The fish whisperer

Pangasius is one of the most popular fish to eat in the world. The freshwater fish native to Southeast Asia is especially popular thanks to its mild aroma. Mostly farmed in aquacultures, it has become a huge export hit, as the example of Hung Ca from Vietnam shows

Pangasius is his life. Already as a child, Tran Van Hung was fascinated by this freshwater fish from the catfish family, which is native to the Mekong Delta in his home country, Vietnam, but is also found in rivers in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. We visit Hung in one of his factories – about a three-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s economic centre. Hung was only 17 when he opened his first factory in the early 1970s, and his business empire has steadily grown since then. Today, he and his three children manage 14 production plants. While most of them are for processing pangasius, some are for producing fish oil or fish meal, and a few others are for processing fruit and vegetables.

Hung guides us through the pangasius processing area, where 6,000 women and men working in shifts daily process around 400 tonnes of pangasius. Almost every day, twenty 40-foot reefer containers full of portioned pangasius fillets leave the factory grounds, and some of the white containers also bear the Hapag-Lloyd logo.

“Around 40 per cent of our exports go to Europe, about 30 per cent to the Middle East, and 30 per cent to Latin America, as well. We still have to tap into the North American market, but we are confident that our pangasius will soon be on tables in the United States and Canada, too,” Hung says. “Of the fish we produce and export, 90 per cent is filleted and 10 per cent is unfilleted. And every market has different needs. For example, people in Europe like small portions, but people in the Middle East prefer big ones.”

Carefully sorted, the fillets go into the XXL freezing machine

We start our tour through the gigantic halls. It is bright and cold. Around a million fish are delivered here alive every day, stunned in ice water on site, and then filleted, skinned, washed and deep-frozen within a very short time. Every hand movement is perfectly performed. Two fillets are cut from each fish in a matter of just 15 seconds. With a flick of the wrist, the remains – head and bones – are tossed into a large container. Later, they will be used to produce fish meal. The journey from live pangasius to frozen and packaged fillet only takes about 30 minutes. The boxes ready for transport are standing at the end of the hall. They are labelled for the intended market – in this case, for Germany. Outside the factory, two 40-foot reefer containers are already ready to go. In just a few hours, they will reach the port and start their journey from there to Hamburg.

The current challenges posed by disrupted supply chains don’t worry him much. “We are naturally also affected by the operational problems in the shipping industry,” Hung says. “But we have enough storage and freezing capacities here to cover us if no ship capacities are available at short notice or if port calls are cancelled. And of course, we need a shipping company that knows our requirements and serves them accordingly. And that’s why we consistently rely on Hapag-Lloyd.”

From here, the frozen fillets are shipped around the world; just 10 per cent of the fish remain unfilleted

Now we are in the great outdoors two hours away. The outside temperature is 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit). Hung leads us to a vast landscape of ponds – each one filled with around a million fish. The calm surface of the water suddenly becomes agitated when hundreds of thousands of fish start to move. The food slides from large sacks into the pond. A noisy and chaotic battle starts and lasts for minutes. Fish jump out of the water and slap against each other. They open their greedy mouths wide as they try to snap up a morsel of food.

Hung smiles and enjoys watching his fish feast. The pangasius has made him rich. Today, his company is worth about 500 million dollar. Will he sell it? “No. Never,” he says. Even though he could have retired long ago after so many years, Hung will keep doing his job. “The pangasius is my life,” he says, placing his right hand over his heart.

Now he will be heading home. In the evening, he will eat together with his family again. Pangasius, of course – just like every day.

Son Nguyen, Manager Sales Execution, (r., together with Tran Van Hung, CEO Hung Ca), is responsible for assisting Hung Ca in Vietnam on behalf of Hapag-Lloyd. “Our working relationship with Tran Van Hung, one of the leading producers of pangasius in Southeast Asia, is based on trust. Hapag-Lloyd’s ability to reliably transport his perishable cargo in addition to offering sufficient capacity, attractive freight rates and good customer service is indispensable to him.”
The area stretches far and wide with countless ponds – each with roughly a million fish

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