Get PADI Open Water Certified

Training for a scuba dive is not as easy as you think. When backpacking across Southeast Asia, many travellers I came across would casually say ‘Oh yeah I got my PADI in *insert exotic destination here*.’

After a while, it seemed like my PADI Open Water diver course in Vietnam was going to be an absolute breeze, but it turned out not to be as straightforward as I had hoped. Here’s what you should be prepared for.

Learning the theory

Helen poses before diving

The beach in Nha Trang is one of the best in Vietnam. It’s clean, the sand is soft and the sea is warm (ish). But on the first day of my PADI open dive course with Rainbow divers I wasn’t at the beach; I was sitting under quick moving fans in a classroom at the Rainbow Divers dive school.

I sat in between Jeremy, my dive instructor from Scotland, and Mike, my fellow amateur diving buddy from Germany. Sprawled out in front of me was a PADI exercise book, multiple choice answer forms, and the remote control for what would be similar to a Netflix binge of five dive theory films. Who knew there was so much to learn?! Not me.

The theory day is a tough slog and as I finally departed after an 8am – 4pm day, my brain was reeling with emergency ascents, air bars, density levels and pressure groups. I had no idea how I was going to remember everything, but fortunately I passed my PADI Theory Final exam with an 88% score. Not bad seeing as I was aiming for 75%, the minimum you need to pass.

 It does come down to common sense though; never hold your breath underwater and inflate your BCD (buoyancy control device) at the surface. The final exam wasn’t nearly as terrifying as it sounded; all I needed to do was tick the correct answer out of a choice of possible answers for 60 questions, so some you can guess if you’re not sure. If you’re completely confused, ask your instructor.

Getting in the pool

PADI diving pool

After a day of learning dive theory, it was time to begin the three-day practical side of the PADI dive course, consisting of one training session in a swimming pool and two open water dives.

Being a communist country, Vietnam still feels like an echo of the old Soviet Union, with propaganda announcements, military music, billboards with the classic bold colour art, and of course, an Olympic sized swimming pool to dive in, which wasn’t too different from the one I had seen in the nuclear zone of Chernobyl.

After swimming six lengths with flippers on and treading water for ten minutes, it was time to start learning how to set up our equipment, which was surprisingly easy once I got the hang of it. I was given a tank by my instructor Dominic, along with my regulators, BCD and of course, those sexy flippers, mask and snorkel. 

After dismantling and reassembling my equipment five times, Dominic was ready to get us into our kit to do our first BWRAF, also known as a buddy check. When diving, you’ve always got to have a buddy. In this case it was going to be Mike, my fellow PADI learner, so we ran through what would be our first of many dive checks.

We started by checking the straps of the BCD (B), the weights strapped around our waist (W), our main regulator and emergency regulator (R), our air (A), and lastly, the final check (F), which is making sure you’ve got your flippers, mask and snorkel. I got so used to doing this that Mike and I soon mastered doing it in less than ten seconds by the time we had our last dive.

Waiting to dive

Finally, it was time to get back into the pool. This is where the trouble began, and where I decided to take the gospels of over happy-go-lucky-PADI-backpackers with a pinch of salt. After some near tears I found myself overwhelmed with the responsibility of emergency ascents, mask clearing, and regulator recovery. But, saying that, I completed all the tasks, and the ones I struggled with my instructor and I repeated until I had mastered them.

Unfortunately, our dive pool session had to be cut short after my dive buddy Mike struggled to equalise (‘popping’ your ears to release the pressure, a diving must-do) as we descended. It wasn’t long before my ears started to hurt from having to ascend and descend repeatedly, and our instructor’s eye got aggravated with ‘divers’ eye.’ All in all, it wasn’t a great start and after hearing about everyone’s success stories I felt disheartened. Maybe diving wasn’t for me.

Back in the pool the next day though, with an extra day added on to my PADI course and an extra night at my hostel, I found myself conquering the dive exercises I had previously struggled with. With Dominic signed off sick, I started diving with my new instructor, Quyen, a Vietnamese diver with a great sense of humour, who would be taking us for our first boat dive the next day.

After a more successful day diving, my confidence returned, and I headed to the infamous Nha Trang mud baths to relax in hot springs, and strange liquid mud.

Ocean dives

PADI diving

After the ups and downs of my pool dives I was as equally nervous as I was excited to finally head out for my first ocean dive. Setting up my dive kit and jumping into the warm waters, I started to descend beside Quyen, kneeling when we reached the sea floor. Here we were going to do all the exercises we had learnt in the pool again, except this time I had an audience of fish and coral.

To my relief, it turns out that diving in the sea is a lot easier than diving in the pool! The salt water makes moving a whole lot smoother, and recovering regulators much more straightforward. The best thing for me about the dives was, after doing three exercises, it was time to explore Nha Trang’s Rainbow reef. The fourth day of my PADI dive course was my first time diving in the ocean, so to finally see a city of fish and coral below me made the tears and frustrations of the days before completely melt away.

 Returning to the land after my last dive I gleefully walked into the dive school. In the ocean I had had more confidence than before and completed all of the exercises without any problems. Not only had I achieved getting my PADI license but I also proved to myself that I could do it, despite my doubts. I would be leaving Nha Trang with fond memories of this bustling city and as an official certified diver, ready to explore some lesser seen corners of the world.

Take Note

- Nha Trang is a party place, something my hostel could attest too. Unfortunately though, diving drunk is not allowed, and why you would want to dive hungover is beyond me. Do as I did and enjoy the hostels free beer hour in moderation, but wake up fresh for your early start.

- Try and have one instructor. Through my five day course I had three dive instructors, and although they were all good, it was frustrating as each diver has their own techniques. Rainbow Divers did inform me that they don’t usually like to have more than one divers, but with my first instructor Dominic suffering from an eye infection and Quyen only being able to train us for two days due to our pool sessions overrunning, it was inevitable that we would be with another instructor on our last day.

- Invest in some ear drops. Diving so far underwater isn’t natural for the body and as you begin your body will let you know. I had horrendous ear ache one day after diving but after getting some ear drops from the local pharmacy in Nha Trang, I managed to clear the water out of my ears and dive the next day.


About the Author

My name is Helen Winter and I’m addicted to travel. I love to explore new cities, hiking through National Parks, and hone my amateur-photography as I wander across the world. Follow my travels on Instagram and Twitter