Upon returning from almost a month in Southeast Asia, Hilary had some great stories to tell. Here, she shares one of her favorites: learning how to fish Vietnamese style.

After almost a month in Southeast Asia, I made my way to the the central coast of Vietnam, in Hoi An. Traveling on my own on a custom Journeys International trip, each segment was led by a talented guide who had some discretion in tailoring the plans and food to my interests. How lucky for me as my days were filled with a wonderful array of cultural and artistic activities, not to mention meals that were adventures on their own.

The grand finale: Fishing in Hoi An

For my last day, my guide Minh asked if I would like to go fishing. I didn’t hesitate for a second. I’m not a fisherman but I am a sailor and I couldn’t wait to get on the water. Nestled on the banks of the Thu Bon River and its estuaries, Hoi An has been a fishing town for hundreds of years. Everywhere you look you see a picturesque assortment of traditional fishing boats, brightly painted, hung with nets, in all shapes and sizes.

For me “going fishing” was like physically entering into a centuries-old way of life. When my driver pulled up at one of Hoi An’s numerous docks, a simple wooden motorboat was waiting for my guide and me. The boat was a bit ramshackle and totally charming, the engine noisy and jury rigged with a bit of string for a pull cord that the captain held in place with his foot; a handmade brown and green wooden awning protected us from the sun; a few wooden folding chairs were randomly scattered for the passengers. The boat was as jaunty as the weathered captain whose cheery smile welcomed me on board.

Within minutes we arrived at our first destination, a delicate narrow fishing boat with two occupants, a husband and wife dressed in traditional cropped pants, cotton tunics, and bamboo hats. I quickly shifted from one boat to the other and suddenly found myself without English, as Minh and the motorboat captain stayed behind.

A shared language, with no words

I smiled; they smiled. They indicated that I sit on the middle bench, a good idea I thought given the fragile balance of the boat. They handed me a conical hat like theirs. I nodded my thanks and put it on. I took in the boat, very thin, hand hewn, faded red paint, steered and powered by the wife with a bamboo pole at the stern.

The man stood in the prow of the little boat, the gathered net in his hands. With incredible grace, he began his practiced choreography, twirling the circular net until he let it fly in an astonishing oval, filling the sky above us. I had seen this before in the movies, never dreaming it would one day happen over my head.

I was still savoring the sight I had just witnessed when the fisherman drew the net back into the boat and handed it to me; it was my turn. I laughed! He was going to coach me to perform this wonderful feat.

Balancing together in the prow of the boat, I copied his stance, the slight sway of his hips, the circular path of his arms, and the lasso kind of release. And up went the net—nothing like the marvel of his perfect oval, but actually not bad for a first attempt—and the joy of that moment, of being in the harbor of Hoi An, in a tiny fishing boat and twirling a handmade fishing net over my head to the coaching in Vietnamese of these generous new friends… this was a special thrill that I will never forget.

Net fishing, take 2

Back on the motorboat, our next stop was a different kind of net fishing experience. As I was delivered out to a platform overlooking a large net supported in the water on a set of posts, I realized the net was lowered and raised by what looked like a giant set of tinker toys, thick bamboo posts lashed together at all angles supporting the spinning center of the contraption. Hand over hand, a strong man was pulling the spokes around in a circle to lift the enormous net.

That’s when I realized this was the next task set for me, lifting the net with this most basic of pulley systems. I was to be the motor and the muscle. I was delighted that Minh had figured out that I would find this experience fun and interesting and that she already knew enough of my fitness routine to know I was up to the challenge—well, sort of—with a little help.

Returning to the motorboat once more, the captain asked if I would like to steer. Yes indeed, I replied. How much more fun could this be, being at the helm as we made our way through the various crafts plying the waterway on this sparkling day?

Exploring mangroves by thung chai

We were headed to a thung chai, a basket boat, the small semicircular boats woven of bamboo that I had seen pulled up on the beaches all over Hoi An. Bidding the captain farewell for the last time, we slipped into this tiny boat, the smallest of Vietnam’s fishing fleet, something on the scale of the inner tubes used for river rafting in parts of the U.S., and took turns with a pair of bamboo paddles as we headed into the mangroves lining a branch of the river. We wound our way through them, looking for tiny crabs to capture with the wooden tongs the boatman provided.

After a half hour or so exploring the mangroves, the boatman delivered us to the final “boat” of the morning, what was essentially a café for two built out of bamboo in the shape of a graceful rowboat extending out over the river. We hungry fishermen leaned back in “our boat” while an extraordinary lunch of grilled local fish, one delicious course after another, was exquisitely served in the center of our cockpit: grilled salted shrimp, clams with lemon grass, whole snapper, noodles with bok choy, and finally sweet potatoes and bananas grilled in banana leaves for dessert.

A lifelong connection to local people

I saw a lot of noteworthy sights during my time in Southeast Asia, temples and museums filled with remarkable treasures, the sweep and mystery of Angkor Wat, the remnants of a difficult and controversial war, dynamic and vibrant cities. Each held an important place in the tapestry of my trip. 

But for me there was something particularly lovely about the day I spent in the more humble pursuits of “going fishing.”  Part of the pleasure came from being a participant rather than an observer, rolling up my sleeves and getting in on the fun of actually doing things. But the pleasure was of course deepened by the way the activities in which I took part were leading me into a way of life that has been practiced for centuries, sensing the balance of a narrow boat, the feel of a twirled net, the rotation of a wheel of bamboo.

And most of all, being a participant offered me a connection to the local people of Hoi An. They generously opened a window into their way of life, and by doing simple tasks together, communicating through a language of gestures, and with more than a little laughter, I was brought closer to the world I had come to visit.