Around the middle of the day on 20 June (the date is recorded on my photographs), I boarded a large _speedboat – it had seats numbered to over 100 – in a coastal town called Ha Tien, close to the Cambodian border, in far-south-western Vietnam. The boat was called the Hong Tam 2 and it covered a one-and-a-half-hour route roughly west to the eastern coast of the island of Phu Quoc, the largest island in Vietnam. This trip of ours was, crucially, an example of travelling on water in Vietnam, or, for that matter, just floating on water in Vietnam, including overnighting in a boat moored in Vietnam; we have this year been horrified, saddened and angered by an event in this category on Ha Long Bay, involving a tourist cruise boat and the deaths of foreign visitors. I suggest there is a spiritual issue that needs to be considered as a contributor to transport disasters and disastrous accident statistics in Vietnam.
In the single, large passenger cabin of the boat for Phu Quoc I had a sense of something like what galley slaves might have felt on the Mediterranean Sea if they had not been able to poke their oars out and there had not been plenty of air. This is what I noted, flippantly, before I read about the Bulgaria disaster on the Volga, which happened in the first part of July. I do not write so lightly now. Yes, no doubt I was still affected in my sensibility by the event on Ha Long Bay. I accept that another person in exactly the same situation on the Hong Tam 2 might have been perfectly happy. And I did see a happy face when we arrived at a long jetty along which we would walk to terra firma Phu Quoc, on a member of the crew, if I am right. It lasted till I asked its owner why the lifejackets under the seats were not of the same variety as those on an instruction placard on the front and back walls of the cabin.

The Bulgaria was a message that I had something to write and it was serious. I have been pressed by stories before; I know what I have to do, which is, as an old journalist said, ‘Put it out of its misery.’ This is a miserable story and no mistake, if I report it to you the way it seems to me, despite the view of my ‘critic’, who comes in below. The windows on the Hong Tam 2 seemed to me to be, and probably were, nearly all, unopenable. I noted that I imagined that in an emergency smashing the windows might be required. There was no notice posted on the walls, that I could see, about such drill. Now many of us would have read that smashing the windows had to be done on the Bulgaria, and that a great many, including a great many children, drowned because they were unable to escape the old cruise boat.
Because the Hong Tam 2 was a speedboat, though a very large one, and as one of my photographs shows, it was not appropriate for passengers to be outside the cabin in the way that it is appropriate on a leisurely Sydney Harbour ferry, for example. So the most likely way to jump into the sea in an emergency was via one of the front doors on either side or by going to a lateral passage at the back that was open to the outside. The front doors were shut tight by the crew, and no instructions were issued, that I noticed, to passengers as to how to open these doors. Only when examining my photographs of the outside of the boat later did I notice a sign saying Cửa thoát hiểm, which means ‘Emergency exit’, on a window. It was partially obscured by a curtain.
I had been on a hydrofoil on the Saigon River when it hit a 40-foot cargo boat and sent it to the bottom so quickly that only a few of the passengers on the hydrofoil were able to report what had happened, apart from that there had been a loud bang and the deck of the hydrofoil had been ruptured from below. In the 13 July edition of the International Herald Tribune, in reference to the Bulgaria, came the headline, ‘Within minutes, no chance of escape’. Precisely. In my view, the way to be on a boat is with access to the sea and with a lifejacket not just under the seat but on your body.
On the Hong Tam 2, before we cast off, I tried to pull the lifejacket out from under my seat. It was hard to get out. It was wrapped in transparent plastic, which did not help: the lifejacket kept to a block-like shape and was unable to flex in order to come out of the rack. A young, female attendant said I was not permitted to take the lifejacket out. I asked her how I was supposed to know how to use the thing in an emergency. After a fair beginning of a minute, literally, a very long time in an emergency, I had the jacket out. I asked my wife, who was next to me, whether she knew how to turn on a signaling light that hung from it by a string. She said she did not. The young attendant showed us. It did not cross my mind that the lifejacket might be demonstrated to the 60-odd passengers, as it is on an airliner, and neither was it.
The lifejackets under the seats, mostly wrapped in transparent plastic, were bright orange, instead of the rusty brown in the pictures on the walls. At some point in the debacle I asked the young, female attendant why the jackets we had were not the same as those in the pictures. Her eyes moistened. I thought she was starting to cry and members of the family group I was travelling with indicated that I was right and it was time to desist.
I asked a young, male attendant to see if he could pull the lifejacket out from under the seat of another member of our party. He struggled as much as I had, to the point where I said, ‘Hurry up, hurry up,’ as if there had been a real emergency. This was taken by an overseas Vietnamese member of our group as my verbally belabouring someone in a bout of, say, cross-cultural dissonance. This critic maintained that the crew would have perfectly good ways of their own of saving us in an emergency. It would have been obvious to the critic that I had no clue as to what ways these would be. I think these ways ought to have been advertised on the walls, or issued to each passenger in a handbill. My critic was not about to elaborate. One of our group was a Vietnamese journalist, who, when she discussed the lifejackets with the young, male attendant, received answers or statements that to her showed he had little idea of their use in an emergency. The journalist, a Christian convert, which may become relevant, was outraged and admonished the attendant for his attitude and or ignorance.
The rows adding up to apparently 100 or more seats were so close one behind the other that I could not imagine most of the lifejackets being got out at all, and certainly not by the passengers in the seats under which the jackets were. As I recall, there were four seats side-by-side on one side of a single aisle and three on the other. I and the young, male attendant succeeded, I suspect, mostly because we were kneeling, or close to it, in the aisle and pulling the jackets into the aisle. It would have been reassuring if more of the jackets had been without plastic wrapping and perhaps a little soiled from study of them and emergency drills. It has even occurred to me that perhaps the racks holding the jackets were built for the jackets depicted on the walls, which looked much less bulky. Could the latter even have been inflatable? The words of instruction with the pictures were in Vietnamese, so I cannot be sure, though I did not notice anything in the text to indicate inflatability, using my not inconsiderable portion of Vietnamese.
Our trip had been judiciously delayed for a day, by the operators of the boat (and of other boats, no doubt), until the swell between Ha Tien and Phu Quoc had settled. The trip was smooth and the boat seemed to be navigated well. I would say the farewell smile as we left the boat was due to this. What is of concern – to put it mildly – is questions of emergency. I am inclined to think of the charms put on the fronts of and dashboards of minibuses in Vietnam. If you think something bad might happen, it may, the Vietnamese often think, in my experience, after living in Vietnam for more than a decade. Haven’t enough prayers been said, in effect, for an accident not to happen? Or, why do you travel if you think there could be an accident? One of my strongest memories is of being accused, up country, of causing a bus crash because I predicted it (on the basis that it was clear the driver was going too fast).
And, in this story, made more sad by the
recollection of a more recent drowning of people attending a child’s birthday party on a cruise boat no further afield than on the Saigon River, we bought tickets for our return on an amazingly fast, 35 minutes to Saigon, very effectively styled, Bombardier aircraft flown by Air Mekong. You can add, roughly speaking, another 35, the number of US dollars per ticket, though perhaps prices vary. And they threw in French pastries of various kinds, a kind of lottery in flight in which you compared what you got with what she got, etc. This was fun and they were trying; potential customers around this country need to be aware that their decisions determine whether such exciting and inexpensive services as Air Mekong  thrive.
It was a sign of our experience on the Hong Tam 2 that we asked in the little booking office on Phu Quoc whether the Bombardier would be flown by a foreigner pilot. We were delighted when the young woman replied fast and perfectly unabashed: all their pilots were foreigners. None of us was being politically incorrect and questioning whether Vietnamese pilots were good at flying planes or good at checking out safety. I said at the time, ‘A foreign pilot would not take off unless all safety measures were in place.’ And neither, I say now, would a Vietnamese one. What I am saying is that perhaps our Hong Tam 2 experience touched us deeply. Something so deep could be spiritual. It may be something that is well known to the Vietnamese themselves and not, usually, to people from other cultures. If, on arriving at a birthday party, or on a commuter boat, or even an airliner, a salt-of-the-earth Vietnamese is shown the lifeboats, lifejackets or emergency doors, what does he or she think – but disaster? How, on one hand, can you put faith in Buddhist gods and on the other do emergency drills with passengers? Isn’t there a spiritual conflict here and may it not have an effect on accidents and accident statistics ?

Text and Picture by James Gordon