Underwater life goes above ground in a quiet Hanoi village

By Minh Huong    July 13, 2019 | 08:41 pm PT
A Hanoi village hosts a hub of shops that cater to a hobby and feng shui charm – pet fish.

The Yen Phu Village has some quirks.

It is a village in the heart of the capital city. It is cut off from the mainstream city, yet part of it. And it is also known as the Yen Phu pet fish village, the biggest supplier of marine creatures for all of northern Vietnam.

Getting there is not difficult. Turn left from Thanh Nien Road on the banks of the West Lake into Yen Phu Street, and after about 500 meters, another left again at a small gate with an old dome and power cables hanging over it. You are there.

The Yen Phu Village gate which leads to hundreds of fish raising and trading households. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Huong.

The Yen Phu Village gate which leads to dozens of fish raising and trading households. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Huong.

Most of pet fish shops stand on small paths and they are a curious sight with hundreds of thousands of colorful fish of different species and sizes swimming in glass tanks stacked up in villagers’ houses cum stores. If you are into it, you can spend hours watching them swim lazily or chase each other at great speed, or stare right back to you solemnly.

This is a lulling activity that is also relaxing. Ngo Thanh Tung, owner of a pet fish store on 56A Yen Phu, gently tapped a glass bowl with radiantly colored fish called ca la han or flower horn fish, saying: "It is an art to raise a fish. You start doing it and you soon love your fish deeply. You can never treat it carelessly."

Tung said that the flower horn fish, which has a weird-looking big lumpy forehead, is known for its intelligence and skills to communicate with its owners. It is, therefore, one of favored, sought after species. Each flower horn fish fetches between VND300,000 ($13) and VND3 million ($130) depending on size and color of the fish.

Tung classifies fish in the village into two types: local fish or grass fish; and the luxury fish. The former category includes species like ca bay mau (guppy), ca kiem (swordtail), ca choi (molly), ca vang (gold fish), ca than tien (angel), and fighting fish like gourami that sells from as low as VND5,000 ($0.2) each.

The luxury category includes different varieties of arowana fish (dragon fish) such as huyet long (super red asian) and bach long hong vy (red-tail silver) that are imported from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, worth anywhere between VND10 million ($430) to VND100 million (less than $4,300).

Another popular species that Tung and his fellow villagers supply is the Japanese koi, or Japansese carp 28-35cm long, in white, black, red, yellow, blue, and cream colors. These are kept for decorative purposes in indoor and outdoor ponds.

Koi, distinguished by their color and scale pattern, can fetch VND1 million ($43) to VND5 million ($215) each. As people often raise a school of koi fish in a pond, each pond is worth anywhere from VND50 million ($2,100) to several billion dong (VND1 billion = $43,000).

A fish shop in Yen Phu Village. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Huong.

A fish shop in Yen Phu Village. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Huong.

Gotta luv it

Born in the village where about 20 households raise and trade in pet fish, Tung has learnt the business from his grandfather, farther and other villagers. But, family tradition or not, "you must love what you are doing," he said.

"I don’t just sell fish. I share my affection for them and experience in taking care of them with others, so they can raise their fish perfectly too."

Water quality is the secret of the raising pet fish and Tung has a bio product that enhances water quality in fish tanks. He developed this from his own experience and the help of local aquarium experts.

"Healthy fish will always be the best present for any owner and we hope they can get everything they need from our village."

Like many Asian cultures, Vietnamese believe pet fish are auspicious creatures, bringing good luck to the house. Fish tanks are also a feng shui (Chinese geomancy) requirement – the water factor in a house. Most urban citizens don’t have enough room for a pond, so those who follow feng shui go for an aquarium with pet fish.

Yen Phu Village is also a tourism attraction. Photo acquired by VnExpress.

Yen Phu Village is known as the biggest supplier of marine creatures for northern Vietnam and also a tourist attraction. Photo by Tung Ngo.

Old world charm

Yen Phu Village is also a tourist attraction, with the pet fish trade adding to a rustic charm that persists despite rapid urbanization.

Tung’s shop draws many visitors to his store at night, and it becomes a free aquarium for people of all ages who gaze at the magnificent spectacle of fish of all colors that are also lit up with different colors.

A regular customer and visitor, Le Hoang, said he like the village because the fish here is cheaper and there is more variety than elsewhere in the capital city. His 7-year-old son Le Kien loves to watch the small tortoises the most.

Hoang also said the best thing about the place is its beauty, quietness and old world charm. "People can chat with you about fish all day here, instead of just taking your money and ushering you out to serve others, as it happens in smaller, busier places."

As all the paths are interconnected, you can find many exits in the village that stands on the banks of the Ao Va Lake. You can enter one way, and exit via another enjoying different rural-urban landscapes.

For example, you enter a path with fish store and go to one where there are people tending to aquarium plants or selling different tanks; or to a place that is full of coffee shops, or a quiet corner where some elderly men play chess and several elderly ladies sit, gossiping.

Yen Phu Village has also become a favorite stop for bikers who look for some fresh juice after a workout. That they can do it while watching a lot of pet fish is a bonus.

The secret to having a quiet village in the heart of a city is to have just one main exit and entrance that all paths that are not dead ends lead to, eventually. So this disconnects the village from the main traffic stream. No one cuts into the village as a side street to get away from a traffic jam.

Another factor is that there is construction regulation that bans high-rise buildings, so a certain silence is maintained.

The village cannot escape the urbanization and modernization happening elsewhere, of course, but the constraining factors will hopefully prevent runaway growth into urban chaos.

As for the pet fish vocation, Tung said he and other households in the village desire to maintain their traditional trade for long as they love it and it earns them their daily bread and then some.

Ao Va Lake in Yen Phu Village. Photo by Nguyen Thanh Duong.

Ao Va Lake in Yen Phu Village. Photo by Chu Thao Van.

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