Angling for a good time

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When night comes, silence descends on Phu Quoc Island in the Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang.

But out on the water, hundreds of fishing boats turn on their lights to lure the fish and transform the sea into a bustling town.

Being out there among them has become popular with tourists in recent years and marks a change from the pristine beaches and untouched woodlands for which Vietnam's largest island is famous for.

We went to the passenger quay in Duong Dong Town at seven in the evening to join a guided fishing expedition. As our boat cut a swath through the waves, far away we could see the lights of the fishing boats twinkling in the water, looking like stars in the sky.

Phu Quoc's main fishing ground was half an hour's travel from the wharf. When our boat arrived there, the captain cut the engine and turned on nearly twenty lamps to attract the fish.

Thanks to the lights, we could see scads, cuttlefish and jellyfish swimming around in the clear water.

We were supplied with fishing rods. Those who wanted to catch fish used earthworms as bait but we were after cuttlefish so we attached artificial luminous shrimp to our lines.

At odd intervals a shriek would pierce the still night air when one of our fellow passengers felt a tug on the line.

It was a thrill to feel the line become taut and the rod heavy. It meant a cuttlefish had taken our bait, so we slowly reeled in the prized catch and pulled it from the water.

Of course, we would all be served fresh seafood for supper whether we'd caught any fish or not. Yet it seemed that every member of our party wanted the challenge of catching their own food for the evening and patiently held their lines waiting for that exciting tug.

Whatever was caught was promptly gutted, cleaned, spiced up and steamed, boiled or grilled. The aroma from the cooking was intoxicating.

When the food was ready, we clustered around to enjoy our meal of delicious seafood and wine mixed with pleasant conversation.

Sea urchins

The next day, we went to the house of Thanh Tung, an experienced sea urchin catcher in Bai Thom Hamlet, Bai Thom Commune


Freshly caught sea urchins that will be cut in half and grilled

Tung mostly sells his sea urchins to local merchants and restaurants.

He also takes tour parties out on the water to catch his specialty and bring the sea urchins back to shore for cooking and feasting on.

Tung steered his vessel to a spot a little way from the shore, dropped anchor, donned a face mask and dropped into the water with metal tongs and basket in hand.

Ten minutes later, he was back with nearly two dozen large specimens that he promptly dumped into the boat from his basket.

Tung explained that the tongs were essential for catching sea urchins as their spines could easily injure anyone foolish enough to handle them with bare hands.

He then removed the spines, cut the sea urchins in half and grilled them. Their flesh and roe were delicious.

Sweet snail

Later on we ventured into Duong Dao, a hamlet in Duong Dong's Duong To Commune, to see how they farm the marine creature called oc huong (sweet snail)


Sweet snails roasted over a wood stove are a local delicacy at Phu Quoc Island's Dinh Cau night market.

Oc huong catches the eye with its light yellow shell spotted in brown and makes for delicious seafood.

As its Vietnamese name suggests, oc huong has a unique and captivating fragrance.

Dang Van Nhan, who pioneered oc huong farming on Phu Quoc, said he began in 2007 and found it very profitable almost from the start since the sea snails went down well with Vietnamese and foreigners alike.

Seeing Nhan's success at close hand, many of the islanders followed suit. Now they raise and breed oc huong for local sale and export to China, Korea and many other countries.

Nhan told us he began breeding oc huong last year to supply his fellow farmers with stock as his cost far less than snails from Nha Trang Town of Khanh Hoa Province on the central coast.

Oc huong can be steamed with onion and ginger, grilled, fried with tamarind or garlic, and otherwise cooked to produce the array of tempting dishes found and eaten at Dinh Cau Night Market on Bach Dang Street in Duong Dong Town.

Unsurprisingly, the crowded market with dozens of food stalls has plenty of other seafood to offer like squid, crab, and shrimp.

BOOKING INFORMATION

To reach Phu Quoc, it's standard to fly from Ho Chi Minh City but the island can also be reached by fast boat from Rach Gia or Ha Tien in mainland Kien Giang Province.

A night fishing excursion can be booked by phoning Hang Nga Cruise Boat at 090 311 6400 or Thanh Truong Boat at 097 953 6635. The price per person ranges from VND150,000 to VND300,000 and depends on the number of people booking a place.

Both tour operators are located near the passenger quay at Duong Dong, the main town of Phu Quoc Island. They operate fishing tours from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. every day.

To get to the house of Thanh Tung, the sea-urchin man in Bai Thom Hamlet, it's best to phone him at 091 764 0485 and get instructions.

There's also a professional tour guide who can take you there, Dinh Van Tao. He can be reached at 098 440 7709. Tao takes tour parties to other sea-urchin establishments as well and helps tourists to purchase them.

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