The Vietnamese coast along the Gulf of Thailand stretches northward from the flat and not very accessible tip of the country south of Ca Mau up to Rach Gia, and thence west into Cambodia. The boats, on the Vietnamese Gulf Coast, change from the typical Vietnamese style to one that is close cousins to the Cambodian boats across the border. This page is a very brief overview of the Gulf of Thailand boats and covers only the areas around Rach Gia, Ha Tien, Phu Quoc Island and Mui Nai beach in Vietnam, and the Cambodian coastal town of Sihanoukville.
I have ridden a motorcycle all along National Highway 63, which is the really lovely little lane-and-a-half asphalt, paved road from Ca Mau to Rach Gia, hoping for a chance to veer off toward the coast to see what it’s like somewhere along the way, but nothing seemed to offer. On the new Vietnamese road atlas (which I didn’t have in 2008 when I passed that way) there is a very thin red line, signifying a “dirt road, poor quality” running right along that southwestern coast, but I never saw it. In any event, I rode through that far southern countryside from Can Tho to Ca Mau and on to Rach Gia without ever seeing the coastline until I got to the outskirts of Rach Gia.
From Rach Gia along the coast riding westward there were occasional sightings of beach or river mouth. Ha Tien, the border town, and Mui Nai, the last beach in Vietnam are really only separated by an easy day on a motorbike from Ca Mau, so the entire Vietnamese coast on the Gulf of Thailand is not long and the part you can readily access from upland is very short indeed, but full of interesting boats. The border crossing from Mui Nai into Cambodia was still a very quiet place in 2008, kept that way no doubt by the horrendous road on the Cambodian side. That road, too, keeps you away from the actual coastline, though you are rarely all that far from it. Occasionally the route crosses or runs along one waterway or another, but you don’t start seeing sea boats again until you’re close to the town of Kampot, which is actually a small river-mouth port town, sleepy and pretty, remembering French colonial days, and a good place to get used to being in Cambodia.
From Kampot, it is really only a short run to Kep, a proper beach and coast town I’m told, but by the time I came to Kampot I was feeling the strong pull of the Mekong River and its long run through Cambodia and Laos. So, with the time available, I had to choose from the three obvious Cambodian coastal destinations: Kep, nearby to the South, Sihanoukville and Koh Khong, one day and two days’ riding further to the West respectively. For better or worse I chose the run overland to Sihanoukville (which turned out to be a lovely place) and that was the end of my exploration of the Cambodian coast. Thus a detailed description of the coast and presumably its boats will have to wait for a better exploration, but here is a start:
Rach Gia was mentioned in the US Navy’s The Blue Book of Junks in the early 1960’s as a port where the motorization of the fishing fleet was well advanced. In fact, they drew a continuum from “almost completely motorized” in Rach Gia to “essentially no motors” in the area north of Hue. Thus the builders of Rach Gia have had time to develop a particularly able and attractive fleet of offshore fishing vessels, far removed from the traditional sailing hulls described by M. Pietri in the early 1940’s.
Rach Gia might be the epicenter for the spread of the modern motor fishing vessel type northward through all of Viet Nam, at least based on the continuum mentioned in The Blue Book of Junks, but it is also the overlap point for boats that are clearly Vietnamese by contrast with the boats you’ll see to the West in Cambodia.
At Rach Gia you have finally left the zone of all-blue boats behind you and the colors in the fleet are gorgeous: reds, greens, a few blues of one shade or another, lots of bold white sheer stripes, heavy guards picked out in contrasting colors, registration numbers elaborately lettered and drop-shadowed, altogether beautiful boats and magnificently built. The builders here, far in the South of Viet Nam on the Gulf of Thailand, have access, one way or another to fine stocks of boat-building wood, perhaps from Cambodia. Certainly there are no jungles or uncut forests in the Mekong Delta itself, and equally certainly, there is a lot of wonderful wood in these boats.
Distant Water Fishing Boats
The hallmark of the town’s boatyards today must surely be the deep-bodied, powerful, ocean-going boats for distant waters fishing, many of them carrying a large fleet of round basket boats aboard for individual fishermen. The boats are big, up to about eighty feet long, and proportionally beamy and tall. The largest of them have an exaggerated powderhorn sheer, with very tall bows, and the sheerline carried high for a ways before sweeping suddenly to a low waist amidships (for hauling back nets or retrieving the individual basket boats) and then sweeping back up, a little more gently, to a taller transom stern.
Smaller boats at Rach Gia, some almost tiny compared to the large ones, nonetheless are built to very similar lines of cabin and hull, almost as though they were builder’s models, but altogether lighter and somehow daintier, with a plainer sheer and finer lines. Hauled out together, the larger and smaller boats make an amusing sight.
An Entirely Different Boat Style
In Rach Gia you may see some very different boats, all about sixty feet long, but built with very shallow hulls with slack bilges and quite a bit of deadrise (shallow V-bottom) full length. They have the heavy wale near the waterline you will see as the norm farther to the West in Cambodia, but, unlike the great majority of boats along this coast, they have strongly raking bows, bold, or even outrageous stems, sweeping down to very low freeboard amidships. Even their cabins are drawn with daring lines and the overall impression of the boats is fast and rakish. When I first saw them in Rach Gia I thought perhaps they were just an odd "other" sort of vessel from the area. In fact, they are the largest of the typical boats from Phu Quoc Island, just over the horizon to the Southwest, visiting in town perhaps just to do annual maintenance in the shipyard.
Of the three lying afloat just off the shipyard, one was clearly just back in the water from a major refit, sparkling fresh, and her sisters, though a little sea worn, still looked fine. The boats on the hard, hauled out, were getting lots of work and the one that was about to go overboard again was sporting fresh paint over all, so whatever they do, they are turning a good profit these days. Their gear was not apparent from my vantage points, but interestingly, they all had what looked to be lookout’s seats at the masthead forward (though I couldn’t see how a lookout would climb up to sit there!).
I have never had time to linger in Rach Gia—always passing through en route elsewhere—so I’ve no doubt missed much of interest. In point of fact though, I have not seen anything resembling traditional small boats, that is, boats with long, high overhanging ends, or at least a high overhanging bow, pronounced sheer and outboard rudder.
Rach Gia to Ha Tien
A few miles short of Ha Tien, there is a small fleet of very remarkable and attractive long-shore boats. They seem to anchor off, normally, but I saw one hauled out just finishing an extensive overhaul. About twenty six feet overall length and eight feet of beam, (the typical size) she was built on a flat keel plank, with her deadwood planked all the way to the flat keel rather than having a vertical skeg or solid deadwood.
Indeed, her rudder stock turned in that bottom plank, which was still full width and thickness all the way aft. Blocked up on the beach you see her a little out of plumb, but let your eye follow the line of her bottom paint and you’ll see she has a lot of drag to her keel, that is, she is deeper aft than forward.
Unlike many Vietnamese boats, she is very nearly V-bottomed, although she’s all curved lines. There was no pile of obvious ballast lying next to her, but with her deep sections, you have to think she’d normally carry some stone or iron ballast below her floorboards. In any event, with her long easy lines and displacement a little aft to carry her machinery well and low, she’ll have an easy motion in a seaway and should go very well on small power.
Her framing is very regular, and not unusual in an Asian boat, her frames are not connected. That is, her floor timbers cross the keel and tie the first two or three planks on each side together, but are separate from her frames, which do not cross the keel at all. The work is all very tidily done and sturdy. She has no inwales or other longitudinal framing and her gunnels show the wear from much hauling of small line across them.
Though I didn’t see other identical examples further along the coast, the overall tendency toward a long, relatively slender double ended, or nearly double ended open boat continued as far as Kampot and Sihanoukville. The more normal boat of that overall type was built in much the same manner wherever I saw them, but truly double ended, slender and sharp at both ends, if not actually symmetrical.
Boats of Phu Quoc Island
Phu Quoc (say it “Foo Kwoke”) Island is one of the largest islands lying offshore from the Indochinese coast in the Gulf of Thailand. Although it has long been part of Viet Nam, just glancing at a map you would assume it was a Cambodian island, since it is only about 8 miles to the nearest point on the Cambodian mainland but 24 miles to the beach at Ha Tien, the nearest Vietnamese shore. The matter has been subject to rather fierce discussion at times in the past hundred years (including one brief Cambodian invasion in the 1970’s), but it seems to be settled now. Phu Quoc is a mountainous island, with peaks rising to nearly 2000 feet in the central ridge, so it is not surprising at all that the island has forever been a home to fishermen (and smugglers). It is roughly triangular, with the long axis running north and south, and one shorter side at the north end, with the largest town and capitol, Duong Dong, on the West coast about midway up the island. It has been a very rural backwater through its history so far but its beautiful white sand beaches have been “discovered” now and the big hotels are on their way.
I’ve never been there. I’ve stood on the beach near Ha Tien and seen the island in the distance and I was supposed to get there in late 2010, but a series of miscalculations and delays along the way saw to it that I turned aside from the ferry (there’s a modern high speed ferry sailing from Rach Gia and a smaller funkier one from Ha Tien). I returned north toward Laos to finish some exploration along the Ou and Mekong Rivers in the north of that country. Trying to cross the border at Lao Bao, I fell afoul of the new motor vehicle prohibition in Laos: no foreigners on Vietnamese motorbikes allowed into Laos. So, that plan fell apart too and I ended up finding sailing surf boats along the Central Vietnamese coast instead.
In the meantime, our friend Harry Duncan (Kiwi model builder extraordinaire, with a website at http://www.allscalemodels.com/) did make it to the island in July, 2011 and has sent me some excellent photos of the local boats.
The smallest boats, around 16 feet long, are pure rowing boats, simple but sweet lined, double ended round bottomed open surfboats with their T–handled oars mounted on tall stanchions aft and floorboards in the stern to make a standing spot for the oarsman (exactly like the water taxis in Can Tho, in the middle of the Delta). Slightly larger boats, around 20 feet long, are very similar, but with small motors inboard and the ordinary sort of shaft, propeller, water scoop (for cooling water) and steel rudder.
Although some of these motor boats find moorage afloat, a good number work off the island’s beaches, sometimes through the surf. The fishermen use home–made hand–powered winches to haul the boats up the beach, rather than walking them up the beach as is common farther north. Two men laying into the long capstan bar can put a terrible strain on the line and the boat comes home!
Cast iron capstans that worked the same way used to be common all over the world, but they commonly used massive metal and concrete to keep from pulling them out by the roots. (The old equal and opposite reaction problem.) Here the people use a wooden framework to support the (wooden) winch drum and long wooden backstays to take the strain to ground in yet more sand further up the beach. There are no ratcheting pawls to restrain the winch drum though, so if the men should slip the capstan bar would fly round at a dreadful clip and bruises and broken bones would likely be the least of their problems.
Many of the small boats, here and along the Cambodian coast and at Ha Tien, have very characteristic racks: either sprouting surprisingly just at their sterns; or a lower and simpler sort at the bow; or often enough, one at each end. They are good for a variety of uses. They almost always carry the long floppy ends of net buoys or fishing poles projecting overboard forward, and the fore rack is a fine place to hang and fairlead an anchor. Some of the boats at Mui Nai beach, use long–tail outboards (more about long–tail outboards) rather than inboard motors and they prop the long–tails up on just such a rack when they are not under power. (See next section.)
The larger boats, too big to routinely haul out, are fully decked now, with pilot houses aft and sharply raking bows. They are not at all the typical Vietnamese MFV, though. The smallest of them, down to about 30 feet long, are like somewhat stubbier models of the larger boats and, aside from their raking stems might almost blend with the other boats in other Vietnamese ports. You’ll see fleets of quite similar boats in the harbor at Ha Tien (the nearest Vietnamese port) and farther West into Cambodia.
The largest of these boats though, seem to be unique to Phu Quoc. Extremely long, lean and shallow for their size, they are truer to their lineage, with their pronounced straight raking stem and extremely high bows, shallow draft and pronounced deadrise. They have, however, a modern power-boat stern to carry their engines and, just for the good looks I think, sharply raking cabins as well.
I saw just such boats in the shipyard at Rach Gia in 2008, and didn’t know where they were from since they were so different from all the local boats. I thought they might be just another Rach Gia style, but now we know they are simply the largest sort of Phu Quoc boat, in Rach Gia for a shave and haircut at the shipyard.
They are all descended from the boats described in the wartime The Junk Blue Book (more about the Junk Blue Book) from the Phu Quoc and Rach Gia area. In that era (the 1960’s) they were essentially all already motor boats, but still had a sailboat’s hull. They were described in the Blue Book as:
“. . .a simple open double ender, resembling a motor whale boat. . .high pointed bow and stern. . .low freeboard amidships when loaded. . .”
During that era, the fishermen and shipwrights experimented with some remarkable cabins, some of them cantilevered out astern over thin air, to provide some shelter for the crew, and sometimes with a hatch through the cabin top for the helmsmen to stand at his work. Actually, cabins and working decks built out over the sharp sterns of Vietnamese boats go back many years all along the coast, some of them even more amazing than these 1960’s era motor boats.
These days however, almost all the larger boats have given up the sailing vessel’s sharp stern, and combine the old style graceful bow with a wide, low transom stern, better suited to carrying and using a heavy diesel engine. Only one older boat in Harry’s photos still has the sailing stern and the old style rudder that can be hoisted up out of harm’s way.
Mui Nai Beach
Starting at Mui Nai beach, which lies almost exactly on the Cambodian border, you’ll begin to see double-ended, round-bottomed boats that look for all the world like a New England whale boat from the 1800’s, except that they are not set up for rowing with a crew. Rather, they’ll either have a conventional inboard diesel of six or ten horsepower or, more interestingly, they’ll carry a pair of long-tailed outboard motors, one to port and another to starboard, usually based on five to ten horsepower Honda engines (or knock-offs). More about long-tail outboard motors. These boats will almost all have an odd looking trellis or framework erected all the way aft, which serves as a prop for, among other things: the long tails of their motors (when they’re picked out of the water); the long ends of the fishing buoys with their flags; and, in harbor at least, sometimes a scrap of tarp rigged for shade.
The smallest of them are about twenty-four feet long and six feet in beam, and they’ll range upwards of thirty-six feet, completely decked, though still with no pilot house or permanent shelter. They are really quite substantial vessels. Those that are inboard powered almost universally have a running board or squat board above the propeller to provide more bearing aft when under way.
There is another small fleet (I saw only a dozen at most) of very different, little dory-style almost-double-enders working off the beach and among the rocks along the new coast road from Ha Tien out to the resort at Mui Nai Beach. These boats look, from just a little distance, as though they might be New England dories about eighteen feet long, but on closer examination they are really much more nearly related to the Cambodian river boats that are based on a dugout log bottom, with added side planking and ends. These boats are very slender, more canoe-like than boat-like, and their bottoms are, in fact, carved from a solid half-log full length. Light side planks are added to raise the sheerline to a respectable level for a coastal longshore fishing boat and a stem and a very narrow tombstone transom finish the ends.
They are rowed standing up from a position well aft, with their oars hung on tall thole pins or stanchions, about two feet above the gunnels. The stanchions, however, are not lined up port and starboard as they are on any other boat I’ve ever seen. Rather, the port side oar is a lot farther aft than the starboard side. The oarsman stands on a small section of floorboards, and faces off to one side rather than straight ahead, then works the oars one after the other, left-right-left-right, and moves along perfectly well. I only saw one boat working along the shore, setting a string of very small collapsible crab (crayfish?) pots among the rocks, but he was too far off to get a photograph or see clearly exactly how the trick is done.
Gulf of Thailand Motor Fishing Vessels
The larger boats along the Gulf of Thailand coast, on both sides of the Viet Nam-Cambodian border are a good looking sort of Modern Motor Fishing Vessel (MFV), with a springy sheer running from a relatively low, broad transom stern up to proud raking bows. Like all such boats along the coast, if they have a pilot house, it’s right aft, and they have an open working deck forward. There is, however, a significant percentage of them, especially those under about thirty six feet long, that has no pilot house at all, but rather is decked over all. I even saw one pair of them, built exactly like the other MFV type boats in Kampot, right up to and including the forward bulkhead of the pilothouse, but no cabin behind that bulkhead, just a makeshift tarp shade. I’m not positive it’s a firm rule, but it appeared that the boats rigged for dragging had pilothouses (or at least the forward bulkhead from a pilothouse) and the boats fishing with a large spread of monofilament gill net did not.
These far southern MFV’s range in size from about thirty feet by ten feet beam up to really quite substantial vessels, with some wooden freighters approaching one hundred feet long, and some small boats, down to about eighteen feet long, built to very similar lines. They are almost all built to the western tradition, with a fully framed skeleton constructed, perhaps from drawings, complete before planking up. They are all built with a heavy square-sectioned wale running full length along the hull well below the sheer line.
Usually the hull above the wale is painted white (or a light pastel version of the otherwise main color of the hull). The wale is not added on over the planking as a rub strip, but is fastened directly to the frames and so provides a substantial additional longitudinal member to the framing. In fact, these boats, particularly in Cambodia, where excellent timber is still abundant, are built to a very high standard and well timbered with all the traditional Western style framing, including substantial internal stringers and wales.
The use of trunnels, or tapered and wedged wooden pegs is the most normal fastening for planking along the Gulf of Thailand coast in Viet Nam and Cambodia. Galvanized bolts and drifts are common for assembling frame members, but by no means universal. A boat with essentially no metal fasteners would not be unusual.
Many of the MFV type boats are rigged for dragging, that is, towing a sock-shaped net through the water, with its mouth spread out and down by a pair of wooden paravanes or doors on the towlines. On both sides of the border you will see a large net-reel or handwheel on the cabin tops of the draggers. At first glance, these seem to be just minor variations on the same equipment, but their functions are quite different. On the Vietnamese side of the border, there are usually a pair of brass or cast iron power capstan heads driven off the main engine and mounted just above deck level at the front of the cabin. One crewman on each side of the cabin can tail onto the towline for his half of the net and either coil it down himself or let a helper coil it down further forward. On the cabin top aft, in Viet Nam, the hand-powered reel on the cabin top is used to store the long bunt of the net neatly rolled up, with only the last few feet of net trailing down to deck level.
You will rarely see those power capstan heads on the small Cambodian draggers. Rather, the same pair of stanchions that would support the net-storage reel in Vietnamese waters will support instead a hand windlass, with capstan heads on each end built up out of wood. One or two pipe hand-wheels provide the chance for crewmen to lay into the load and help out the rest of the crew, presumably tailing onto the ends of the tow ropes by hand down on deck. It’s easy to see that the Vietnamese boats use significantly larger, finer mesh nets, which would no doubt be very difficult to haul back with the Cambodian muscle-powered gear.
Sihanoukville, the end of my Cambodian coastal explorations, fronts on a large bay with extensive sandy beaches in a broad arc. It is not a natural small boat harbor, no river mouth or protecting islands or sandbars offshore. The city was built purposely to support a modern deep-water tanker terminal and a separate modern container ship terminal. It is Cambodia’s only modern deep water port and the highway northbound out of town shows the impact. It’s the only place in the whole of the Viet Nam-Cambodia-Laos region where you encounter heavy semi-tractor-trailer traffic. To come to the city itself is worth the drive through the traffic, although it is more like a series of small towns spread along the edge of the ocean for miles. Aside from the container terminal and the oil dock, it’s one long beachfront resort, with hotels from the barest of bones to extremes of luxury and all manner of good things to eat in the restaurants and stalls.
The center of boat building activity in Sihanoukville is just next to the landward end of the modern shipping terminals. There’s a very compact little boatyard there, squeezed between the coast road and the water, with a finger pier out into the bay and a marine railway for hauling and launching boats up to about eighty feet long. There were twenty or more boats on the hard there when I passed through, all new construction or major overhauls. The wood and the workmanship were the finest quality I’ve seen anywhere in the region, and the standard models of boat they were building seemed to be excellent small seagoing motor vessels.
There are some small offshore islands within a few miles of the beaches at Sihanoukville, reputedly excellent for diving and snorkeling, and a small fleet of boats anchors off the various different beaches to carry tourists out to them. The boats are the typical double ended “whale boat” style, about twenty-eight feet long, equipped generally with a pair of long tail outboard motors of ten horsepower or less, seats for six or eight tourists, and a blue-tarp shade on a light wooden framework. The boats anchor quite near shore with a line to the beach to keep them facing the incoming surge (which is usually very gentle, even in the afternoons when some breeze comes up). The boats don’t come ashore, but rather, since everyone is going swimming anyway, the tourists wade out to the boat, where a short ladder hung over the side makes for easy boarding.
There may have been a fisherman’s festival in Cambodia when I rode through the countryside, or perhaps the Cambodian fishermen just court their vessels more ardently than other men I’ve known, but one way or another, essentially every single boat from Mui Nai all the way to Sihanoukville had a garland of colorful fine cloth tied around her stemhead, usually with a bouquet of plastic flowers as well. Certainly it does no harm to keep your boat in a good mood if you are taking her offshore fishing and want her to bring you home alive.