How to Drive a Sampan

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Going Back to Vietnam, by Capt. Bill Pike, Photography by Jim Raycroft (continued)

Cua Viet sampans.

How to Drive a Sampan

Shortly after we’d begun cruising a shoreline crammed with colorful houses, shops, and restaurants, while at the same time encountering a variety of fishing boats, almost all of them with long, narrow, seemingly super-efficient, virtually-wakeless hulls, a giant Fina sign appeared above the royal palms. Our skipper headed for it, soon laying our boat against a concrete pier and tying up while simultaneously stepping off, a feat of multidexterous athleticism that left Stilwagen and I wide-eyed.

“Whoa,” I commented.

“Yeah,” added Stilwagen, touching the bill of his camouflaged fatigue cap to emphasize the comment.

The fuel-up that followed was pretty amazing as well. As he walked toward the gas station’s pumps, our skipper carried an empty 2-liter Coke bottle that, in truth, had seen better days. This he topped off with diesel rather quickly and, after coming back aboard, used it to fill our fuel tank, another jug, albeit only slightly larger, with a battered hose sticking out. Super-efficient, these Vietnamese Yanmars, I told myself. Almost like perpetual-motion machines!

“Mr. Phuoc,” I asked once we were on our way in earnest, “do you think the captain would mind if I drive the boat for a little while?”

A lesson in bare-bones navigation ensued. First off, since the buoyage system is reversed in Vietnam, I had to get used to green buoys on the right and red ones on the left when going upstream. Then I had to get used to the standard equipment on a sampan, which in our case consisted of a folding chair for a helm seat, a steering wheel seemingly purloined from an old Ford tractor, a knob-type gearshift sticking out of the Yanmar like a fork sticking out of a turkey, and a throttle control that was no more than a couple of strings, one for more speed and the other for less.

Depthsounder? Nope! VHF radio? Nope! Plotter? Nope! Radar? You have got to be kiddin’!

“How’s she steer,” yelled Raycroft, snapping away.

“Like a yacht,” I replied, quite truthfully.

Cua Viet sampans.

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