Ken Preston — Author & Photographer
I was born in August of 1946, which made me just about the perfect age to get an opportunity to tour Viet Nam for free as soon as I finished college, though it was a very limited sort of tour and not very well timed. Still, that explains a lot of what has happened since.
The Start of it All
My father’s work kept us moving through my growing up years with my high school years spent in Alaska where I became an avid fisherman and thus a dedicated boatman. In Alaska, I learned to travel on foot and afloat alone in lonely places. I suppose that is where my problem with boats started. My father bought us an old, used aluminum boat, twelve feet long, with an antique five-horse motor that was mercifully reliable and I spent most of my summers in it on Hidden Lake in Alaska. From that day to this I’ve been looking for the perfect boat and have studied the subject from one end to the other. I have great piles of boat books: boat design, boat building, boat cruising, boat handling in heavy weather. Most of them are badly thumbed and their covers are worn. I’ve never really had the money for boats, so I learned to build them, thinking that would cost less, which turns out to be a silly notion. I did better by buying a lovely old sailboat at the wrong end of a thousand-mile, downwind run and bringing her back upwind. Though there is no such thing, I ought to be a Doctoral Candidate for a PhD. . . in boats.
First Viet Nam Tour
I had a very easy war compared to many of my friends. To begin with, nobody killed me, or even made a very serious attempt at it. Perhaps more importantly I didn’t kill anyone else. I even had a bodyguard and interpreter who, being quite a bit older and wiser, kept me out of trouble for the most part and taught me to delight in Vietnamese food. To that point in my life steak and potatoes constituted the ultimate in fine food. Besides beef and pork and shrimp and fish cooked every which way, Mr. Mui put eel and duck and half-hatched eggs and every sort of delicious fruit and vegetable in front of me and showed me which sauces to dip what into. We were on the road three or four days every week by the end of my one-year tour, business associates yes, but also fast friends. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he had made it easy for me to enjoy traveling in strange places and to be surrounded by friends, even when they are strangers.
Return to Viet Nam
After the war and a bit of roaming, I planted my family on the shores of Puget Sound near Seattle, but found myself chasing work all over the west coast of the US. I did travel in those years, and sometimes to really far-away places (jobsites in Bethel, Yakutat, Saint Paul and Sitka in Alaska come to mind) and ate fascinating foreign food (though mostly in Oakland and San Francisco). I made some easy voyages in small boats, in and out of Mexico and British Columbia, and finally came to the point of serious traveling in Southeast Asia, starting with a return to Viet Nam. I picked a date, the thirty first of December, 2004 and informed my bosses that after that date I’d be gone for two months. Before I could chicken out, I bought the airplane ticket and told enough friends I was going that I’d have been too embarrassed to stay home. I even gave them a reason; I planned to photograph every boat (or at least every boat type) in Viet Nam, little knowing how large a chore that would be. There were objections of course, but in the end, I got off the plane in Hanoi at midnight, in a cold windy drizzle. Hanoi is on the same latitude as Puerto Vallarta in sunny Mexico. I’d expected weather like Puerto Vallarta’s. I got weather like Seattle’s. I had a lot to learn about the country.
Through all the years since the war, I had somehow remembered a little of the language. Certainly never forgot how to order a good dinner from a Vietnamese menu and how to be at least minimally polite in Vietnamese company. The Vietnamese language is written with the Roman alphabet (modified by French diacritical marks over the letters, but that’s another matter) so it’s easy for an English speaker to at least sound out the words and remember the important ones (toilet, motorbike repair, hotel, that sort of thing). Khmer and Lao, on the other hand, are written each in their own script, based on Sanskrit I believe, beautiful curly lines, often all run together, completely meaningless to an eye trained only on Roman letters and European sounds. So it took me two trips (four months that is) of successfully traveling around Viet Nam before I found the nerve to cross a border into Cambodia and on into Laos. I should never have waited (and neither should you). Traveling in Laos and Cambodia is no harder than traveling in Viet Nam, which is probably even easier than traveling in Mexico.
When I first started work on this project in 2005 I only knew that the boats in Viet Nam were beautiful and colorful for the most part, and probably an endangered species, given the pressure on fishing stocks and the rapid deforestation of much of Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia. My goal was simply to photograph and describe every possible variation on the theme and publish the result as a data point for the first years of the 21st century.
Since then I’ve ridden a succession of local motorbikes about 16,000 miles through the countryside hunting for the boats: on the coast, in remote river-mouth harbors and on isolated sandy beaches, as well as far up the rivers of the region. I’ve helped with the translation from French of the superb book on Indochinese Sailboats published in 1943 in Saigon by Mr. J. Pietri, who described a world of traditional sailing vessels that is gone almost completely now. I’ve studied the 1960’s US government handbooks on the Vietnamese and Thai “junks”, which detailed the profiles, sail plans, motors (if any) and construction of local coastal boats.
I have gone from a point where I only knew I wanted to know more about the boats and record them as they were at one point in time, to the point where now I begin to feel I understand a good deal of their place today in their continuing evolution. And yet, as I keep exploring the back roads and harbors of the countryside, I continue to find things that startle me.
I’m getting a little older now, the kids are grown and gone, my bosses (at work at least) are all youngsters and I don’t seem to heal as quickly after my motorbike crashes as I once did. No matter. The roads and waterways through Asia go on forever in all directions and I plan to see them.
As well as seeing as much of Asia as possible, our goal is to document the building, design and uses of as many traditional and unique wooden work boats of Southeast Asia as possible before the master craftsmen who build them are gone.