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  • Andrew Pham

Squid Sellers of Sihanoukville


On the long white beaches of Sihanoukville, yoke-baskets women trudge across the hot, blinding sand, their silhouettes etched against a shimmering sea. They shield their faces from the tropical sun with conical palm hats, their limbs with long-sleeve blouses and loose dark pants. They look as if they have just walked out of the rice paddies. Scintillating aromas of grilled squids waft from their swaying baskets. They are the humble purveyors of the tastiest morsels in this Cambodian seaside resort.

The squids they sell were caught fresh a few miles from shore, mere hours ago. Last night, the fishermen steered their illuminated boats out towards the deep water. From the beach, one could see them, bright green dots stretched across the night horizon like a string of Christmas lights. By the predawn hours, their catch was ashore, sorted, iced and on the way to market. By noon, these women were barbecuing little squid kebabs for beach goers.

The squid kebabs are at once delectable and crude. There is no preparation to speak of; the women simply skewer them whole—tentacles, arms, beak, gut, and gladius, full of the sea's brininess—on bamboo sticks, baste them with a sweet-spicy-sour sauce, and grill them over coals. Within a few short minutes, hot juices bubble out of these thumb-size “sea sausages” to sizzle on glowing coal and tantalize the senses. And just like that, they're ready. Served with a side of the tangy sauce, USD$1 for five. Irresistible with ice-cold beers and heavenly after a swim!

As someone who has spent most of his life by the sea, I have an inbred affinity for fresh seafood and a penchant for settling in seaside towns with a bustling fish market, particularly those on the oceans of Southeast Asia. I was born in Phan Thiet, a fishing town in Vietnam, and I have traveled the entire coast from northern Vietnam to Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and all the way to Singapore. Sihanoukville is definitely one of the stellar seafood destinations. Still, I've dined in fishing villages along these shores with even greater varieties of seafood at lower prices, but I've found no vendors like these anywhere. That is to say, I find the vendors even more remarkable than the squids.

These small, compact women, who remind me of my own grandmothers years ago, are not, as one might expect, from Sihanoukville, nor are they even Cambodian. I overhear them talking among themselves in Viet, in the heavy, flat southern accent that hangs well in the humid air. When I inquire about their “que” (home village), most gesture eastward to Chau Doc, a Viet port town on the Cambodian border. They left home and journeyed to a neighboring country for the small privilege of selling tidbits of food from their yoke-baskets. For a moment, I wonder unreasonably if Bao, my long-lost childhood friend, might be among them—a reflex or, perhaps, an affliction of trauma.

So, day after day, for weeks on end, I gravitate to the beach to eat grilled squids and to hear their stories. To understand how these Vietnamese women came to sell squids on this Cambodian shore is to cast a long gaze down the decades through the lens of social economics and the history of Southeast Asia.

The violent winds of the American-Vietnam War scattered my people all over Southeast Asia. Pockets of Vietnamese can be found a thousand kilometers outside the country in every direction. They brought their foods, which lingered for generations even after their mother tongue had faded and their culture all but absorbed by the host country. Today, it's possible to eat pho (beef noodle soup) in the Philippines, canh ca chua (sour fish soup) in Indonesia, banh cuon (rolled rice crepes) in Singapore, banh mi (baguette sandwiches) in Thailand, com phan (rice plates) in Laos.

After the Vietnamese army ended Khmer rule in 1979, Sihanoukville became a natural destination for a number of southern Vietnamese refugees because it sat along the same coast, about a hundred kilometers as the crow flew from the border. Many crossed the porous border on foot, trekking through the jungle. Most continued onward overland to Thailand in hopes of finding passage to America, Australia, or Europe. A few stayed and established new lives in Cambodia. More came by small fishing boats, some accidentally washed ashore by storms, others intentionally beached on Cambodian shores to avoid the vicious Thai and Malay pirates who plundered, raped, and murdered thousands of Vietnamese with impunity in the Gulf of Thailand.

My own family embarked on this same voyage thirty-seven years ago with full knowledge of the terrors awaiting us at sea. For three days, the stormy winds of fate blew us off course, away from the Gulf of Thailand, and sank us in the shipping lane in the South China Sea. In our direst hours, a Russian ship followed us, and a French ship coolly passed by without offering assistance or supplies. An Indonesian freighter under the command of Captain Samalan saved my family, plucking us from the tossing sea as our fishing vessel disintegrated beneath our feet.

When Vietnam opened its market and eased travel restrictions in the mid 1990s, Vietnamese in Cambodia began to return to visit their families and establish trade. After the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that decimated tourist traffic in the Andaman Ocean, Sihanoukville entered a period of rapid growth, which has continued to today. Rising prices and long-term visa restrictions in Thailand also spurred Western expats and foreign companies to relocate to Cambodia. With sharp economic growth, the Vietnamese expats in Cambodia began recruiting and bringing their relatives and countrymen to work in Sihanoukville.

The squid sellers are among the most recent arrivals, as part of a large contingent of food-basket vendors, nearly all women and children, who sell sunglasses, woven bracelets, fruits, boiled quail eggs, fried rock lobsters, noodle soup, papaya salads, grilled chicken wings, sausages, and other types of seafood—a portion of which are bought by Vietnamese and Cambodian workers (they need to eat too). Some have set up permanent homes in Sihanoukville, others choose to work here during the high season and return home during the short low season when the monsoon sweeps away foreign tourists save the rare Middle Easterners who come specifically for the rain.

After planting myself in the same spot on the beach for a week, one vendor appoints herself my regular supplier of grilled squids. In her late thirties, Loan Nguyen arrived in Sihanoukville the previous year with her entire family. Her husband works in construction. Her twelve-year-old daughter sells fruits on the beach with her. Her six-year-old son is in a makeshift daycare-school set up by another Vietnamese woman in the Viet shanty. They are part of a group who seeks to put roots down in Cambodia because opportunities back home are too scarce.

I ask her why not try Vung Tau, Nha Trang, or other resort towns in Vietnam. She dismisses that with a wry smile. “It's too competitive in those beach towns. The locals there do not want outsiders invading their territory. Vietnam has too many people. No matter what we do, it's very hard for landless people like us to make a living in Vietnam. My husband and I worked in factories, on a shrimp farm, and on construction crews, but we can barely make enough to eat. We live day-to-day. We can't afford the books and school fees for our children. The day we get sick is the day we go hungry. There is no hope, no future in that kind of work.”

Thirty-seven years ago, Loan's father was sent to a re-education camp as a punishment for his military service as a sergeant in the South Vietnam Army during the war (my own father suffered the same sentence). After his release, the Communists confiscated his home and sent him and his family into the jungle to farm. They were officially marked for systemic discrimination that barred them from higher education and good jobs. Thus began their decades of poverty and deprivation, which extended to their children.

Her story is one I know well because it is one my own family narrowly escaped. I have a childhood friend whose family was sentenced to the jungle. Bao was my best friend. No one heard from them again. I still think of Bao and his family from time to time.

Thousands of impoverished Vietnamese have been flocking to Cambodia, alone or with family in tow, in search of work. Many consider themselves fortunate to be able to work without being separated from their loved ones. If they need to return to Vietnam, the border is only a day's bus ride away. People like Loan, who carry scars and grudges against the Vietnamese Communists, are not looking back. They stake their dreams and future in Cambodia, a country poorer and less developed than their motherland.

Over long, lazy afternoons on the beach, I become acquainted with Loan's and her friends' stories, which I have to see as possible scripts of my own life in a parallel universe. After Loan introduces me to other vendors, they begin sharing their stories. All consider themselves wiser than the Vietnamese women who marry aging Korean farmers (through match-making agencies) to enter lonely lives of crushing agricultural drudgery in a cold, foreign country. They count themselves more fortunate than those who signed crushing labor contracts—a modern form of legal enslavement—to work in Korea, Japan, and even Russia. These desperate people scrounge money from relatives or borrow from loan sharks for the agent fees and airfares to go abroad to labor in industrial sweatshops, to live confined in filthy dormitories without rights or protection from abuse.

Their realities seem at odds with Vietnam's image of rapid progress and its much-touted economic data. While Vietnam's GDP rose above those of Cambodia and Laos by a comfortable margin, it still lagged behind Thailand's GDP by a factor of five. Viewed in conjunction with population density data, and the real picture emerges. Vietnam is twice as densely populated as Thailand, three times more than Cambodia, and ten times more than Laos. In other words, a poor Cambodian might earn 30% less income than his Vietnamese counterpart, but the Cambodian might also have three times more land, which might be just enough to feed himself and his family. The reality is simple and clear: Vietnam has an extremely poor and desperate underclass that is willing to go anywhere and accept any amount of risk just to earn a living.

Loan says, “Vietnamese tourists, Saigon people, come here. They're surprised to see us here too, but they don't ask too many questions. They know how hard life is for the poor in Vietnam.”

My great grandaunt often said, “A rich man cannot feel a beggar's hunger.”

I find myself fumbling for explanations of the disparities of our worlds, saying such triteness as heaven has no borders and we will all be reborn in different skins in different countries.

Loan pats my forearm soothingly. “Only Heaven knows destiny.”

On my last day in Sihanoukville, Loan treats me to a free plate of extra-large grilled squids. They are every bit as delicious as the first squids I enjoyed the previous month, but these have also acquired new dimensions and depth. At moments, I have difficulties swallowing.

For survivors, the food of memories can suddenly turn bitter or sweet in the mouth. Sometimes, they burn like fire.

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