by John Ball
To many Westerners, travel-ling on old ferries full of vil-lagers and baskets of vegetables, chickens and squealing pigs is a sheer delight. It's time to lay back, chat or snooze as the sturdy vessels churn through the water.
Fantasy island: Cham Island, several kilometres offshore from the central city of Hoi An, is the furthermost possession of the old Cham Empire that once dominated the region. The empire stretched as far as Laos and Cambodia.
|Taken for a ride: Foreign tourists travel by launch because the local ferries don't have "insurance". — VNA/VNS Photos Tran Le Lam
That's why when told by hotel and tourist staff in Hoi An recently that foreigners were not allowed to travel on ferries because they carry insurance for Vietnamese only was a big disappointment. "Foreigners must go by launch," I was repeatedly told.
So, as we churned toward mysterious Cham Island several kilometres offshore there was none of the expected magic. The narrow launch we had to travel on slapped, bumped and crashed through every wave. It was just too long and skinny to comfortably manoeuvre the seas made choppy by surging river water and offshore winds.
The Asian and Western tourists on board squealed with delight for a minute or so and then sat back in silent disbelief as the spray surged higher and the launch banged and thumped on its way.
The return journey was even worse. The launch was smaller and narrower. As it tried to mount the waves coming from all directions several hundred metres from Hoi An, looks of fear flashed across everyone's eyes.
I eyed the lifebelts pushed under feet of the "captain," a young man working without a helper. My two Vietnamese companions could not swim, so I stood up to try and get them a couple. Bang! The launch dropped to the bottom of another wave and I was thrown to the floor.
The day after the trip, I visited the Hoi An Department of Tourism to ask why foreigners were not allowed on the slow, but safe, old ferries. When told they carried no insurance for foreigners, I replied that I would rather be alive and uninsured on a slow boat than dead and insured on a fast one.
To his credit, the Deputy Manager of the department, Tran Van Nhan, looked me straight in the eye and said: "I understand. I will advise all hotels, travel agencies and tourist booking offices that tourists, no matter where they are from, can travel on the old ferries if they choose."
Nhan went so far as to say, "Those who say that ferry boats are not permitted to take tourists to Cham Island are doing something wrong – maybe for their own benefit."
Of course he was right. The fare by launch is many times higher than by ferry. The push to get foreigners on fast launches seems to be linked to the development of a snorkelling industry on Cham Island – an industry in which foreign instructors are involved.
But I do not see why I or any other Western or Asian tourist should be used to support an industry that they have no interest in.
The Hoi An Department of Tourism is to be congratulated on its prompt and efficient action. Its response reflects the friendly and caring attitude of Hoi An's shopkeepers and restaurateurs in general.
In fact, the city's attitude towards the tourist trade – and the extraordinary level of English – could be used as a model for the rest of Viet Nam.
To sum up: Foreigners don't mind paying for service, but they do resent being milked all the way down the line. — VNS