One of my abiding memories of my time in Florida was watching the fishing boats come and go across St Joseph’s Bay. It was quite a novelty. The Raffields and the Woods (related, of course) had for generations operated their fleets from Port St. Joe, surviving the regulations that had chased most other commercial fishermen out of the industry. The boats were a colorful, intermittent reminder of Port St. Joe’s past and were easily outnumbered by the numerous sport fishermen in their fiberglass tubs.
So what a joy it was to look out across Quy Nhon’s bay on my first night there and suddenly realize that all those lights were not towns further along the coast or busy islands a short distance across the water but hundreds and hundreds of fishing boats, setting their nets to catch the turning tide. There was no doubt that I was in a city where fishing was very much part of the present and, indeed, the future.
Early next morning a group of us headed to the harbor to meet a boat that would take us to Hai Giang, one of the bay’s nicest coves and best accessed by water. The moored fishing boats were almost identical to the ones that Eugene Raffield and Bill Wood operated except in Quy Nhon harbor everything was multiplied tenfold or more. There were more boats, more people, more activity. Motorbikes, laden down with baskets of fish, were everywhere and the dockside was slippery with the remains of the previous night’s catch. Our little boat, looking alarmingly overwhelmed by the rest of the fleet, was moored by its prow, perpendicular to the quayside. The slippery steps, rocking boat and oily water looked to me like recipe for disaster but we all managed to make it aboard, much to the disappointment of the watching dock workers and fishermen.
We pushed off and headed noisily into the marine equivalent of a six-lane highway, our clattering diesel engine emitting an impressive plume of black, greasy smoke.
There were boats everywhere but within a few minutes of leaving the bustling quayside we had joined an informal flotilla, motoring purposefully for the harbor’s exit and along the edge of a sparsely inhabited coastline.
The trawlers headed out to the open sea while the smaller boats, often consisting of no more than a rudimentary cabin set in the stern of a small leaky hull, were heading home to the shelter of the numerous sandy coves that punctuated the coastline. We eventually spotted our destination, a larger bay with a beautiful beach, wooded hills and an impressive array of boats swinging on their moorings. In minutes, our skipper had dropped anchor in about five feet of water, but still several meters off the shore. All along the beach lay what I thought were upturned fish baskets drying in the sun. Into the water went our skipper. He waded ashore, grabbed one of the baskets and hauled it back to the boat by its short hawser. It was, in fact, a coracle – or, at least, the Vietnamese version, thúng chai. This circular waterproof lightweight basket is made of palm leaves and bamboo, can be maneuvered with one oar in a sculling motion and will tip you out in a second, unless you know what you’re doing.
Our party managed to reach dry land without mishap, towed ashore by our skipper, one of us at a time, in the thúng chai. We could see small houses dotted among the trees that fringed the beach. This was the fishing village, the inhabitants of which used the boats that were moored in the bay. Judging by their modest homes, these fishing families led a hard and precarious life, far removed from the relative affluence of Port St Joe and its tidy, efficient fishing fleet. But in Florida commercial fishing seems little more than a remnant of the past while Vietnam ranks fifth in the world as an exporter of fish products, with ambitions to progress further and build a sustainable industry.
By the time we returned to Quy Nhon’s harbor, its fish market was closing, boats were being sluiced down and it felt like the end of a long day, even though it was barely 10 o’ clock in the morning. Our next stop would be further up the coast, having transferred to our rented SUV for the drive north. The coastal road gave us a new view of the ocean and access to new beaches. But one thing remained the same; the omnipresent fishing fleet, moored in the most sheltered part of each cove, the boats deserted if only for a few hours before their myriad lanterns would once again illuminate the night’s activity of one of Vietnam’s busiest and most important industries.