The following three volumes comprise the only works that I know of which specifically cover the boats of South East Asia. They give us a starting point in (what amounts to) the pre-modern, sailing age, and also an intermediate point when sail was still a prominent but rapidly declining driver in an increasingly engine-driven fleet.
- Voiliers d’Indochine by J.B. Pietri. Saigon, 1943.
- A beautiful little hand-illustrated volume in French that is now an extremely rare collector’s piece. (An English-language facsimile edition, Sailboats of Indochina, was published by the Vietnam Wooden Boat Foundation in 2006. It is available from Lulu.com.) Mr. Pietri, a French career bureaucrat, was the Commissioner for Fisheries in Indochina, and had the experience of years of travel through the region (the coasts of Cambodia and Viet Nam as well as a bit of Southern China where the French held sway). He was a trained biologist and talented illustrator, so the illustrations for his book are not just artistic, but anatomically correct as well, and each major town or harbor and its fleet of boats was detailed by a one or two-page chapter. Pietri, probably more than any other Westerner ever, knew the local boats intimately, under sail or oar, in calms as well as gales. Perhaps most importantly, he was a romantic and knew full well he was recording something whose time would soon pass in Indochina as it had in all of the Western world: great fleets of wooden working sail boats, earning their livings as they had for generations, fishing, hauling cargo and running contraband. He left a beautiful record of a world that today, is gone. At that time, sail and oar still were the prime movers all along the coast, motors were almost completely unknown among the native fleet.
- The Junk Blue Book: A Handbook of Junks of South Vietnam, US Government publication, 1962. Reproduced by the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Technical Information Services, Springfield, Virginia.
- The American war with Viet Nam produced a book of Vietnamese boats (and another of Thai boats for that matter) by the US government. These books, too, are very rare now. A quite good copy of the 1962 version is available here in a PDF at no charge, courtesy of Rob Whitehurst.
- Mr. Pietri’s book was the romantic recording of a bit of history the author knew would soon pass with the inevitable arrival of motors. The American books, by contrast, were field identification books, organized rather like a bird-watcher’s manual, trying to simplify the (huge) problem of identifying the local junks and sampams, for the purposes of the American Navy patrolling offshore to stop the infiltration of men and materiel from the North to the war in the South. By the early 1960’s, the U.S. Government realized that the North Vietnamese were resupplying and reinforcing their effort in the South by sea, and largely with impunity. A few scattered warships on the lookout for enemy patrol boats to sink and downed pilots to rescue were ineffective against the vast fleets of small fishing and cargo vessels plying up and down the coast. The book was produced by a wide-ranging team of Navy and Army men and their Vietnamese interpreters in a very short period of time, but is still a remarkable body of work. When they went to press in 1962 with the first edition of the book, sails and sweeps were still the most common drivers on the coast and the cut of the sails and angles of the masts and details of the rigging were described in great detail.
- Bois et Bateaux du Vietnam by Francoise Aubaile-Sallenave. Paris, France: Société d’Études Lingquistiques et Anthropologiques de France, 1987.
- This book is a scholarly treatise on the available woods and bamboos for boat construction in Viet Nam and their use in the construction of the traditional boats of the region. I haven’t found an English translation of the book and have only begun trying to “read” it in French, with translator software and my dictionaries close to hand.
Other Useful Books About Traditional Boats
It is precisely because there is so little accessible information on the boats of Southeast Asia that I have been working on this project to document them, so I know of very little more to add beyond Voiliers d’Indochine, The Junk Blue Book and Bois et Bateaux du Vietnam. However, in a long life of reading every sort of book on boats, sailing, rowing, history, gunkholing, voyaging (ancient, modern, solo, reenactment, whatever!), I’ve identified some particularly good books. All of these are getting old now, but most of them are readily available second hand, or, in a few cases, on line in various out-of-print, on-line libraries. In alphabetical order, here are a few:
- American Sailing Craft: Their Design, Development & Construction, by Howard Irving Chapelle. Kennedy Brothers, New York, 1936.
- This was originally published in 1936, but a more accessible facsimile edition came out in 1975, published by International Marine Publishing Co, Camden, Maine. These are larger boats than the boats featured in American Small Sailing Craft.
- American Small Sailing Craft, by Howard Irving Chapelle. WW Norton & Co, Inc. New York, NY, 1951.
- The author was a serious scholar and historian living at a time when working sailing vessels were rapidly disappearing in American waters, but lingered, or at least their recently abandoned remains lingered, here and there along the waterfront. Chapelle was, for a long time, the curator of the National Watercraft Collection in Washington DC and in consequence, his personal experience is especially relevant for the waters of Chesapeake Bay and New England. Clearly though, his knowledge of American wooden boats and ships was encyclopedic, and he wrote a great many histories, for example, of the American Sailing Navy, The American Sailing Ship, The Search for Speed Under Sail, as well as Boat Building, Yacht Designing and so forth and so on. Most of his work is readily available second hand, and a foot or two of book shelf dedicated to it would be a small and very worthwhile investment.
- The Blue Book of Coastal Vessels, Thailand, a US Government publication written by R.D. Holbrook and Manob Suriya, 1967.
- A serious attempt by the authors to provide American and Thai naval men with a means of identifying all the innumerable boats of the long Thai coastline, guessing which ones might be used for enemy military advantage and narrowing the choice of which ones to board and inspect. It is written in Thai and English, perhaps a little dry, but absolutely full of good black and white photographs and a great many sketches, as well as maps and diagrams. It was reprinted in a small edition by White Lotus Press in Bangkok in 2000 and may still be available from them. The boats are surprisingly different from the Vietnamese boats recorded in the Junk Blue Book which was produced by the same agency at roughly the same time, and certainly very different from Vietnamese boats today.
- Boats, Oars and Rowing, by R.D. “Pete” Culler. International Marine Publishing Co, Camden Maine, 1978.
- A small book filled with the detailed information you’d want if you were choosing, building or fitting out a small traditional rowing boat. Most of Culler’s career was spent in the Chesapeake Bay area, designing and building traditional boats—some of them of considerable size. As a boat builder and designer, he produced numbers of boats that you might regard as masterpieces, but his masterpiece as a writer was no doubt Skiffs and Schooners.
- The Curraghs of Ireland, originally published by the Mariner’s Mirror in the January 1938 edition (Volume XXIV No. 1), Great Britain. It can be found on line.
- A detailed survey of the lath and leather (more often canvas, now) rowing boats of Ireland. It has both drawings and black and white photographs and gives much more specific local information than more recent articles. Perhaps this is because the curraghs are less common and perhaps somewhat more uniform than they once were.
- Inshore Craft of Britain in the Days of Sail and Oar, by Edgar Marsh. International Marine Publishing Co, Camden Maine, 1970.
- A stupendously detailed, two volume, photo and text survey of small boats all around the English coast a century and more ago. In a slightly different way, Mr. Marsh has done for England much of what Howard Chapelle did for American small craft. Used copies can be found occasionally. Get both volumes.
- Mast and Sail in Europe and Asia, by H. Warrington Smyth. John Murray, London, England, 1906.
- I can only surmise from the work, that the author (who also did many of the illustrations) was a seafaring man of the British upper class: one of those men who “went there and did that.” The book is quite rare now, but a facsimile edition, with a number (but not all) of the illustrations has been posted on the “Cheap Pages” and another version is available as a scanned document on Google Books. It is very good reading and the author’s obvious command of the material and understanding of the vessels and their working make it a very valuable reference that is a pleasure to read.
- Oman, a Seafaring Nation, by Anon. The Ministry of Information and Culture of the Sultanate of Oman, 1979.
- The book begins with a historical description of the extent of the seaborne trade of the country or region in past centuries, but then shifts to a well illustrated catalogue of the extant sailing and motorized seagoing dhows of that time. Valuable for the illustrations at least, but the text is written well enough also. Used copies are fairly rare and it has not appeared on line yet.
- Sailing Craft of the British Isles, by Roger French. Wm Collins and Sons, Rugby, Warwickshire, Great Britain, 1976.
- A pleasant little book, illustrated mostly with good pen and ink drawings and describing a number of the iconic smaller sailing vessels of the past century.
- Skiffs and Schooners, by R.D. “Pete” Culler. International Marine Publishing Co, Camden Maine, 1974.
- An encyclopedic work on the various sorts of traditionally built boats of the American Eastern Seaboard, written from the standpoint of a man who had actually drawn, built, outfitted and sailed them. He was strongly opinionated and wrote with a delightful style. This book, while not a do-it-yourself book as such, nonetheless was clearly intended to inspire you to do just that.
- Sons of Sinbad, by Alan Villiers. Charles Scribner & Sons, New York 1940. Reprinted, 1968.
- An utterly amazing description by an English sea officer deliberately seeking out and making a long voyage as a supernumerary on an Arab sailing dhow—not really a passenger, but also not really part of the crew. The variety of dhows (booms, bagallas and many others), the seamanship involved in handling them (and their enormous lateen sails), the way of life on the vessels, their trading are all described in vivid detail. In those last years before WWII there was still a certain amount of cargo moving all over the world under sail and Villiers had clearly been on a mission to experience every possible variety of deepwater commercial sail he could find. He was a prolific writer and his books are often available in libraries and generally easy to find used on line. They are all interesting, but I think Sons of Sinbad is the best.
Websites and Blogs
Vietnam Wooden Boat Foundation. The foundation is no longer active but does have some interesting photos of Vietnamese boats.
Indigenous Boats: Small Craft Outside the Western Tradition. A most interesting, thoughtful blog on all types of indigenous boats from all over the world.
Robert Whitehurst’s Vietnamese Days. Photos of the Mekong Delta area in Vietnam from the early 1970’s on Facebook.
From time to time I get a request for information about models of Vietnamese boats and where they can be purchased and the fact is that I’ve only met the two old men who made my beautiful model of the Thuan An beach boat and more recently Mr. Quy in Halong Bay. But the two old men only make the one sort of model and not very many of them, and Mr. Quy is retired, so I’ve always had to say I just don’t know where to buy models of Vietnamese boats.
So it came as a surprise to receive a letter from a Mrs. Chi Vu, who is the sales manager for the Gia Nhien Company in Ho Chi Minh City. I visited the website, we corresponded for a while and it became clear that they have built just about every sort of model boat but one: the Vietnamese boats.
They can, however, build a model from photographs and/or drawings, and not surprisingly, they’d be very happy to build Vietnamese boats: old fashioned sailing boats or modern fishing vessels or freighters (which they could easily examine in person to get just right!). Their regular production models or models they’ve built before are not terribly expensive, since they have patterns and building jigs already made. A one-off model built from your photos or drawings though, will be expensive, somewhere between $400 and $500 or even more, depending on how complex the boat is. If you’d rather go straight to the custom model section, here’s the direct link: http://www.gianhien.net/model/retail/all/custom_models.htm
I don’t want to get in the middle of this, but if you want to build a model of a Vietnamese boat and you need more photos or documentation for them to work from, you should feel free to write to me.
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