Viet Nam’s only female captain sails on
Hong navigated the sea in the wake of a typhoon, becoming one of the country’s bravest women. Now she tells the story of her courage and how her love for the water drew her back to the waves as a riverboat pilot. Nhat Le reports
She became renowned for her courage and bravery when she rescued 36 people during the fierce Typhoon Linda which struck Viet Nam in November 1997, a storm which killed or causing the disappearance of some 4,000 people and losses estimated at VND5.5 trillion. She was honoured for her heroism in 2000.
After the storm, Hong met with many difficulties as her ship had been badly damaged, and she had little money to repair it. The recognition she received for her heroism brought fame to Hong but it couldn’t help her earn a living. Hong decided to work for a foreign company.
But for Nguyen Thi Hong, the only female ship captain in Viet Nam, her greatest indulgence remains the sea.
Inner Sanctum: Has being named a hero interfered with your ability to work?
Yes, it has. I always have to think carefully about what I’ll do. Once, I thought I might have to sell my ship, which had helped me survive in the storm that year.
I needed about VND700 million to repair the ship, which was equal to the amount I already had invested in it. Still, after thinking it over many times, I decided not to sell it because the ship is my very life.
At that time an Austrian who owned a large wooden ship in HCM City asked me to work for him.
I had to think a lot about whether I would work for him or not because, if I did, what would happen to my ship?
I tried to ask the foreigner to co-operate with me. I could become an agent for him when his ship arrives at the western region which only boasts ports accessible to small ships like mine.
Then I asked him to repair my ship.
Inner Sanctum: How could a rural woman like her persuade a careful European businessman to co-operate with you?
He had some doubts first, asking me, “Why don’t you repair your ship before meeting me?”
The man thought about it and decided to sign two contracts with me: one said that I would become his captain for 20 years, and the second said that, after one year of working for him during which time his business could become stable, he would pay the costs to repair my ship.
Inner Sanctum: Being a master of the sea, but now piloting river boats, do you feel that you’re missing something?
I have been very sad because I miss the sea and feel a longing for my ship, which time and again could have perished with me.
When I moved to captain Mr Ernest’s ship on different river ways, I also met many difficulties such as how to pass the Sai Gon Bridge safely. For example, I never dare to pass the bridge when the high tide raises above 3.9m.
In addition, the wooden ship’s steering function is so heavy that I have to work very hard, even using my legs to manage it.
Inner Sanctum: Where did you learn to do this?
I learned it from my aunt, who was also my first teacher. At that time, I was teaching literature at a college, and my aunt passed through my location by boat and asked me to go to fishing with her on her ship at sea.
She taught me her knowledge of how to watch the stars and manage the ship. Time has passed, and I can forecast the weather through clouds, the light of the stars, and the condition of the waves.
My aunt also taught me how to jump from one wave to another and how to manage the ship to follow a school of fish.
Thanks to her, I escaped from death in Typhoon Linda.
Inner Sanctum: On that very panicky night of November 2, 1997, you were the only competent captain who brought her ship in and also rescued 36 others. What did you think at that time?
On that fateful night, there were four people on board including me. The storm arrived so fast early that morning that no one could do anything because they had only been forecasting a tropical depression the day before.
It was a horrible wind and leaden sky. Boat owners tried their utmost to escape from the storm, and I tried to anchor my ship and order my sailors to throw all the fish we had already caught back into the sea and bail water from the ship.
Boats and ships near mine were sinking, and I could hear the echoing cries and shouts for rescue from them.
I thought I could not survive, so how could I rescue storm victims with my ship? But I quickly cleared such thoughts out of my head and told myself that I had to try or I would feel regret forever.
I told my sailors to throw our two buoys into the sea despite the roaring waves in order to rescue people. After five hours of struggling with fierce waves into the night, my crew and I had brought 36 people on board.
During the struggle with the storm, we were beaten by waves so strong that we thought we would be carried away by them. – VNS
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