Vietnam: The Elusive Future Cruisers’ Paradise

Single-hander Jack Van Ommen reports on a return to Vietnam with his boat.

Published 14 years ago, updated 3 years ago

This is a condensed version of the report of my April 2006 visit on “Fleetwood”, a 30-foot plywood sloop, to the ports of Haiphong, Danang and Nhatrang (Vietnam). The detailed report, including the background to my reason for returning by boat to Vietnam, my tourist excursions into Vietnam, my 1961-1963 stay in Vietnam, etc., can all be found here. This report and the “Log” has been updated with up to date information on the situation in Vietnam and agent addresses, etc., gathered during my 90-day vacation in Indochina in February 2010.

April 20, 2006 – First Attempt to Enter Vietnam at Haiphong

It took me a year from my departure in April 2005 from California, via the South Pacific, the Philippines to realize a fantasy I had since my one and a half year service in Vietnam in the early sixties, to return to Vietnam again the way I came then, by boat across the Pacific.

My first attempt to enter Vietnam, at Haiphong, turned into a major disappointment. I was aware of potential problems. The yachts that have been able to visit Vietnam in the last 25 years can be counted on two hands. Except for a bi-annual sailboat race from Hong Kong to Nhatrang that has been going for the last ten years, or so. It was extremely difficult for me to obtain information from anywhere on the requirements for Vietnam. I searched the internet and asked the questions at the consulates in San Francisco and Manila. Manila told me that all I needed was a $ 75 tourist Visa. I had hoped to start at Haiphong in order to go visit Hanoi and sail through the unusual scenery of Ha Long Bay, very close to Haiphong.

There were lots of fishing floats planted all over the China Sea and the Tonkin Gulf. Mostly set by Vietnamese fishermen. And lots of garbage floating around. Several times my trolling line caught a plastic bag but I did get one very nice Mahi Mahi that went into Sashimi and a fried fish dinner.

I had to round the Chinese island of Hainan to get to Haiphong. I never saw it because of a consistent haze. The water temperature of the Gulf of Tonkin is at least 10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than what I have been used to for the last year. There are no seabirds in the Gulf of Tonkin. At night I had to thread my way through fishing fleets. Many of them are all lit up and apparently jigging for squid. During the day I would encounter these boats, anchored in the middle of nowhere, getting their sleep.


Arrival Formalities

I sent an e-mail to the Port of Haiphong a week before my April 2nd arrival advising my e.t.a. and asking them for their required procedures. This e-mail went unanswered. When I got within 25 miles of Haiphong I managed to raise the port authority on channel 16.

They advised me to contact the Harbor Pilot. Who in turn directed me to stand by at a given GPS location, still about 15 miles from the harbour in the Gulf of Tonkin. They asked me who my agent was. I told them I did not have one and also questioned the need for a pilot.

I was listening to an apparent girlfriend singing a love song to her fisherman, on Ch 16. No action from the pilot. I finally put down the anchor and tried again the following morning. It was a rough anchorage between other vessels also waiting for the pilot, in an exposed rough stretch of open sea.

At around 1 p.m., I was told that the border patrol would come out and guide me into Haiphong. Three very seasick border patrol officers boarded from the patrol boat. They could hardly fill out all the forms in their seasick state. Two of them transferred back to the patrol boat and the least seasick older officer stayed aboard and directed me up the Red River. I tied up against, about, a 250-foot long coast guard cutter in Haiphong port which is still downstream from the city of Haiphong. This was just before dark. Two officers of the Port Control office came aboard and had me fill out a number of forms.

The Border Patrol officer took my passport and my last port clearance papers. And these were supposed to be returned the next morning with the immigration officer. The chief, 5-star epaulettes on his Russian army-style uniform of the border patrol, also had come aboard again and he told me that everything was in order and that all I needed was to wait for the immigration officer. He gave me his cell phone number and told me to call him when I intended to travel to Hanoi by local bus. The next day nothing happened. The border patrol had posted a guard onboard with me. The first night he sat on the coast guard cutter the next night he slept in my cabin.

The coast guard men invited me aboard. That was at first objected to by the guard. But after calling his chief he let me aboard. They let me use their showers. The cutter was built by Damen shipyard in Gorinchem, Holland. The coast guard men were very kind and threw a great dinner party on, the last evening. With many excellent dishes and rounds of Lieu Moi, rice alcohol.


The next day one of the port control men returned, with an immigration officer. And I was then told to leave the next morning. I asked why. They replied that they did not know the reason. They just acted on higher orders. I was absolutely devastated. I pleaded with them and I detected a certain satisfaction on the part of the older immigration officer, with my disappointment.

I was out of water and food and also low on diesel. They asked me for a list and they would get this for me. And they did. They did not want payment for it.

One of the cutter’s officers found the phone number for the American Embassy in Hanoi for me because I wanted to advise them of my predicament and see if they had any suggestions. The guard would not let me make any telephone calls. I was also told that I could not use my radios on board. When I realized the finality of their decision, I asked if I could at least sail through Ha Long Bay on the way out.

Ha Long Bay is known for its unusual limestone-spired islands. But they told me that I could not and to head out straight for the open ocean. I asked them if I could try the first major harbour south of Haiphong, Danang. The immigration officer replied that he had no opinion on that.

The Red River reminded me of a European river like the Rhine or Seine. There were river barges identical to the ones in Europe. A strong current ran to the sea from noon till midnight and then it would flood back in. Large freighters passed by and small sampans rowed with the oarswomen standing up and facing forward, their bodies moving back and forth in a sensual motion.

The haze lifted some and I was able to get a distant glance at the unusual shapes of the small islands on the edge of Ha Long Bay. Ever since I saw the movie “Indochine” with Katherine Deneuve I wanted to see this magical place.


It was a four-day sail to Danang. The wind was from different directions and I had some excellent upwind sailing in smooth seas and 10 to 15 knots of breeze. I had had an exchange of e-mail with the American Embassy in Hanoi. I reported my Haiphong disappointment and the fact that I was not allowed to telephone them and I asked them for possible suggestions on how to avoid the Haiphong experience in Danang. They suggested that I use an agent and gave me a name. This agent never responded to me.

But when I got to call the port control at Danang they suggested another agency. And they were very helpful. Mr. Tran Van Vui of Falcon Shipping Co. He gave me an estimate of the costs between $400 and $ 500. I spent the night in Danang Bay anchored at the pilot station.

The next morning the pilot came aboard and showed me the way into the river port. The city of Danang is built on the peninsula formed by the bay shore and the estuary of the Han River. The bay reminded me of the San Francisco Bay and the layout of Danang to that of Alameda, California.


Going up the river, a fishing boat was coming out and a young man was standing in the bow with incense sticks clasped in his hands. A moment later he ripped open a pack of coloured papers that he then threw out over the water, next was a sprinkling of rice. This is done to assure a good catch.

I got to get a closer look at the strange looking large baskets that the bigger fishing boats carry. They are woven from bamboo and made watertight with bitumen/asphalt type emulsion. They are about 5 foot in diameter and about 3 foot deep. Each boat stacks about ten of these, like Tupperware. They are used as skiffs to fish from in the open ocean. They are skulled with one oar. It is amazing to see these round awkward looking things moving in a straight line on the water. The photo album shows several of these basket boats.


The pilot directed me to tie up on the river quay just downstream from the coast guard cutter. This cutter was identical to the one in Haiphong. The third of its kind is stationed in Vungtau. I needed a pilot like another hole in my head. The navigation was very simple and straightforward with the buoying system. The port control did let me leave Danang without the use of a pilot.

The Han river was not quite as busy as the Red River, large freighters stay out in the bay port. But there were plenty of fishing boats and smaller coastal freighters passing by. My agent, Vui, came to the boat right away and accompanied me to the Port Control office where again lots of forms were processed, with tons of copies. The immigration officer also had his spot in the Port Control office, which was adjacent to my moorage. I indicated that I planned to visit the old imperial city of Hue and also Hanoi from Danang road and air. The port control wanted to know the exact schedule. And they wanted me to have a police guard at the boat for when I was gone overnight.

Now I was finally able to see Danang.

Seeing the City

The agent took me on the back of his motorbike. There are more cars in Centralia, Washington than in all of Vietnam. (update 2010: make that now Tacoma, Washington and growing….) The most common vehicle is a light motorbike, there are lots of bicycles, some scooters and the leg powered pedicabs. The moto cyclo, the motorized pedicab, that was so common in Saigon has disappeared from the streets. You had better come and enjoy Vietnam before they all have to have a car. Even taxis, the four wheelers, are uncommon here because most use the motorbike “taxis”.

I was ecstatic when we rode through the streets of Danang. Many memories came back. The wide tree-lined streets, sidewalk cafes and attractive two and three-story narrow buildings. No squalor and garbage like you see in the Philippines, P.N.G. and the Solomons Islands.

The smell of the charcoal fired sidewalk food caterers. The Han River has a wide promenade for several miles in the downtown section with a wide boulevard and large colonial style official buildings. The old French ochre/yellow painted masonry buildings and fence walls, and many new large buildings are done in a matching style. You can see the old people do their Tai Chi exercises along the river.

Lots of large high rise hotels in town and on the riverfront, with several under construction. All done in very pleasing architectural styles. The Vietnamese have a very strong sense of form and you just do not see any ugly structures like you see in the former British colonies. The streets are swept and garbage is collected during the early morning. You do not see the black grime and mildew stains on the buildings like in the countries I visited in the Pacific and in the Philippines.

There were some fears in me that I might be disappointed with my re-encounter of Vietnam. But the opposite has happened.

Because of the non-democratic system I had also anticipated a certain dreariness on the part of the people. I find them even gayer and more playful than before. These people have accomplished an incredible feat, from the mess that we left them in, in the mid-seventies. And all done with little outside assistance.

Excursions from Danang

I took a $ 3.00 roundtrip bus to Hue from Danang. This was the Imperial capital city of Vietnam till 1946 when the emperor abdicated to Ho Chi Minh. There are a number of photos of Hue in the album.

I also flew to Hanoi. This is another beautiful city with the usual French broad boulevards and impressive colonial buildings and lots of very swanky hotels. I rented a bicycle again. Sunday morning I went to Easter Mass, which was celebrated in French. The previous Vietnamese service was again jam-packed. There were 6 masses that day.

My faithful motorbike taxi rider, Tam, took me to the ancient village of Hoi An and to Marble Mountain. The photo album speaks for these places.


I left Danang on Tuesday morning. And I had a nice sail for most of the way. The wind was fickle at times and I had to motor part of the way. Again I had to pick my way through the wall to wall fishing fleets.

The last night in particular with many unlit boats that would at the last moment shine their spotlights on me. During daylight, they would like to come alongside and start a lively conversation.

Approaches to Nha Trang

I started the same routine again at Nhatrang on Saturday, April 22nd, by calling Port Control on Channel 16, next I called the Pilot. The Pilot was absolutely impossible to understand. In the end, the port control; came to the rescue and let me proceed without pilot into Nhatrang. It is a very scenic approach with a couple of small islands and then the larger Hon Tre Island to the east of Nhatrang. Hon Tre has some real pretty coves with white sandy beaches that would make an ideal anchorage for us cruisers if they will ever let us. The largest bay nearest to Nhatrang has an enormous 5-star resort on it, Vinapearl. I dropped my anchor in front of it before I got the news from Nhatrang to proceed on my own into port. But the hotel people chased me out of there.


When I got close to the old port a launch met me with my agent, Chau, and the immigration officer. They showed me where to anchor in a semi-protected bay close to the commercial docks. And then we processed the trillion documents. I was dead tired from lack of sleep the nights before and slept twelve hours before going to shore the next morning. Mr. Chau took me around on his motorcycle. Then he helped me find a place to buy my $ 80 bicycle replacement. It’s great to have wheels again.

There is one more yacht here, the “Vellamo” a Swan 48 from Jamestown, R.I. with Phillip, a Brit, and his American wife Denise. They came here from the South Pacific via the Philippines, China and Hong Kong and will be on their way to Singapore in two days. Nhatrang will be their one port of call in Vietnam. He told me that they used Saigon Tourist Services as their agent. This is also the agent for the H.K.-Nhatrang yacht race. Phillip told me that they were paying around $ 700 for their Nhatrang entry. I think mine will be below $ 400. I ended up paying just over $ 400 in Danang, this included $10 per day moorage and guard service for the 4 nights when I was visiting Hue and Hanoi.

The second evening in Nhatrang, I met Allan Goodman, together with Phillip and Denise Gibbins of “Vallemo” Allan operates a company called GMIO’Seas Inc. Allan was a good source for information on the Vietnam cruising potential. He is an Australian who specializes in making arrangements for a successful stay in Vietnam for mega yachts. He is also the Nhatrang administrative host of the HK-Nhatrang yacht race. Saigon Tourist Agency is used by the race for the port clearing agency work. He has also been asked by the authorities here to submit to them a plan that will make Vietnam more accessible to yachts. Even the locals here cannot just go out in a pleasure boat for a day trip to the surrounding islands.

The City

Nhatrang is even more attractive for tourists and yachts than Danang. The newer part of the city is built Miami style along the ocean with a wide boulevard and a promenade between it and the beach. There are tree-shaded parks, restaurants and some of the hotels have palapas on the beach for their guests.

Excursions from Nha Trang

Nhatrang is surrounded by a number of islands with inviting bays and white beaches. There are many great scuba diving spots. It is centrally located for excursions to other on land destinations and side trips to Laos and Cambodia. For example, an “open” bus ticket from Nhatrang to Saigon is $5, to Hanoi $16 and from Saigon to Pnom Penh $4. (Feb 2010 note, this has at least doubled since my 2006 experience).

Immigration insisted that I had someone aboard “Fleetwood” while away to Saigon. They were going to put one of their men on the boat but I preferred someone I could understand. I found a young man. But then Immigration made a big fuss. In the end, my agent Mr.Chao, worked it out, but there were was a price on it.


It is still somewhat premature to put Vietnam on your cruising schedule but without a doubt, it will eventually happen and you will have the time of your life. The people, the beauty of the country its rich history its proximity to Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines will make Vietnam the preferred destination, north of the Equator.

For the approximately $ 800, I spent on Danang and Nhatrang port costs, I could have flown here. But I would have missed the Gulf of Tonkin, the fishing fleets, the beautiful coastline, the hassles in Haiphong, the plastic bags and some really good sailing. I will be back before my 100th birthday.



Because of the distances from Haiphong to Saigon, there are actually three distinct weather/monsoon patterns in Vietnam. But in general you will have a South Easterly wind from December to May and then the South Westerly monsoon blows from June till November. I sailed to Haiphong from Puerto Galera, just South of Manila, in late March and then from Nhatrang I had an excellent sail, in early May, to the N.E. tip of Malaysian Borneo.


First of all, you need a tourist visa which currently costs $75; and is good for 90 days and extendable. Visas can be obtained at any Vietnamese consular section. It took me ten minutes in Manila.

You will need a shipping agent. These agents usually only handle large commercial vessels. And most of them have branches In all major Vietnamese ports. I used Falcon Shipping Company.

The following information was brought up to date on February 25, 2010 during a 3 months vacation in Indochina.


26 Hai Phong Str. Danang. Office Phone: 0084-511-892145

e-mail: [email protected]

My contact: Mr Tran Van Vui, telephone 0084-511-887611.

If this address does not work, go through the Nhatrang office.


125 Hong Bang Str., Nhatrang, Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Office Phone: 0084 58-514.641

e-mail: [email protected]

My contact: Mr. Nguyen Chau, cell: 0084- 913.462.233

Also Mr. Huynh Chien, cell: 0084-905.256.433

Mr. Chau is the director and the one I dealt with, Mr. Chien has a better command of English.

Another agent in Nhatrang, smaller operation, but also a part of a very large majority share government-owned transportation group.


34 Tran Phu Street (Vinh Nguyen), Nhatrang, Vietnam (close to the old port moorage).

Office phone: 0084-58-889527, e-mail: [email protected]

Mr. Nguyen Binh Ha, cell: 0084-913.461.306. Speaks English reasonably well.

Allan Goodman operates a company called GMIO’Seas Inc.

E-Mail : [email protected], cell: 0084-918.509.701.

He is not an agent yet and uses Falcon for that, but he can be of great service for all aspects of a good stay in Vietnam.

Vung Tau Contact: (Vung Tau is the entry port for Ho Chi Minh City at the mouth of the Saigon River)

Steve Thompson.

T-BOATS HCMC, Vietnam.

E-mail: [email protected]

Phone: 0084-64-3533 415

Fax: 0084-64-3533 416

Cell: 0084-909.826.638 Steve Thompson is a boat builder and is in the process of building a marina in Vung Tau and set up for yacht clearing.

The main tourist and also ship clearing agency, state-owned company, is Saigon Tourist Company.

Additional observations learnt from the 2010 visit:

The high port and clearance fees and the need to employ an agent/pilot still exist. Much of this has to do with the archaic government controls. And permits are still required for every move a yacht wishes to make.

But there are promising developments that might bring these costs down and reduce the movement restrictions.

There are plans in the works for a better mooring facility for visiting yachts near the customs office in the old port of Nha Trang. Allan Goodman is involved in it.

Click here for a more detailed story of the visit

May 2010 updates in italics



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