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Shrimp Fishing in Thanh Đa Is Fun Even When You Don't Catch Anything

If it weren’t for shrimps, developing taste buds would have been an outrageous waste of evolutionary time and resources. Truly, without the potential for boiled, grilled, fried, baked or even raw shrimp, I find little point to getting out of bed with my tongue still in my mouth.

But despite my belief in the supremacy of shrimps over all other shellfish, and even though I occasionally introduce myself as a shrimp magnate when people incorrectly assume I’m an English teacher, I have never actually tried to catch shrimps. The mere phrase “to catch shrimp,” doesn’t conjure images of an idyllically endless summer afternoon beside a watering hole with a radio and six-pack of beers as “to catch fish” would. Rather, it makes me picture a hulking boat noisily trawling along a scraggly coast or an odorous, sun-shellacked pond down a dusty Delta road. These realities all come together to make the signs for “Câu Tôm” (shrimp fishing) in Thanh Đa particularly enticing. 

It’s tempting to think of Thanh Đa as a largely neglected swath of Saigon mired in development morass, but there is a lot more to do there than one might expect, including rollerblading, riverside nhậu-ing, lounging in bucolic pseudo-countryside cabanas and visiting honey farms. However, more extensive explorations of those will have to wait for a Saigoneer Stroll article. Our journey to Thanh Đa — the Bình Thạnh peninsula-turned-island by a 20th-century American canal project — was singularly shrimp-focused. 

We could have traveled by car, but the Saigon Water Bus has a convenient stop at the base of the peninsula and a one-way ticket from District 1 is only VND15,000. And truthfully, I don’t need an excuse to enjoy the city’s most endearingly ill-designed public transit system. I’ve taken the brisk 30-minute boat ride from Bạch Đằng Wharf to Thanh Đa many times and never grow tired of the views. Vinhomes Central Park’s bare, off-brand Gardens by the Bay Supertree Groves always elicit a sigh while the contrast of luxury yachts alongside barges laden with construction-grade sand remind me of the true costs of unfettered free markets. Meanwhile, looking at the water so slicked with oil it shimmers like peacock plumage and clumps of hyacinth tangled with styrofoam flotsam reminds me that devastation can be beautiful. Each trip seems to reveal something new, as well. For example, I’d never before noticed the “Thủ Đức City” sign erected in front of the city’s most comically unfinished conference building. If signs have dreams, does this one aspire to notoriety equal to that famed Hollywood lettering in California?

For all there is to look at while on the water taxi, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a living creature in the water. But surely, somewhere down there in the muck, some specimens of Macrobrachium rosenbergii might lurk? Known as “giant river prawn” in English and “tôm càng xanh” in Vietnam, they are native to waterways across South and Southeast Asia. One of the most commonly farmed species of prawns, they are related to Macrobrachium dienbienphuensis, a species of prawn found in Northern Vietnam that exits the water to march around waterfalls and dams; it is named in honor of Điện Biên Phủ. Simply, shrimps are amazing. While there are subtle biological and taxonomic differences between prawns and shrimps, such scientific specifics are not always reflected by language and thus for the rest of this article, they are shrimps. 

After walking 30 minutes from the water taxi station, the peninsula’s residential and commercial buildings begin to thin out. Amongst the groves of palm trees, plant-filled ponds and gardens are a number of restaurants that boast fishing opportunities. Based on a reconnaissance mission the week prior, Saigoneer selected Hồ Câu Tôm-Ẩm Thực Sân Vườn Thanh Đa. From the road, one can see its large cement-lined pond around which people sit holding fishing poles. Vinahouse tuned to a surprisingly restrained decibel level met us at the door.

What do shrimps eat? I'm not sure I'd ever really thought about this before. I could of course have googled, but for this trip, we were lucky to have an expert on Vietnamese marine history and wildlife, David McCaskey, affectionately referred to as The Fishman, to answer all our questions. The Fishman looked at the pile of bait that was provided on a filthy cloth along with our poles and seats around the pond and proclaimed it was chopped up bits of palolo worm (rươi),  the same creature used to make Hanoi’s wildly delicious chả rươi. We simply had to pierce the two hooks on our lines with the soft guts, toss them into the pond and wait for our bobbers to dip.

Calm, slow-moving and with great reverence for all crustaceans: on paper, I am a good fisherman. However, my shrimp-catching success this day suggests otherwise. I didn’t catch a single one. Khôi, Saigoneer’s Editor-in-Chief, pulled up perhaps the largest shrimp I have ever seen. The Fishman, living up to his name, pulled in two. However, we were all put to shame by a young girl who arrived well after we did and showed no enthusiasm for the activity at all. More interested in snacking or haranguing her family, she placed a brick on her pole and ignored it. She then caught at least three shrimps in rapid succession. 

Catching shrimps here is a matter of luck. And what is luck other than “accidents in a very busy place,” as Kurt Vonnegut observed? Even though one cannot see to the bottom of the shallow pool, it is certainly a very busy place thanks to the staff that routinely tosses new shrimps in via a bucket brought out from a backroom. The operation must have deduced the ideal ratio between the time an average customer spends waiting and shrimps caught, calculated alongside the price of raising versus selling shrimps offset by the number of beers served. They thus seem to know exactly how often to re-stock the pond from the large supply of shrimps being kept in big tanks behind a guarded door. We tried to get back there for a closer look. Staff promptly shooed us away.

Surely we could have just requested some of these shrimps from the backroom pools and done away with the farce of catching them. The entire activity is simply a charade we’ve agreed to participate in. If ignorance is bliss, then willful ignorance is entertainment. 

Because shrimp fishing is a low-attention activity, we had plenty of time to chit-chat. This makes the experience an ideal weekend activity for families, co-workers, friends and couples. In a city somewhat lacking in novel, affordable activities I would place this high on the list, particularly if one includes a trip on the water taxi. Scanning around the room, we noticed the place attracts Korean and Japanese families on holiday as well as locals. I don’t know how they find out about it, or what particularly appeals to them, but perhaps it helps conjure feelings of rural lifestyles that are difficult to emulate in the metropolis. Thanh Đa, in general, is good for this. The Bình Quới tourist areas recreate the experience of countryside picnics while larger ponds further up the peninsula are surrounded by chainsmoking men angling for fish which immediately reminds me of late afternoons in the Delta.

Each shrimp we caught was placed in a mesh bag and submerged in the water to keep them alive as we fished. Alternatively, we could have had a grill set up beside us to place each shrimp on immediately after snagging it. One group did this and several others ordered full spreads of food including a hotpot to eat while they continued to catch shrimps. We, however, opted to simply enjoy trà đá. We ordered three glasses but were given a single giant Aladdin cup with many straws. Never before had I considered trà đá to be a romantic beverage from which to sip while locking eyes with a partner whose face is mere centimeters away. I now know better. 

When it was time to eat so that we could make our return to the wharf in time for the boat, we were informed we couldn’t continue to sit beside the pond if were not fishing. We thus migrated to one of the large tables in the back beside an ornamental fish pond. And while waiting, we strolled around the spacious venue. The Fishman immediately proved his worth. He was able to identify each of the turtles that were kept as pets in various slipshod tanks around the room and even entertained some of my more ridiculous questions (yes, if I stuck my finger in the tank of the American alligator snapping turtle, it would indeed be able to take it off at the knuckle). For inexplicable reasons, the restaurant is home to many animals involved in the global pet trade including snapping turtles from America and eastern long-neck turtles from Australia. And there is of course an arowana, that great Amazonian fish known to pluck small monkeys from low-hanging tree limbs.

At the start of our day, I had made the claim that I would only consume what I’d caught. This would have left me shrimpless. My colleagues were kind enough to assure me that they wanted to share the three shrimps that had been grilled and brought to our table. After all, as residents of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a shrimp caught by one is a shrimp savored by all. With such egalitarian emotions ensconcing our table, I wish I could say the shrimp was tastier than it was. But even mediocre shrimps taste great, so I am not complaining, even if the shrimps were a bit stringy and bland. The other dishes failed to impress as well, with the stir-fried beef tough and the seafood fried rice good, but nothing special. Still, we hadn’t come with a delicious meal as the day’s priority. Instead, we came for a relaxing, and unique afternoon to enjoy one another’s company and savor the splendor of shrimps. Mission accomplished. And I will certainly be back.

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