Back in 2002 I did my first long haul trip. It was to scuba dive in Vietnam. This blog will be slightly different to my previous blogs as it will mainly feature excerpts from my dive logbook. I flew from Manchester to Paris where I transferred to an Air France flight to Bangkok. On arrival at Don Muang airport all the other passengers got off the plane for an hour but the assistance team took so long coming to get me off that it was time to get back onboard when they arrived. With a new crew we then flew onwards to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon.)
On arrival in Saigon I got a taxi to the railway station where I arranged a ticket for that evenings sleeper train to Nha Trang. My ticket for a berth in a six berth hardberth compartment cost me 150,000 đồng which at the time was about £6.50 or US$10. Before getting the train the lady from the booking office took me to a shop in the station and selected for me food and drink supplies to purchase for the journey as is wasn’t unknown for the 12 hour journey to take up to two days to get to the destination. Arriving in my sleeping compartment I discovered that the other five people were female, two of them were not happy about this and went off to complain and I didn’t see them again. The other three seemed to be three generations of the same family, I tried to converse with the eldest one but she spoke only Vietnamese and I didn’t… It was a long slow journey to Nha Trang where we arrived early the next morning and I took a cyclo taxi to the hotel where I had a reservation.
The hotel was just called No. 63 (or some other number), there were steps up to the reception of the hotel which wasn’t accessible but behind the main building there were rooms arranged around a garden. The receptionist came out and took me to one of these rooms that had level access. The room was sufficiently big enough to get a wheelchair around but the toilet/shower room was rather small and you could just drive a wheelchair in and out. There was no way to get your chair to either side of the toilet to transfer but that didn’t cause any problems for me. I stayed here only a few days as one evening I got chatting to an English tourist and a hotel receptionist outside a hotel one street back and ended up moving to that hotel, called the Phuong Ngoc, at a cost of US$5 a night. The hotel had a few steps up to the entrance which had a very steep ramp at one side and there was always someone around to help me up it. (At night time the hotels reception was filled with scooters and the ramp was really to get those inside.)
The hotel room had two single beds, a TV, a fridge, and no windows. The toilet/shower was similar to that at the previous accommodation but slightly bigger in that you could turn a wheelchair around in it. One thing I found annoying was that every time I went out the hotel would turn off the power to my room so that when I returned there would be a puddle by the fridge and that it was never really cold enough to be of use!
In the late afternoon of the first day I called in at Rainbow Divers to introduce myself ready for diving the next day. I was met very early the next morning by the dive centres mini bus and we were on the first dive site by 9:00am. My buddy was to be Jean-Phillipe, a Frenchman with the bluest eyes you have ever seen, that worked for Rainbow Divers. He had previously worked at a school for disabled children back in France.
Dive 1 Dive site: Hon Mot Depth: 14.9m Time: 63 mins
“2002, another year and another dive trip but the big surprise this year is that I have not returned to Turkey. This morning finds me on a boat heading out of Nha Trang harbour, some 455km north-east of Saigon in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
It is some four or five years since I first planned to visit Vietnam and by 9am I find myself slipping beneath the waves with my buddy, Jean-Phillipe. First impressions were that the visibility is not up to that expected in Turkey but the sights to be seen soon make up for that. Banner fish, anemone fish with their host, pipe fish and numerous corals along with many fish that I don’t recognise.
I am now the proud owner of a digital camera with underwater housing and could have taken many photos on this dive but we had to take the housing without the camera to check the ‘O’ rings were all correctly installed.
Early on in the dive a loud bang was heard and later Jean-Phillipe told me he was surprised I hardly reacted as the first time people hear dynamite fishing they have the wide eyes of mild panic. I just explained that it was not my first time. I am looking forward to diving and photographing in the days to come.”
Dive 2 Dive site: Bob’s House Depth: 13.9m Time: 50 mins
“The digital revolution begins! Today I took the first photographs with my Olympus C3020Z and housing. It is a bit difficult to see the results on the inbuilt screen but of the dozen taken I think a couple have turned out quite reasonable and there is one I am quite impressed with. Without the aid of a computer there is only one that seems no good and was deleted. That one was too close and out of focus as I forgot the ‘macro’ button.
There was not too much to see on this dive but I hope to get the opportunity this week to photograph a clown fish and its host anemone.
After 45 mins I decided to call the dive as my arms were aching. I also chose not to do the second dive for this reason as here in Vietnam the surface interval is quite short owing to having to get the dives in before the afternoon rain further reduces the visibility.”
Dive 3 Dive site: Madonna Rock Depth: 20.8m Time: 53 mins
“Today the diving got off to a slow start with problems clearing my right ear beyond about 5 metres but this eventually cleared up.
The dive itself was very nice with a number of swim throughs but the current gave me a bit of a problem, a couple of times I was swimming as hard as I could but was moving backwards with only Jean-Phillipe’s blue fins visible in front.
At 30 mins I indicated that I, or my arms, were tired by putting my hands beside my head to indicate sleep but Jean-Phillipe did not understand and later asked me about it.”
Dive 5 Dive site: Turtle Bay Depth: 7.4m Time: 41 mins
“This dive site originally had the name of Cemetery Bay owing to a number of graves and memorials on the beach. It was another good dive like all so far in Vietnam, but the highlight of it was when I found a turtle.
When I found it I was floating directly above and slightly behind him. Jean-Phillipe was some distance away and with his back to me so I could not tell him. I reached down and turned my camera on whilst exhaling to descend closer. At the same time the mild current was taking me over the turtle so that I could take the photo from the front.
Well that was the theory but as I lifted the camera the turtle rose from the seabed and turned to almost face me. With a couple of effortless flicks of his arms he was off into the distant blue water. Meanwhile I was just ready with my camera to press the shutter. It was at this point that Jean-Phillipe returned just in time to catch a last sight as the turtle was lost in the blue.
The result of this encounter was that the dive site became known as Turtle Bay and I shall always remember my first encounter with a turtle.”
Dive 7 Dive site: Turtle Bay Depth: 9.4m Time: 45 mins
“Jean-Phillipe departed for the resort of Whale Island yesterday so I have a new buddy in Anh, a local Viet diver who has more than 12,000 dives to his name.
We are back at Turtle Bay but Mr Turtle is not to be seen. The visibility is further reduced on previous days and I take few photographs though Anh does find many nudibranchs of amazingly small size.”
During my time with Rainbow Divers I logged a total of 13 dives and completed the PADI Enriched Air Diver course. During the evenings I split my time between the Yacht Club, which had a bar and a disco, and Shorty’s Bar, a small café/bar run by an English guy and his Vietnamese partner that served good food and low prices and was a good place to meet fellow travellers. Shorty’s was midway between the dive centre and the Phuong Ngoc hotel.
On one of the days that I didn’t do any diving I toured the local area with the hotel receptionist from Phuong Ngoc, he towed me behind his motorbike and we travelled for miles! (Being towed behind a motorbike is not something I recommend to everyone…) Among the places we visited was the Chong Promontory where we went to a café/bar where we met a monkey.
During the couple of weeks I spent in Vietnam I had a great time and met many interesting people. Vietnam I would describe as a ‘challenging’ destination for a wheelchair user but if you are adventurous it is certainly ‘doable’. I am only sorry I never got the opportunity to do a return visit.