Surfacing from the first dive of the day we watched our boat slide across the South China Sea toward the distant horizon, the Vietnamese skipper blissfully unaware of the curses following in his wake like homing torpedoes. With dwindling hope of an immediate rescue the three of us – two Frenchmen and myself – began the long swim to a nearby island where, ultimately, we were found by the returning boat.
It was, I was later told, a communication breakdown, another part of the bedding down process of Vietnam’s first joint-venture recreational Diving facility which had opened its doors for business only five days before my visit in early 1994.
Recognising the potential which exists in Vietnam, Voiles Vietnam, a French joint-venture Diving operation had recently opened a recreational Dive centre in Nha Trang, a coastal town 448 kms North-East of Saigon.
A former provincial capital, Nha Trang owes its character to the French architectural influence which followed economic progress and the building of roads and railways. Reputedly having one of the best beaches in Vietnam, it,s a holiday town with a number of comfortable hotels and a boulevard which runs the length of the beach from Nha Trang to Cau Da, a fishing village six kilometres to the South.
The one street town of Cau Da curved toward a short, stone, pier. Along the length of the street shops and stalls sold ‘souvenirs of the sea’; shells, sun-dried fishes, even large turtles of different sizes, stuffed and mounted on boards.
Xyclos, the pedal powered ‘rickshaws’, laden with baskets of broken coral, made daily deliveries, and so fierce was the competition that some entrepreneurs even spray-painted the dead coral fragments, passing off the resulting red, orange and green corals as living examples. At Cau Da the concept of environmentalism was, in 1994, only just beginning to take effect against the more pragmatic appeal of fishing with dynamite.
The Diving Centre was housed in a small white painted building close to the pier. The only foreign diving instructor then operating in Vietnam, Christian B, was a NAUI Instructor who began his diving operation in Vietnam offering live-aboard trips aboard a purpose built, luxury junk, the ‘Song Sai Gon’. From May to September the ‘Song Sai Gon’ cruised from Nha Trang, offering four day/four night diving trips, including equipment, for US$990.00 per person. During the remainder of the year – while the ‘Song Sai Gon’ cruised the Mekong River to Pnomh Penh – Christian proposed to run day diving trips from Nha Trang to sites around the five off-shore islands.
All of the equipment – tanks, regulators, fins, masks, snorkels, B.C.D.’s and lycra suits, as well as compressor – was brand new. The boat, about 6 metres in length, aluminium hulled, flat bottomed, and having all the appearance of having been a river tender in a previous incarnation, had been decked, fitted with a small canopy and belonged to a smiling Vietnamese speaking neither French nor English. Joining him as ‘crew’ was ‘Madame Jacqueline’, a comfortably aged Vietnamese lady who acted as cook/interpreter for the day.
Perhaps because the business was new, or perhaps because the cost – US$55.00 for the day – put it beyond the reach of many of the back packers who were then beginning to flock to Nha Trang, there were only three of us Diving. Christian, Alain – another Frenchman. – and myself.
We set off shortly after 08:00 heading East past Hon Tre, the largest of the five islands lying of the coast of Nha Trang, towards Hon Mun, an island becoming renowned for its snorkelling, and where a marine park was shortly to be proclaimed.
Indicating that we should anchor at a point to the seaward side of the islands, Christian briefed Madame Jacqueline on our Dive profile; she, in turn, relayed instructions to the Skipper. Assuming that all was well we back flipped over the side of the boat and drifted down through warm waters to a gently sloping bottom of white coral sand 16 metres below. Thick clusters of Stag-Horns, Porites and Brain corals crowded together, with, here and there, the occasional patch of dynamite damage. Flutemouths, Clown Fish and huge Anemones, one shielding a large Egg Cowry, stood out from the myriad of fish swarming through the clear water. All in all it was a pleasant and pretty but generally un-remarkable dive – until we surfaced and saw the boat following an imaginary trail of Diver’s bubbles towards China.
Christian, it later transpired, had explained to Madame Jacqueline that we would be swimming in, ( he pointed) “that” direction, but that we would return to the anchored boat. Madame Jacqueline’s French stretched as far as the “that” direction, and “that”, she pointed and explained to the skipper, is where the boat must go.
After lunch, prepared by Madame Jacqueline and served on the pebble strewn beach of a deserted island, we prepared for the second dive of the day.
The differential heating of land and sea creates sea breezes which reach their maximum force in the early afternoon. Bouncing through wind whipped waves our second dive between Hon Tam and Hon Tre was less comfortable than the first. The turning tide racing between the two islands carried us quickly away from the boat and, at a depth of 14 metres, across an area of jumbled rock where, with visibility reduced to less than two metres, there was limited opportunity to appreciate anything other than the Sea-Urchin covered boulders, and how little protection a lycra suit really affords to the more vulnerable parts of the body.
This time the boat was ready for us, Madame Jacqueline assisting in pulling us over the side, before filling cups with thick, black coffee from a thermos flask as we headed back to Cau Da, turning back two or three times to retrieve important bits of the boat which the combined effects of buffeting and wind had dislodged.
Everybody has bad days. I supposed that this was Christian’s turn. I enjoyed the scenery, the company, the food and the day in general, but suspected that (this was in early 1994 – ed.) the very best diving was from the ‘Song Sai Gon’ on one of its Summer voyage escapes.
Back in Saigon I was scheduled to meet the president of the Vietnam Diving Association, and Director-General of the Vietnam Salvage Corporation (VISAL), Mr Le Minh Cong.
Under the benevolent gaze of a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, we sipped tea whilst the interpreter translated slabs of our conversation and Mr Le explained to me the role of the VDA in overseeing all aspects of Diver Training, Health and Safety issues.
Local ‘divers’ had, it seems, been copying the professionally trained salvage divers and, with the end of an air-hose clenched between their teeth and a copper ingot tied to their chest, would descend and work at depths of up to sixty metres until, after an agreed period of time, they’re hauled back to the surface by their assistants.
Despite its amateurish image this has proven a surprisingly effective method of salvage. (Earlier a VISAL diver had told me how, called in to survey a vessel which had sunk two days previously in the Delta region, and above which a police launch had taken up station to foil “pirates”, he found that all of the brass portholes and fittings had already been removed.).
Toward the end of the meeting, and appreciating that the four people present had been associated with the Vietnam Salvage Diving Corporation for a long period of time I asked Mr Le and his associates, through the interpreter, to tell me some of their more memorable diving experiences. They began to laugh. The interpreter began to laugh. Obviously something had fouled up in translation. And then the reply. “We don’t Dive. We’re administrators.”
A few days later I received an invitation to visit the “Vietnam Diving Association’s Diving Health Care and Entertainment Centre”, a complex taking shape about ten kilometres from the city on the banks of the Saigon River, which will operate as a rest and recreation centre for Divers and their families, and allow for effective monitoring of the health of those divers working on the off-shore oil platforms.
Asked by the Centre’s designer, Dr Khanh – a medical practitioner who would work in its clinic – what changes or additions I would incorporate I hesitated. He pressed the point, asking me again what should be changed or added? I looked toward the grassy banks of the Saigon River, “Well,” I said, somewhat hesitantly, “right there is the perfect place for a B-B-Q.”.
I was given to understand that when the centre was officially opened – in June (1994) – a B-B-Q would be part of the attractions….
(The article concluded with:
“Vietnam’s image is changing. Although the tourist infra-structure is still in its infancy it’s developing quickly. It may be a few more years yet before the country figures prominently as a diving destination, but in the interim get there as quickly as you can while it’s still possible to be ahead of the pack. You won’t regret it. And who knows? You may even get to throw a shrimp on “my” Barbie.” )
The above extract is from a lengthier article on diving in Vietnam, first published in Asian Diver Magazine in 1994