'Banh long' on display for sale in Kien Giang Province's Phu Quoc island. The sea creature is caught from Phu Quoc Island and has been selling like hot cakes after Chinese dealers said it has many medical effects. Photo credit: Tuoi Tre
Resident's of the southern resort island of Phu Quoc are engaged in a mad rush to dig up sea beds for a single creature sought after by Chinese buyers.
The creature is called “banh long” (furry ball) in Vietnamese due to its appearance.
Few ate the creature in Vietnam, before a group of Chinese buyers arrived on the island ascribing its miraculous health properties and offering good money for hauls of it, Tuoi Tre quoted Phu Quoc locals as saying.
One of the Chinese buyers described his Vietnamese name as Duong Sieu Thuan.
Thuan traveled to Vietnam from Guangxi on a tourist visa to purchase banh long. He explained, in fluent Vietnamese, that the creature should be dried, soaked and stewed at length.
"After being packed in An Thoi (which is a Ha Tien port) the banh long are shipped by boat to Ha Tien (a coastal town) and then to Ho Chi Minh City where they are gathered for export to China," he said.
Dr Vo Si Tuan, head of the Institute of Oceanography at the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, said he received five samples of the creature from agricultural inspectors in Kien Giang Province who were seeking to identify it.
Tuan said the species belongs to Dendrochirotida -- an order of sea cucumbers of the Holothuroidea class characterised by ten to thirty branched tentacles. It probably belongs to the Echinoderms phylum, he added, due to their radial symmetry.
Nguyen An Khang, an identification expert from the oceanography institute, said samples from Kien Giang were not in good enough shape to positively identify the species.
The dried creatures' tentacles and polia had shriveled away, Khang said, making it hard to describe the creature’s nutritional or medical value, as well as its habitat or conservation status.
Although Vietnamese experts have warned that the medical effects haven't been confirmed and the massive banh long rush has disturbed the marine ecology, many vendors at the Binh Tay wholesale market in Ho Chi Minh City are freely advertising its sale.
Tuoi Tre reported that around ten market booths sell dried Phu Quoc banh long for between VND1-2.2 million a kilogram depending on their size and complexity.
Some vendors said a small number of locals buy a couple of kilograms at a time; their main customers are “foreigners” who buy in large quantities to resell to luxury restaurants overseas.
“It’s delicious and nutritious and sells like hot cakes,” a vendor identified only as T. told Tuoi Tre.
The product being sold at the market has been washed, boiled and dried in Phu Quoc. Consumers typically soak it in water for three to four days before boiling, slicing and stewing it with other ingredients like mushrooms and pork.
Vendors said a family of five to six members require two to three balls per meal.
The creatures are said to have the ability to stabilize a person's body temperature, control cholesterol levels and strengthen kidney functions.
One vendor added value to her merchandise by saying it is not always available.
Another said the supply is running out and refused to promise an undercover reporter that he could fill a five kilogram order.
Fishermen from Phu Quoc Island collect baskets of 'banh long,' a species in the same order with sea cucumber, to sell to a Chinese dealer talking on the phone. Photo credit: Tuoi Tre
Another vendor claimed she has been selling it for dozens of years, primarily to luxury restaurants.
“There is a rush for it now because more people have started to know about it.”
Yet most fishermen said they used to throw it back whenever it accidentally got caught up in their traps.
They said they only deliberately hunt for them now after Chinese traders began offering high prices for them.
The fishermen use big claws to stir up the seabeds; the process also makes it easy for them to flush out and catch hiding squid.
The fishermen said each kilograms of the creature sells fresh in Phu Quoc for VND205,000, a price that fluctuates by the day but always remains worth the effort.
Phan Thanh Binh said he made nearly VND2 billion in profit after a 15-day hunt over roughly 100 sea miles.
After netting over a ton of the creature, Binh sold his catch for VND220,000 a kilo.
“Some voyages can take nearly a month as the creature has been over-hunted recently, but it still makes for a pretty good day's work.”
Pham Huu Sinh, another local, even borrowed money to re-equp his anchovy-fishing boat to catch banh long after he began losing money on his anchovy runs.
Many locals said they never eat the creature and didn't know that it is a kind of food.
Coast Guard Officer Quang Trong Binh said there are nearly 600 boats out hunting the creature around the island; many of them are piloted by fishermen from the central region who left their traditional waters after Chinese boats began ravaging the East Sea in their ongoing fight for territory.
For around two months, fresh shipments of the creature have been gathered for processing and packaging at a house in the Dai Hai Residential Complex on Phan Van Hon Street, in Hoc Mon District on the outskirts of HCMC.
Locals said there are up to ten workers there at a time, cutting the fresh creature open, washing them out and arranging them in a concrete yard to dry.
Neighbors complained that the whole neighborhood stinks as a result.
The unidentified owner of the processing plant said he distributes to trusted restaurants and exporters.
He said he buys from familiar sources, but doesn’t know the origin of the shipments.
Dry "banh long" being sold at Binh Tay market in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo credit: Tuoi Tre
Dr Tu Ngu, general secretary of Vietnam Nutrition Association, said they know nothing about the creature.
If it is indeed a food item, it is not a common one and its nutritional value has yet to be assessed.
Tran Van Nam, deputy head of the Ho Chi Minh City Traditional Medicinal Institute, said he has never heard of “banh long.”
He said that since the creature’s effects have yet to be established, people should consume it with caution.
Experienced fishermen warned that the pace of the current harvest is likely to threaten other marine resources.
One of such fisherman, Ho Kim Ba, said the dredging process doesn't just disturb squid populations; many kinds of fish have seemed rarer since the rush began.
Dr Nguyen Van Long of the oceanography institute said the mass-dredging associated with the rush on banh long is sure to destroy the whole seabed system.
“The current will sweep all the stirred up sand into coral reefs, changing the environment for thousands of other sea creatures.”
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