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Around the World with Captain Mercer: Phu My, Vietnam

Thursday, March 15, 2012:

Phu My, gateway port for Ho Chi Min City, (formerly Saigon). An early call, although a 6:30 a.m pilot was scheduled, the entrance to the Saigon river entrance is a busy one and complicated, an early arrival on the bridge is prudent.

Ships everywhere, all shapes and sizes, either anchored awaiting berths, or departing and arriving, thrown into the mix were fishing boats, some larger than others, some of them without lights, except maybe an occasional torch (flashlight) being shone in our general direction, some of them not even bothering. Fishing nets, lit by green and red probe lights, were strung out like some vast knitting pattern.

A strong easterly wind, accentuated by an east-west current had us ‘crabbing’ sideways as we approached the pilot station, which is up the river; passing anchored ships and trying to adjust speed to avoid catching up with other, smaller vessels which are either going for the pilot, or trying to find a spot in the already congested anchorages; astern of us, a massive containership is following us, she too adjusting speed to suit.

The pilot boards and we increase speed, ahead of us lies a twisting, tortuous route through a buoyed channel, almost 30 miles up river. The pilot stands on the bridge, however leaves it to us, the bridge team, to negotiate the channel. Dawn is breaking as we head inland, mangrove swamps, miles and miles of them, to port, while to starboard are acres and acres of container berths with more under construction, all of them devoid of ships, looking forlornly empty.

Two of the turns in the river are extremely tight ‘S’ bends and speed is reduced to take them without overshoot and consequent grounding; thrown into the mix are suicidal fishing boats, some as small as a canoe, which, either through ignorance or a trust in our skills, make no effort to move as we tower over them.

The Saigon river is navigable up to Ho Chi Min City and beyond, however only by ships of far less draft that the Amsterdam, eventually we will be able to go no further north. Our Admiralty charts are of such a small scale, they become impractical, so we revert to some new Vietnamese survey charts. I have to ask the pilot where our intended berth actually is, because as we pass the berth which the Amsterdam used to dock, it is obviously not the intended one. Our survey chart has names on it that are written in Vietnamese and therefore are complete gobbledegook to us. The pilot points over the mangroves, to a distant group of cranes, “you see clane up in sky” he says, referring to yet another forlorn and lonely container berth with 2 portainer cranes, their gantries raised as if in salute, “dat’s your bert” he says. At least another 3 miles up-river. After another 20 minutes of a meandering channel and more devil-may-care fishing boats, we see a long line of coaches and a canopy, doubtless the inevitable market stall. Aha! When in doubt, look for the buses, always a safe fallback.

Another, brand-new container berth beckons us, acres and acres of empty container park and in the distance, a power plant, red and white striped pylons stretching to the horizon, marching north in regimented lines, towards HCM City.

We berth at 7:45 on a hot and muggy morning, the temperature is forecast to reach 97F/36C and it must already be near that, a hot and muggy day in store for us.

The guests disgorge into the buses, some on tours and many taking a ‘transfer’ to HCM, shopping and sightseeing being the order of the day. Because it is at least a 90 minute trip, I elect to stay on board, we are not meant to go ashore if it results in us being too far away from the ship and this is one of those days

So, for my photographs, I have to rely on those taken by others, during their travels.

It is obvious from the chatter when they return, that they have had a wonderful time; rides on ‘cyclons’ basically a motorised rickshaw, capable of taken 1 person; the main form of transport is mopeds, many of them loaded to amazing capacity with everything from birds in cages, goods and market produce, their stows defying gravity and of course, sights of the previously French colonial city.

We depart at 11 p.m. turning in the river and heading south, once again retracing our tortuous route of the morning, until at 1 a.m. we disembark our pilot, bound for Singapore.

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