'Basket case on a beach in Vietnam'
The Weekend Australian 26 Nov 2011

The Incidental Tourist by Kerrin O'Sullivan

In boats, as in life, one should choose one's companions carefully. The famous saying that "some people shouldn't do Vegas" could be expanded to "some people shouldn't do boats".

Strolling Vietnam's Cua Dai beach at sunset, I spot the coracles. These traditional tar-sealed bamboo boats are heading out to sea. Bobbing over the break like strange marine teacups, lone fishermen are paddling toward the oceanic back of beyond, with only nets and a lantern flickering in the briny velvet dusk.

Next morning I spy coracles stowed in the dunes, high and dry above the waterline. I am gripped by a hitherto unknown desire to captain a coracle. Nearby, in front of the resorts, is a sign: Basket-Boat Paddling Lessons - Minimum 2 persons.

The minimum, it seems, is also the maximum. I'm in, but with whom? My husband's available but I have doubts about his seaworthiness. He has a proud history of sea-sickness - on both the car-ferry punting the Daintree in North Queensland, and the Noosa Ferry while still moored at the pier near the Sheraton. Heavens, even the Hawaii Five-O title sequence can make him queasy.

Short of knowing another soul in Vietnam, I invite him aboard.

Our instructor is Phung, a diminutive five-footer who says he has fished practically every day of his life. He's nut brown and ripples muscles, a mini-Schwarzenegger who, for the record, swims like Ian Thorpe, or possibly faster, if there's such a thing as size-to-speed ratio. We don life jackets and whistle, something both comforting and alarming, but not as alarming as the sight of my husband clutching his novel. Seriously, is he planning to read? While I row?

Phung pushes us into the surf, rocking us over the breaking swell. Shoals of silvery fish sparkle in the aquamarine shallows. He leaps aboard and twists the vertical oar, vigorously swinging his whole body in an arc.

The idea seems to be to craft a deep fishtail figure-eight. I watch, knowing I'll have to replicate this technique, but the dramatic scenery distracts. It's like an embroidered silk picture. The limestone promontory of Marble Mountain is swathed in wispy cloud; on the horizon, the purple hilltops of the Cham Island archipelago rise in mauve mist.

"Left, right!" exhorts Phung as I take the helm. I struggle to manoeuvre the oar while standing upright in this spinning bamboo bowl.

I have perfected the art of rotation. It's enough to make a fish dizzy.

My husband puts down his novel and takes over. "Slowly, slowly!" pleads Phung.

My man, jaw set, is like the Oarsome Foursome rolled into one; his oar is doing figure-eights like an egg-beater on high speed. He's the Usain Bolt of basket-boats. If this is an Olympic final, he's got the gold. The only problem? We haven't moved.

'Wife better than man.' Phung announces, scooping seawater with a coconut shell from the ankle-deep swill in the base of the boat. Beneath the surface, my husband's novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, drifts eerily back and forth. The girl on the cover is now both dragon-tattooed and completely sodden.

My husband has stopped rowing; in fact no one is rowing. The shore is a distant yellow smear, the big hotels have shrunk and the giant palms are now bonsai. Mainland Vietnam is disappearing. Eyes closed, my co-captain spouse appears to be napping; closer examination reveals that his face, from being Vietnamese-flag red while rowing, is now a curious shade of white.

'Man sick.' Phung declares helpfully.

Deciding we've mastered the essentials necessary for any future Vietnamese basket-boating life may throw at us, we abort the lesson. Phung returns us to shore in record time.

It's amazing how fast a Vietnamese fisherman can paddle doubled over with laughter.

© 2012 Kerrin O’Sullivan