Joe SillsWritten by

Bombs on the Water: Fishing in Vietnam

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The bombs were gone, they said. Well, most of them. Somewhere on the tiger-infested border, we waded through the water. Waist-deep in a jungle river, a shadow darted by.

“Un poisson,” our Swiss friend murmured. Yes, Jack, a fish.

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If you’ve been wondering where our weekly columns were over the New Year’s transition, they were with me, lost in the jungles of Vietnam, where over the course of two weeks I trekked from Saigon to Hanoi— 1,000 miles in a land many Americans would rather forget. There, I learned an important lesson about fishing, and it started in the jungle.

Modern Vietnam is a vastly different place than the one pictured in war movies. Its cities are bustling, its people are friendly, and everywhere you turn, you hear and see the sprawl of American culture.

In Saigon, you can grab a two-piece from Popeyes or a Quarter Pounder with cheese. In the ancient town of Hoi An, you can dine by the riverside and listen to Georgia on My Mind, in Hanoi, you can shop at “New York,” an American-themed fashion shop complete with the stars and stripes on the walls. But in Central Vietnam, in the country’s rural heart, you do find yourself in Hollywood. You see the craters from American bombs, you pass by people mutilated by chemical weapons, and you can even hike on the old Ho Chi Minh Trail. I guess, you find yourself in a Hollywood script because that’s what it was really like: the jungle is wet, the mud is sticky, the leaches are everywhere and—even without an ongoing war—it’s a tough place to live.

The people in Central Vietnam don’t have much. But what they do have is landmines; what they also have is fishing. Towns along the country’s rivers are littered with fishing boats. Villagers craft and sell fishing nets. But, there’s another, faster way to fish in Vietnam: bombs.

“Many of my friends,” our guide says, “They are missing arms and legs because they find the landmines and try to take them apart. They use the bomb inside for fishing.”

It’s illegal, of course. But the plethora of unexploded ordinance still lingering in the country’s bush means that families—who might live on $15 a month—have a way of collecting vast quantities of the trout, catfish and panfish that populate the waters of jungle rivers. If they can find and use an explosive, it’s a leg up on a work day. And they can use those fish to eat or sell.

Despite international efforts to remove the mines, it’s impossible to find them all. And bomb fishing in Vietnam is likely to continue for some time.

For me, it’s a reminder of how lucky we are back here in the States. I hear complaints sometimes from both retailers and manufacturers. They talk about how business has been tough or how this quarter fell a little flat from last quarter, and that’s all well and good, but it brings up a question: Do you really appreciate what you have?

Sportfishing is a luxury. We work in an industry that exists to provide recreational pleasure. I think there’s a tendency, especially among business owners, to forget that. For sure, sportfishing is a passionate realm. Fishing is important. Environmental sustainability is important. But in America, it’s a luxury: fishing, here, is not life and death. Most people aren’t going to lose a limb or a life over it.

Elsewhere in Vietnam, in the salty waters of the South China Sea, I witnessed another kind of fishing. This one was more familiar: a simple cane pole with monofilament line, jigging up and down. One by one, the fishermen here would hoist squid up from the depths—not for fun, but for food. Most of them paddled to their chosen fishing spot on wooden boats, not more than 14 feet from bow to stern. There, they would jig. If they caught enough of the hand-sized invertebrates, they’d return to floating fishing villages made of bamboo and barrels, where some spend their entire lives on the water.

Fishing here is not for fun. But it is a way of life. And that’s a commonality that reaches across the Pacific and into the homes of American anglers with the finest boats, gear and technology available.

When I tried to explain the concept of sonar to a local fisherman, the idea was completely foreign to him. There was simply no way to explain it. The anglers here rely solely on local knowledge and instinct to find their catch. The fishing in Vietnam is all grit and all guts. And it’s a reminder of just how lucky we are.

That’s something to remember the next time your business has an off day.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Joe Sills Hi there, did you know? Each week, we curate a list of the Top 5 stories in fishing and send them right to your inbox. Reading Tackle’s Top 5 is one of the best ways to become or remain an industry expert. -Joe Sills, Digital Editor