Editor’s note: People don’t necessarily come to Vietnam to go diving. It doesn’t have the reputation of the Philippines, Indonesia or even Thailand as a place to dive, but that’s all starting to change. A growing number of visitors are choosing some of Vietnam’s best known and newly popular tourism spots as a place to ‘go deep’ and get qualified.
Expat Australian Jon Aspin recently did his Advanced Open Water diving course on Phu Quoc, and this is what he had to say about it.
I’ve never considered myself the diving type. Pulling off the ‘cool in a wetsuit’ look has proved elusive to say the least. Too much pasty-white and not enough golden-brown if you know what I mean, but it’s more than pure vanity that has tainted my opinion of this ‘sport.’
As a less-enlightened young man, I heaped scorn on silly, rich white people who would lug expensive, heavy scuba gear to the end of my local jetty on weekends. There, on what is a suburban Australian promenade, which juts out all of 100 yards into the chilly Southern Ocean, amorphous black blobs, otherwise known as middle-aged men, would gather. Heavily clad in unflattering wetsuits, sea-boots and neoprene hoodies, they would then stand around and literally steal oxygen.
Eventually, after enough time loudly expelling air from their tanks and officiously tightening and untightening a bunch of knobs, they would labour into their gear and enter the water, struggling under the weight of their equipment, and require assistance every step of the way.
To me, these ‘aqua-nerds’ were missing the point. Being in the water was about being free, not reliant on the storage capacity of a movement-inhibiting metal tube. While they went through their countless procedures and safety checks, I was free-diving in little more than nylon board shorts and a rash vest.
It wasn’t just that though, even their post-dive rituals annoyed me; their clubby behaviour, their show-off T-shirts, and the endless rounds of self-congratulation once their 35-minute cruises were over. “What are they so happy about?” I would think, “I’ve been down here for hours.”
The dark side Fast forward 15 years or so, and I have the answer to my question. Diving really is freedom. It equals great days on boats, and incredible experiences underwater. And now, having recently completed my Advanced Open Water certification in Vietnam, my transition to the dark side is somewhat complete. I am even the proud owner of not one, but two rather obnoxious dive T-shirts, and will happily volunteer tales about my recent ‘wreck dive’ experience in Bali – just ask me. To confirm that I’m not alone, I asked two of my fellow divers the simple question: “Why diving?”
“Diving for me is freedom,” says Rafa from Spain. “When you are underwater your mind goes empty, (and) there is nothing else but yourself and the environment.”
Outi from Finland is equally loved up.
“Diving gives me a sensation unlike anything else, beyond imagination. Being weightless, breathing underwater and experiencing a different world."
To obtain your Advanced Open Water certificate you need to do five dives. There are a couple of pre-dive theory quizzes based on some course work, and several challenging activities to complete on the boat pre-entry. Two of the dives are mandatory, and the other three are up to you. Deep Water is the first mandatory dive and takes you down to the sometimes nitrogen narcosis-inducing depth of 30 metres. Nitrogen narcosis sounds pretty serious, but is something that professional divers will tell you that they love. It is the effect of breathing nitrogen at certain depths, and leaves you feeling mildly but temporarily intoxicated. My experience? Let’s just say I was pretty happy with how my day was going at that point, but I still managed to pass the simple cognitive tests my instructor threw at me. The other is Underwater Navigation, which involves using a fancy piece of kit called a compass. This object will help get you back to where you need to be if you encounter bad weather or bad luck.
For my other three dives I chose Buoyancy, where I was asked to control my balance using only my breath, and then swim through hoops; Search and Rescue, which put my underwater knot-tying skills to the test, and finally Fish ID, where I developed a new language for the various scorpion, clown and butterfly fish I saw.
All five of these dives were fun, challenging, and gave my dive time purpose. Each included at least 45 minutes of ‘bottom time’ and kept my mind busy in what were fairly difficult conditions – visibility was restricted to around 2 to 3 metres on both days.
Determined to impress, I “hid my nerves quite well,” according to my instructor, and appeared “confident and nonchalant,” even though I was nervous. Flapping about like a grounded pelican on your buoyancy test isn’t exactly the look you go for, but it does happen. Tying knots with 15 metres of water on top of you isn’t the easiest thing you can try either. Getting separated from your instructor and forgetting to surface like you’re supposed to after one minute just takes years off peoples’ lives. Sorry Marlee!
Nevertheless, I passed, and am officially an Advanced Open Water Diver. There’s an email from PADI sitting in my inbox to prove it. To say I celebrated with my new diving buddies Razek and his wife Maria from the Czech Republic that night was an understatement, but hey, that’s how ‘we divers’ roll.
Living the dream Obviously you don’t do this course alone, and my instructor over the two days was Marlee, a 26-year-old marine scientist from Melbourne. Hand-picked by Rainbow Divers owner Jeremy Stein to manage his Phu Quoc operation, Marlee is an example of someone living the dream in this country, and combining it with her passion for the environment.
Keen to allay people’s fears about diving being an overly technical sport, she says it’s about being relaxed.
“Once people have that moment when they realise that nothing needs to happen quickly, it’s a game changer,” she said.
She stresses the need to have confidence in your buddies, and made certain I understood the importance of safety in the water.
“Everything is double and triple checked,” she assured me. “Safety is paramount.”
My advice to people in Vietnam is to just go do it. The PADI Open Water is your starting point and a ticket to some fantastic days of fun on boats, meeting new people and exploring the underwater world. You won’t look back in 25 years and say “I’m glad I didn’t do that.” Just be warned, you may end up the proud owner of some fairly cheesy dive T-shirts in a few years’ time.
Who to dive with?
Rainbow Divers is the premier dive centre in Vietnam. Established in the mid-1990s, it is the first five-star accredited PADI training centre in the country and offers the full range of PADI courses and daily diving opportunities in five different locations. Jeremy Stein is the owner and founder – he still loves diving today as much as when he started the company 18 years ago.
“To explore the bottom of the ocean is to go to one of the few places you can still go in the world where there are no phones, there is no Internet, and you are just completely at one with what you are doing,” he told me.
Where and when to dive
Locations & seasons There are five different locations to experience the Rainbow Diving difference in Vietnam.
Nha Trang (all year round). This is where the company started in the mid-1990s. Nha Trang includes a marine park around the island of Hon Mun, a 40-minute boat ride away. Established in 2003, the park features great marine life and a great value destination to do a PADI training course. Best time to dive: February to October.
Whale Island (February to September). Offers a genuine getaway nestled two hours north of Nha Trang and an opportunity to do the full range of PADI courses as well as interesting beach and night dives. No roads or motorbikes here, just rustic bungalows and ocean views.
Phu Quoc (September to February). A developing island paradise that offers fantastic coral life due to the run-off associated with the Mekong River, which also means it can suffer from periods of low visibility. Local knowledge is important, but there are fun diving opportunities both north and south around the archipelagos.
Con Dao (March to September). Make use of Rainbow’s private speedboat to explore an amazing diversity of dive sites here. Flying into this place is akin to discovering the Planet of the Lost Apes. Expect to see dugongs, sea turtles and possibly some of the bigger fish going around out there. Jeremy describes it as “magical and exclusive.”
Saigon Dive Centre (all year round). If you want to start your accreditation while visiting the biggest city in the country, make an appointment at Buddha Bar in District 2 and meet Jeremy for a consultation about your business, school or just your own needs. A great resource on making the most of your time in Vietnam.
Diving a Cultural Experience While the best pure diving in the country is generally considered to be in Con Dao, where the marine life remains relatively untouched by tourism and the variety of fish species is superior to most other spots, Jeremy has an alternative view.
“I always say diving in Vietnam is not just about the diving, it is a whole cultural experience. It’s still ‘off’ a lot of people’s radars. 20 years ago they were surprised it even existed here, but now, 50 percent of my business is pre-booked, meaning people are coming to this country specifically to dive – so there is definitely strong awareness. It’s a hell of a turnaround.”
Vietnam’s top dive spots
Nha Trang Electric Nose & Madonna Rock
Whale Island The Three Kings & Hon Tai
Dep Reef & Anemone Cove
Hon Cau & Rabbit Island