sauce daily, tossing it into everything from noodles to dipping sauce.
In previous decades, housewives bought unmarked jars at the local market. Today, they’ve developed fierce brand loyalty. Three sauces manufactured by Masan Consumer Corp. make up 76% of the domestic market, which this year is forecast to top $400 million. New York-based private equity firm KKR recently increased its stake in Masan to $359 million—the largest investment a private equity firm has ever made in Vietnam.
But Cuong and the other approximately 90 Phu Quoc producers want consumers to see their fermented condiment as much more than a household staple.
This year, Phu Quoc fish sauce became the first product from Southeast Asia to receive Protected Designation of Origin certification from the EU Commission. To earn the prestigious label, a food product must be made entirely within a defined geographical area, using skills and ingredients from the region. European PDO products, including Prosciutto di Parma, Balsamic vinegar and Champagne, often enjoy a global reputation.
“We think of ourselves like a fine Bordeaux,” Cuong told me. “The things that make Phu Quoc fish sauce special—the anchovies, process, and climate—are quite different in Phu Quoc than in other fish sauce producing areas. The new designation recognizes these terroirs.”
The readiness with which Cuong tosses out terms like terroir indicates that Vietnamese producers are becoming more conscious of branding, especially for export markets.
The French word terroir describes the set of regional characteristics that give a wine or food its distinctive character: physical conditions (climate, geography), production methods, and intangible qualities like a sense of authenticity and identity. While Westerners typically associate the concept with French wine, the same idea has been ingrained in Vietnamese culture for centuries as dac san (“specialty”), but with much less aggressive marketing.
When I asked Ha Nguyen, a Vietnam News reporter who often writes about food traditions, about dac san, she immediately grabbed a pencil to scribble down a list: Buon Ma Thuot coffee, Lý Sơn garlic, Hải Dương mung beans, Ninh Thuân grapes. The country’s finest tea comes from Thai Nguyen province, she said, although a concrete reason for its specialness evaded her: “When you smell tea from Thai Nguyen, there's something about it. You know that it's good.” She waved her hand as if to inhale the scent of invisible green leaves.
But while Vietnamese might prize Thai Nguyen tea, consumers in America have no clue it even exists. Vietnamese tea “lacks branding,” Nguyen Quoc Vong, an agricultural product quality expert from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, told attendees at this year’s Vietnam Tea Outlook conference. “Consumers perceive it as low value.”
Other local specialties face the same problem.
“High-end food products made in Vietnam are very much the exception,” said Samuel Maruta, one of the founders of Marou Chocolate—the first artisan bean-to-bar chocolate maker in Vietnam. “Even products for which Vietnam is a major player, such as coffee and pepper, don't really have much of an image overseas.”
As Maruta suggests, the coffee industry’s woes offer a good illustration of Vietnam’s image problem. The country has a variety of microclimates with ideal conditions for growing unique beans. But government policies focus on boosting exports—forcing growers to ignore quality in favor of quantity.
Typica and Bourbon beans, brought to Vietnam by the French, once grew all over Cau Dat district in Lam Dong province, according to Dao Tran Phuong, who founded single-origin coffee maker Oriberry in 2008 under the auspices of the local NGO he heads, Advancement of Community Empowerment and Partnership. However, the emphasis on planting cheap coffee for export means that these varieties have been almost entirely replaced by higher-yielding beans.
“We provide the largest quantity of Robusta to the world, but it goes to the instant coffee industry, so consumers rarely recognize the origin of coffee beans,” Phuong told me. “Until our coffee is recognized by the world as high-quality, we won’t have a PDO.”