Vietnam: Virgin Cruising Ground

A friend's suggestion leads to a visit rich in sights and sounds in a once war-torn land. A feature from our January 2010 issue

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Longtail fishing boats sit at a beach on the island of Phu Quoc, where officials told the Bathams that Sea Quest was the only foreign yacht they¿d ever seen.Tere Batham

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 creches 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.

Traveling About
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.

Tere Batham| |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, Tere Batham and her husband, Michael, sailed in Pacific and Asian waters for nearly 20 years. A longtime contributor to Cruising World, Tere is the author of Cruising Japan to New Zealand: The Voyage of the Sea Quest (2004, Sheridan House).