Vietnam - South Coast
What’s it like piloting the very first yacht in paradise? Late last year, Tere Batham and her husband Michael found out in Vietnam’s fantastic southern islands
Michael and I were ready to heave the lines ashore and head for Singapore when an old friend happened by with grand tales of Vietnam. Sea Quest, our New Zealand-flagged 47-foot steel ketch, was already provisioned. Although it was already mid-December, we hoped to be in a friendly port before the Christmas and New Year’s celebrations began. But if we were going to Vietnam, we had to do it right away. Sailing to the virgin cruising territory of Vietnam, was just the ticket. Having been assured that a visa was not absolutely vital, we would try our luck. But that would cost us in the end.
From Sarawak to the Pearl of the Orient
The northeast monsoon was kicking in. From Sarawak, our course took us on a 580-mile reach across the South China Sea to Vung Tau, a coastal port on the edge of the fertile Mekong Delta. Along the way, we veered around the disputed Spratly Islands and went past Sarawak’s many offshore oil rigs. In mid-ocean, we dodged a parade of merchant ships plying modern-day Asian trade routes.
Beating against a strong southerly current, we approached the Vietnamese coast. We encountered hundreds of fishing boats working offshore, with the big fleets trawling with heavy nets. After the headache of keeping clear of these boats and their nets, we finally sighted land. On the fifth day, we saw the giant, white-washed statue of the Risen Christ, arms outstretched, astride the hilly headland of Vung Tau.
Five days at sea had given us time to reflect on our impetuous decision to arrive without a visa. We felt quite nervous. After all, Vietnam had only recently opened to tourism and its government was still communist, albeit with a capitalist economy.
We followed the hand-sketched map our friend had given us to locate a snug anchorage adjacent to a customs barge. Khaki uniformed officers stepped from their floating office to greet us and signaled for Sea Quest to come alongside – they wanted to see our visas. After some explanation, Michael asked if we could enter the country on Seaman’s Passes. After a round of visiting offices, we were granted the passes. Relief. We would ultimately stay aboard for a couple more days while visas were worked out, but it was all for the good. The officers had been professional and respectful throughout.
At the mouth of the Mekong
Vung Tau is an oil town, lying near the mouth of the busy Saigon River. High-speed ferries whisk passengers to and from Ho Chi Minh City in less than an hour. During the French colonial period, Vung Tau was a seaside resort town, and the some of that feeling remains. There are pleasant, winding streets, boutiques and woodwork shops. And there are countless live seafood restaurants with brimming fish tanks on store fronts. Breezy villas on the steep slopes overlook the city and a broad boulevard hugs the waterfront.
Vung Tau’s busy streets are filled with bicycles and motorbikes. Most of the town consists of two-storey shophouses and fresh produce markets occupy whole streets. Anywhere in the city, one could buy fresh clams, crabs, cuttlefish, squid, prawns, and a wide variety of shellfish. Although Vung Tau has no marina, or indeed any provision at all for yachts, it turned out to be a handy location.
Fishing boats lay rafted together in long lines, all festively decorated in red Vietnamese flags. It was Christmas Eve by then. We lost no time in looking up an American friend – a permanent resident living with his Vietnamese wife in an a pre-war cottage overlooking the bay. All four of us then descended into the streets to join the brewing revelry.
Although the citizens of Vung Tao are mainly Buddhist, it is all the rage to dress toddlers for the western holidays in bright red Santa suits. Christmas carols sung in English rang out over PA systems. Fireworks crackled in the night sky. Parents indulged their children with helium-filled balloons and holiday treats from roadside vendors. Thousands of families paraded along the waterfront on motorbikes ─ sometimes five to a bike. Vietnamese parents smiled and waved and pointed us out to their children. “Hello. Hello!” people shouted, though that was usually the extent of their English.
The friendliness was everywhere. People wanted to share the night’s high spirits with us, and the camaraderie was pervasive. Here at least, the suffering of the Vietnam War seemed to have been buried and forgotten – or forgiven. We felt not the slightest hostility. A page has turned for a population, 60 percent of whom were born after 1975.
From Vung Tau, we travelled by ferry to Ho Chi Minh City to take in the atmosphere of that genteel city. From here, buses and tours radiate around the country. We motored up to the old sea side resort town of Mui Nè to stay in a bungalow on the beach and watched fishermen in round coracle-like basket boats haul in their nets. Later we booked ourselves on boat and bus trips into the Mekong Delta, where living aboard riverboats and floating markets is still a tradition. We crossed the border of Cambodia and on to the astonishing ruins of Angkor Wat, the former seat of power in the Khmer Empire.
Having enjoyed the land travel, we were anxious to get back on the boat and visit some of Vietnam’s offshore islands. Sailing north against the strong northeast trade winds was impractical, but Con Dao island lay to the south. This mountainous, heavily wooded island is windswept by the northeastern monsoons, while its clear waters are a sanctuary for dugong and turtle.
Con Dao, one hundred miles south-southwest of Vung Tau, has a colonial history stretching back to the early 1700’s, when the French and English recognised the island group’s strategic potential for defending their new opium trade routes between India and China. The English built a fort there but were later repulsed. Later, the French negotiated a treaty with the King of Vietnam ─ an action that would one day lead to the French occupation of his country.
In 1861 the French built a lighthouse and a prison on Con Dao. The prison system included infamous ‘tiger cages’: inhumane concrete pits with gratings above open to sun, rain and anything the guards felt like tossing down on them ─ now a morbid attraction for tourists. Because the Vietnamese struggle for independence spanned so many decades, first against the French, later the Americans, scores of illustrious political prisoners and Viet Cong were incarcerated there and died. Vietnamese patriots now treat the island as a shrine.
Con Dao’s quaint French-style town seemed to be composed almost entirely of abandoned barracks, administration buildings and homes once belonging to prison staff. All is built of granite stone and locally made brick. In the past, the prison community was self sufficient: They grew their own food, manufactured shoes, operated a lime kiln for making mortar, milled timber and even kept a blacksmith shop. Today some of the houses are occupied by farmers and fishermen who migrated from the Mekong Delta.
We had anchored in the sheltered port of Ben Dam, at the south end of Con Dao, among a fleet of fishing boats whose crews were so astounded that many rowed over to take pictures! On the dock a delegation of Thai investors were touring the island, with a view to building high-end tourist resorts here. The first is already under construction.
Generally, the southern tip of Vietnam is thought to be typhoon free and Con Dao is considered safe. A direct hit in 1997 put paid to some of that sentiment. Despite the bay’s protection, stormy monsoon weather can cause 50-knot williwaws to whip down from the peaks. We moved high into the bay to find the best shelter, but in the dead of night Sea Quest swung around into shoal water. Our broad keel gently rested on a shallow rock shelf as the tide ran out leaving her high and dry ─ until a gust hit broadside at 4:00 A.M., toppling the boat on to its beam ends. We had to wait morning’s incoming tide to re-float the boat. Thankfully the only damage was our pride.
To Vietnam’s undiscovered country
Our next destination was the island of Phu Quoc, located 265 miles away off the west coast and near to Cambodia. To reach this island group we sailed around the southernmost tip of the Mekong Delta and into the Gulf of Thailand. Upon reaching Phu Quoc, we were directed up the coast to Duong Dong, near the airport. At the Harbor Master’s office, we were met by a delegation of officers and after some deliberations, we were given a bewildered welcome. Our translator, who had been on Phu Quoc since the end of the Vietnam War, explained to us that we were the very first yacht any of them had ever seen in Phu Quoc!
We anchored offshore, preferring the breeziness of our mooring to the town basin. Duong Dong is crammed with vessels in a river meandering beneath arched bridges through town. The lovely Shrine of the Sea God occupies a rocky headland at its mouth. Fishermen and their wives are constantly engaged with their boats – from fixing nets to napping in hammocks slung across the decks. In open street markets, there is a staggering variety of locally-grown fruit and vegetables – the island’s specialty is fish sauce prepared from sardines.
On our hired motorbike, we set off to see the island. Paved roads gave way to dirt roads on a route through the hilly interior, past the largest area of pristine forest in Vietnam. Along the western coast, south of Duong Dong, a string of small resorts line a gently undulating coastline of soft white sand. The island’s pristine beaches, many of which are still untouched, are its treasure. Having recognised the island’s tourism potential, the government allows domestic and foreign tourists to fly directly into Phu Quoc from Ho Chi Minh City without special permits.
At Gio Bien, on the northern tip of Phu Quoc, we lazed away the hot noontime hours in hammocks. Spread before us was a view of densely forested Cambodian islands set in sheltered turquoise waters. I could well imagine a bareboat charter fleet based in this island-filled sound. The combined area could easily rival other tourist destinations where such fleets flourish.
Cruisers, when they come, will find that 30-mile-long Phu Quoc is oriented north to south, giving long coastlines to shelter behind during southwest or northeast monsoons. We sailed through the An-Thoi island group, another ten miles to the south, with its beautiful white sand beaches and clear inviting water. Within a thirty mile radius of Phu Quoc, there are several other island groups just waiting to be explored: Isles Poulo Dama, Isle Balua, Isles Des Pirates and the Nam Du group to the south.
When we finally decided to sail on to Ko Chang in Thailand the Phu Quoc officials were affably warm when preparing our papers. Our decision to sail to Vietnam had been hasty. But like many spontaneous acts, it did grant unexpected rewards. Vietnam was all the adventure we hoped it to be, but we never imagined that we would become the first cruisers in modern times to visit Vietnam’s amazing offshore islands of Con Dao and Phu Quoc. Who dares, wins.
Places to stay:
Vietnam’s list of accommodation is small, but growing quickly as the country opens up to tourism and visitors from all walks, including yachtsmen. Although visiting boaters might have some difficulty in Vietnam, the virgin cruising is worth it for many. Feadship’s M/Y Anna spent some time last year as part of her cruising routes.
On Hon Tre (Bamboo Island), there is the five-star Vinpearl Resort, built by one of Vietnam’s biggest property developers. Located at the south end of Nha Trang, along the central coast of Vietnam, this hotel offers top end facilities on an island with untouched beaches.
In the early 1990s, a young Australian backpacker started a beach bar in Nha Trang. Since then, the little operation has grown into a full-fledged resort that has particular appeal for boaters. The Sailing Club Vietnam is the host venue for the bi-ennial Hong Kong to Vietnam regatta, and as such, it is a fixture in Vietnam’s small, but growing boating scene. Sailing Club offers beachside fun aplenty with tasteful bungalows, and from April to September, Sunsail offers bareboat charters from this location.
Sailing Club Vietnam is not content with one resort, and has expanded to include locations in Mui Ne, which sits in the middle of a 21-kilometre undisturbed beach, and Hoi An, whose old town has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. The Hoi An resort is not yet done, but due for completion in this year, while the Mui Ne resort is widely regarded as one of the best beachfront resorts in Vietnam.
For those looking for the top end of beachfront luxury, there’s the Nam Hai resort, near Hoi An. Featuring villas that overlook the sea and pool, this sprawling resort covers over 35 hectares, and features a spa that’s sure to soothe.
The Evason Six Sense Group of luxury resorts and spas has also gotten in on the act, with two locations in Vietnam. One is a full blown beach front resort done in a traditional Vietnamese style in Nha Trang. The other is the more private hideaway resort in Ninh Van, set amid the rocky shoreline just overlooking the South China Sea.
While boating-specific facilities are in the most rudimentary stages, there are resources for people who want to get out and go boating during a trip to Vietnam.
Those planning on visiting with larger yachts can get help from shoreside service agenices such as Ocean Cruiser Company and Jody Atterton, OCC’s managing director. OCC has already managed the arrival of M/Y Anna, the megayacht from Feadship, when she toured Vietnam’s coast.
There are not many charterers around, but things are picking up, slowly but surely. From April to September, Sunsail operates a bareboat chartering base in Nha Trang, Sailboat Club.
Vietnam’s Sunseeker dealer, Duke Haton, is bringing a Sunseeker 64 Manhattan to the country – the first to base such a yacht there. While he says he plans to use the boat for promotional purposes, it will also be available for luxury charter. As Duke is very well acquainted with the coastline, it stands to be a marvellous luxury option.
For exploring Ha Long Bay, one of Vietnam’s greatest coastal treasures (the name Ha Long means Bay of Descending Dragons) containing some of the most distinctive and marvellous scenery, there is a company that specialises in group charters aboard everything from stern paddlewheelers to Chinese-style junks.
Visiting yachties and their crews will all need visas before arriving in Vietnam. Vessel details and a crew list needs to be provided to a shipping agent, or shoreside support agency for clearance with Port Authorities.
Visitors arriving to Vietnam by their own boat can consult one of two sources. The Andaman Sea Pilot, though geared for points further west, does cover some of the more beautiful places along Vietnam’s coastline, including Nha Trang. There are anchoring and shelter tips for boats around the 70 or so islands along the Nha Trang area, as well as points further south towards Vung Tao. There are also numerous references to top hotels and resorts, and points of contact for visiting vessels.
There are a number of big resorts and luxury getaways planned for Vietnam, as the country opens up and develops its tourism industry. Duke Haton, a dealer for Sunseeker in Vietnam, says that there are serious plans for a major resort on Phu Quoc, with an airport capable of handling the new A380. His company, VinaCapital, a property developer that sponsors the Hong Kong to Vietnam race, is hoping to open a new marina in Halong Bay, opening that beautiful location to cruising boaters.
Meanwhile, a Canadian developer, Asian Coast Developments Ltd., has already begun work on a massive luxury resort near Vung Tao, which will include a marina. Named the Ho Tram Strip, the plan includes everything from world class golf courses to seaside spas.