Breaking the Language Barrier

Location: Cat Ba Island, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

I’m balancing on the topside of a smooth, black boulder at the edge of the water. The waves slap softly against the stone just a few inches below the soles of my shoes and I hold my camera tight to my chest, hoping a strong burst of wind doesn’t knock me into the bay. My friend waits on the rock behind me and we look out over the water in silent anticipation. There’s an old, hunched over man that keeps rowing his creaky little boat past us, waving for us to climb in. I shake my head at him again.

“Holy shit, he’s really coming to pick us up.”

Our ride is on his way;  a slender man wearing a zipped up, bright red track jacket. As his figure grows closer, his happy-go-lucky grin becomes visible. I smile back. When he reaches the shore, I wave and clamber clumsily onto the damp floorboards of his leaking vessel, scooting over so there’s room for two. My travel companion hops in after me.  I wave at our new friend and say a ‘hello’ and ‘how are you’ to test out his English. He only nods.


He looks puzzled.

Welp, guess we won’t be talking too much.

We haven’t officially met, unless you count waving at each other and cheersing shots from different boats in the bay as meeting. But now he’s paddling us, slowly but steadily, to a row of fishing boats that are tied together and the crew of rowdy fisherman that are partying on them. As we get closer, the young men on board cheer, laugh, and shout at us.

The deck is open. Everyone sits crosslegged in a circle, taking turns chugging cups of grayish moonshine from a large plastic container.  It smells like dirty water and mold. They offer the burning liquid to us and we take it in swift gulps. Afterwards they hand out water for chaser. They’re also passing around a bamboo bong that they’re packing with fat wads of tobacco. I shake my head when it’s pointed at me; the smoke they’re inhaling is thick and just watching them coughing it out through their nostrils makes my stomach queasy.

Nobody speaks English and we can only communicate with hand gestures. One man pulls out his cell phone and types out “22” on his calculator, points at himself. I nod and use his phone to type “23.”  After a few minutes, another man pulls out a smartphone. He wants to take a selfie with me.  We end up taking a slew of them, both laughing as we try on a traditional Vietnamese military hat and make funny faces at each other. It’s strangely comforting, this common love of selfies, when I’m surrounded by strangers on a boat in the middle of the bay of a foreign country. It feels so normal, so human, I almost feel at home.

It’s also clear that the fishermen have never hosted foreigners on their boat before. Several men linger back, just staring, while their drunken mates show me around. I’m given the grand tour, which includes huge piles of nets like webbed hillsides in the back, the waterlogged underdeck where they keep their catches, a sleeping area in the front sheltered by a short wood awning, and the main deck, where they all huddle and keep booze, snacks, and extra clothes.

The boat itself is a floating miracle. The decks are made of damp wood, rusty nails, and shredded tires. There’s bamboo sides and blocks of foam keeping everything above water. It all seems to defy gravity. I can also finally see all the flags up close, the ones I’ve noticed from the shore that decorate the masts of every vessel in the bay. This ship carries black ones and red ones; and they’re all just ragged sheets of cloth. The black ones remind me of pirate ships and I wish I could ask them what they mean. I have a million questions about them: are they all from Ha Long Bay or other regions of Vietnam? Do they fish all night? What do they catch? How long has it been since any of these men has stepped foot on land? But unfortunately the language barrier leaves it all unanswered.

We spend a couple hours on the boat, just hanging out and taking it all in. However, as dusk begins to fall, we’re ushered off. It’s time for the crew to prepare to set out to sea; they have work to do. We’re taken back to shore by the same smiley guy and he takes one last selfie with us on his phone before paddling back out to his sea home.