Nha Trang, Vietnam is a city I spent a few days in back in 2009, and the only one that I really didn’t care for. It was loud, flashy, and resembled what I imagine a beach resort in Cancun would look like; developed primarily solely for tourism, with a facade of cultural authenticity. It held me conflicted between enjoying home-sick food and beautiful beaches, with feeling like I was traveling in a movie set. But due to those beautiful beaches, and being the premier scuba spot in Vietnam, Jen and I decided to make it a four day stop over on our way to Saigon.
It was all about the diving. Jen had really taken to it in Koh Tao, and I wanted to get a few more dives in before our trip ended. We also wanted to take the advanced open-water course which would allow us to dive in more places and situations, as well as increase our competency. It can include skills like underwater navigation and photography, wreck diving, buoyancy control and night diving, though we were most interested in the deep dive, which would increase the depth we were allowed to go from 18 meters to 30. After an overnight bus from Hoi An we arrived in Nha Trang about 6:30am the next day. Completely exhausted but knowing we had limited time, we spent a few hours visiting the different dive operators for someone we trusted and clicked with. Unfortunately, I think we got persuaded more by low cost and a fast talker.
We were told the conditions were not good, but that would make for a great opportunity to do the advanced class. It made sense – you wouldn’t want to waste a day in a class when conditions are ripe for play. Our school picked us up from the hotel at 7am, and we were on the boat heading for the dive site by 8. I was throughly unimpressed by the instructors — one kept a cigarette in his mouth the entire time, while ours seemed particularly ineffectual. I thought he might be hungover which further unimpressed me. I was beginning to have regrets.
We donned our gear with almost no oversight by the crew or instructors, and then jumped in the water. That whole bit about the conditions not being great, well they had gotten considerably worse overnight as a typhoon was brewing near the Philippines and it was pushing a lot of wind and currents our way. This resulted in some very murky water which reduced our visibility to about five feet, ten feet at best. We were a group of five and I almost never saw everyone at one time, only brown space and vague shapes. My feeling was that we should abort the dive and try again another day but our instructor felt different. We finished the first two skills (maintaining neutral buoyancy while lying horizontal and upside down, and using a depth gauge to find and hold multiple depths), though I don’t believe the instructor could really see if we were completing the tasks. I’m even more sure that he couldn’t because the mask I was given kept fogging, which his solution was that we trade masks underwater. Now my vision was a bit better but his was worse. But we don’t dive and they don’t get paid, so we “finished” our skills (meaning he would have signed off on anything we did) and got back on the boat for lunch.
I was reminded of the basic economic principle of sunk costs. We had already paid for the course, and whether we completed it or not that money was gone. The money was sunk. I toyed with this idea as we sat on the boat waiting to reenter the water. I was unsure if the what we were doing was safe, and I felt resentful of our instructor for not showing the level of concern I felt it merited. In the end I decided I would be responsible for myself and take it as it comes. I could ascend with Jen at any time I felt that we were being irresponsible. I at least thought that I would.
After lunch we got back in the water and performed one of the few skills possible in these dark conditions – drift diving. Basically the boat drops you off near a current, you descend to a proper level along a reef wall, and float along enjoying the sights before ascending and getting picked up by the boat. It was an unnerving experience. We couldn’t see much aside from our own bodies and the current wasn’t a single stream, but a constant back and forth, a sloshing about. It would be nothing but a brown palette before my eyes and then suddenly I was three feet from a reef shelf and attempting to not smack into it. This exercise showed no concern for the health of the environment or any damage we might do to the reef. I could no more tell our direction from our depth. Colors changed frequently and light would alter from hazy bright to dim within moments. Contours morphed from hard lines, when they were within a few feet of sight, to general shades of dark in the near distance. This continued for more than 20 minutes; a dreamy underwater Rorschach test. We finished unscathed though I know I came dangerously close to pressing up against some spiny sea urchins. Dumb luck was with us.
Overnight Jen and I discussed the pros and cons of not going back the next day; did we feel safe, were we getting the experience we paid for? We decided to finish the course just to get our new certifications. We could gain more experience on future dives, and we would not be restricted to where we could go with recreational diving. So the next morning we got back on the boat, headed out 45 minutes, and jumped in the same brown sludge as the day before. But today was our Deep Dive day. What was barely visible at 15 meters became a black void at 25. We dropped down along a sloping wall we couldn’t see, which we kept stepping on most of the way down – I could feel it under my feet but couldn’t see if it was rock or reef. It became necessary to hold hands midway down or else we all would have been separated, even without the current pushing us around. The darkness was so rich that I couldn’t see the color of my own fins, nor the shape of Jen’s body, only the outline of our intertwined hands. The instructor turned a flashlight on which was strapped to his waist; the beam was only visible for a few feet, and even less so when it wasn’t pointed toward me. We hit our depth and waited there in a beautiful black dreamscape. It was silent. I held two hands in mine and swayed with the current. It was new, empty, and calming. It wasn’t the terrifying experience I would have previously assumed it to be. The time down there was peaceful and sweet. A few minutes passed before it was time to ascend. Back on the boat I felt less frustrated/cheated, and more appreciative of the opportunity to experience something like that. Our instructor told us those were the harshest conditions he’s ever dove in, and I can’t imagine them being any worse.
To be clear I still don’t trust our school or the instructor that much. Even if they believed we were safe to dive in those conditions, they showed no concern for the underwater ecosystem. We landed on, stepped on, and ground against reef habitats that are incredibly fragile. Even in communist Vietnam the capitalist need to accumulate wealth supersedes the health and longevity of the very system that feeds it.