Missing the boat

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The 67-meter super-yacht Archimedes is docked in Da Nang's Han River Port on January 5. Photo by Nguyen Tu

When I first arrived in Vietnam in 2004, I was fascinated by the wonderful coastline that we followed on our journey from Hanoi to the Mekong Delta. 

Our trip included a sail on Ha Long Bay on a large and attractive yacht. This is a popular cruise a number of my friends have taken in recent months and all were delighted.

As our tour visited many coastal cities including Da Nang, Hoi An and Nha Trang, I kept having the feeling that something was missing! It suddenly dawned on me that the only vessels I saw were coastal freighters and fishing boats but no yachts other than the commercial tourist kind.

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Having had a lifelong fascination with sailing yachts (but never the wherewithal to buy anything longer than 25 feet) I was curious but didn't give the subject much thought until I returned and settled in Nha Trang and my interest surfaced again.

Now yachting, whether sail or motor, is one of the most expensive hobbies/leisure activities out there and everything associated with yachting generates money (except owning one).

They are expensive to buy, repair, equip, supply and maintain and marinas coin money. Every populous country with water has yachting including China, which is jumping into yachting with both feet, except North Korea and Vietnam. This means the nation is missing out on a large source of revenue and jobs.

Over time I have seen many coastal developments planned and the fanciful representations of what the completed project will look like have always included a huge marina but they have yet to materialize.

The most recent was an overly ambitious project dubbed Venezia which was supposed to add a third to the size of Nha Trang along a small estuary on the west side of town and which included numerous yacht facilities in the master plan and marketing model.

Unfortunately, Venezia seems to have disappeared with only a dilapidated billboard and some cleared land to remind us of the "dream" of some developers.

In my early years I began asking about yachting but none of the people I met here knew anything about it.

A few years after I settled in Nha Trang there was a small flurry of excitement over a yacht race called the "Hong Kong-Nha Trang Race" which was to bring a group of sailing yachts including one designated as a Vietnamese yacht into town after having sailed down from Hong Kong.

I had an opportunity to meet several of the organizers of the race, mostly Australians, and we talked about their ongoing efforts to get the government of Vietnam and particularly the navy, to permit private yachting.

At the time the plan was to build a marina at Bao Dai's villa in the south of Nha Trang Town. After seven years, nothing has come of it.

Now the question is, why? How is it that the Vietnamese government, anxious to add revenue and jobs, has allowed this golden opportunity to go unrealized? There are many opinions but I have no facts. In fact, this is an open request to anyone who does have factual information to submit a response?

The conjecture runs the gamut from: old rules are still in place that were implemented to stop "boat people" from leaving the country in the late 1970's and early 80's to the Navy wishing to avoid having any foreign vessels of any size in their waters.

Several years ago an American acquaintance had a large fishing boat built in a Nha Trang boat building yard to use as his private recreation vessel. After completing construction, he was advised that he was not permitted to sail it himself but must employ a Vietnamese captain and in addition, he could not use it for sport fishing. He sold it!

If there is any country that has been ultra-careful about protecting its waters, it is China: but the Chinese newspaper China Daily had a story last June that said "The number of leisure boats in the country is expected to increase to 100,000 by 2020."

Clearly, the Chinese are now committed to private yachting.

In all of the accounts I have heard of attempting to sail into Vietnam, the most complete (but 8 years old) is that of Jack Van Ommen, an acquaintance I met when he wandered into our coffee group in Nha Trang one day.

Anyone interested in Jack's visit in his 30 foot, homebuilt plywood boat "Fleetwood" can go to his blog and read to their hearts content (his blog is at: www.cometosea.us and the segment on his 2006 visit in Vietnam is at: www.cometosea.us/albums/log-Vietnam.htm). Needless to say, although he was treated politely, it wasn't easy and Vietnam didn't seem to indicate any interest in attracting yachtsmen.

In brief, he had great difficulty learning anything about arriving in Vietnam in a private vessel when he was planning his trip. He had sent messages by email before getting to Vietnam but they were not answered.

Once he got to the area he was able to reach Hai Phong by radio and was told to wait in the Gulf of Tonkin and call the harbor pilot.

The pilot asked who his agent was and then it got difficult. Nowhere else in the world would you have such a discouraging experience when arriving in a private yacht.

My objective here is writing about the "Missed Boats" and the money associated with them but there is another related observation I would like to offer.

Over the years I have found Vietnam to be a very comfortable place to make my home and I have every expectation that when I breath my last it will be here.

The people are warm and generous, the climate is congenial and it is a handy place to jump off from for visits to many nearby interesting countries. In short, a fine place to retire to and spend what modest sums I have to spend.

But the government doesn't seem to be in step with this goal. My personal description of life here does not include the atmosphere one finds when required to deal with the bureaucracy. Jack's story is a classic case.

In another example in the saga of people trying to bring new, money-generating activities to the country, an international group staged a world sky-diving competition in Nha Trang in 2009.

They did hold their competition and were even successful in enlisting military help in using a helicopter for their jump platform, but I talked to some of the organizers at the time and they stated they would never return to Vietnam because the officials kept changing things that had been previously agreed to and the entire experience was too disappointing!

Numerous articles have discussed the difficulty of expatriates settling here, to acquire long term legal status, to purchase houses, start businesses etc.

We bring money to the country, the vast majority of us are not prone to cause trouble and many of us have started businesses and employed locals (in spite of the red tape involved). I have had my own trials and tribulations. So far nothing serious but always a worry.

With all of the associated problems, immigration into the United States is what keeps that beleaguered country young and optimistic. Isn't it time for the government of Vietnam, which doesn't suffer from the toxic political problems of the US, to get in step with the people and see the benefits to a more open country?

By Richard Mckenzie*

* The writer is an American expat who lives in Nha Trang. The opinions expressed are his own.

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