In the mid 1970s, growing up on the edge of Halong Bay, Nguyễn Văn Quân’s mother used to let him sit on the bow of her sampan while she fished the waters. He would look out at the limestone karsts, rising all around him and his mother, like a kindergartner’s dream of what mountains by the sea were supposed to look like, except that all of this was real.
While his mother reeled in her catch, Quân would scan the near horizon for the sails of a boat his father captained, transporting coal and rice. “It used to amaze me so much that the wind alone could move a boat loaded down with so much cargo,” Quân said. “How can? I used to wonder, how can?”
At 18, Quân followed his father’s footsteps onto the water as a sailor. He learned everything he could over the next several years, sailing commercial vessels on the bay he’d grown up on. In 1988, he went into the army for several years, and when he got out, he went back onto the bay, advancing his knowledge of the maritime industry’s best practices.
Eventually, Quân achieved a First Rank commission from the Vietnam Inland Waterway Department. Becoming a captain had been his goal all along because, in addition to his love for the sea and the seascape, there was a desire to command all of the moving parts.
“I wanted to feel the whole boat in my hands, and to do that you have to be a captain,” said Quân. “It’s not only about piloting the boat, but managing the duties of the sailors and managing the entire team. When they are working together, as a team, and with spirit, that’s a great thing.”
After eight years captaining commercial boats in the 1990s, Quân took command of a boat that sailed tourists around the bay. He captained tourist junks for most of the 2000s, and then came on board the Emeraude in 2008 to sail with Capt. Jacques LeFur.
“Captain LeFur was a tremendous influence,” said Quân. “He lived his life by maritime standards as practiced in the West, and we’ve made them part of our standard operating procedure.”
He sees huge differences between the Emeraude and most other boats on the bay. The Emeraude runs fire and rescue drills every month. The boat goes into dry-dock every year. The boat’s technology is state-of-the-art, from the GPS devices that plumb the depth of the seas and underwater hazards, to fingerprint clocks that confirm that sailors are working around the clock.
Today, Capt. Quân is a veteran of 24 years sailing on Halong Bay and is looking forward to 24 more. If the past is prologue, then he has much to look forward to. The gorgeous sunsets, which never quite seem the same. The beautiful waterways, and the beauty, too, of local people, earning a livelihood from the sea, the way his mother once did.
And as the captain of a boat that delivers the magnificence of Halong Bay to tourists from around the world, Capt. Quân knows that he’ll continue to meet people from all walks of life.
“I remember this American I met once. He was my age, or a bit older,” said Quân. “He was paralyzed, but that paralysis did not seem to be an impediment to him. He could kayak. He could swim. His enthusiasm was boundless, and this amazed me – this man who had lost so much had found so much to live for.”