The Mekong Delta in the Far South of Vietnam is a flat country, never more than a few feet above water level. The seven major mouths of the River and dozens of major canals (not to mention sloughs and cutoffs) mean that nowhere is far from the water and the traditional wooden boats, modern Motor Fishing Vessels and small craft that work the waterways. Interestingly, it is often far into the countryside before you find a bridge too low to pass ocean–going boats. So besides the river boats, you see large ocean-going vessels far from the sea.
In all that water, there is a tremendous variety of boats working: most of them still traditionally built wooden boats. The smallest are still propelled by hand using oars or paddles, and many use a combination. They have small long-tailed outboards for use on the open river but pick up and swing the propeller on board and shift to a pair of oars to work in close quarters.
Amongst the engine powered boats there is every sort of power plant, from little air cooled gas engines to quite powerful diesels. A great many of them are mounted as long-tailed outboards, though some of the largest freight boats are inboard powered, with conventional installations.
The river freighters basically utilize one basic hull type and adapt it to all the different trades. For perishable produce, for example, they build a full length cabin top. For sand and gravel the hold will be open but have stout bulwarks to hold the water out when the boat is loaded clear down. For hauling bricks, there will be a flat deck at the bottom of the hold to start the stack, and for hauling poles and timber the bulwarks will open forward so the long pieces can be pulled out and sent ashore. All these boats though, are built much the same: double ended, round bottomed, with very full lines, carrying their greatest beam well into their ends.
The boat building trades are very well developed here and the boats are built to a high standard of fit, if not finish. The vast majority are either unpainted, oiled, or given a light coat of whitewash above the waterline. They do, however, almost universally carry a bright red bow ornament with a pair of eyes to watch for traffic and a painted anchor for a “nose.”
There are two unusual freighters running the inland waters of the Mekong Delta, at least as far upstream as Phnom Penh. They both have a surprisingly bulky house on an ordinary seeming delta freighter’s hull, and the bulky house is topped in both cases with a good looking but much smaller pilothouse, proportioned rather like a matchbox perched on a country mailbox. From a little distance they look a lot alike but they’re really two very different boats, one dry inside and the other very, very wet.
Fish Farm Tankers
When you stop to think about it, any fishing vessel is a fish transporter, at least if the fishing is good. And since old dead fish is generally not worth much, people have tried various ways to bring fish to market in good condition. No doubt one of the oldest and best is a free—flooding live well or fish tank. At its simplest, it’s a small part of the boat bulkheaded off and deliberately opened to the sea so the water can circulate in and out as the boat sails along, bringing fresh water and oxygen in and keeping the fish alive. However, most such boats have other functions; catching fish for example, and navigating in open ocean conditions, all of which tend to limit the size of a live well.
In the calm waters of the Vietnamese Mekong Delta, and upstream at least as far as Phnom Penh in Cambodia, a new need has arisen in recent years: the development of many fish farms, producing large quantities of fish that don't need to be caught or brought home from the open sea but do have to be shipped from the farm, out in the country, to the city and market. The solution has been to develop an entirely new sort of fish transporter that is essentially one large live well in the middle of a very large, very wide boat, with a small engine room sealed off in the stern and a small bow flotation compartment to keep the nose up. There were not many other requirements for this new sort of boat. Given the hot climate with monsoon rain and sometimes wicked sun, it needs a house for shade and shelter from the weather—for the people on board if not for their cargo—big open windows for some cooling air, and a pilot house to run her from were about all that was needed.
The resulting boat could have turned out plainly ugly were it not for a delightful bit of artistry in the bow and stern ornamentation. Nearly all the produce haulers, brick handlers, sand dredges and gravel barges on the river have much the same bright red smiling face (with a stylish anchor for nose and mouth!). It’s all integrated with the slightly widened foredeck that makes such a good place to set a gangplank when handling cargo.
Apparently a decorative design genius realized these fish tankers wouldn’t need to load that way and went instead to a wildly upthrust bow and stern, covered with the bright colors and intricate designs that somehow suggest a wide–eyed face with a gaping mouth. Surely it’s no accident that these boats, with their gaping cabin top maws, have gaping mouths caricatured on their stemheads. And maybe those are tail feathers of some sort on the stern and the big outboard–hung rudders. Pietri illustrated a vaguely similar motif used on sailing barges in the lower Mekong years ago. It was a pointy–headed showpiece, not that much like today’s fish tankers really, but maybe that’s where the idea came from.
Structurally, the fish tankers seem to be built much like any other Mekong Delta freighter; flame–bent, full length planks tapered at each end and fitted together like the body of an Italian mandolin are then heavily framed. (See Traditional Construction Techniques for detail.) The recent ones are no doubt beamier for their length than most river freighters. They are all equipped with the means of flooding their huge midships tanks down and circulating fresh water through them. Most of them have long panels of planking just below their loaded waterline on one side or the other perforated or even simply missing (though screened off) to let river water come and go as they move along. When the boats are pumped out and running light, those openings are usually covered with flaps of canvas and perhaps a few long lath or narrow planks. I’ve never watched one pump out or flood down, so I can’t tell you exactly how it is done. I suspect there must be a powerful pump on board, but again, I haven’t seen it yet.
Unlike other cargo boats, you will never see one of these half loaded. They are either running light or flooded down to just a scant foot or so of freeboard. This is unvarying, since the cargo hold is in reality a free flooding open tank; the boat will float at the same level regardless of how many fish are swimming in the hold. The fish tankers look remarkably broad for their length, and with their high open cabin forward, the impression of size (from any angle) is overwhelming. They seem positively ponderous plodding along all flooded down and full of fish. But dashing down a canal or channel all pumped out, high and light, they move very well without much fuss at all. You rarely find one in a convenient spot to examine closely. They’re either tied along the river bank at the fish farm loading up (almost by definition well out in the country and not conveniently close to a road) or they’re tied up behind the stalls of a fish market or processing plant. Neither of these is a mooring that encourages strangers to come aboard.
They are almost all powered with conventional inboard marine engines and typical reverse/reduction gear, driving a big propeller well under water. I’ve only seen a few—older boats and smaller—that were powered by the bigger sort of longtail outboard. (More about longtail outboards.) The rudders are normally big steel plate slabs stiffened with light angle iron. A few, again, older smaller boats, steer with a long (unwieldy!) tiller extending from the rudder head on the sternpost all the way forward into the open aft end of the pilot house up on top of the fish tank roof. Most of them have a heavy iron steering quadrant on the rudderhead, high above the main deck level, right at the top of the eave line of the big cabin. The rudder post is steadied by a heavy A–frame bracket holding the uppermost rudder bearing, and bolted off to the aft bulkhead of the cabin.
It’s an eminently sturdy and accessible solution, completely out of everybody’s way on board and yet in easy reach when adjustment or repair is needed. Once you know what to look for they’re easy to see: often painted bright red or green. Steering lines run from the quadrant to the aft corners of the cabin top where light turning blocks are bolted down (also brightly painted) and from the turning blocks forward along the cabin top edge until they’re level with the drum of the steering wheel in the pilot house. Such steering quadrants are typical on the larger river freighters too, but they’re usually hidden away under a deck and not in plain view.
There is a puzzle about these boats I have no answer for yet, since I’ve never been on board one that was pumped out and light. On the face of it, what clearly is a full width fish tank the greater length of the vessel would seem to be one large unconfined free surface tank. I don’t know why they are not in the habit of rolling over and drowning their crew, or at least scaring them thoroughly. They don’t work in open water at all, but the Mekong can develop a good chop in the lower delta and there is always the chance of a passing freighter’s wake starting the roll. I have never seen one off an even keel though, so no doubt they have the matter figured out. Bulkheads. . .there may be some longitudinal bulkheads as well as the normal transverse ones. We shall see, perhaps next year!
Dry Goods Boats
There is another sort of vessel you might take for one of these fish tankers at a little distance, but it’s just the opposite sort of thing. While the vast majority of Mekong Delta freighters have long open holds and carry their sand, gravel, bricks, coconuts, sugar cane or whatever out in the open air, some stuff will be ruined by any wet at all, so there is a class of Delta freighter I think of as Dry Goods Boats. There’s a dead giveaway right up front; the dry goods boats have very ordinary Mekong Delta bows, big oval black and white eyes, a broad red face, and shiny white nose or mouth! They’re about the same length as one of the fish tankers generally, between sixty and eighty feet, but they’re more normally proportioned, not so extraordinarily beamy. They have much the same bulky house over most of the hull, with a small pilot house that looks just like the fish tanker’s house perched on top of it, or so it looks at a little distance. There are some real differences though.
For one thing the pilothouse is right forward, not well aft as it always is on the fish tankers. Then there are the windows in the fish tanker’s big airy deck house. There aren’t any on the dry goods boats. The walls of the house are solid from end to end. And hatches. Where the fish tanker is wide open forward to let in the air (if not the wind and rain), the dry goods boats have a stout forward bulkhead. There is a big barn door in that forward bulkhead, usually with a lifting or sliding hatch above it to improve the headroom over the gangplank for the men coming and going with their loads. Almost all of them have another hatch, two feet square more or less, right in the middle of the house roof. Most often I have seen them loaded with bagged goods that have to stay dry, things like cement, fertilizer, flour or polished rice. That sort of thing. In that case, men load and unload them over the bow, carrying bags across long narrow gangplanks between shore and boat. Sometimes though, I’ve spotted one lying under the spout of a conveyor belt from a warehouse, loading cargo the easy way, right through the rooftop hatch. And of course it’s possible to load one of them as deep as you care to, so you’ll sometimes see one running somewhere between light and loaded down, or even out of trim, bow or stern high.
The waterfront of Can Tho, one of the finest cities of the Mekong Delta is full of scenes of heavy ocean-going fishing vessels tied along the quays and river boats passing back and forth. Vietnamese fishing vessels in harbor are often trimmed to crazy angles of heel. Are they working on the hulls near the waterline? Shifting fuel or ice or water tanks below decks?
Small Craft Propulsion: Long-Tailed Outboards
In the small boats of Can Tho, the combination of two long oars worked across the body and a long-tailed outboard is the propulsion of choice. The motors are typically a 5-horse generator model. The pieces that turn a little air cooled engine into a long-tailed outboard are locally made, a pivot on the transom of the boat that lets the whole works swivel 360 degrees, a handle that fits neatly between the knees of the standing boatman, the long propeller shaft and its pipe-sleeve bearing. The whole works costs only a few hundred dollars American and is superbly reliable. The outboards are always started in the air, an unnerving sight when in close company. There’s no neutral or reverse and the prop spins mightily in the air as soon as the starter cord is jerked. You’d expect bloody mayhem from boats starting up alongside and swinging their motors around, but the skill level among these people is remarkable and nothing unpleasant occurs.
Heavier Long-tailed Units
Unlike the small long-tail outboards, the heavier units on larger boats don’t steer the boat. They’re just propulsion, straight ahead, and often reverse as well. Steering is by a large outboard rudder, usually the subject of considerable decoration. The photos show the basic anatomy of the large units: a powerful engine, diesel or gasoline; a dry exhaust, often muffled; and a cooling-water intake that’s no more than a funnel on a pipe behind the propeller. (Who needs a water pump?)
These long-tail units have some serious advantages over conventional inboard power. The whole unit can be picked off and rebuilt at need, without having to carve up the cabin top or the accommodation. Really though, the biggest advantage is probably the ability to hoist the prop out of the water and clear whatever has fouled it in these shallow, rubbish-laden waters. Plastic bags, blue tarps, old lines, even water hyacinths plug water intakes or bind up props. The long-tail unit takes it all in stride.
Barrel Stave Construction Style
A style of construction common in this area and used for boats from small skiffs to large freight haulers: long pairs of planks are tapered evenly and sharply bent to bow (and stern) and coming not really to a transom, but rather just a small platform over the stem. Actually, there isn’t a stem, it’s just the bottom plank bent up like all the rest and making the starting point for the hull. The cabin top (when there is one) is tightly built so she can be loaded down until she actually floats on it. The construction at the stern is much the same as the bow. The hulls are very nearly double ended, close to identical at each end. More about this style of construction.
The Fast Canoes
The construction of the Vietnamese Mekong speed boats is actually very similar to the typical barrel stave boats that carry most of the region’s cargo, but their design is very different. These fast canoes range from small boats about eighteen feet long but hardly three feet of beam, up to fairly substantial boats about forty feet long and as much as six or seven feet of beam. The largest even have small cabins aft, or at least sturdy sun shades.
The essential differences between the typical freighters and the canoes, of whatever size, are:
- Obviously, the canoes are long and slender in comparison with the barrel boats.
- Although they are built on a flat bottom plank, the canoes do have distinct sharp stems to carry their side planks.
- The canoes are not double ended. They have sharp, sleek bows forward and sterns cut off square to produce a high speed flat run and a steeply reversed, raked transom.
- The canoes have substantial side decks full length and high coamings around the long cockpit.
- The canoes are all brightly painted, usually in combinations of blue and white with occasional trim of other colors as well.
- Although the vast majority of these boats are still traditionally built by hand from wood, you will see a few of the smaller size that are fiberglass. The fiberglass makes a very serviceable boat and we will probably see many more in years to come.
The canoes are heavily powered compared to the freighters and always powered by longtail outboards, some of them outrageously big. This requires substantial structure in the stern sections, with cross beams and reinforcement. The obvious problem that comes from having a very skinny boat with a heavy engine high above the hull is that the boat has a relatively strong desire to turn wrong way up. Hence the very low stern deck over the reinforcing, and the sloping transom, both designed to get the motor as low as possible. The deck and coaming structure also add substantially to the stiffness and strength of the hull (besides the obvious advantage of keeping the water out of the narrow, open hull). In effect it turns the entire boat into an engineered girder .
You would expect a speedboat to be engaged in the passenger trade as a normal thing, but besides passengers, a lot of these boats work at more mundane trades as well: bringing produce to the city markets for example, or even hauling livestock.