Gone Fishing

Relief! We made it aboard!

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.

Quy Nhon's boats

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.

Comings and goings in Quy Nhon's harbour.

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.

Proudly flying the flag.

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.

Philip, our Skipper and the 'coracle'.

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.

Not quite as seaworthy as it once was

Memories of Towns by the Sea

I could have taken the 30 minute direct flight from Saigon to Quy Nhon but instead, a few friends and I decided to rent a car and explore the coastal landscape of south central Viet Nam.

The eight-hour drive along the famous National Route 1A to Quy Nhon was definitely a long journey. For those of you who are new to this part of the world or Viet Nam, National Route 1A (a two-lane highway) traverses the entire length of the country from Ha Noi in the north and to Ca Mau in the south.

We made several stops at small villages for fuel and food. As one would expect, we passed many inland towns along the narrow road, hectare after hectare of farmland, rice paddies and coastal villages.

 

Hectare after hectare of farmland by Philip G

 

In some places, the road was very narrow and winding. To make matters worse, we found ourselves in a “conga line” of trucks, buses and cars, led by, yes, cattle. It was like a snake weaving its way along the contours of the mountains and through the valleys.

As the road skirted the shoreline, we were in awe of the incredible views of the Pacific Ocean. This brought back many memories. When I was studying in Rome, our class rented a bus to tour the southern cities of Italy. I remembered many beautiful coastal towns, marinas and beach communities clustered along the Italian Amalfi Coast.

 

by Amalfi-coast, Italy

 

There was always a “picture perfect” moment in each town, as it nestled on the shoreline with its deep blue water and beautiful beaches.

The City of Quy Nhon is in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam. It was once a French trading port and later an important American military base. And it is just as beautiful and breathtaking as one would imagine for this part of the Pacific Coast. Quy Nhon, there is no doubt in my mind, is a hideaway treasure waiting to be discovered.

Our SUV had trailed heavily loaded trucks, tourist buses and a few mopeds for hours. We were happy to get off route 1A and finally arrive.

 

Quy Nhon City on the horizon by Philip G

 

The approach to Quy Nhon from the south is spectacular; the blue-green water of the Pacific is very refreshing, the calm and undisturbed beach stretches as far as your eye can see, the white-topped waves gently caress the shoreline and the majestic view of Quy Nhon gradually comes into focus on the horizon to welcome us to its hideaway coastal location.

Quy Nhon is geographically very different from my home town – Tat Cau which is located on the southwest coast of the delta region. It is about 190 Km (120 miles) from Ho Chi Minh City to the East. The image I remember when I left Viet Nam as a child was of my village photographed from the boat before the sun set.

 

A village built on the edge of the river by Philip G

 

Tat Cau is neither a beach town nor a coastal city. It is a village built along the edge of the river near the Gulf of Thailand.

Water ways were the main transportation routes in Tat Cau. Boats were the vessels that transported goods and people throughout the region. Water was everywhere. There were barge/ferries for transportation, boats for living and for fishing and boats for transporting fruit and other food. Every morning those boats gathered on the water’s edge near our town center or at the water taxi stop to sell fresh fruit, fish and vegetables to local merchants.

 

Tat Cau town center by Philip G

 

Back then when I was a child, beach towns like Da Nang, Nha Trang and Vung Tau were far away places where rich people vacationed in extreme luxury – at least to us. Those places were like a dream and only existed on postcards and old pictures that were sent to us from wealthy relatives on their vacation.

Quy Nhon’s Promenade

A British vacation in the auto-free days of the 1950s was a simple affair.  A journey by train to a seaside town, accommodation at a simple ‘bed-and-breakfast’, long days on the beach (whatever the weather) and bracing walks along the promenade.

Skegness: the typical British seaside, complete with a Victorian pier in the background.

The promenade. A wide waterfront side-walk, raised above the beach, sometimes by only a few feet. A brisk walk along the ‘prom’ was healthy, invigorating, or, more casually, a social event and a refreshing departure from the drab routine of post-war Britain.

Brighton's impressive 'lower' promenade. The 'upper' prom is in the left of this picture, next to a busy road.

Quy Nhon has a beautiful promenade.  It extends the length of the crescent-shaped beach and fulfills all the essential requirements of an outstanding ‘prom’; wide sidewalks; lots of seating facing seaward; the minimum of visual obstruction, allowing the rest of the city to connect with the water and; excellent pedestrian access along and onto the beach.  I experienced Quy Nhon’s promenade from my hotel balcony at sunrise and late at night, walking its length and enjoying it as a social gathering place.

The jet lag woke me at 5:00 am. It was still dark and the bay was dotted with the lights of fishing boats bringing home their catch.  I noticed a lone walker moving with purpose along the promenade below my balcony. Then a couple, talking animatedly, stepped onto the beach. In minutes, there were people coming from all directions, across the well-kept lawns that edged the promenade and out of the nearby hotels. In the growing dawn light, I could see parties of swimmers enjoying the surf while above them, on the promenade, individuals were completing calisthenic exercises.  It seemed that Quy Nhon, in a very few moments, was coming to life in a burst of energy, led by its vacationers.

Dawn breaks on Quy Nhon beach and its superb promenade.

There was a different kind of energy later that evening. The promenade became an informal, convivial gathering place.  The walk back to the hotel, after a simple seafood dinner, was pleasant and relaxed.  A low wall separated the beach from the ‘prom’, providing convenient seating.  But, if that wasn’t enough, there was an endless supply of white plastic garden chairs for the many extended families intent to enjoy the warm evening and the compelling sport of people-watching. I don’t recall any commercialization of the promenade, though there may have been the odd food or soft drink vendor parked along the mile stretch that my friends and I walked.

Enjoying the surf: Quy Nhon 6:00am.

In fact, the lack of shops or restaurants immediately adjacent to the main stretch of promenade added greatly to its charm and simplicity. Across the the road from the beach was a reasonably wide landscaped strip comprising mature trees and grass beyond which one could spy a pleasing mix of unimposing single family homes and corner shops served by their own frontage road.  While the architecture was clearly Vietnamese, Quy Nhon’s promenade and its tree-lined waterfront boulevard were a legacy of the French colonial period.

The colonial legacy: Quy Nhon's promenade is on the extreme right in this interesting transect of the boulevard.

It may not be too fanciful to make the connection between modern Quy Nhon and the 19th century seaside of blustery, cool Northeastern Europe, when a visit to Brighton, England or Deauville, France was described at the time as restorative, recuperative or simply ‘bracing’.  I have no doubt that European families from that era would recognize and appreciate Quy Nhon’s attractive promenade, its pleasant, simple beach and the sense of wellness both physical and social that pervades it at the beginning and end of each day.