Vietnam is no longer the way it used to be—things have changed radically since the bad old days. Marine photographer Jim Raycroft and I saw the truth of this statement again and again while we travelled around the country, using all sorts of boats, to run all sorts of rivers, from the Ben Hai up north to the Mekong down south, in our quest to find an old American military patrol boat or PBR left over from what the Vietnamese today call “The American War.”
DaNang, as you can see from the above photo, now has a skyline, a development that was rather flabbergasting to me the first time I saw it. I mean, back in 1969 the place looked like one giant, dusty military installation, with a comparatively small Vietnamese village attached.
And industry? DaNang is now an industrial dynamo. In fact, during our waterborne excursions in the area, we passed by the Song Thu Shipyard (shown above), an immense facility run by the Vietnamese military and affiliated with the famed Damen Shipyards, based in Holland. Thanks to an invitation from Dan Fritz, founder of Queenship and the guy behind several other high-profile North American marine projects over the years, we spent some time touring Song Thu and were mightily impressed with the cleanliness, orderliness, and high-tech sophistication of the enterprise. Fritz was anxious to show us around the yard he’s chosen to build his new steel, double-hulled Cape Scott expedition-type yachts. During the tour, we were also mightily impressed with a Damen Sea Axe vessel we saw in one of the construction bays—she was on the verge of delivery to an oilfield supply company where it will serve as a fast, super-seaworthy crewboat. Hey, if Song Thu can build a Sea Axe crewboat with Dynamic Positioning and four Rolls-Royce engines, it’s very likely that Song Thu can build a large, double-hulled steel yacht (with aluminum superstructure) to just about any specification desired.
Of course, I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that all the color has been drained from Vietnam via modernization and industrialization. The skippers who ran the sampans, skiffs, party boats, and cargo vessels we used during our riverine sleuthing excursions were all solid, sober navigators, but they were all pretty colorful and a tad humorous as well, and the boats they operated were even more so. To tap directly into the reality of all this, check out the video I shot with a GoPro while cruising down the Cua Viet River, just south of what used to be called the DMZ or Demilitarized Zone.
And then there was that one highly significant feature of this lovely little country that I’d say has held rock steady over the years—the seeming riskiness of simply crossing the street. With little regard for our personal safety, and a devil-may-care attitude that harked back to days of yore, Jim and I crossed and re-crossed a street in DaNang in order to put together the rather ragged little video you’ll see linked here—it’ll give you, we think, a sense of the craziness that can arise when literally thousands of scooters and cars are unleashed upon a city’s streets without benefit of highway signs, traffic lights, or any other sort of traffic-related, safety-encouraging convenience. I gotta say—for pedestrians, this dicey melange produces a gauntlet of sorts that has lots in common with the running of the bulls at Pamplona, only the insanity persists virtually all the time, night/day, 24/7/365.
And then finally, the culture of Vietnam has remained decidedly and colorfully Buddhist, with youngsters like the one shown above coming to monasteries at a very early age to train as monks. The rather odd (at least by western standards) haircut, incidentally, denotes the position this young person holds in his community and we found him in a sort of hut perched loftily atop bamboo poles with a thatched roof overhead, so that he was protected from the sun above (and presumably snakes below) while his elders worked at chopping wood.
Interestingly enough, all of the boats Jim and I used to get around the rivers of Vietnam were inboard-powered, as were virtually all of the boats we saw passing us by. Believe it or not, there were very few long-tail types like the one shown here on the waterways we travelled. Still and all, we were glad to see a long-tailer like this one now and again, if only because we’d expected to see so many at the onset of our trip.
Did we ultimately find the boat we were looking for—the PBR (Patrol Boat River, in military parlance) with its squarish transom and distinctive Apocalypse Now profile? I’ll answer the question in a story that will appear in Power & Motoryacht’s upcoming November issue. Suffice to say, however, that we found a raft of things we’d not been looking for in Vietnam, among them what seemed to us to be an old U.S. Army tug (shown above), repainted and repurposed as a research vessel. Heck, you could almost see U.S. Army ST-145 emblazoned on the bow. Talk about a blast from the past!