First published October 2021 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
There is a rapture on the lonely shore…
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more
Due to pandemic-related circumstances, I’ve found myself living by the sea for the last four months, on the island of Phu Quoc. This is by far the longest period of time I’ve stayed beside the sea, and now I wonder if I can ever live without it. Throughout human history, the sea has been both dangerous and generous: a cause of destruction and death, but also a source of food and wealth. From fishing to exploring, humans have always considered the threat of the ocean a risk worth taking for the potential rewards. My own relationship with the sea is almost entirely positive, defined by pleasure, beauty and leisure. I associate the sea with travel, family holidays, watersports, warm weather, adventure and natural beauty. For me, the sea represents excitement, freedom and fun. But, I know there’s another side to the sea: one of work, industry and physical labour; of fear, tragedy and painful memories.
*Extract from ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ (canto IV; verse CLXXVIII)
ODE TO THE OCEAN
A Personal Meditation on the Sea
On this page, I’ve written about my relationship with the ocean and what it means to me, as well as exploring other aspects of the sea. I’ve broken this article into several themes (see the contents below) and illustrated it with photos I’ve taken of seascapes along Vietnam’s coastline.
Click a theme below to read more:
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*Disclaimer: This article represents my own opinions & views about the ocean based upon my experience of, associations with, reading & conversations about, the sea. I’m not an authority on the ocean nor any aspect of it about which I write on this page.
Colour of the Sea
Rarely is the sea the same colour from one day to the next. Right now, as I look out over the Gulf of Thailand, the sea is a faint tone of grey with shimmering silver tips where the sunlight catches the waves. This, perhaps, is the same grey as Homer describes in the Odyssey each time Odysseus and his companions set sail on one of their many adventures and ‘the men dash their oars into the grey sea.’ I remember hearing that refrain (it’s repeated over and again in the Odyssey as a device to aid memorization for oral story-telling) when it was read to me as a child and thinking: ‘The sea isn’t grey; it’s blue.’ Now, however, I can see with my own eyes what Homer was referring to. His sea was the Mediterranean, 6,000 miles from my sea, and his time was archaic Greece, 3,000 years before my time. But, despite the separation in distance and time, we can both observe the same grey quality of the ocean.
The colour of the ocean changes according to the quality of light, time of day, weather, sea conditions and what lies beneath the waves. The sea is grey, blue, green, black, pink and purple; the sea is transparent and opaque: everchanging. Another Homeric description, the ‘wine-dark sea’ is, in my mind, the greater ocean: the sea that transatlantic liners used to plough, or that container ships scythe through today. The ocean is only ‘wine-dark’ when far out at sea, where the water has a deeper, darker quality and the waves have a sculpted, almost solid form; nothing like the translucent, gin-clear sea that softly laps the sandy beaches of a tropical island. ‘Wine-dark’ describes the bottomless, boundless, dangerous and mysterious seas of the Indian, Pacific, Arctic and Atlantic oceans.
Sound of the Sea
Throughout the months I’ve been living on Phu Quoc Island, the sound of the sea has been a constant presence: the background noise to all my meals, conversations, work, exercise and sleep. Like the colour of the sea, the sound is never the same from day to day, but varies depending on the conditions of the ocean. Rhythmic and repetitive – but not monotonous or annoying – the sea is a mantra, inducing a calming, meditative state, encouraging both focus and relaxation as needed. Soothing and comforting, the refrain of waves washing ashore then receding again plays on a loop, never ceasing: sometimes loud, sometimes soft. And, just like a mantra, the sound of the ocean is regular enough to follow and concentrate on, but not so much that it’s ever a distraction, intrusion or irritation. Perhaps this is the same as Byron’s ‘music in its roar’.
The sound of the sea is old: a direct link with the past. As I listen to the break on the beach in front of my bungalow, I know this is the same sound the sea has made here ever since people have been on the island to hear it. The sea I hear when lying in bed at night on Phu Quoc Island today, is the same sound heard by the future emperor, Prince Nguyễn Ánh, and his French bishop-cum-advisor, Pigneau de Behaine, in the late 18th century when they took refuge on the island; it’s the same sound heard by passing traders in the early centuries of the first millennium CE, plying the Maritime Silk Route from the Middle East via the Indian Subcontinent to Southeast Asia and on to China; it’s the same sound the fishermen and pirates and prisoners on Phu Quoc have heard down the generations, and that my friends and my parents and my past girlfriends have heard over the years I’ve lived in Vietnam and visited Phu Quoc; and it will be the same sound for all those who live on or visit the island in the future. Assuming the shore is in a natural state – with rocks and sand and trees – the sound of the sea remains unchanged as it washes up and rolls away. We share that sensory experience with all those who’ve been here and heard the sea in the past.
Mood of the Sea
The sea is in perpetual motion and flux, its mood subtly shifting throughout the day. The colour, sound and rhythm of the ocean changes hour by hour, transforming its appearance and personality. Languid, lazy and lapping the sands or angry, rageful and battering the rocks; playful, choppy and dancing in the sunlight or dark, brooding and threatening at night: the sea has many moods.
Over the months I’ve been living on Phu Quoc Island, I’ve noticed how the sea’s mood influences my own state of mind. On days when the sea is rough and unsettled, I have a tendency to feel gloomy and morose; when conditions are calm and still, my mood is stable and positive. This is also true, to some extent, with the other people who are staying with me on the island: collectively, our mood echoes the sea’s from day to day.
Other land animals, too, change when in close proximity to the ocean. On Phu Quoc’s less-developed east coast, where a diurnal tide recedes by several hundred metres each day, local fishermen live offshore in floating boat-homes together with a unique island breed of dog. These dogs live a semi-aquatic life, following their owners into metre-high water, way out of the dogs’ depth. In the sea, the swimming dogs continue to provide their owners with protection, eagerly scanning the water for potential dangers, but they are different animals altogether: subdued, slow, quiet, careful, cautious; nothing like the panting, restless, playful, distracted, hyperactive canines they are on land. As soon as the dogs emerge from the sea back onto the sand, they revert to type.
Pleasure of the Sea
In the context of travel and vacations, the sea is a giant playground. Swimming, bathing, floating, bodyboarding, paddle-boarding, kayaking, sailing, surfing, kitesurfing – there are myriad ways to enjoy the sea. Within the travel industry, the sea is solely a place of leisure and pleasure.
Most of all, I enjoy swimming and bodysurfing in the sea, because in these activities there’s nothing between you and it: no board, no boat, no equipment at all. In this way, I feel closer to the sea: almost part of it. When swimming or bodysurfing I can get to know the sea – rising and falling on its swell, feeling its current and rhythm, being taken in and out on its rolls and retreats, sensing its mood and feeling its temperature. More than any other natural phenomena, I feel I can ‘interact’ with the sea.
I have always felt a tension when admiring something beautiful in nature: watching, looking or observing just isn’t enough: I want more. When, for example, I look out over an expansive view of a beautiful landscape, I feel the need to bridge the gap between me and it, thus somehow getting closer to it, or understanding it better. There are many ways to do this: hiking, cycling, painting, taking photos, writing a poem. But none of these is as immersive an experience as swimming in the ocean.
Another pleasure of the ocean – as anyone in Vietnam will know – is seafood. Some of the happiest, most convivial occasions in Vietnam revolve around the consumption of produce from the sea: fish, molluscs, crustaceans and fish sauce. Dining on seafood is a national pastime and joy. The sea has always been a bountiful source of food in Vietnam, and the nation’s primary relationship with the ocean is the acquisition of seafood. Today, holidaymakers spend their days playing in the ocean all along Vietnam’s coastline, but when evening comes and hundreds of lights glow on the horizon from fishing fleets far out at sea, they will be sitting down ordering a meal of fresh seafood.
A personal pleasure of the sea for me are boats. From wooden fishing vessels to large oceangoing liners, from car ferries to cruise ships – I love them all. I love their shape and size, I love wondering where they’ve been and where they are going, and I love the romance I associate with sea voyages – whether that romance is a reality or not. This pleasure started when I was very young, in Greece, at the busy port of Piraeus. I still feel the same way about boats as I did when I was a child, and I think I always will.
Wherever there’s sea, there’s a horizon. Being able to see as far as you can possibly see, without any obstruction, is a treat and a relief (especially for a city boy like myself). There’s something settling and centering about seeing the horizon: an opportunity to get a sense of perspective, space and calm. After spending the last few months by the sea, having daily ‘access’ to the horizon, my creeping sense of agoraphobia has grown stronger: I would fear and worry if I were to go back to a place where the horizon is not visible.
Memories of the Sea
Because of my personal experiences, in my mind the sea is almost entirely benevolent. I only have happy memories of the sea: childhood holidays on the UK coast and Mediterranean, backpacking in Southeast Asia and Australia in my late teens and twenties, and exploring Vietnam’s long coastline for the last decade to write guides for this website. As a result, the sea only has positive associations for me, representing leisure, travel, time with family and friends, fun, freedom, adventure, natural beauty, warm weather and happiness. Even so, I know there is another side to the sea.
My dad taught me to swim when I was very young, so I’ve never perceived the sea as a threat in that regard. I respect the fact that the sea can be very dangerous – regardless of whether you’re a strong swimmer or not – but I’ve never had a fear of falling in (as long as the water isn’t freezing cold, extremely rough or full of sharks and jellyfish, of course). I have been on several very rough voyages – once on the English Channel on a school trip during the roughest seas in 50 years; another on a ship from Shanghai to Kobe during a typhoon in the East China Sea – but, perhaps naively, I’ve never felt particularly concerned. (This is especially baffling to me, because I’m quite a nervous flyer.) However, I know not everyone shares my positive associations and memories of the sea, as I’ll explain below. I’m aware of the dangers posed by the sea, I’ve just been lucky enough not to have directly experienced them yet.
Danger of the Sea
For most of human existence, I suppose, the sea has been a necessary adversary. The threat it posed to human life was a risk worth taking for the potential rewards: fish and sustenance at first, then trade and, via exploration and conquest, wealth, power and influence. But, I would imagine, very few people before the advent of mass tourism would have associated the sea with pleasure and leisure, as most vacationers do today. Indeed, even in its most violent form – a storm – the sea is often considered a spectacle rather than a danger. This attitude has existed for at least a couple of hundred years in the concept of the ‘sublime’ in Romantic art. Angry seascapes, such as those painted by J. M. W. Turner, depict stormy seas as a thrilling natural event: a theatrical performance of nature capable of inspiring awe. But, Turner’s paintings also underline the mortal threat posed by the sea and human frailty in the prescence of natural phenomena.
In Vietnam, the danger of the sea is everpresent. Annual deaths by drowning at sea are alarmingly high. Very few people know how to swim, even those that work on or by the sea. Vietnam has a coastline over 3,000km in length. Vast fishing fleets go out to sea each night. But most boats are not large, sophisticated, high-tech trawlers; they’re small, wooden fishing vessels. Out of respect for the danger of the sea, every Vietnamese coastal settlement has at least one temple to the goddess of the ocean. Fishermen and their families regularly light incense and make offerings at the temples to ask for pretection at sea. The danger of the ocean is a daily reality for millions of people in Vietnam.
However positive I feel about the sea today, I remember certain times in my childhood when I had cause to fear it. When I was a boy on the island of Aegina, in Greece, the sea was dark and deep, and clear enough that I could see the sharp, jagged volcanic rocks that would cut my legs, and the black urchins that would lodge their spikes in the soles of my feet, and the translucent jellyfish that would sting my torso. That was a sea I was wary of, scared of, and still carry physical scars from today. But that’s a very different sea to the one I’m writing beside now, with its gentle shelf, soft sandy bed, placid, shallow waters and bath-warm temperatures.
I can imagine how scared of the sea I’d be if I couldn’t swim. Taking boats would be terrifying, and even walking along a beach would fill me with anxiety that a big wave might come and sweep me away. The sea would be a vast danger zone that I’d do my best to avoid. While staying on Phu Quoc Island, my neighbour shared her tragic experience of the sea with me. As a 14 year-old on a family vacation on Hawaii, she almost drowned while swimming off a beach. Fortunately, she was saved, but her father, who’d swam out to help her, was not. I can only imagine how her memories and associations with the sea differ from my own. The same sights and sounds that I associate with happiness and holidays, she must associate with pain and loss.
On Boxing day, 2004, I was travelling with my parents on the Cambodian coast. At breakfast we heard about the tsunami that had struck the west coast of Thailand, a few hundred kilometres from us, just hours earlier. A week later, we were in Bangkok before our flight back home. Noticeboards in the dozens of hostels and bars in the backpacker mecca of Khao San Road were filled with mugshots of thousands of people still missing after the tsunami. This brought home the power of the sea.
Work on the Sea
For many people around the world, the sea is a place of work. Often the work is hard, physically demanding, long, dangerous, dirty, smelly and low paying. Each night in the resorts on Phu Quoc Island, guests look out over the ocean and see a line of white and green lights emanating from hundreds of fishing boats on the horizon. The guests are at leisure; the fishermen at work.
For fishemen, I suppose, the sea is their office: a place they associate with work rather than pleasure, of neccesity rather than choice. Given this, I wonder if fishermen in Vietnam ever enjoy the sea in the same way that those of us who are lucky enough to go on seaside holidays do. Do they ever look at the sea and think it beautiful, or enjoy the sunsets, or feel any sense of adventure when sailing out of harbour at dusk? I have met and spoken with fishermen in Vietnam, many of whom like what they do, or at least prefer working outdoors to working inside an office. But my Vietnamese isn’t good enough to go much deeper.
*Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this article because I want to: I like the ocean and I want to express that to my readers. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements and my About Page