Vietnam: Virgin Cruising Ground
A friend said to us, "Vietnam is a crazy place. You'd like it. Why don't you head over there?" His prompt came at a time in 2007 when my husband, Michael, and I had been wrestling with where to cruise next. We felt unusually reckless. The untrammeled waters of Vietnam had immediate appeal.
"But isn't Vietnam a communist country? Don't we need a visa?" we asked.
While delivering a boat from Bangkok, Thailand, to the Philippines, our friend had sailed near Vietnam's southern port of Vung Tau, where many of the crew's associates worked in the burgeoning oil industry. Impulsively, they'd put into port.
"To answer your first question," he said, "Vietnam is communist in politics, but its commerce is capitalist. The country has opened up considerably, welcoming tourists for the past couple of decades. Foreign dollars are mighty welcome. As to the second question, we didn't have a visa. At Vung Tau, we used the boat papers to clear in. They issued us with seaman's passes to visit. It was no sweat at all. Just check with Major Hung on the police barge."
Michael and I worried over the visa question well into the night. Sea Quest, our 47-foot steel ketch, a veteran of 17 years of cruising the far reaches of the Pacific, was in Miri, Sarawak, part of Malaysian Borneo, and all ready to go. Vietnam lay just 600 miles northwest across the South China Sea. Procuring a visa would mean delays and expense. We decided to take our friend at his word and set sail.
In mid-December, the northeast monsoon was just setting in, promising 15 to 20 knots for a broad reach in fair winds-a yachtsman's dream cruise. The first few days were idyllic. We headed on a more westerly course to cut south of the Luconia Shoals, but then, with a reef in the main, we began to point a bit. The farther north we sailed, the more we were sailing on the wind. Two hundred miles off the coast, we crossed one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. Socked in with heavy haze, we dodged traffic to the Far East in visibility of only four miles. By the time we reached the first of the offshore oil rigs, night had fallen. The dazzling blaze of lights was so bright that we had trouble gauging their distance without using radar. The wind was gusting to 30 knots, and we sweated to give the oil rigs a wide berth. Strong currents swept to the southwest, forcing us to continually adjust our course. Soon, the fixed oil rigs gave way to a confusing multitude of Vietnamese trawlers.
On our fifth morning at sea, the sun, a huge red disc, crept upward through the haze. The promontory of Vung Tau came into view, a gigantic whitewashed statue of Christ visible atop the most seaward of its hills. Offshore, tankers waited their turn to enter port. Sea Quest ducked between them to skirt beach-fronted coves thronged by fleets of fishing boats, each flying the bright-red, yellow-starred flag of Vietnam. Pastel-painted homes hugged the lower slopes of steep hills; on the waterfront, an ultramodern ferry building of steel arches flashed in the sun. Sweeping past commercial wharves and naval ships dressed with signal flags for the Christmas holidays, Sea Quest headed into a cove dotted by a ragtag collection of houses on stilts. The police barge was anchored in the bay, and officers in uniform signaled us to moor alongside.
Major Hung and Major Ho spoke only a little English, but they remembered our sailing friend. Michael explained that we also didn't have a visa but hoped that they'd arrange to enter us with the ship's papers and grant us seaman's passes. After half a day ashore visiting several offices, this was accomplished. Michael returned happily waving the documents.
The next day, however, a more senior officer arrived. He diplomatically informed us that we'd broken Vietnamese law. "Tourists may enter the country, but you must have a visa! You will have to pay a minimum fine," he added courteously, "but there will be no problem issuing a visa." As it was now Friday afternoon, nothing could be done until Monday, which was Christmas Eve.
Legal and Anchored
Our anchorage was a hive of activity. Tugs maneuvered tankers into the nearby fuel terminal, and shrimp boats, rowboats, and every size of fishing boat, all bristling with bamboo poles and flying pennants, moved around the bay. The bells on the nearby Roman Catholic church merrily clanged. Diesel-powered shore boats without mufflers noisily putted back and forth while honking car, truck, and bus horns raised a clamor from the road beyond the waterfront. While we remained sequestered aboard, Thinh, the son of the police barge's boatman, ran errands for us, buying vegetables and hauling jugs of water for laundry. During our stay in Vung Tau, his family would generously enfold us, even including us in Tet, their Lunar New Year's feast.
As promised, on Monday, with our new visas in hand, we were finally able to go ashore.
Vung Tau, situated just north of the Mekong Delta, was formerly a holiday resort for French colonials. Later, during the Vietnam War, the United States operated naval facilities there, and it was a popular R&R spot for combat troops. Today the economy is focused on the oil-and-gas industry. On Christmas Eve, the city was crammed with motorbikes-five lanes of them, wheel to wheel-promenading along the waterfront; up to five members of a family, all in their best clothes, piled on each of the slowly parading vehicles. Food stalls and crèches spilled into the streets. Even Vietnamese Buddhists have adopted the Christmas holiday as a special time for children, dressing up their youngest members in tiny Santa outfits.
Although hardly a word of English was spoken, Vietnamese we met on the streets and in the coffeehouses were unabashedly friendly. Our inability to speak Vietnamese, a difficult-to-master tonal language, was frustrating. Because we couldn't make ourselves understood, we took the precaution of having the boatman's address written on a card so, if necessary, we could taxi our way home. We enjoyed wandering the street markets, always alive with crowds. Vendors in typical Vietnamese garb-clingy pajamalike clothing-squatted among shellfish, crabs, gutted fish, or clucking hens and grinned as we passed. We'd buy fruit and vegetables from a different stall each day so people got to know us. After bagging our choices, the vendors would good-naturedly haul out the appropriate denomination of bills to show us how much to pay.
Vung Tau is crammed with workshops, artisans, and shops, many filled with lacquered Chinese-style furniture and elaborate coffins. The boats are all crafted of wood, even fishing boats of 100 tons and more. We visited a shipyard where massive trawlers were under construction. Hundreds more were anchored in the stream nearby. We needed some plywood to repair our windvane rudder, but none was to be had. These boatbuilders used only solid wood, cut from logs on site.
At one point, we made an overnight excursion with a couple of American Vietnam veterans and their wives to Mui Ne, a popular beach-resort town about 80 miles north of Vung Tau. There, hotels and huts for backpackers front a beach still frequented by fishermen who use woven coracles for skiffs. An elderly Swiss resident with a decade of experience on Vietnamese roads was at the wheel of the eight-seater van.
Traffic in Vung Tau had seemed chaotic: Motor scooters flow from side streets into traffic without a sideways glance from the driver, make U-turns, or head down the wrong side of the street. Cars, trucks, and buses straddling the middle line force their way through. In the countryside, the rules change: Motorbikes, ox carts, bicycles, and pedestrians are on the defensive. The open road is a war zone. Pulling out from behind large vehicles, drivers routinely risk mayhem on a collision course with buses and trucks-yet they never hesitate, hitting the accelerator with horns blaring and headlights flashing, sometimes three abreast. Again and again we gripped the edge of our seat in fearful anticipation. If our driver became impatient, he'd pass on the shoulder side, forcing bicycles, motor scooters, and pedestrians to hit the ditch.
Between adrenaline rushes, we glimpsed a charming countryside. Rubber plantations cloaked the hills. Small farms stood on flatter land surrounded by the stubble of harvested crops, the farmer's water buffalo resting in mud-caked ponds. Some stretches contained towering brick kilns and carloads of brushwood to fuel them. We passed a patchwork of young rice so green it almost hurt the eyes. The houses we saw were oddly narrow. They might have been several rooms deep, but they were just one room wide; we were told this is due to the high tax rate levied on the road frontage of the local buildings.