An Irish explorer has just been reunited with the Vietnamese sailor with whom he traveled 5,500 miles on a Vietnamese-made bamboo raft across the Pacific Ocean more than two decades ago.
A three-hour talk early this month between Tim Severin, 74, and Luong Viet Loi, 56, conjured memories of the 105-day sea trip in 1993 when the two men sailed with five other sailors through the vast ocean on a raft made of Vietnamese bamboo and rattan ropes.
After leaving Vietnam in March and officially departing from Hong Kong for the U.S. in May, they stopped miles away from California’s coast in November of that year.
They made several stops, including those in Taiwan and Japan, on their journey so the total number of days during which they traveled at sea were 105.
The seamen, led by Severin, were just short of their goal to make it to California, but the trip was still an unforgettable experience for Severin and Loi, who hails from the central Vietnamese province of Thanh Hoa.
Severin looked younger than expected during his meeting with Loi in Ho Chi Minh City on April 2, thanks to his passion for traveling around the world.
He conducted nine expeditions throughout every continent from 1961 to 1999, when he was 59 years old.
The Irishman strode down cruise ship Crystal Symphony on a sweltering afternoon in the southern city in 36-37 degree-Celsius heat wearing a gray shirt, black trousers, a gray baseball cap, and a pair of rubber-soled brown shoes.
The cruise ship, accommodating about 1,000 passengers, arrived at Phu Huu Port in the city’s District 9 on April 1 and set sail for Hong Kong three days later. Severin was invited to give presentations on his adventures during the cruise.
"This is the second time I have visited Vietnam, and this trip reminds me of good and strong memories, especially with the people of Vietnam," he mused to Tuoitrenews reporters in a car on the way to the house of Do Thai Binh, who co-translated his book The China Voyage: Across the Pacific by Bamboo Raft into Vietnamese.
Severin dropped by Vietnam to meet Binh in person after the two had worked via email on the translation of the book for a long time.
The two also wanted to organize an event to introduce the Vietnamese version of Severin’s book to local readers but they could not do it eventually.
The translation, "Bè tre Việt Nam du ký – 5.500 dặm vượt Thái Bình Dương,” was published early this month, while the English original was first released in 1996.
Severin gave his book that title because he originally wanted to set off from China in an attempt to re-enact a voyage made by a Chinese man in ancient times.
But the explorer failed to find a bamboo raft in China when he arrived there in 1991. A friend of Severin’s who had been to Vietnam advised him to go to Thanh Hoa’s Sam Son Town to look for the special raft, as he had seen people use it there.
The Irishman took his advice and went to the Southeast Asian country to seek someone who could build and steer the bamboo raft safely throughout the Pacific Ocean.
His eyes glittered as he recalled his time living in the coastal town to build the bamboo raft in preparation for his historic journey across the Pacific.
Severin supervised the building of the raft in Sam Son from December 1992 to March 1993 during which the number of builders ranged from 20 to 100, depending on which section they were working on.
“The Vietnamese I worked with were very intelligent, diligent, and passionate. Once they had determined to do something, they would spare all efforts for their goal regardless of any hardships,” he told the reporters about the process of making the bamboo raft.
He never knew he would be reunited with Loi, his sailor 21 years ago.
A surprise reunion
Stepping out of the car, Severin pointed to the house they had parked in front of and asked, "Is it Binh’s house?” Binh appeared shortly and opened the door for Severin.
After the two men greeted each other, Binh gestured to a middle-aged man who was entering the living room, holding a bouquet of flowers.
"This is a surprise for you," Binh said.
"Tim!" the middle-aged man shouted in joy.
"L-o-i!" Tim exclaimed with the accent of a native English speaker.
The two men came to hug each other and exchanged warm words, happy to be reunited.
Binh had arranged for Loi to fly from Thanh Hoa, his hometown in central Vietnam, to Ho Chi Minh City to surprise Severin on this short visit.
Loi was the only Vietnamese who made the journey with five other sailors, and the main controller of the bamboo raft.
The crew members were able to live and thrive together for three and a half months aboard the bamboo raft even though they were all from different countries and spoke different languages.
The team gave up when they were around 1,000 miles away from the coast of California, the U.S., but it was spectacular enough to be considered an epic journey.
Years have gone by and both the commander and the sailor have grown older. They have grey hair and no longer look like stately men.
The reunion, which lasted more than three hours, became a private conversation between two long-time buddies.
They talked to each other via the perfect English of Severin and the non-standard English with additional sign language of Loi, who Binh said is a “genuine peasant” who has never come out of his village during the 56 years of his life, with the exception of the voyage across the Pacific and his trip to the southern city to see the Irishman.
“No words can express my joy to see Tim after all these years,“ Loi said.
Memories roll back
"Back then, when Tim asked me if I could join his Pacific journey, I told him that ‘if you can, then I can,’ bearing in my mind that Vietnamese people can do whatever foreigners can, no matter how hard it is,” Loi recalled.
His firm reply connected the two, despite their different backgrounds and cultures.
Severin said that Loi was the most energetic and technically competent builder of all the men who worked on the raft.
“So when Loi told me that he wanted to join, I felt something very special would come because I knew he was the best," Severin said.
The bamboo raft was actually a very complex structure that only very experienced sailors could control, even though it looked fairly simple with sails and ropes, he added.
Only Sam Son fishermen, like Loi, were skilful and experienced enough to handle the job, which was very different from controlling a normal vessel, the Irish explorer said.
"While in Sam Son I photographed lines of local rafts that were fishing offshore and those images were the most powerful demonstration of this,” he elaborated.
A raft was perfect for that journey as it was stable and not inclined to turn upside down when hit by strong waves, Severin said, noting that his skilled sailors helped ensure the safety of the entire group.
He joked that he would conduct the “experiment” again if he had not already conducted the first one.
Loi responded that if Severin was capable of launching the second voyage, he would go with his captain again.
To ensure a successful voyage, if it is reorganized, Severin said that he would use the same materials, structure, and building techniques.
He added that all rattan ropes used to bind the bamboo sticks together would have to be processed more thoroughly through a kind of natural liquid solution to enhance their durability because they would have to withstand seawater for a long time.
"We're going to hit American land, for sure, because the main reason I decided to give up was that all of the rattan ropes were gradually decomposing since they had not been handled with the solution,” he said. “Although the raft could have continued for another month, I had to make the difficult decision due to the safety of my crew members."
Binh, the co-translator of Severin’s book, said the human element was what he liked most in the process of translating this book.
“Tim completed his task very well as an organizer and a respected leader who was able to unite a group of many people from different countries and cultures, including Loi, who played a key role in manning the raft."
A former shipbuilding engineer who spent two decades studying the maritime sector, Do Thai Binh said that the sea spirit of the Vietnamese people should be promoted in many ways.
Binh revealed that he will translate two books on the maritime sector written by two French authors at the beginning of the 20th century.
The books are penned by two authors who studied the country’s shipbuilding and maritime industry closely and in a very scientific manner, Binh said. "In my capability, as I’m old now (73 years old), I chose to translate books to raise awareness of the local maritime industry,” the translator explained.
He believes a coastal country like Vietnam will only become truly strong when it can popularize swimming, diving, sailing techniques, and the affinity with the sea among its people.
“There should be Vietnamese archaeologists willing to dive deep into the sea to learn the ancient seafaring traditions of their ancestors," Binh said.
"It is a maritime nation with a maritime spirit that can form a basis for the protection of its sea sovereignty.”