Situated at the confluence of the O Lau, Bo, and Huong rivers near Hue, Tam Giang is a vast brackish lagoon covering an area of 22,000 hectares. The best time to explore this renowned lagoon is from April to August.
Located in Thua Thien Hue province, Tam Giang Lagoon is the largest lagoon system in Southeast Asia, home to 100,000 inhabitants who make ends meet by fishing. Long ago, the area was treacherous, as described in an old proverb: “Beware the Ho Dynasty scrubland, and fear Tam Giang Lagoon”. Today, Tam Giang Lagoon is described in the Thua Thien Hue Chorography as “one of the few areas in Vietnam with diverse, unique, fascinating and picturesque natural and man-made landscapes”.
Crossing Tam Giang Lagoon by boat, visitors can easily spot fishermen hard at work. They are dubbed “fish chasers” since they sail anywhere a school of fish appears. Local fishermen include indigenous people and migrants from all walks of life. Before the Tu Duc era (1829 to 1883), part of the local fishing community was looked down upon by society and had little to no civil rights. This situation changed thanks to a man named Hoang Huu Thuong. Coming from a fishing family, Mr. Thuong understood their hardships all too well. From 1837 to 1888, he earned a doctorate and served as the Minister of the Public Works Board and the Military Affairs Board. Using his status, Mr. Thuong proposed to have the local fishermen included in the country’s administrative system. This was the birth of Vong Nhi canton, comprising 13 villages across Tam Giang Lagoon. Ever since, the fishing community was given a place in society. They continue to enliven the scenery to this day.
If you want to explore the lagoon, it’s best to start very early in the morning to catch the sunrise. As the fireball emerges over the horizon, fishing boats return to Ngu My Thanh village, Quang Dien, en masse after a long night of fishing. They sell their catch at a bustling fish market, which has remained unchanged for many years. From this early morning market, specialties like shrimp, crabs, gobies, carp, and more are distributed to surrounding areas.
For fish-chasing trips to go swimmingly, fishermen in Ngu My Thanh village hold the essential annual Fish Worshiping Ceremony to wish for a peaceful life and an abundance of fish.
Nguyen Van Thien from Phuoc Lap, Quang Dien fishes in Tam Giang Lagoon on a wooden boat inherited from his father. “It is getting harder and harder to make a living because prawns and fish are not as bountiful as ten years ago,” he lamented. Mr. Thien starts work when the sun rises and finishes in the late afternoon. He sells his catch to merchants.
Tam Giang Lagoon is also known for its many stilt houses, weirs, pipes, and static nets, which fishermen have anchored in an interwoven network across the lagoon. There are countless tools to catch seafood including pipes set at various depths and many types of nets. Each tool, method, and resident contributes to enriching the distinctive features of Tam Giang Lagoon.
Researcher Nguyen Huu Thong once said: “If the fishing communities were no longer around these waters, I would definitely feel like the rivers were missing their elegant flair.”
Embracing the fishing boat as their house and the waters as their turf, fishermen on Tam Giang Lagoon are also renowned for their distinct net-casting techniques. Back in the 1980s, skilled net-throwers established Phao Vong fishing as they made a living along the rivers and lagoons of ancient Phu Xuan. Their efficient casting technique is still practiced today, leaving tourists amazed as they watch nets being cast over Tam Giang lagoon.
In addition to daily catches of fish, Tam Giang Lagoon is blessed with the annual jellyfish season, which runs around April to May. Plump jellyfish caught in the tide are easily pushed into static nets, making for an effortless catch. Some days when the spoils exceed the boat’s capacity, fishermen even have to throw them back. Living the life of seafarers, the fishermen of Tam Giang Lagoon display the typical generosity and friendliness of wandering merchants. They are always willing to give some jellyfish to a stranger as a snack. In my case, Mr. Thien prepared the jellyfish for me right on the boat. He peeled off the outer shell to reveal the firm and glassy meat, then cut it into slices. We ate the meat raw to enjoy its crunchy texture and refreshing, sweet taste. The dish reminded me of the highlights of Hue’s cuisine – jellyfish salad, jellyfish noodles, and jellyfish dipped in shrimp paste. However, eating fresh jellyfish while enjoying the marvelous scenery of Tam Giang Lagoon is certainly a one-of-a-kind experience.