If you are traveling to Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos and you want to see the traditional boats, it’s really quite easy; go to where there’s water and look around. In Vietnam, you can see both the Surf Boats and ocean-going vessels of the long and varied Vietnamese Coast, as well as the boats of the inland waters, on the bays and lagoons and the river boats of the Mekong Delta. There are fascinating boats just about anywhere there is water enough to float one. But to increase your chances of seeing interesting sorts of boats being built or being used, here are a few suggestions.
Vietnam is now an extremely dynamic country, with changes occurring in virtually every aspect of life there. This is particularly true along the waterfronts of the coastal towns, and in consequence, my descriptions of how to find particular places have in many instances become completely wrong. In fact, some of them are excellent descriptions of places that aren’t there any more at all. In general I suppose this is a good thing, since most of the “change” involves cleaning up old messes or at least messy old places. Unfortunately, many of those places were boat builder’s yards or at least the bit of beach they worked on. As I revisit these places, I’ll update this guide but if I haven’t been there in a few years, you may be better off following my original suggestion to go where there is water and look around. Please feel free to contact me if you have more recent information than I do.
Assuming you have flown into Ho Chi Minh City and you are starting in the South of Vietnam, you have to make up your mind whether you want to see river boats or seagoing boats first. For river boats, go south into the Delta. For seagoing boats, head for the coast.
Can Tho is the cultural and commercial center of the Mekong Delta, and if you only have time for one or two Delta towns, Can Tho should be one of them. It is located, of course, on one of the branches of the Mekong, and surrounded by side channels and a completely flat countryside cut through and through with canals. Assuming you have found the hotel district near the waterfront center of the city and your hotel has talked you into an early morning boat ride to the floating market, (well worth the effort and the cost) you’ll already have a good idea of the lay of the land from the water. The waterfront boat shop that first got my attention some years ago is gone now, displaced by a new bridge being built on its site. However, you can still find the neighborhood, where there are several boat shops. Simply walk down to the wide waterfront street (called Hai Ba Trung), walk a block or two (depending on your hotel) to the large four-lane boulevard that runs into the shiny modern market at the river’s edge. You can hire a moto taxi there if you don’t have your own wheels—Can Tho traffic is not as crazy as Ho Chi Minh’s, but still a little intimidating.
Any of the streets heading West from the riverside will do, but Nguyen An Ninh Street is wide and easy. Take it west to a slightly oblique intersection with another main avenue called “30th of April” or “30 Thang 4”. Take a left there and follow it as it runs, very straight for 3.33 km, at which point it bends almost 90 degrees right and runs only a short distance further before T-ing into 3rd of February Street (3 Thang 2). Turn left at the big intersection and stay on 3 Thang 2 Street across one smaller bridge. Avoid crossing the main stem of the river, but rather, bear right onto Route 923 (which isn’t signposted) half a block before you would have been committed to the bridge over the main river. Within a block or two you’ll cross another canal where it enters the main stem of the river. Look on your left for an open air workshop that may or may not still be there, and just up the block from the bridge you’ll find at least two excellent workshops making beautiful small and medium sized river boats, both the high speed canoe sort and the round bottom motor-row boats (like the one you rode to the floating market).
Can Tho is well worth a few days visit and several other boat rides. If you take a ride out onto the main stem of the Mekong, you’ll see innumerable boats trading up and down the river, hauled out on shore for repairs, being built and rebuilt and painted, all fascinating and very busy.
From Can Tho you might also take a ride North toward My Tho on Highway 1 to a small town called Vinh Long (or you might stop here on your way into Can Tho). Where the highway bridge crosses a fork in the river, there’s an extensive boat yard building larger river cargo boats in a complex of riverbank sheds. It’s a great place to see the various stages of planking, then framing, then decking and so forth since they are likely to have several boats in progress at once. Yes, that’s the sequence, all the planks first, then the frames for the hull, then some frames for the cabin, and then the cabin sides and top: very different from western techniques. (More detail about the traditional construction technique on the Traditional Wooden Boats page.)
The entire delta is great boat watching country. You’ll be surprised to find ocean going boats sometimes quite a ways inland, basically wherever there isn’t a low bridge downstream. Riding along any road, you will almost certainly be near a stream or canal and anywhere along the road, you are likely to spot another boat building or repairing site or a ferry landing or. . .there’s lots of water and lots of boats.
The Far South of Viet Nam and Cambodia also have some excellent boatyards for ocean–going vessels.
In Rach Gia on the Gulf of Thailand, you can find a really excellent boat yard that is building and repairing beautiful, heavily built offshore fishing vessels, brilliantly painted, sturdy and good looking. You will likely be coming into town on highway 80 from Rach Soi heading roughly Northwest. Rach Soi, by the way has a small government boatyard where photos are not allowed! As soon as you cross the river in Rach Gia, take a left (downstream) onto the pretty river front boulevard (Tran Hung Dao Street) and it’s only a few hundred yards to a dead end at the edge of the boat yard. I’ve never spent the night in Rach Gia, only passed through, but the town might repay an overnight visit quite well. It is busy and prosperous looking and definitely has its eye on the river and the bay.
If you continue Northwest along the coast toward Ha Tien and the Cambodian border, keep your eye out along the road for different sorts of beautiful local small boats. There’s a fleet of perhaps fifty very interesting transom sterned boats, which are built locally to an unusual design. They are built on a flat keel plank and their deadwood is planked up all the way.
Ha Tien is changing fast. When I first came to town in 2005, the bridge across the river was an antique US Army pontoon bridge, very inconvenient for the local boats, but very interesting to rattle and bang across on a motorbike. Now there’s a brand new gorgeous concrete high rise bridge that invites you to stop and enjoy the view from on high. Ha Tien has a surprising number of quite nice little hotels and some fine restaurants, so it’s a pleasant place to stay. Incidentally, if, while you’re stopped on the bridge taking pictures, a youngster on a motorbike stops to tell you he can take you to a very good hotel, give him a chance. The young gentleman that picked me up last trip did in fact take me to a very nice place where his sister was the desk clerk, tucked in off the main street a block or two. I’d never have spotted it otherwise.
The harbor in Ha Tien is a river mouth, with a quay along the river bank, and quite a fleet of 40 to 50 foot fishing boats tied up within easy reach of the market, a few blocks from the new bridge. The quay was being seriously upgraded in early 2008 so it was a messy construction site (though the boats still tied up to it except right where the pile driver was working). By now it should be finished and shaping up into a very pleasant place to be. The boats you see here are beginning to look much more like the Cambodian boats you’ll find just across the border and on up to Kampot and Sihanoukville. Ha Tien’s quay is a good place to catch a ride out to Phu Quoc Island offshore, where I’ve not been yet, but where there used to be major boat building efforts. People who know about these things think I should go out to the island next trip. They say I’ll really like it.
From the town center at Ha Tien, ride out along the bay west to Mui Nai Beach a few kilometers away on a very pretty seaside road. The beach, which as recently as 2005 still had only a few bungalows, a bit of beachfront walkway and one restaurant, has blossomed now and has quite an extensive resort. It’s a little pricey to stay there compared to the hotels in town, but there are two different sorts of boats you should look for, particularly if you aren’t crossing into Cambodia. There are open boats about 24 feet long: husky little double enders that look like they should have been whaleboats in the 19th century, but sporting long tail outboard motors and curious racks on their sterns to carry the legs of the outboards (they often have two). They are often painted bright, light blue with red trim. There’s also a species of very slender double ended rowing boat, rowed standing, facing forward, which isn’t uncommon among rowing work boats elsewhere, but very different in this case, in that one oar is farther aft than the other and the oarsman strokes one oar at a time, first on one side, then the other. Even more curious, they are apparently actually dugout canoes—or at least the lowest part of the hull is—but the sides are raised with separate planking and ribs and a lot of flare and overhang in the ends. They’re very graceful, but they might seem a little tender to one unaccustomed to them.
If you have your own transport, or plan to catch a bus across the border in Cambodia, this is where you’ll say goodbye to Viet Nam. It’s only a few km to the border crossing, which was a very pleasant place to cross the last time I went there, though I got the feeling they weren’t used to Americans crossing the border riding Vietnamese bikes. The Vietnamese side in particular was fussy about my bike’s paperwork, but the bill of sale and title were in order, so there was really no problem. The Cambodian side was also very professional, though I got the immigration officer who stamped my passport into the country to come pose with my motorbike outside his office. We weren’t interrupted by other traffic. It is a fairly new border crossing facility and wasn’t much developed then (early 2008), and the road for the first 10 km inside Cambodia was still under construction and “dreadful” doesn’t even come close to covering it. If you are planning to get transportation on the Cambodian side, you might better make inquiries before you commit and stamp your visa out of Viet Nam. No doubt you will at least be able to get a moto ride into Kampot, the first major town you’ll come to, and from there busses will take you anywhere you want to go in the country.
Viet Nam is basically a narrow strip of coastline twelve hundred miles long, north to south, with a river delta at each end. Many of the people have looked to the sea for a living from time out of mind and still do. From every river mouth or sheltered bay, fishing boats put to sea every day—sometimes in large fleets. Besides the obvious harbors, many exposed beaches also have their fleets of surf boats coming and going without benefit of breakwaters or harbors or calm water. Thus, some spots can only be described as “a beach between Phan Thiet and Vung Tau,” so you’ll have to use a bit of judgment hunting them down.
Vung Tau is the nearest beach resort city to Ho Chi Minh. It has blossomed in the past 30 years from a quiet French-Vietnamese holiday town to an impeccably groomed destination city. Where there were simple beachfront restaurants serving local lobster and shrimp in French sauces, now there are ranks of magnificent tourist hotels and five star restaurants serving anything you can imagine. The parks and promenades are full of flowers, the beaches are clean, and there is still a grand working boat harbor just around the cape and up the bay a short ways. If you are on the “back beach,” first admire the few boats that are anchored just offshore there, then face the sea, turn right and proceed along the waterfront road. It’s a few kilometers, three or four, to the boat harbor and boatyards, quickly done by motorcycle or bicycle, though it would be a fair hike on foot.
The boatyard has a large horizontal bandsaw slicing trees into planks of amazing length and whatever thickness is needed. There are several different builders working in the yard, to quite startlingly different standards, though generally all building the same sort of boat, a heavy modern motor fishing vessel sort, which is really the most common boat all along the coast these days, with minor variations from builder to builder.
There is an enormous fishing fleet anchored and tied up and generally resting on the muddy bottom at low tide and the amazing variety of suppliers and shops such a fleet requires clustered all around the harbor. You can easily get a ride in one of the water taxis, one or two person boats that ply constantly between the boats and the shore, rowing, all the same way, with their feet, not their hands. There are still a few of the dory-like small fishing boats working out of the town, though rarely under oars now (as they were in the 1960’s), but almost always with some sort of engine instead.
North from Vung Tau along the coast road (which is quite well paved but not well marked, so that you may wander a bit) you might find one of the local boats ashore for repairs and get a good look. They are square-sterned, graceful boats, with bold sweeping sheerlines and high bows, not really surf boats at all. Nonetheless, on an easy day they can be gotten ashore and propped up for repairs and paint.
The city of Phan Thiet and the smaller town of Mui Ne mark the opposite ends of a 25 kilometer stretch of gorgeous beach. It’s another hour or two farther from Ho Chi Minh than Vung Tau and isn’t developed at all the same way, though if you like, there are at least two golf courses, a number of swimming pools and some five star hotels. You can also find really nice little guest houses along the road and innumerable fine places to eat. I once spent three days in a guest house on the beach at Mui Ne, recovering from a terrible bout of dysentery I caught down in the delta. It was a delightful place to be and be lazy!
If you were to come to Phan Thiet from the sea you’d have your choice of two harbor entrances. The southern entrance is the larger harbor for the town, protected by a substantial artificial breakwater of stone and concrete dolos, and dredged by a resident hydraulic dredge moored near the big formal fish market at the wharf on the southern bank. This harbor is actually the mouth of a small river lined from the breakwater to the first bridge with a fleet of several hundred fishing boats and a few small coastal freighters, nosed into the quay or anchored in the stream. Though the bridge is a major obstacle to traffic up the river at higher tides, many boats are moored upstream, but you’ll have a difficult time finding your way through the neighborhoods to see them.
Again, coming from seaward you could also enter the northern harbor, about two and a half miles to the East Northeast. It too is a river mouth, protected by an artificial breakwater, but does not have its own dredge (though most likely the one dredge cleans up both harbors). It is smaller and tighter, but also filled with boats lining the banks and anchored out.
Coming to Phan Thiet by land is an entirely different proposition. If you arrive from the North (from Mui Ne), you’ll be lead over the northern most harbor bridge, which is also the farthest downstream over the smaller, northern harbor. Stop on that bridge and you’ll be treated to an excellent overhead view of the smaller sorts of boats clustered right under it and views up the launchways of the two boatyards just below the bridge, one on either side. I’ve managed to wander my way into one of them but the street entrance to the other is impossible to find. On the southern bank there is usually an informal fish market in session with all that entails (bring a camera). You won’t be able to see the sea from there, but if you’re determined you might find it by wandering down side roads.
If you continue southward, you’ll come to what seems to be a bridge over a smaller stream, but is really a bridge over a small tributary to the same creek. There is rarely much to see from there. Carry on though and shortly you’ll come to the main highway and, following signs and the lay of the land you’ll probably turn left toward the downtown area and come after a short time to a third bridge, which is the first bridge across the southern harbor. If you turn down the street along the northern bank, you’ll come to the beach and the extensive marine railway there at the edge of the sand, where you’ll almost surely find a number of boats hauled out for repairs and maintenance. If you cross the bridge and take the road along the southern bank you’ll pass the full length of the main harbor and come to the formal fish market and the breakwater.
Fair warning: I’ve never managed to pass through Phan Thiet without getting lost and having to ask directions. Study the aerial photos before you get there and make yourself a sketch map. Then ask directions. Oddly, coming northbound from Ho Chi Minh City, you’re lead by good signage easily into town and right across this same bridge. Just don’t try to backtrack. I’m sure they roll up the highway behind you when you come in.
There are three sorts of boats in the neighborhood that are quite distinctive and so must certainly be built in the area (as well as boats that clearly came from Nha Trang and Vung Tau). However, I haven’t found the boat yard that’s building them yet. The three boat types that are unique to the area include a very chubby double ended boat with an engine and an oar (yes, just one oar, worked off a stanchion on the port quarter). They seem to mostly fish with great heaps of fine mesh monofilament drift net, and watching them coming and going along the coast, they’re clearly handy, seaworthy small vessels. These chubby double enders moor in the upper ends of the two creeks that form Phan Thiet harbor and an even shorter, chubbier version works out of the shallow waters at Mui Ne beach. There’s also a more or less modern Japanese–style square sterned fishing vessel with a wedding cake pilot house aft and a pretty concave stem profile. In amongst those pretty seagoing boats there’s also an amazingly heavy sort of double ended harbor taxi working in Phan Thiet harbor, rowed with a single monstrous sculling oar and poled in the shallows with a small bamboo pole. They are heavy, unhandy, ugly and built to withstand anything except rough water and they are universally operated by old women. Or perhaps handling one of those brutes makes an old woman out of you before your time.
Phan Thiet is a busy, prosperous, friendly place with an interesting city center and a wide selection of hotels, guesthouses and expensive resorts nearby. You should plan to visit and stay a while.
You may have to hunt around to find the coast road north toward Mui Ne. Highway One trends inland at Phan Thiet and you have to spot the entrance to the road as it branches off to the right without much notice (it’s Provincial Highway 706, but I’ve never seen a sign to that effect). The first time I came this way I tried every road to the right for a while before I found the right one and went off along the beach, which proves there are advantages to traveling by bus at times. There’s a small boat repair operation on the beach at Mui Ne, just south of the grand staircase down to the water. They use a winch and trolley method for hauling out and launching and I’ve only seen them doing repair work when I’ve visited, but in the past the boatbuilders of the town had a very good reputation (Pietri).
The fleet on display at Mui Ne is a splendid sight, all anchored out in ranks in the bay. I’ve counted over 300 boats in the harbor each time I’ve been there. Once you’re on the road to Mui Ne, there is essentially nowhere else to go and you’ll know when you arrive. Pull off the road to the right when you spot the boats below and prepare yourself for the kids. The grand staircase to the beach is a major spot for shell sellers and local guides, and you are likely to find yourself attached to two or three of them! Get up early in the morning at least once and come photograph the sunrise over the bay.
When the time comes to leave for the North, you don’t need to backtrack to Phan Thiet. The new coast road along the dunes and cliffs and surf battered beaches is complete now though it doesn’t show on a lot of maps, it has turned up on the latest edition of the Vietnamese Road Atlas (published by Nha Xuat Ban Ban Do, which you can buy in larger city bookstores, and should if you’re traveling independently). From your outlook at the top of the grand staircase, continue through town. As you are rounding a sweeping turn to the right in the middle of town, be alert for a major intersection onto a new broad road on your left. It will lead you uphill, around the top of the town, and in a short way to the new road. From there it’s 24 miles (39 km) back to Highway One and you’ve saved close to 30 miles backtracking, not to mention having had a wonderful ride along the coast.
Viet Nam’s Highway One from Mui Ne on North at least to Quy Nhon passes through some wonderful countryside and is always fairly close to the sea though you are often just out of sight of the water—sometimes separated only by a single sand dune, but still, out of sight. There are any number of local roads to poke down toward the water, many of them leading through impenetrable mazes of shrimp or fish ponds. There are some absolute gems here, and no doubt several I haven’t seen yet.
Stop at least a day or two in Nha Trang. The terrain is flat enough and the town big enough that if you don’t have wheels of your own, you might want to rent a bicycle, at least, to get around. The water in the bay there is truly as blue as the travel posters show it. Just beautiful. This is one of Viet Nam’s premier beach resorts, with everything that implies in terms of hotels, restaurants, tourists and friendly people in abundance. From our standpoint however, Nha Trang has one of the best small boat harbors for easy access, and a large fleet of all sorts of beautiful local boats. Besides the modern motor fishing vessel sorts, there are a number of utterly lovely double ended traditional boats, ranging in size from 24 feet to 40 feet or so, very well built and with an interesting variety of steering gear. They are powered by unmuffled single cylinder diesels though, so are very loud and vibrate terribly.
The small boat harbor is in a river mouth right in the middle of the city, so find your way to the ocean front boulevard and (if you’re in the main tourist hotel part of the city) turn left (north) and continue until you cross the new bridge. You can safely park a motorbike at either end of the bridge (or have your moto taxi drop you there). The bridge itself makes a great place to watch the coming and going.
Come to the bridge in the early morning hours to watch the fleet coming home from sea with the night’s catch. You’ll see the fishing boats coming up over the horizon and bee-lining for the harbor, passing under the bridge and throttling back to harbor speed. Once they are under the bridge, the innumerable harbor boats come out to meet them: lying alongside and holding on to the larger boats to take off the catch, basket by basket, even as the fishing boat continues to motor along toward her mooring up-harbor. The fishermen are tired from their night’s work and sit or lounge in odd corners on deck or below but the buyers have been waiting for this moment and eagerly take the baskets full of fish and row them ashore.
Although it’s not as easy now as it was in the past, you may be able to find a rowboat to take you round the harbor. Walk down to the water’s edge (better on the south end of the bridge I think) and look interested. The small boats here, bamboo or composite wood and aluminum, are all rowed the same, from the stern, with the legs, not the arms.
The main boatyard in the harbor is located on the Northern bank (on the right as you look into the harbor from the bridge, near the old Cham towers). You will spot it easily on your rowboat ride, but it’s more than a bit difficult to get to from land. The roads just don’t seem to go into it, though you might find an interesting little boat shop building the wood and aluminum composite boats.
Besides the main small boat harbor in the middle of town, there is an artificial harbor at the south end of the waterfront boulevard where the local ferries and a few dedicated tourist boats are based. The police would not let foreigners on board the local ferry boats running across the channel to the islands, but insisted we go on a tourist boat. The price difference was about 1000 to one, so I haven’t gone yet. That was in 2006, so perhaps things have changed by now. The islands do look intriguing.
If you continue on past that harbor up the steep hill, you will come shortly back down into yet another river mouth area, full of boats and with several boat shops on its banks, but much less accessible. When last I was there, the shoreline was in the midst of massive redevelopment and finding your way along the working waterfront was quite difficult. It would repay exploration by boat, but I have not done that yet.
North of Nha Trang about 78 kilometers is the jewel called Dai Lanh. It’s a little string bean of a town trapped between the mountains, the rail road and the sea. Coming from the South you’ll suddenly realize there is a gorgeous white sand beach on your right. You will quickly spot a busy little drive-up seafood restaurant on the edge of the beach, by a clear running stream trying to find its way through the sand to the sea. If you don’t stop there, you’ll open a view of a hundred or more fishing boats anchored in the bay and then continuing on, you will run through the tightly packed village itself and suddenly be running back up the hill and into the mountains. Turn around and come back. You’ve missed a bustling waterfront (chock full of cute kids by the way) with all sorts of activity likely on-going.
Things are changing here too. Most important, no doubt, is the new pier almost completed in front of the village. When it is complete, people will be able to land their fish and load their gear aboard without having to use basket dinghies.
There is a habit here of hauling your fishing boat out of the water and taking it home to sit in the garden during the off season or pulling it up just above the tide to work on it. People reclaim old junk rope and spin it into new just as people made rope two hundred years ago in the West, twisting three individual strands and winding it together, tightening the three strands together with a bullet shaped wooden plug. There are wonderful little food stands and tiny restaurants along the highway and shops selling whatever a fisherman needs. The boats, not surprisingly, are the same you saw in Nha Trang. At a first glance, Dai Lanh might seem too small to spend time. Try it for a night, there are two guest houses. One of them is across the tracks from the bay near the south end of town, a pretty little place filled with miniature trees and flowers and clean, quiet rooms. The other is by the bridge on the highway where the stream runs into the bay at the North end of town. The beach all by itself is worth a long, quiet walk. The kids in the village are more than entertaining (assuming you like children) and the boats beautiful.
North of Nha Trang a good day’s ride is Quy Nhon. The ride is through very interesting countryside and passes the towns of Cam Ranh and Tuy Hoa, both of which should be looked into, though my only attempt on Cam Ranh Bay ended when I was turned back by barbed wire and security guards near the waterfront. There was some excellent consolation I admit, I found a wonderful Buddhist nunnery with a many-tiered pagoda by the roadside and an ancient Mother Superior and several nuns who fed me tea and cookies and practiced their English, and later, a wedding down a very narrow lane. . .but no boats.
If you are alert at the town of Song Cau, you might spot the fork in the road that separates the main Highway 1 from Highway 1D on your right, the new coast road. If so, it will make your entry into Quy Nhon (an hour or so later) much easier and you’ll enjoy some wonderful cliff-top views of the sea as you go. Assuming you found Highway 1D, you will simply ride into town from the South right along the seaside and will inevitably find your way to the bay front hotels in a very short ways. The bay on your right will hold at least a few anchored fishing boats but there won’t be a lot of traffic in round basket boats to and from the beach. As part of the recent improvements to the waterfront, the commercial fishing and boat repairing has all been moved off this beach to the inner harbor.
If you didn’t spot Highway 1D and continued north on Highway 1 (or if you’re arriving from the North), you will need to be alert in the town of Dieu Tri for a turn at a major intersection with a large triangular traffic island. From there it’s a few miles across country into Quy Nhon and you’ll end up out on the end of the peninsula that fronts onto the lagoon side of town. Once you have found the lagoon, it’s only a short but somewhat confusing distance south to the bay front and all the tourist hotels. Of course, if you are traveling by bus you will no doubt be dropped off at the bay front anyway. North of Quy Nhon, Highway 1 continues to stay just out of sight of the water most of the time.
The waterfront shantytown at Quy Nhon, with its constantly changing row of boats hauled out at the top of the beach for repairs and paint is gone now, and so are sizable parts of the old waterfront neighborhoods. A fine waterfront boulevard and park and a very nice beachfront promenade now extends the full length of the bay from north to south. Hotels, some of them quite large, have sprung up like mushrooms from one end of the boulevard to the other. Quy Nhon is poised to become a really major seaside resort. Realistically, the shantytown was a foul place: no sewers, no running water or proper electricity, unpaved paths for streets and really dangerous looking shacks for houses. The beautifully groomed waterfront parks are a much better face for the town, and no doubt many of the boatyard workers will find better jobs in the new hotels and restaurants. Still somehow I feel it partly as a loss, the bright boats were beautiful there: cheerful, even hopeful in their repairs and new paint.
Quy Nhon is blessed with a large, well sheltered lagoon behind a rocky peninsula extending North along the coast. On that sheltered side of town fronting the lagoon there is a marine railway, the coast guard station and every sort of fishermen’s supply house. But this inner harbor is in the midst of a major redevelopment right now (late 2010), with a large pile driving rig installing the piles for an extensive new pier. One of the old piers is still in service, but for now it’s all very jammed together and somewhat messy. No matter, you can still get a good rice supper (with fish and pork and greens and such) for about a dollar in the fisherman’s restaurant at the harbor street entrance. You may also be able to get a ride in one of the harbor boats at the fish market but perhaps not. This seems to be another town where the official position is that the tourists are not to go out on the local boats. If you do manage to get a ride and the skipper insists that you stay out of sight down low for a time, it’s probably because you are in view of the Coast Guard or Police stations and he’s trying to keep out of trouble. Don’t argue.
I was able to charter one of the harbor boats quite reasonably to take me round the bay but he was clearly in violation of some local regulation, having a foreigner on board, and was quite nervous if I got out in the open and was too visible. I stayed mostly under the shade of the cabin top, perched over the engine. The tour of the bay turned up any number of really good looking traditional double enders in the 35 foot size range, mostly lying afloat at anchor, though there were a few small railways at villages around the bay with a few boats hauled out. The villages along that steep shore and the fleets of beautiful small fishing boats—square sterned and double ended, well kept and brightly painted—are well worth seeing. Bring a camera!
Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a treasure on many levels. It was once the main port on this part of the coast, and for several centuries foreign traders came and went here and kept warehouses and residences to use while they waited out the monsoons. However, its river mouth silted in years ago to the point it is only useful for smaller local boats and the main port in the area now is Da Nang. In consequence, it just didn’t seem worth blowing up during the war years. So, while many other towns with similar historical architecture were devastated, Hoi An survived intact, with beautiful old homes and structures in French, Chinese and Japanese styles.
There are major changes going forward in Hoi An these days. The old boatyard with the marine railway and the big saw shop is shuttered and empty and newly fenced with shiny corrugated roofing. A riverfront hotel is expected shortly. Actually, a great deal of Hoi An continues to evolve to suit the tourist business. It is still a lovely place to visit but as far as I could see there are no boats being built anywhere near the old town any more, and there are a great many new condominiums, resorts and spas and so forth everywhere you look. I asked after the big boat yard and I think I was told it had moved out of town about ten kilometers, but when I explored out that direction along the river I didn’t find it. Good luck.
At the bottom of the main street in Old Town Hoi An you’ll come to the waterfront. The market is on your left and a delightful place. The tourist boat business is changing along with the rest of the town, and now there is a fleet of (much safer looking) nice tour boats. You should still be able to hire one of the paddling-rowing boats for an hour while you are at the quay. Take your water taxi outside the island or you can hire a motorboat for a much longer ride down the river toward the river mouth, which provides any number of good opportunities to admire the local style of traditional double ender. Actually, this is one of very few places in Viet Nam with a significant number of the old style boats still rigged for sail, though the masts and sails are only auxiliaries and quite a bit smaller than a pure sailing rig would be. This is also the best place to see what was once common on sailing boats all along the coast: the sliding “bow centerboard.”
There are a lot of good reasons to be in Hoi An besides the boats and I’d suggest you plan on several days there. You can rent a motorbike and ride up into beautiful mountain country to the West, lie on the beach, swim in the surf, ride an elephant, walk over a Japanese covered bridge, hike through a dozen different ancient temples, buy silk dresses and suits, eat fabulous French pastries or baguettes and real cheese (rare in Viet Nam) by the waterfront, go diving, eat desperately frizzled eggs or noodles from a sidewalk vendor—or just walk around town. They’ve taken the old pool tables out of the upstairs bar of the French bistro down by the waterfront and put in more tables but the baguettes are still superb and the fresh cheese from France is still fine. Eat on the balcony overlooking the street. It was fun though, when the waitresses played pool upstairs in the afternoon when things got slow: years ago now.
Just north of Hoi An is Da Nang, which is a very large city, effectively 20 kilometers long from north to south. It was the site of a huge US military presence in the war and a major Rest and Recuperation site there. “China Beach” was well loved by the GI’s. The river through town offers a chance to see a number of otherwise pretty typical fishing boats, and there must be more to see, but truth to tell, I’ve only passed through, on my way to or from Hoi An. There’s a new major suspension bridge which was being built across the mouth of the harbor in 2009 and things have been changing for the people with homes, businesses and moorage there, but it’s still a fascinating warren of boats and fishermen’s homes along the shore.
Heading North from Da Nang you’ll cross Hai Van Pass either from above or below. The old road over the pass is stupendous, narrow, winding and steep, with breathtaking views up and down the coast. If you’re on your own motorbike or riding a tourist bus you’ll get to go that way. All the other traffic (basically anything except a gasoline tanker, a tourist bus or a motorbike) will go through the new tunnel. That makes the open road infinitely safer for motorbikes than it used to be (I was nearly killed on that stretch of road twice in an hour in 2005) and this arrangement still supports the horde of vendors at the scenic viewpoint in the fog at the top of the pass. This is a major terrain feature, marking the line between the cold foggy northern winters and the sunny South. You ride up the mountain from Da Nang in your shirt sleeves and put on everything you own (including your rain gear) to ride down the far side, at least in the months from December to February.
You come down out of the mountains at Lang Co, where a mile-long sand spit shelters an exquisite shallow lagoon from the surf. Outside, the unobstructed surf batters on the beach in front of expensive hotels, while on the inside the lagoon is quiet and peaceful. Stop at the bridge at the south end of town to see some lovely examples both of large woven basket boats and all wooden ones, moored together in the shallow water. There are several really nice restaurants serving all sorts of seafood along the way, most of them with back decks out over the lagoon. If you spot one owned by a Cambodian lady (she advertises in Khmer script as well as Vietnamese on her roadside stand), by all means stop and eat.
North again to the Hue region, you’re in the middle of several excellent opportunities. Hue is justly famous as the old imperial capital, with a long tradition of music, the arts and fine cuisine and a wide selection of pagodas, imperial tombs, the Citadel and the sorts of things you’d expect in an imperial capital. That’s enough for most people. There’s also the road up into the mountains to the Laotian border (where foreigners may not cross into Laos) near the town of A Luoi (Hwy 49B). Always a fabulous motorbike run of desperate curves and mountainsides, it has been severely impacted by the heavy rains that accompanied typhoons in 2010 and severe winter weather since then. It is still technically passable, but it’s not a good road, for now. Going up to A Luoi, you’ll be almost always headed uphill so you can stop abruptly if you need to. On your way back down, go easy and be prepared to stop if a washout has gotten worse.
Of all of these attractions, it’s the boats of the area that are the most stunning. The first you’ll notice in town will probably be the tourist dragon boats which line up in a brilliant row near the main tourist hotel zone along the river. You really should take a tour on these boats, perhaps on two of them, one for a daytime trek up or downstream to pagodas and royal tombs and so forth, and another in the evening to go for the traditional folk music! The daytime tour is really quite nice and often involves a very good lunch served on board. The evening ride for the music is a very different thing. You get aboard with a group of other tourists (usually mostly Vietnamese; it’s very popular) and a group of performers, perhaps four or five of them, gorgeously dressed and coifed and playing various instruments and singing. The boat goes a short ways out on the river and anchors with the brightly lit bridges in view.
If you are very lucky you might be the only foreigner in a small group of Vietnamese that has hired one of the single boats for the night but has room for one more. You’ll sit cross legged on the cabin floor with everyone else. There will be a supply of beer and other things to drink and the music will be very close by and exciting. Now and then there will be jokes about your bald head or your bushy beard or whatever and everybody will smile at you. At the end, you’ll all launch little paper boats with candles in them and they’ll float away into the dark in a long line of flickering light on the dark river. You won’t forget an evening like that.
The tourist dragons are actually of an ancient lineage, although looking at their paint schemes, dragon heads and the wide dance floors of the “double” boats, you could be forgiven for doubting it. The local river sampans fifty years ago were made of wood, stitched together with rattan lashings, and shaped almost exactly as their aluminum (and wood) descendants are today. (You can find more info on the stitched wooden boats on the Vietnam Wooden Boat Foundation’s website.) I don’t know just when the aluminum-wood hybrids emerged, but hunt as I may, I’ve not found a surviving stitched all-wood boat in the river. The stitched boats gave way to metal fastened boats as soon as small diesel engines became available, since their stitching came loose with the motor’s vibration. When the aluminum for the planking became commonplace the transition apparently was quick and complete. For many years the plain-Jane sisters of the tourist boats have been very popular as houseboats and up to 2008 there were still a great many anchored and rafted up together in the river across from the hotel zone, each one with fluorescent lights and color TV! The City Fathers decided they were a blot on the landscape and they’ve all been moved out and a lot of their people have been resettled ashore.
You can relatively easily get a ride in one of the long slender wood-aluminum canoe boats that young women row around the river with long single oars, though many have long tail motors as well. It’s easiest to get a rowing boat ride from the big market across the river from the hotel zone, but I prefer to walk upstream a few blocks on the hotel side and find someone along the causeway on the road out of town. There’s usually a very bossy woman lording it over the boat-women on the market side and I’d rather do without her help. These rowing boats were the best way to see the houseboat neighborhoods and they’re still a good way to watch the many activities on the river.
From Hue it’s only 10 kilometers (6 miles or so) to Thuan An Beach and the lagoon behind the barrier island. From the hotel district, take Le Loi Street as far as the Huda brewery (it’s owned by Carlsborg and is a perfectly passable beer). You make a 90 degree turn onto a major city street that wanders with a smaller stream on your left hand until you finally come to the coast road. Turn left at the T and follow it another mile or so and you’ll have a choice of the old bridge or the new one. Take the new bridge (the first one as you come from that direction) and go straight ahead as you come off of it and you’ll find the fork. There are several places to access the beach along this stretch. My favorite requires you to slow down as you are passing the new two–story department store on your left and make a hard left to the first Thuan An beach. Things have been changing here as well. The new spa and resort is open for business (and looks very exclusive, I’ve not been inside yet). There are still the two beach “restaurant” shelters where you can sit and drink beer and order bits of tasty seafood, or just sit out of the rain if it’s that sort of day. But if you walk up the beach just a little ways to the north you’ll find surfboats. You should find some with motors and others—smaller—without, coated with black tar and made from woven bamboo. Watch a while, perhaps you’ll see them coming and going through the surf. (More about the surf boats.) Back on the main road you can travel for many kilometers along the skinny island without worrying about getting lost.
This area is one of my very favorite places in the whole region, particularly the main road out of Thuan An town on South down the island, Route 49B. It’s only a narrow 2-lane road and simply lovely. Plan on making a whole day’s ride out of it or more. During the day you’ll have chances to walk on ocean beaches and watch fishermen launching and landing through the surf. You will occasionally pass unpretentious little restaurants that serve all manner of fine sea food and other good things to eat. You’ll ride along the sheltered shores of the inland sea that is sheltered behind the island, and see hundreds of small boats, some aluminum with wooden framework, built to the same lines as the very ancient local wooden boats that are all gone now, others of woven bamboo and many “ordinary” wooden boats. Early in the day you’ll pass a working boat yard with various fishing boats hauled out for bottom work and sometimes major repairs. You’ll pass through small villages and long stretches of temple-tombs built on the sand dunes, a veritable city of the dead in places! As you are riding south on the island, keep an eye open for opportunities to turn left toward the ocean. Some of those small side roads lead to exquisite beaches and surf boats, though others dead end. Either way it only takes a few minutes to find out. The gardens and rice paddies along the way are rich and green and the ponds along the roadside are full of little fishes. Sometimes you can watch the fishermen hunting for them with baskets and nets.
At the far South end of the island you can explore the tiny harbor that shelters a small fleet of deep water boats that cross under the new bridge and over the ocean bar to get to sea. Stopping on the quiet bridge, you’ll see the wide expanse of the shallow bay shining in the sun (if it’s sunny, of course) and the complete maze of fish traps that fills it. You may find a fascinating sort of very traditional fishing boat hauled out on the marine railway (a very small operation) on the mainland side just south of the bridge. If you want to return by way of Highway 1 to Hue, you turn RIGHT as you come off the new bridge and go for quite a ways, ten km or so, through beautiful rural countryside before you come to the highway. On the highway headed back to Hue, you’ll run along for many kilometers with green mountains on your left and paddy fields on your right, always with the shining bay beyond. If you somehow managed to pass all the little restaurants on the island, you’ll have opportunities along the highway for a wonderful meal.
On Highway 1 north of Hue about 135 miles is a small town called Ron straddling a local river at the Highway bridge. (The name is also sometimes spelled Roon and is pronounced like the "roan" horse.) Its river mouth makes a dangerous sandbar-strewn entrance to the sea, but even so, there is a large fleet based in the river. The bridge is low enough to keep most of the boats downstream but there are quite a few nearly double-ended large fishing boats of traditional design. They are often tied up and anchored in a large raft just above the bridge and make a spectacular sight. Downstream from the bridge, there is every sort of fishing boat moored along the river bank or hauled out in one of the boatyards for maintenance. At least one builder there is capable of really magnificent new construction, with two large modern wooden fishing boats just about ready to launch in late 2010 and the keels for two more laid out on the sand ready to begin. It’s a grand place to watch a big gang of men working with heavy timber and planking and producing really fine looking vessels. It is also the only place I know where you can see perfectly round basket boats outfitted with inboard diesel engines and rudders.
As for the traditional style boats in Ron, as recently as the 1960’s they worked entirely under sail (and given the dangers at the mouth of the river, that must have been a hard trade). Now they are all engine powered, no sailing rigs at all. They are long boats, sixty feet or more, with very long overhangs fore and aft, their bows and sterns both sweeping far above the water in long arcs. If they are sturdy and graceful from a little distance (they slip through the water with hardly any wake), they are nonetheless crudely built.
In sailing days, these boats had typical Vietnamese sliding bow center boards, captured by the hood ends of their bow planking. The powered descendants of the sailing vessels don’t need the center boards to help them sail, so of course they don’t have them, but the bow planking these days is simply allowed to run wild past the stem plank and sometimes isn’t even trimmed closely. They have a low cabin aft to cover the engine room and perhaps provide a little shelter for the crew, but most of their length is open, unprotected deck with hatchways into the fish holds. There’s no pilot house and the skipper sits or stands on the cabin top to steer with a remarkably long tiller. They fish with great mounds of fine mesh monofilament drift net. Local inquiry might turn up a guest house but I have not seen one yet. There is, however, a very good highway restaurant just a mile or less north of the bridge, so perhaps Ron is a better lunch stop than a destination.
How Do Those Airborne Fish Nets Work??
In the backgrounds of any number of our photos of boats and harbors around Viet Nam you see mysterious and romantic artistically shaped nets standing up on four poles out in the bay. Clearly, they’re for catching fish, what else? But on the other hand, the top edge of the net is something like twenty feet in the air and even the nicely tapered tip is several feet above the surface. In the back of my mind I’ve always assumed the nets were lowered somehow, perhaps like a sail, slacking off a halyard at each of the four corners. But until I stopped just north of Ron looking for beach boats, I had never seen it done.
Some things are just so obvious. If you look at any of the photos that include the romantic net dangling in the air, you’ll see a small and spindly tower nearby, usually with a small thatched (or blue tarp) roof of some sort to provide a bit of shelter to whomever climbs up there. What you probably can’t see unless it’s in actual operation is that there is a handspike windlass up in that tower, and on that windlass, two lines are wound, leading on a long trajectory out to the two nearest poles. And that’s the whole secret. To lower the net, the fisherman just takes the windlass off the dog (that is, releases whatever loop of line or rebar hook is holding the windlass from turning), takes it off the dog, as I was saying, and gently lowers away.
Those two lines in fact are pulling the tops of the nearest two poles toward the tower, and as soon as he lowers a bit, the poles begin to fall over, and since the net itself connects all four poles, all four begin to topple at once. They are not, of course, free to fall willy-nilly. Rather, they’re constrained, each pole by two more lines that run out like the guy lines on a tent pole, to anchors on the sea bottom, so the huge square net settles, under perfect control, onto the bottom. This is of course no place for bamboo poles. They need to be heavy enough to sink (or I suppose you might weight them down with stones or scrap iron), but for the Vietnamese fisherman that’s not a problem, since there are a number of hardwoods available that will sink almost as well as a rock, without the rock.
We have to assume that now and then a fish will be dumb enough to get stuck under the net when it comes down, and will do quite well out of it that way, since there is no way he’ll be able to swim out and up on top of the net, where bad things would have eventually happened to him. However, while the fisherman sits quietly sipping from his thermos and watching the goings on above the net, sooner or later some other fish will swim over the top of the net and, when there are enough fish schooled up above the net it’s a quick and simple matter to lay into the handspikes, spin the windlass around, tighten up those backstays again and voila, the big square net emerges from the water, WITH ITS RIM COMING OUT FIRST. Once the rim of the net is above water the matter is settled. The fisherman can take his time winching the net the rest of the way out of the water, so that its artistically tapered center tip is above water (as it was when we came in) since once the rim is out of the water, nothing is going to swim through the air and away. We hope.
It doesn’t take long and the deed is done. Whatever swam over the top of the net is now dangling four feet above the water, nicely gathered together in the tip of the net with everything else that swam over it. The fisherman is climbing down the ladder from his tower, into his little round boat and sculling out to that dangling tip full of fish, where he undoes the slip knot and lets the net drain all its fish into the bottom of that little round boat. All that’s left is to tie the slip knot back, scull the round basket back to the tower,climb the ladder, take the winch off the dog and lower away. And do it all again.
Another 120 km north of Ron you come to a major provincial city: Vinh. If you are clever and spot the right road signs, or hire a guide or simply know your way, you can proceed on a smooth new road directly from Vinh to the beachfront holiday town of Cua Lo (say that “Koo-a-LAW”). If you’re not so clever or make a wrong turn trying to get out of Vinh, you can spend a quite a while wandering and wondering where you went wrong, even if you have a decent road map. However, all is not lost if you can’t get to Cua Lo by the nice newly paved road. You can still get there, it’s just a matter of continuing another 15 kilometers north of Vinh on Highway 1 to a well sign-posted turnoff to Cua Lo in the middle of nowhere. It used to be a horrendously bad road, graded for four or six lane traffic, but never paved and almost completely destroyed. It would test your tires and springs and coat you with mud and dust, but it would get you to the beach without any confusion in about ten endless kilometers. You can only approve of the change. This past year it has been paved four lanes wide to start with and two fine lanes with big shoulders all the way to town. Better yet, when the countryside floods and all the local roads are under water, it's high enough you can still ride out to higher ground!
Cua Lo is purely a Vietnamese beachfront resort town, looking out over the Gulf of Tonkin and provided with a variety of hotels and guesthouses and food stalls and restaurants. At the north end of the town itself there’s a nice market, filled with the sorts of things that ordinary people and fishermen would want, though you’ve seen no sign of fishermen yet. However, Cua is the Vietnamese word for Mouth of the River, so Cua Lo is the town at the mouth of the Lo River, which is still a ways north of the hotels and the beach. Continue up the beachfront road to the north, stop to admire the rocky cape and its lighthouse, and carry on until you cross the modern port to the deep water berths on the river’s mouth. In the past, you could turn left (upstream, inland) and ride across a small bridge, through the Port’s cargo handling area and into the actual village of Cua Lo, which is where you’re trying to get. On my last trip through Cua Lo there was a closed gate preventing passage through the Port dock area. You can still get to the village and fishing harbor, but you’ll have to go around a different way.
Still ride straight into town and find the beach–side lookout to the rocky not–quite–an–island (you can ride to it over a rough trail on almost any tide). The market is behind you to the left (north) and the long strip of hotels is behind you to the right, running parallel to the beach. When you’re ready to go to the village and harbor, turn around and head straight out of town. The small lane branching diagonally off to the right about 600 meters from the beach is the road into the village. You’ll soon pass over a combination bridge, dam and tide gate arrangement at the head of the harbor. If you continue you’ll find lots of the village but no easy access to the harbor, so take an early chance, turn around, go back across the bridge and immediately turn left (downstream) on a narrow street that runs full length of the harbor, right through the middle of the fish market zone. Early morning is often the busiest.
It’s a great place, built all around a short muddy tidal creek that is home to a fleet of at least a hundred different and fascinating boats. Some are traditional transom sterned wooden boats with lovely lines and brightly painted, some are very large woven bamboo boats, coated in tar, framed in wood and quite amazing—no doubt the largest waterproof baskets on earth. Some of the boats fish by pushing a wide net through the water ahead of themselves on long poles rigged over the bow. Others carry a small fleet of round baskets out to sea and scatter them out to fish independently. The largest round, woven bamboo basket boats you’ll see anywhere are based here, veritable Titanics, big enough for a crew of two, their nets and gear, and all the fish they can catch during a day out at sea. There are two small boatyards in town, one that might do new construction and one that probably only does bottom work and repairs.
The End of an Era in Cua Lo?
The very large diesel powered basket boats shaped like Aladdin’s lamp or maybe Persian slippers, with their high bows and broad rounded transom sterns are gone now. In 2005 there were seven of them moored in the harbor at one time, lying near the head of the creek, with similar sized all-wooden boats. I’ve not seen them since 2010. They were half again larger than the very similar boats that work off the beach at Sam Son, the next harbor up the coast, but were fully decked with timber. In Cua Lo, the wooden traditional boat seems to have won out over the basket style.
When the time comes to leave Cua Lo, it’s a reasonable day’s ride into Hanoi if that’s where you are headed. But even if you want to arrive in Hanoi at the end of the day, you should stop for a few hours in Sam Son, which is the closest summertime beach resort to Hanoi, not far from the city of Thanh Hoa. On a cold midwinter’s day (the only time I’ve been there), it’s not a lovely spot. But you can see, through the cold grey overcast, that in Summer’s heat it would be a delightful place. Again there are lots of hotels and guest houses and beachfront restaurants and picnic places, but there are some remarkable surprises as well.
The boats that fish from this beach are two types of bamboo boat. One is a basket about 16 to 18 feet long that, remarkably, sometimes still carries and uses a sail, though its primary power is a small engine. In Sam Son today, the making of the woven bamboo boats has ended, though there are still many on the beach working. The builder has shifted to hulls of fiberglass laid up over the top of one of his old bamboo hulls, popped off and then framed with wood just like the real baskets were. Thus the outside of the new boats looks blurry but basket-like, and the inside looks like the outside of a real basket. We’ll have to wait and see how the new boats last in the beach environment.
The other type of bamboo boat was also a sailing vessel in years past, and also now has a diesel engine as well. It is, however, no boat at all, but rather a bamboo raft. Actually, its grandparents were true bamboo rafts. The modern boats mostly have their bamboos split open and filled with white Styrofoam and lashed back together, not exactly traditional, but very much more reliable. A French writer in the 1940’s described them as fast sailors but prone to thumping hard when driven into a head sea. Apparently even today they go a long ways offshore and might spend two days or more at sea fishing, though they often return home every night. Those are men of steel.Return to Top
The last leg of your tour of Indochina (or your first if your journey began in Hanoi) must be a trip to and through Halong Bay and out to Cat Ba Island. From Hanoi, it’s very easy to arrange what will probably be a splendid tour of the Bay, or you could go directly to Halong City yourself and figure out the details to suit. If you are in any hotel in Hanoi, they will be happy to connect you with a tour that will come to the hotel, pick you up in a mini bus and take you down the highway an hour and a half or so to the harbor at Bai Chai. (Bai Chai is the more modern half of Halong City. The other half across the harbor mouth is much more a traditional Vietnamese town.)
At Bai Chai you will wait a short time while your guide puts things in order and figures out which boat you’ll be going on for the first leg of your tour out into the maze of islands and eventually to Cat Ba Island for the night. Shortly, you’ll be on board one of the garish tourist boats and steaming out of the harbor toward the first of the incredible limestone cliff islands that fill the bay. If you have seen the pictures of Guelin, China, with impossible sheer cliffs lifting straight out of flat rice paddies, then you will understand. This is the same terrain, but the cliffs rise straight from the clear blue sea.
You will probably tie up to eat a wonderful lunch in a cove surrounded by those islands, as though you’d floated into an immense cathedral with a vault of sky for the ceiling and impossible buttresses of stone to hold it up. Later in the day you’ll walk through underground limestone caverns that are utterly stunning. They are illuminated with colored light: yellows, greens, oranges, and though you might expect such lighting to be odd, somehow it seems in place and the stone waterfalls leaping from the stone overhead and monsters springing from the floors will delight you. And then there are the boats and Cat Ba Island itself.
The dominant boat life form in the region is the oval woven basket, more or less heavily reinforced with timber. Some of them are only powered by oars, the boatman or woman usually sitting, though sometimes standing aft, facing forward to row. Many of them though, are powered by small single-cylinder Chinese diesel engines. From your hotel in Cat Ba town overlooking the wide sheltered harbor, you can easily walk to the city pier and hire a rowboat to take you around the harbor. You should gently settle the matter of cost before letting yourself be lead on board, but at worst it’s likely to be quite reasonable and very good entertainment. Not many of the boatmen speak English, (and keep in mind that fully half of them are boat women and some of them very pretty at that) so you’ll be expected to suggest directions and ask questions with pantomime, but it’s all good fun. More likely than not, riding around the harbor you will find yourself invited aboard a fishing boat. If you are offered tea, be sure to take off your shoes before sitting down on the woven mat on deck to sip it and (most likely) nibble on the impossible little red sunflower seeds.
For a little more money you can hire a motorized basket boat to take you much farther afield for a few hours and see the nearby islands much closer up. For that matter, for just a little more money than that you can hire one of the traditional Halong Bay square nosed boats and travel far and wide. These square nosed boats are very characteristic of Halong Bay and rarely seen farther south. They’re a Chinese junk hull modified just enough to be good motorboats and built in sizes from 24 feet to 80 or 90 feet (many of the tourist boats, under their bulky superstructure are actually the traditional junk hull). The boat is really quite ordinary until just below the sheer. On the smaller boats it is only the uppermost plank of the hull that, instead of tying into the vertical stem with the rest of the planks, rolls out to lie flat and spread the foredeck out wide. Their sterns are different from all the southern boats as well: a form left over from their days as sailing boats. They used to have heavy wooden rudders hung on a secondary inner transom somewhat protected from following seas by a higher transom aft. The hull is still built that way but the rudder is now made of steel and down below, right behind the propeller where it does the most good these days.
Between the boat rides, the swimming beaches and the tours of the incredibly beautiful interior of the island (a national park), you can easily spend a long time on Cat Ba Island. What you won’t find though, is any boat building. Boats in this region are built in the nearby Red River delta towns or along the mainland coast away from the expensive tourist waterfront.
For example, North of Halong City 20 km is the town of Cam Pha. It extends up the hillside quite a ways, with its main business district three blocks above the highway so you hardly realize what a large and sophisticated place it is as you pass by on the road. Down on the waterfront, by contrast, is a gritty world where the bay and the land meet. It’s not a pretty area; the boatyards look temporary (as indeed they probably are, the tourist development continues to gobble up scenic waterfront wherever it is) and no doubt these builders will have to move. To find the spot, about 23 km north of Halong City’s magnificent new bridge, keep a sharp eye out toward the water side as you go along and you’ll spot a significant industrial harbor zone with a long pier and obvious modern industrial structures on land. It’s a coal-loading port dock, with a long conveyor leading out from the shore. Take the next good opportunity to exit the highway into the development on the waterfront side of the road.
If you immediately come to a large semi-outdoor beer garden on your right, you are in luck (in more ways than one), since the food and beer are both excellent there and the boat builders’ yards are not far off, ahead on your left. But one way or another, you are trapped between the highway and the bay and your boat builders are not far off on the water’s edge. You’ll find your way blocked by a park and a storm sewer drain (don’t linger) and various oddities of the road network, but stick as close as you can to the waterfront; you’ll find them. As is the case in much of Viet Nam, they build their boats the opposite of Western practice. That is, they first fasten the planks together edge to edge, then they put in the frames to hold them that way in service. (See the Traditional Boat page for more detail.) With luck you’ll be able to find several boats coming along and see how it’s done. Or you could hang around a while and keep coming back every week or so to check up.
If you go much further north you’ll end up in China and have a long ways to go to get a visa to re-enter Viet Nam, so this is about the end of your coastal journey. You can stop in Haiphong and find boats of course, but it’s a major port city full of big ships and cranes and modern traffic. Likewise, Hanoi is a river city and has a busy waterfront, but all that happens on that waterfront is the off-loading of sand and gravel barges and loads of bagged cement. The boats are all power barges, big steel brutes that haul huge loads through the shifting waters of the lower Red River, sometimes looking more like a long train of hopper cars on the river than individual boats. Any map of Hanoi will indicate the port area, so, by all means go and see them working. Hanoi is building itself over and over again, growing up and outward all the time and that means a lot of concrete, which means a lot of sand, gravel and cement. It all comes in by river. For a great view of the barges maneuvering in the current, you can hike out on the Long Bien Bridge (the one that was originally designed by the same fellow who drew the Eiffel Tower, but was later modified by B-52 bombs). You can hike out either side, so try the downstream side going one way and the upstream side the other. Between the motorbike traffic and the trains you don’t want to cross back and forth while on the bridge!Return to Top