Vietnam: Virgin Cruising Ground
|At Vung Tau's open-air market, the Bathams found an array of fresh produce.|
Stalls lined the streets. People who couldn't afford a stall displayed their produce on bamboo poles slung across their shoulders or on heavily laden bicycles. We saw the locals hauling some amazing loads: more than a hundred live chickens tied by their feet, half a dozen young pigs, a whole nursery of plants, a huge array of glazed pots. One woman carried an entire portable kitchen, including a charcoal stove and the food to cook on it, suspended from a pole.
When weaving our way through small towns, we'd often pass groups of cycling schoolgirls. Looking as delicate as butterflies in the dusty landscape, they were dressed in traditional white ao dai, their school uniform. This close-fitting, high-collared silk gown has slits to the waist and is worn with matching pajamalike pants. Every girl gracefully catches the trailing edge of her gown in her left hand to hold at the handlebars, keeping it from being soiled by road dirt.
Though much of the population is too young to remember the Vietnam War, the country is deeply scarred. I read in a local English-language paper that 400,000 Vietnamese intellectuals still remain overseas. The generation of educated, urbane South Vietnamese who didn't escape were detained, "re-educated," and then displaced to the remote countryside. A onetime university student we met had, at age 22, been forced to live without books or writing materials as a rice-growing peasant for 13 years. It wasn't until after the collapse of Russian communism in the late 1980s and the rewriting of the Vietnamese constitution in 1992 that the government reformed its policies to allow banished people to return to carve out something like a normal life for themselves. Today, maimed and crippled former South Vietnamese soldiers beg on the streets, and displaced educated people man pedicabs, excluded from decent jobs in a regime that doesn't easily forgive. Nevertheless, the sad past seems to be gradually giving way to the exuberance of the young.
With Sea Quest safely anchored beside the police barge, we were able to leave again, this time for a 10-day visit to the Mekong Delta and the fabled Angkor Wat temple ruins in Cambodia, a highly rewarding and surprisingly inexpensive side trip. After having seen for ourselves the watery world of the delta thronged with boats on which people spend almost their entire lives, we believe that the tributaries of the Mekong would be a fascinating place for further exploration by an adventurous yacht.
Off to the Islands
The northeast monsoon prevented us from sailing farther north in Vietnam. However, we'd learned of offshore islands that we could visit on our way to Thailand. The first group lay just 100 miles south of Vung Tau. We bid farewell to Major Ho and Major Hung of the barge who had, during the course of our six-week stay, not only kept an eye on our boat but also served us a memorable meal that consisted of the grilled intestines of venomous snakes washed down with the snakes' gall bladders steeped in rice wine.
Our passage to the Con Dao islands was windy and rough and made into an obstacle course by the presence of hundreds of fishing boats. Although typhoons are rare, bad weather isn't. The earliest written records say that in 1294, Marco Polo himself nearly perished here when his fleet, caught up in a fierce storm, was soundly thrashed, and eight ships out of 14 were lost.
The port of Ben Dam, on the largest island, Con Son, is surrounded by dramatic mountains; williwaws howl down the slopes. To avoid the worst of the wind, we snuggled high up into the bay. During the night, an eddy swung Sea Quest into shallower water. The tide receded until the boat was standing firmly on her broad, straight keel. At 0400, a strong gust spiraled through the anchorage, hitting Sea Quest broadside and pushing her over onto her beam ends. We tumbled out of our bunk onto the alarmingly canted cabin sole. The tide lapped over the deck. Sea Quest lay in four feet of water, but her bilges rested firmly on the sandy bottom. What could we do but batten the ports, close the sea cocks, and wait for the tide to refloat her? It was too dark to scrub the bottom.
Once Sea Quest was back upright and safe, we found a young man ashore who'd risk renting his motorbike to us so we could explore the verdant island by road. We found Con Son to be surrounded by white-sand beaches that are home to dugongs and sea turtles. Small, local resorts attract tourists. Renowned as a former penal colony started by the French more than a century ago, the island remains infamous for the savage brutality meted out to inmates, including holding them in "tiger pits," holes dug in the ground and covered by grates. Later, during the Vietnam War, thousands of Viet Cong were detained here, including many political luminaries. A museum records the awful history while also offering considerable anti-American propaganda, which seemed dated in view of the present openness of the country.
From Con Son, we motorsailed 265 miles to our last Vietnamese port of call, the lovely island of Phu Quoc. Our route took us around the southernmost tip of Vietnam, Ca Mau peninsula, and into the Gulf of Thailand. It was February, and the northeast monsoon was on the wane. Information about Phu Quoc was sketchy. Immigration officials in Vung Tau had suggested that we enter at the southern port of An-Thoi, but when Michael got a ride ashore on one of the many longtail motorboats that excitedly buzzed Sea Quest, he found that officials there were unfamiliar with entry procedures. He was directed to sail up the coast to the town of Duong Dong, adjacent to the airport.
The next morning, five officers and an interpreter filed into the harbormaster's parlor at Duong Dong. All were confused by our arrival. When they suggested that we employ a ship's agent to complete our papers, Michael handed over the sealed package of clearance papers from the Vung Tau officials that said that we'd properly entered. He explained that we were simple tourists with a visa in our passports and were already legally checked into Vietnam. However, because Vung Tau and Duong Dong are in different districts, we explained that we required permission from the harbormaster to enter Duong Dong and the issuance of clearance papers for our departure in 10 days to Thailand. Their confusion, the officials eventually explained, stemmed from the fact that Sea Quest was the only foreign yacht that they'd ever seen in Phu Quoc!
Just nine miles from Cambodia, Phu Quoc is 29 miles long, heavily forested, and includes a scattering of smaller islands to the south. Duong Dong, halfway along its western coast, is a thriving small town intersected by a deep river sheltering hundreds of fishing boats. A shrine to a local god who can assume the shape of a whale sits at the river mouth atop a rock promontory. The town's open-air market overflows with tropical fruit and vegetables. The island is popular with both Vietnamese and foreign tourists for its gorgeous soft-sand beaches.
We rented a motorbike and rode to the northern tip of the island over rough, unpaved roads. We lunched on fresh seafood while enjoying a view of the nearby Cambodian islands, then napped in hammocks. The island has fabulous potential for tourism, as yet hardly scratched.
So does Vietnam, which had more than lived up to our expectations. The country offers a 1,400 miles of coastline as well as the cruising enticements of the Mekong Delta. The county is ripe for exploring by independent travelers willing to practice patience with officials. One thing is for sure: If we return to Vietnam, we'll arm ourselves properly: with a multiple-entry, three-month visa.
On board Sea Quest, Teré Batham and her husband, Michael, sailed in Pacific and Asian waters for nearly 20 years. A longtime contributor to Cruising World, Teré is the author of Cruising Japan to New Zealand: The Voyage of the Sea Quest (2004, Sheridan House).