Eating in Vietnam and the Fowl Business of the Duck Works


Ducks are slaughtered, blood drained, feathers plucked and dressed at the duck works.













Hai Phong, Vietnam

Eating in Vietnam, like many third world countries, can be an adventure. A diet forged by times of shortages and serious hunger, this is a country where people eat anything that wiggles, crawls or moves.

Snake soaking in wine.

I’ve seen dog, cat and rat on the menu or sitting on plates and cooking grills in the village markets, as well as wine aged with snakes, scorpions and larva in the jug.

To be sure, there are some great places in the major cities to get seriously good food. And many people who live in U.S. cities with large Vietnamese-American communities know the wonderful flavors and varieties that the Vietnamese diaspora brought to our country.

But on this photo shooting trip, we are traveling through the rural areas of the north and the concepts of fine dining have not crossed the city limits of the larger metropolitan areas. In these small towns, restaurants have concrete floors, open air kitchens and usually have a limited offering of choices each day.

Lately, I have become increasingly interested in how food fits into my ongoing Vietnam Unexpected project. It has become apparent to me that food has emerged as an important theme in the portfolio, even though I had no conscious intent of making it a central part of the project. But food definitely is a core ingredient because Vietnam is still an agrarian culture. The planting, growing and harvesting of food consumes much of the work energy of this country everyday.

I owe credit for seeing this thread in my work to Penny De Los Santos, an accomplished food photographer in the United States. Penny recently did a weekend workshop online and it helped me see how food photography is more than just shooting photos of pretty morsels on white plates for slick magazines. Food is the story of a country’s people and culture, weaving a rich narative from the moment seeds are planted in the soil to the crackling instant bread is broken around the table.

With that in mind, you can imagine my delight at finding the duck works in Hai Phong, a deep-water sea port on the coast due east of Hanoi. The duck works is my name for the place, located on a street corner in the public market where all kinds of produce, fish and meats can be found. It is unique because here ducks are sold, slaughtered and dressed. And it all happens right here on the street for all to see.

Out on the sidewalk, there are several dozen live ducks. To keep them from running off to avoid the butcher’s knife, they are stuffed into bags that have openings for their heads. Shoppers stroll through the bags of ducks, examining them closely, obviously looking for the most tasty specimens.

Behind the duck shopping area, there is a space where ducks are being killed and then dressed. A single man is killing the ducks, relishing his work to an extent that is a little unsettling. He takes each duck, turns it upside down and shoves it head first into an open-ended shute. He then cuts the ducks throat and drains the blood.

The blood is collected in a large plastic bag, which is then cooked in large pots of near-boiling water. When the blood is cooked, it is like a jelly and is used as an ingredient in other foods.

Adjacent to the jolly duck killer there are rows of women sitting in front of vats of water. They remove the feathers and dress the birds.

Indeed, it is very visual. But you should not linger here too long with a camera. The lady who runs the duck works is not too keen on having all this bloodletting photographed. She yelled at me when I first showed up, so I did not point the camera in her direction. But I kept photographing the other activity, as it is on the street and within public view. For awhile, the lady disappeared, apparently having bigger ducks to fry.

But she returned a half hour later, more angry than ever. Without warning she slapped me in the arm, hurling a mouthful of Vietnamese curse words at me. I resisted the urge to smack her back. And knowing that my First Amendment rights might not extend to the streets of Hai Phong, I decided a quiet retreat might be the best option. I had already shot hundreds of images and a confrontation that might draw the interest of the local police seemed unwise.

I also never got to taste any Vietnamese duck. In fact, the food we ate during our time in the rural north was often very poor.

I have survived thanks to the French. When the French occupation of Vietnam ended they left behind baguettes and French fries. To this day, you can find these foods in the tiny hamlets of North Vietnam. So, I’ve been able to count on a helping of crinkle cut fries to round out my meals while my traveling companions are eating eel and stir fried whole sardines.

On one trip a couple of years ago I was traveling in the far north near the Chinese border with my photographer friend Ly Hoang Long. After several days on the road, Long had our driver stop at a store in a small town that looked like a little Piggly Wiggly store. It looked very out of place with its neat shelves and stacked processed food products. Long marched into the store on a mission. He emerged after about 10 minutes with a shopping bag full of processed meats like baloney, as well as cheese, white bread and a bit of mustard.

“What’s this,” I asked.

“I am sick of this food from the north,” said Long, who lives in the Central Highlands town of Da Lat. “It’s bland and has no taste. Sometimes it just makes me crazy.”

On another occasion, Long and I were photo shooting in the Mekong with some of his photographer friends. All day they kept telling me they would be taking me for a special dinner to a restaurant that is known throughout the Mekong for its rat. “These are not like your New York City rats,” one told me. “Ours are clean because they live in the fields and eat corn and rice.” I was anxiously contemplating all day how I was going to get out of eating rat. We went to the restaurant, got our table and ordered a round of beers. After a few sips and toasts, one of Long’s friends said: “I am very sorry but the restaurant is out of rat today.” That’s when I knew for sure they were messing with me. I turned to Long and asked him to order me some fries.

While I am not a terribly squimish or fussy eater, I do have my limits. But I also have tried to keep an open mind and be ready to seize on a nice surprise when it happens.

One day on this trip, Khoa Tran, my photo assistant, emerged from a restaurant carrying a bag of four freshly baked baguettes. He ordered some fried eggs and we scooped up the runny yokes with the warm bread. And on each trip, I find something new that I really like. On this trip, I’ve developed a passion for Vietnamese coffee. The coffee is dark and rich and is allowed to drip through a simple metal brewing container into a cup. Generous amounts of sugar, and sometimes sweet condensed milk, are added and then the mix is poured over ice.

I am also coming to appreciate the regional differences in food here, too. For instance, food from the south is much more flavorful and spicy than the north. And foods in the Mekong are often sweeter.

From the anecdotes here, you can see that food has played a sometimes amusing role in my daily life as a photographer here. I know now that the variety of food photos I have accumulated will play an important role in telling the story of Vietnam, even if I choose not to sample all the foods.

One day early in this project, I was traveling with a young guide from the north. He spoke awesomely good English and was proud of his ability to understand euphemistic expressions and coin his own clever phrases. I asked him to explain how dog tastes. Is it like pork, chicken or beef, or does it have a unique flavor like lamb or game?

He contemplated my question for a few seconds and then his face lit up: “Robert, dog tastes very dogly. You’ll just have to sample it.”

I am still not going to try it.

Shoppers carefully look over all the ducks before making a selection.

The morning rush hour is a busy time as customers pick-up ducks on their way to work.

Another bird faces the jolly duck killer as a production line keeps the fowl flowing to customers.

A final duck is pulled from a cage to be slaughtered and dressed. This man enjoys his work too much.









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