Modern Motor Fishing Vessels in Nha Trang Harbor, Vietnam

Nha Trang Harbor: MFV’s in the Foreground

The South Coast of Vietnam shades gradually from the Central Coast as the country spreads out to embrace the wide delta country south of Ho Chi Minh City. I arbitrarily decided to mark the end of the central coast at the beautiful bay and tiny town of Dai Lanh, whose boats really belong to the Nha Trang tradition, so Nha Trang is the first big boat-building city at the northern end of the South Coast. At the southern end, we will stop with Vung Tau.

You might expect me to carry on describing the boats to the south at least as far as Ca Mau or Nam Can down in the very southern tip of the country, but really, that delta country is just that, home to river boats and a few strays from the open ocean. So for me the South Coast of Vietnam runs from Nha Trang in the northern part, south through Cam Ranh, Phan Rang, Phan Ri, Mui Ne and Phan Thiet and ends at Vung Tau, the ultimate big time beach resort for Vietnam.

Nha Trang

Nha Trang is actually blessed with several harbors, but it is the river mouth in the center of the long stretch of gorgeous sandy beach and city that grabs your attention first. It’s one of the very best places to watch fishing boats coming and going anywhere along the coast. The harbor holds hundreds of boats, large and small, and any that want to go to sea must pass under the new bridge that carries the waterfront avenue across the river’s mouth. It’s a scenic spot: an island just offshore, the bay curving around to the North, the long sweep of sandy beach and a bustling city in all directions inland and, of course, the river mouth harbor clear full of beautiful (mostly bright blue) boats.

There are two sorts of fishing boats here, as in many Vietnamese ports: the modern MFV (motor fishing vessel) type, and a particularly good looking sort of double ended traditional boat, both types in a variety of sizes.

Nha Trang MFV Night Fisherman

Nha Trang MFV Geared for Night Fishing

MFV’s

The modern MFV’s are always painted, usually blue, but occasionally green or gray, with bright trim—red, white, sometimes a touch of yellow—and white around the windows and panels in the cabin top. Altogether, they are a very handsome bunch. Their bows are tall and flare very nicely into quite full lines at the rails but still manage to work into fine sharp cutwaters. From the tall bows their sheers sweep in an unbroken line down to the low waist amidships (where their fishing gear will come aboard) and back up in a proud sweep to their raking transom sterns. They are completely decked over, though not necessarily with tight hatches, and their sides form bulwarks to enclose the working deck forward and the short cockpit aft of the house. Their pilot houses are, as with all the MFV’s, located aft over the engine rooms. More about MFV’s. Although never large for their crew size, the cabins at least provide some shelter for the crew in foul weather. Often, particularly in smaller boats, the cabin sides rise directly from the hull, with no walkway from the foredeck to the cockpit aft, so the route between runs through the cabin doors on the forward corners of the house and out the door aft.

While the smaller boats are mostly powered by one or two-cylinder, un-muffled Chinese diesels, the larger boats have four or six cylinder engines, often muffled down to a pleasant rumble on deck, no matter how they might howl in the engine room itself.

Nha Trang Longliner

Nha Trang MFV Longliner

MFV Fisheries

They seem to be in two different fisheries, depending, as much as anything else, on their size. The smaller MFV’s, say up to about 40 feet long, mostly fish locally at night. Their cabin tops will carry light boxes on either side, as many as there is room for, each box with four, five or six fluorescent light tubes. Looking out to sea in the dark of night you will see seventy or eighty little pools of cold blue-white light out near the horizon: the fleet at work. There does not seem to be a squid fishery here. Rather, these boats are setting seine nets around their pools of light and bringing back a modest catch of silvery fish each morning. They all carry at least one round basket boat to help with the net. The catches are not usually large considering the size of the crew and boat. I saw many boats unloading only a hundred pounds, or not much more, with crews of five or six men.

The larger boats, some over sixty five feet long and very nicely proportioned, are almost all in distant waters fisheries, loading ice to last for probably five-day trips. Unlike most fleets fishing from Vietnamese ports, they load their ice aboard in full blocks, putting it belowdecks whole. Elsewhere it is typical to have the ice chipped up as it is loaded aboard, either by a plant ashore that chips it and blows it directly into the ice hold, or carrying block ice out to the fishing boat in special insulated ice boats, each of which carries an ice chipper on top of its insulated cabin top. The Nha Trang boats, almost without exception, have their own ice chipping machines on deck, just forward of the cabin (within easy reach of a hydraulic line from an engine below). They will leave the blocks in the hold until they have fish to put below, then chip the ice they need. The blocks will last far longer than the pre-chipped stuff and anyway, the chipped ice tends to re-freeze together after a while in the hold and has to be broken up by hand—hard labor—by the third or fourth day at sea. The block ice seems a good solution until you think about wrestling with a slippery block of rock-hard ice weighing over a hundred pounds, slithering around on the deck of a small boat in a seaway. Smashed fingers and broken ankles seem like reasonable outcomes.

Long Line Ground Line

The Ground Line Used in Longlining

The distant-waters boats from Nha Trang seem mostly to be fishing with longline gear, set by hand (no baiting machines or ground line reels), but in many cases, hauled back using a hydraulic power block. The power block is a simple device, popular all over the world for lifting long-line gear or crab or lobster pots. It is basically nothing but a hydraulically powered, spinning, rubber-clad metal spool a foot or two in diameter. If you put a loop of groundline or potwarp over the top of the spinning spool, it will pull the line up over the spool and bring fish or crabs with it. It’s vastly less work than hauling the same line up by hand, but has the potential for nipping off careless fingers or worse.

The ground lines are monofilament of heroic proportions, nearly 3/16 inch thick and enormously strong. Short leaders with baited hooks are spaced out along the ground line, twenty feet or more apart and the whole string, which may be nearly half a mile long, is laid out between buoys. In the harbor the buoy poles, each with its own bright flag bundled together along the aft bulkhead of the cabin, make a pretty sight. Many of these boats carry great numbers of flimsy plastic “milk jug” floats, so they presumably are fishing with their gear on the surface, probably looking for tuna or large billfish. I’ve seen tuna bigger than a man being off-loaded by hand from harbor boats onto a small dock at the upstream end of the harbor.

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Traditionl Nha Trang Boat

Traditionl Nha Trang Boat
Note nga on bow behind the young man.

Traditional Boats

The traditional design of Vietnamese fishing boats from Nha Trang are among the most graceful and attractive anywhere. Smaller than the MFV types in general (though there is some overlap between the smallest MFV’s and largest traditional boats) they range in length from about twenty feet to forty. They are double enders, with bold sheer lines, high raking bows and lower sterns overhanging the sea, usually with a gracefully curved rudder hung on the sternpost, though also sometimes on a pair of extended iron gudgeons that serve to give the rudder’s pivot axis a better angle while at the same time creating an odd sense that the rudder has been left behind by the boat! The largest of them—perhaps thirty five or forty feet long—will have pilot houses very like those you see on the modern MFV’s, but the majority of the traditional boats have only a motor house perhaps big enough for the two-man crew to huddle under cover by the engine while the net is soaking, and often nothing more than a weather cover for the engine.

Trim Detail

The workmanship on these traditional boats (indeed, on all the Nha Trang boats) is quite good, if sometimes the lining out of planks is a bit startling to Western eyes. Especially when newly painted and oiled they’re very beautiful boats. They’re never painted overall, but rather, will have an oiled or varnished hull (sadly, never bright golden for very long each season) and a brightly painted gunnel, red or sometimes blue, with blue paint to pick out the house or motor box sides and white, red and yellow trim to brighten the frames around doors or panels in the topsides. They always have long graceful oval eyes painted on their bows, and sometimes tail feathers as well, and they all have artistically carved and painted nga.

Nga

Once found on essentially every Vietnamese boat, nga are now mostly only found on traditional style boats descended from older sailing types. Nga are rather like a painted wooden moustache or pair of wings on the bow of a boat, useful for hanging the anchor on, or fairleading the bow line or anchor warp. In some traditions they’re nothing but functional, unfinished plain wood, but in other areas they seem to be an important ornament or, in times past at least, the site of the on-board altar and incense burning spot.

The smaller boats are all powered by single cylinder Chinese diesels, usually discharging their exhausts directly overboard, or worse, straight into the air in front of the skipper at the tiller. The racket is dreadful and the vibration on board would shake the nails out of a boat in time, if nails had been used at all!

Woven Bamboo Basket Boat Powered by Foot

Woven Bamboo Basket Boat Powered by Foot

These traditional boats from Nha Trang are mostly in the night fishing trades. The larger boats are usually equipped with the same sort of flat light boxes of fluorescent tubes mounted on their cabin tops as the MFV’s. Interestingly, the smaller boats rarely have any lights aboard but still fish at night. Again, they almost all carry a round basket to help with their gear, though you will also see them towing very small canoes, sometimes two at a time.

The smallest of the traditional boats that go offshore fishing at night (20 to 22 feet long) all carry a large curved T-handle sculling oar on their port quarter, arranged so the fisherman standing in the working area forward of the engine box can readily work the oar. I’ve never seen one in use inside the harbor, but it is easy to imagine wanting to have an oar to use at sea for working close to the net, instead of using the net-gobbling propeller.

Nha Trang Harbor Boats

The harbor boats in Nha Trang are quite interesting. Besides hundreds of round basket boats in a variety of sizes, there are still a good number of long double-ended basket boats working as harbor taxis and fish buyers. Fifteen to eighteen feet long, they are mostly rowed by men seated right aft and paddling (or is it pedaling) with their feet on long T-handled oars. These are not pretty boats, black, flat sheer, spindle shaped, but very effective. Rowed by leg power they move very quickly and carry a heavy load in protected water.

Side by side with the woven basket boats are identical boats made in the composite wood-and-aluminum tradition like the "armadillo" boats in Hue. The smaller of these boats are sometimes paddled with canoe paddles instead of being rowed, particularly if the boat is being used as a floating sandwich shop (of which there are several in the harbor, operated by young women). Now and then you see a very similar little boat, double ended, wood and aluminum composite, but canoe sized, and a good deal more graceful, with a pleasant bounce to the sheer. They are always paddled like a canoe of course.

Nha Trang Heavy Carrier

Nha Trang Heavy Carrier

The most startling boats in Nha Trang are also unique to the harbor. Or at least I’ve never seen them elsewhere. They are a wood and aluminum composite, about twenty-two feet long on average, obviously evolved to be heavy carriers using engine power. They have broad transom sterns with very little rise in their run aft but quite a bit of sheer forward. The reason becomes obvious when you see them working. Besides fish from the fleet, they haul sand or ice from the cold storage house out to fishing boats ready to leave for sea. Whichever cargo they are hauling, it’s usually every ounce they will carry without sinking. If they didn’t have the raised sheerline forward, their bow wave would come aboard in a moment and sink them. As it is, they are a marvel of load carrying, if not of safety. They are completely open, though the engine box is bulkheaded off from the cargo areas fore and aft. Their crews routinely ride on top of the cargo when they’re loaded, lying down for better stability. On tons of ice that must be an interesting sensation.

Nha Trang Boat Yards

There are several boat yards in downtown Nha Trang, upstream of the second (older) bridge and behind the Cham Towers. (The well-preserved towers are a prominent landmark in the inner harbor.) Finding them by water was easy, but it was a major struggle to get there by street. One large yard has major construction and repair work going on as well as lots of cleaning, painting and dry storage.

I also found two small shops building the composite wood and aluminum boats in the same neighborhood behind the Cham towers. Beautiful, red hardwood upper planks were being cut to shape and planed down for thickness. They also had finished, or nearly finished, boats ready to go. Even at this size range the same rule applied, the traditional boat is not painted and the square sterned modern motorboat is blue with red trim.

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Road and nuoc mam factories in Ca Na, Binh Thuan province, Vietnam

Nuoc Mam factories lined up on the road through Ca Na

Ca Na

Along the Vietnamese coast from Phan Rang south to Phan Thiet, in the southern part of the country, the climate and terrain are very similar to the country in Mexico’s Baja California. The hills are almost barren, lightly vegetated with desert shrubs and cactus, littered with boulders and paved with bare sand and stone. The sky is almost always unblemished bright blue. The sea, when the road takes you close enough to see it, is a wonderful clear blue, breaking on sand and cobble beaches.

The coast is exposed to the full sweep of the South China Sea, which makes it a ragged place, especially during the SE monsoon. The shore alternates between rocky headlands backed by ranges of hills, and long stretches of sand dune coastline, with truly beautiful beaches. It is a dry and inhospitable country with few towns and little else. That blue sea, however contains two things essential to the making of Viet Nam’s national seasoning, “Nuoc Mam” or salty fish sauce: (1) abundant fish, and (2) salt.

At Ca Na, a couple of hours south of Phan Rang by motorbike, the ingredients come together perfectly. Natural sand flats and salt ponds have been reshaped to produce an abundant harvest of salt. The sea is lead into shallow artificial ponds and left to the sun. When the water is gone (not long under the desert sun) the salt remains. Offshore the warm tropical sea swarms with fish. The natural bay was not a particularly good anchorage, but there is an artificial harbor now that shelters several hundred fishing boats and the town smells of brewing nuoc mam from one end to the other.

Finished MFV in boat yard in Ca Na

A Typical Ca Na MFV
Though she’d be at home almost anywhere along the coast for
a thousand miles, she’s better built than most.

Excellent Boat Building in Ca Na

In one of the boatyards at the fishing harbor in the small desert town of Ca Na, I found particularly excellent heavy Motor Fishing Vessel construction in progress, with several boats at various stages all at one time. It was not enough of a sample to document the complete construction sequence, but there is very little left for the imagination to fill in. The builders here produce a fairly standardized boat: a very shapely but still nearly flat bottomed and very burdensome vessel with nearly parallel sides. They have well rounded bilges, shapely flaring bows, a lively sheer line rising sweetly forward, and a broad transom stern at the top of a long run aft. They are all single screw boats, and most have bipod masts and power capstans on deck. One of the builders told me they are 17 meters (55.8 feet) long, five meters (16 feet) in beam and two meters (6.5 feet) “deep”. The two meters clearly refers to their loaded draft, not their depth of hold, which is more like four meters or a bit more.

There are at least three yards producing new construction and doing maintenance and repair work here under the desert sun. Besides the actual yards, there’s a small sawmill, with a large horizontal bandsaw running on rails and cutting truly magnificent lumber from long lengths of clear logs. Obviously this timber is brought in from somewhere far to the north or west, since there is nothing locally available much bigger than sage brush or mesquite. No matter, one way or another the boatwrights have superb lumber to work with.

The barely begun boat: a keel, stem, keelson and most of the bottom frames. Hard to tell what she will turn out to be.

The Barely Begun Boat

One of the vessels under construction was in the very first stages: no more than a keel, a stem, and a keelson sprung up aft to define the run. Almost all the bottom frames, pre cut for limber holes (so water can drain from end to end in the finished hull) were bolted to the keel or keelson. The keel timber runs full length from the stem to the eventual end of the skeg, a grand timber, 8 inches thick and over a foot deep, full length without a joint.

The keelson is a flat plank about 3.5 inches thick and the same width as the keel, let into the keel about one third of the way forward and bent up in a graceful arc. Actually, more than a keelson, this timber, bent up to carry the bottom framing aft is really a carry over from the Vietnamese building tradition: basing the boat on a flat plank bent up fore and aft. In this case the flat plank aft is married to a Western style keel that carries the structure for two thirds of her length forward.

The stem is a great baulk of timber, the same width as the keel where the two meet, but thickening and widening as it rises, and rounded where it will eventually cut the water. Though it has a small block of timber reinforcing the simple joint to the keel, it won’t stand on its own for a long time to come and is held firmly with a gantry arrangement of temporary timbers and a heavy chain fall, all braced by several shores to the ground.

Almost completely framed hull.

Now you can see what the builder has in mind.

Likewise the keelson has to be held in place and it is hung from a pair of “goal posts” temporarily bolted to what will eventually be the lowest timber of the transom framing. The lower edges of the frames have been sniped or narrowed, though not very precisely yet, just quietly suggesting the curve from the dead flat bottom up into what will become a very nicely rounded turn of the bilge. The foremost frames were not yet in place.

Then there is a gap in time—perhaps a month or six weeks—to the stage her sister ship has reached, close alongside. By some miracle of skill, she has gone from being a very angular and not terribly graceful set of ribs on a backbone to being an almost completely framed up hull. With her bottom planking complete up to the turn of the bilge, though not all the way around yet, she’s already beautiful. The frames for her sides have all been cut out and bolted to the bottom framing with only one or two bolts at each joint. It’s a weak joint structurally, but she will gain enormous strength from a full set of bulkheads dividing her into fish holds and machinery space before she’s finished.

For now the side frames are frequently stayed off to the bottom frames with temporary diagonals and a temporary ribband traces out the line of her future sheer to keep her in shape as the planking proceeds. The temporary supports for the stem and transom timber are gone now. There is still falsework around her bow, but it’s just scaffolding for access, her stem stands alone. And it’s been thickened with a pair of cheek pieces bolted clear through to support the hood ends of the bow planking even better than the rabbet in the stem. (I haven’t noticed this detail elsewhere along the coast, but may have missed it.)

Clamps hold a piece of scrap planking to a pair of frames. Hydrualic jack sits on the plank that needs to move and the ram itself bears against the clamped off scrap wood.

Two clamps hold a crossbar to the frames.

These men are producing really excellent planking and not tolerating wide seams or gaps. They have an abundance of big C clamps and a number of good sized hydraulic jacks and they are not afraid to use them to put the planks where they belong. They have a neat trick to edge–set planking to close up a seam. They use two large clamps to hold a piece of scrap planking to a pair of frames just high enough above the wayward plank they’re setting to let them slide a jack in. The jack sits on the plank that needs to move and the ram itself bears against the clamped off scrap wood. The seam closes.

Likewise, they demand a good fit of the planks to the frames and use whatever clamps are necessary to enforce it. They fasten the planking with galvanized bolts, 1/2 inch in diameter, countersunk below the surface to be bunged off, with a dollop of red lead paint and a twist of caulking cotton wrapped around each bolt as it is torqued down.

Temporary diagonals, her side frames bolted to the floor timbers with just two bolts, planking fasteners drilled from outside.

A third boat, perhaps two months further along in its building, had most of the bow framing complete. And what a mass of fitted timber is involved! The framing and planking of the bows is the most difficult on the entire boat. The shape of the bow is complex and the curves and twists are very abrupt. Although the ribs can be cut to nearly any shape and bolted together, the planking can only be bent and twisted so far. The demand is that the boat have a sharp cutwater under water, but flare out very rapidly into apple bows, round and full, for buoyancy to rise above the seas and the volume to carry a big load, not unlike medieval European sailing ships. To get the frames, heavily curved and beveled as they are, out of straight, flat stock means they have to be cut from at least two and sometimes three pieces which are overlapped for a distance of two or three feet, but are not necessarily bolted together where they overlap, or even, in places, lie in contact.

Interior of the bow from mid-ships looking forward. Planking is about one third completed.

Complexity at the Bow

Three points need noting from the photographs:

  1. The bow frames (at least) were not lofted and cut to their final bevel. Rather, they were approximated (rather closely) when they were cut out, and have been dubbed in place in order to bear well against the planking.
  2. The cant frames that will eventually fill in the bows have not been added yet, and it appears that the planking will be largely finished before they are inserted.
  3. The shape of the boat at the deck line (at least) is being defined for now by a piece of steel rod about 12 feet long, bent to a nice arc and spanning from the foremost completed rib up to the bearding line of the stem. I don’t know yet exactly how that is used, whether to fit the cant frames or to guide the planking. It is clear, though, that the job was not done on a mold loft floor (if there is one), but is being done here on the boat.

Thus a framing system that looked very pre-planned and regular—perhaps even lofted—in the midbody and stern sections of the boat, looks more and more ad hoc and random in her difficult bow sections. This would seem to be a very interesting melding of the Western tradition of a complete frame covered later with planking and the Oriental tradition of planking extended beyond the finished framing and the framing fitted afterwards.

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The transom all but planked up, and the rubbing
wale running full length along the sheerline.

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Planking complete to the first wale.
Note the stealers to raise the sheer forward.

The fourth sister in this pretty family was planked clear up to the stout wale that circles the vessel just below the bulwarks. Its planking is nearly twice as thick as the regular planking (3 inches instead of 1.5) and apparently cut from a different species of wood. It’s a lighter gray color and more inclined to check than the brown planking. It appears to be a variety of the tropical hardwood that we would have called ironbark or ironwood in Seattle, where it is used to keep anchors from chewing up the planking around hawsepipes and to cap rub rails.

Planking and framing of the run aft. These builders taper the planking to a feather edge, which makes for tight bolt spacing on the frames.

Planking and framing of the run aft.

The plank runs were based on the available long straight lengths of wide plank stock, and so the planks tapered fiercely as they came to the bows and the girth of the vessel rapidly changed, from a nearly square box amidships to a sharp edge at the cutwater. To plank up the bright and lively sheer line there was no choice but to cut stealers—long planks, straight on the lower edge but cut to the curve of the sheer line on their upper edge. The heavy wale though, was either cut from an amazingly wide piece of stock or was somehow edge-bent, it was in long lengths as well. It took jacks and a chain falls to force it into place and a lot of clamps to hold it there while it was bolted off. Likewise the planking above the turn of the bilge was filled in with planks cut to long tapers and sharp ends where they met the rise of the run.

It is interesting to note that these builders generally drill the lead holes for their planking fasteners through from the outside, so they are perfectly spaced on the exterior of the hull, though they are not always so perfectly placed on the inner face of the frames, sometimes landing a bit too close to the edge of the frame, or close to another bolt. Given the narrow planks in the ends of the vessel, it is not surprising that the bolts seem a little crowded. As with most Vietnamese boatbuilding practices, you must keep in mind that they are working with hard woods that have very different structural characteristics from the soft woods typical of much American boat building.

Stern details of three Ca Na MFVs including projecting lower transom frame timbers and rudders.

Typical stern details on the Ca Na boats.Note the heavy
lower transom frame timber with its projecting ends.

The broad flat transom was planked up with simple vertical staving fastened to substantial internal framing and set against the heavy external bottom transom frame. This lower transom frame timber, which projects outside the line of the finished boat, is a peculiarity of Vietnamese boats, common all along the coast. Although it looks as though it should be a dreadful drag, the boats are rarely (if ever) loaded down to the point that it would cause a problem. I have not yet, however, deduced the advantage (if any) of the projections.

The horrendous curves in the hardwood planking of these boats are pre-bent over flame, but not in the casual way so common elsewhere on the coast. The builders here have erected a stout framework of scrap wood from the nearby mill. There are four posts set into the ground and well braced, with high and low horizontal timbers positioned to restrain the planks, and an array of chain falls to apply the bending pressure wherever it is needed. They clamp the planks together in matching pairs with iron bars and C-clamps and use those bars to rig their chain falls to so the builders have planks that match ready to fit on each side.

Besides the neatly placed chain falls, they use a selection of tidy quarried granite blocks to weight down the long tails of the planks that are not involved in the bending. A lone man tends the fire and keeps adjusting the chain falls to obtain the necessary bend in the planks. I have not seen anything like this anywhere else on the coast or up the rivers. All the other sites I’ve visited use a much simpler ad hoc fire pit and simple arrangement of posts and beams and rocks to do their bending.

Plank bending frame with the neat granite blocks that are quarried from the huge boulders on the mountainsides and popular for building houses.  The sawmill is in the backgroiund.

Bending the Hardwood Planks
Three chain falls, a rigid frame to work against, and a fierce little fire.

Altogether this particular family of modern Motor Fishing Vessels is a uniquely Vietnamese combination of old European and probably older Oriental boatbuilding techniques. No doubt the hull form is well evolved for use of a heavy diesel engine, and a type you might find in Europe or America, but the execution and the details are Vietnamese. In a real sense, although she has a keel for 2/3 of her length, this vessel is built as though that were a central plank to carry the frames, and in fact, the aft third is just that. There’s no real dead wood, rather a very Oriental solution of sculptured blocking filling in the gap between the keelson and the extended keel timber. The framing system too is Oriental rather than Western, with its sawn frames only loosely connected at the turn of the bilge, if at all. Certainly the rudder and the running gear are European, but the perforations in the rudder are strictly Oriental. And the cabin top and layout are something you’ll not find in the West.

Throughout this piece I kept using the words “splendid”, “magnificent” and “excellent”, and it’s for good reason. If you want a traditional heavy wooden boat, you would do well to visit Ca Na to have her built there. Or of course, you could try Sihanoukville, Cambodia as well, they do similarly fine work on a somewhat different style of boat.

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Phan Thiet Harbor

Phan Thiet Harbor with Local Style of MFV’s in Foreground

Mui Ne and Phan Thiet

The influence of Nha Trang extends a long ways north and south along the coast, but by the time you reach Mui Ne and Phan Thiet you have moved into a different boat building and fishing tradition. Phan Thiet is actually the big city of the area, the largest in Binh Thuan Province. Mui Ne, twenty odd kilometers to the north, is just a small village by comparison, but it stands on the high ground back of a prominent cape and looks out onto a well sheltered natural bay to the south and, on the other side of the cape, another bay, almost as sheltered facing the North. Whenever I’ve been there, the fleet (upwards of three hundred boats) has been anchored out in the southern bay. But when the wind turns and comes from the South, the fleet will pick up and move to the northern bay! The main harbor in Phan Thiet, by contrast, is an improved river mouth with artificial breakwaters extending out into the bay, a dredged channel, and the harbor banks built up with masonry bulkheads. The space along the shoreline is completely full of fine looking fishing boats, mostly variants on the modern MFV style, though (with the exception of a few strays that are obviously from Nha Trang) a very different style than you’ll see further north.

MFV’s in Phan Thiet and Mui Ne

The typical local MFV in Phan Thiet and Mui Ne has a two-step “wedding cake” pilothouse arrangement, with the engine house below and a pilothouse—or at least a head and shoulders shelter for the skipper—above and behind. The sheerline is particularly bold, and, very uncommonly for Southeast Asia, the stem is actually curved like a clipper ship’s. Further, their hulls are only rarely painted, but rather are finished with an oil of some sort that gives them a beautifully brown, varnished look for a while, but soon fades to a sunburned brownish gray, almost as though they’d never been finished at all. The pilothouses are usually painted green or blue and there is normally quite a lot of bright red and yellow trim on the gunnels and rub rails and white outlining around the windows.

Dragger at Mui Ne

Dragger at Mui Ne with Typical Wedding Cake Pilot House

There are two prominent styles of transom on the MFV type boats, both raked heavily. One type is planked straight across, but has a pronounced curve when seen from the side. The other is planked with vertical "barrel staves" so that it flares widely to the side and aft, but presents a straight line when viewed from the side. In another change from the Nha Trang boats, these, modern though they are, almost all have nga—the anchor chock/bow fairlead-ornament—just as if they were traditional boats.

Altogether, these boats, even in larger sizes, give a leaner, lower impression than the husky boats from Nha Trang, and somehow perhaps a more oriental look. It’s tempting to think they derive from Japanese designs imported during the 1960’s to go with the Japanese engines that were being imported then, but I have no documentation of that.

Draggers & Seiners

The country behind Mui Ne and Phan Thiet away from the streams is sandy desert and stony hills. The shoreline is a series of beautiful beaches backed by tall partially vegetated dunes. The sand ashore gives you a clue as to the sea bottom offshore: more sand, with here and there a rocky outcrop, no doubt. In consequence a great many of the boats are rigged for dragging, pulling a sock-shaped net along the bottom, using otter boards (or doors or paravanes—all the same sort of underwater kite designed to pull the mouth of the net down and out). The otter boards are prominently hung outboard on the quarters of the boats. A dragger is subject to hanging up and wrecking his gear on any sort of a rock or a wreck on the bottom, so a generally sandy bottom is just what they want.

Seiner at Mui Ne

Mui Ne Seiner

Many other local boats set enormous seine nets on the surface and spend hours with a big crew pursing up and hauling back. I have no data to prove the point, but the draggers and seiners both look a little too sea-weary, wanting more paint more often, and other repairs as well. Perhaps there is too much pressure on the fishery now.

Squidders

The squidders seem to be doing a little better, fresher paint and fewer obvious problems. Mostly they are larger boats and often of the Nha Trang MFV style, or a variant, with somewhat lower freeboard all around and less dramatic sheerlines. Needing their long booms spread out over the sea to set their nets at night, they often leave them spread during the day in good weather, but then they have to stay away from other boats or risk a major tangle of rigging. Perhaps because they have to anchor out so far, they often have bigger cabins than typical Nha Trang boats, enough to give pretty comfortable shelter for a modest sized crew. The largest squidders are the best kept by and large and have massive arrays of expensive lighting and intriguing rigging setups to handle their long net booms.

Squid Boat at Mui Ne

Mui Ne Squid Boat
Note Reflectorized Lights on Port Side Boom

Where squidders farther north seem content just to have rows of big light bulbs in racks on their cabin tops to light up the sea around in a general way, these Mui Ne/Phan Thiet squid boats have booms rigged just forward of their cabins with enormous reflectorized lights in constellations of six to ten bulbs. The booms swing inboard during the day or when they are traveling, but swing out over the port side and aim straight down into the water, turning the night into day to quite a depth. Charcoaled squid was a popular and cheap treat in Viet Nam (rather like salty chewing gum or fishy beef jerky) when I was a young man. Forty years later, the same treat in Hanoi costs more than a good dinner, though it’s still scorched on the same sort of charcoal burner on the sidewalk. No doubt that has something to do with the good condition and expensive rigging of the squid boats.

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Traditional Boats in Phan Thiet, Vietnam

Traditional Boats: Phan Thiet

Traditional Boats

The most common of the traditional boats in Mui Ne and Phan Thiet are open boats, ranging from sixteen feet to about twenty feet long, and very beamy for their length. They are double enders, and unusually symmetrical, with pronounced overhangs fore and aft. Although they are round bottomed boats—all curves without chines—they are nearly flat bottomed. Like essentially all Vietnamese boats in this size range, they’re powered nowadays with single cylinder Chinese diesel engines, usually running their exhaust straight in the air, though sometimes out through the topsides of the hull. The cooling water supply is the typical pipe bent around to look straight into the prop wash. More about the cooling water supply. Besides the engine, they all carry an enormous sculling oar on a pair of crutches along one gunnel. They are framed with sawn timber frames on about one foot centers and fastened with trunnels. Most of them have the bow bulkheaded off and decked over and a tight midships bulkhead as well to keep the fish from sliding end to end. A majority also have bilge keels or “flopper stoppers” bolted on just aft of amidships and right close to the waterline.

They are all finished with the same oil as the MFV types, so they look brownish grey almost all the time, only being beautifully brown for a short while when the oil is fresh. They are often painted blue inside, and commonly have blue or yellow gunnels and a bright red half stripe forward, with a graceful, if somewhat small, eye painted on the red background. They all have ornate nga, usually painted red with yellow accents. The nga have practical notches to hold the anchor stock or fairlead the mooring or anchor lines, but they are prettier than mere necessity dictates, with a jaunty upward bounce to their “wingtips.”

Small Traditional Boat at Mui Ne

Small Traditional Boat at Mui Ne

They are very burdensome little boats, easily carrying a three man crew and their catch and gear. Their rudders are shipped through a slot in their sternposts. With wooden stocks and blades the rudders are readily raised out of harm’s way for beaching and in fact, these boats are usually moored on the water’s edge, whether on the beach at Mui Ne or on the muddy banks of the river mouth in Phan Thiet. A very few of them have arranged a primitive sun shade sort of shelter for the helmsman, but mostly they are entirely open. They carry a T-handle sculling oar about 7/8ths as long as the boat, unshipped and carried in a pair of crutches let into the gunnel when not working. Typically a heavy rope grommet is seized on the loom of the oar ready to drop over a short stout wooden stanchion set in the gunnel on the port quarter.

Viewed from the wrong perspective they seem to be about as graceful as half of a watermelon, but that is carrying it too far. They are short, round, beamy and deep bodied, but they move very easily over the water, drawing very little and making almost no fuss as they move, at least lightly loaded.

The harbor at Phan Thiet holds three other very unusual wooden boats: a water taxi, an ancient style of double-ended sailing vessel adapted to power, and a small, ocean-going freighter.

Phan Thiet Water Taxis

Phan Thiet Water Taxis

Water Taxis

The most visible of these peculiarly Phan Thiet type boats is a small fleet—a dozen or so—of heavy, double-ended water taxis. They make a living by sculling a short distance from boats anchored out in the harbor to the beach and back, landing crews and fish and fetching out groceries. They are odd boats, about twenty feet long, flat sheered, ugly, propelled by a single enormous sculling oar at least as long as the boat itself, and apparently all of them in the control of a guild of old women. The monstrous oars are obviously a handful for the old women, who stand amidships on a thwart well above the bilges to manage to handle the oar at all and painfully, slowly row their fares back and forth.

On the other hand, it’s obviously a very sociable job, visiting with their customers, or in quiet times rafting up with two or three others and spinning stories in the shade of their conical hats. I’ve seen nothing else like them anywhere on the coast, neither the ugly boats nor the ancient boatwomen.

Traditional Double-Ended Design Adapted to Power

Traditional Double-Ended Design Adapted to Power

Double-Ender

Though I have only spotted one example, there was, as of 2009, still an ancient style, double-ended wooden sailing vessel about forty-five feet long, fishing with a fleet of round basket boats offshore. Her rig is gone and she is powered now, but is otherwise as she (or her ancestors) went to sea generations ago. She’s long and lean at both ends, low amidships, overhanging the water a long ways forward and a little less so aft, running at hull speed with almost no wake whatever. She is finished in dark oil, nearly black, with no trim except for a small patch of red at the top of her stem head, the normal long slender white eye on the gunnel and a long tapered yellow scowl of a mouth just above the water line. You cannot see her without thinking “There goes Rudolph the Red Nosed Fish Boat. . .and she’s pissed about something!” Disregarding the delightful facial expression, the boat looks to be a rare example of a surviving large pre-engine hull, still making a living, and would repay careful documentation sometime soon.

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Phan Thiet Ocean-Going Freighter

Phan Thiet Ocean-Going Freighter

Phan Thiet Freighters

The other Phan Thiet oddity, standing out for sheer size and for being painted in the traditional Nha Trang colors (bright blue, with red, black and white trim), is a small fleet—three in harbor at once for example—of identical small ocean-going freighters. They have a full width “cargo cabin” covering about two thirds of their length, with small windows high up for light and a series of sliding doors along the length of the cabin sides opening directly overboard, for loading or discharging cargo when lying alongside a dock. This lower cabin is clearly really a cargo hold. Wide open, it doesn’t even have a bench along the sides. A second level cabin above, set in from the deck edge a foot or two behind low bulwarks provides accommodation for a number of people above the cargo cabin.

These boats do not seem to be in a coastwise trade, running north and south. I’ve never seen them anywhere but Phan Thiet, except once I spotted one leaving the harbor at Vung Tau, running light. In any event, the whole mainland is well served by the road network these days as well as the rail line. Rather, there is an island, Phu Quy, about 100 km offshore in the South China Sea, with a vigorous agricultural and fishing economy and about 20,000 residents. These boats must be their link with the mainland.

As recently as the 1940’s, M. Pietri described a variety of sailing freighters working out of Phan Thiet, hauling nuoc mam (fish sauce) to market and returning with rice from the Mekong region, as well, presumably, as trading to the offshore island. Some of them still lingered in the 1960’s when the US Navy produced the Blue Book of Junks. None of them looked at all like this modern vessel, which clearly has evolved over the past fifty years along with the very similar (though somewhat smaller) modern MFV (motor fishing vessel) type boats built all up and down the coast.

Basket Carrier in Phan Thiet. The round, woven bamboo boats have external, protective ribs.

Basket Carrier
Note the external, protective ribs on the basket boats.

Woven Bamboo Basket Boats

Many of the medium or smaller sized boats from Phan Thiet, of whatever build (modern or traditional), go to sea with a fleet of six or more round woven bamboo basket boats on deck. They are put overboard to fish independently during the work day. You can spot the baskets that normally work that way by the four or five split bamboo “ribs” that are bent around their outside, to protect the basic basket weave and tar from rubbing as they are pushed overboard or hauled back in.

Besides the omnipresent round basket boats, there are a few motor driven baskets moored in the harbor, somewhat different from those I’ve seen elsewhere. They are about eighteen or twenty feet long, sharp bowed and round sterned, with a full midships section but easy lines. They all carry bamboo sponsons along their gunnels, but rather than being made from styrofoam covered with split laths of bamboo, like the similar sponsons on the boats around Thuan An Beach near Hue, they appear to be true bundles of small bamboo stems. That may be an illusion, they may have styrofoam filling covered with small whole stems rather than the split lath.

Motorized Woven Bamboo Basket Boat in Phan Thiet

Motorized Woven Bamboo Boat in Phan Thiet

All of the ones that I have seen were anchored out in the harbor and I could not photograph their inner structure, though it was apparent from a distance that they have a full set of wooden ribs at least and probably a wooden stem post or cutwater. Some of them had rudimentary shelters over the helmsman’s area, to provide some shade at least.

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Boat harbor from the bridge at La Gi, Binh Thuan Province, Viet Nam

The boat harbor at La Gi as seen from the bridge.

La Gi

The little town of La Gi is a small river mouth fishing harbor in Binh Thuan Province about 90 km north of Vung Tau. It’s an aritificial harbor with a breakwater that has been constructed to protect the river mouth and the fish–buying wharf. The harbor is cut off at the upstream end by a low bridge and rapidly shoaling water. It shelters a large fleet of boats of all varieties and types.

Two Interesting Small Boats from La Gi

A previously unknown friend sent me a tantalizing photo of what seemed to be a very distinctive, slender and shapely basket boat hauled out on the beach near La Gi. So I marked La Gi down in my notebook and kept the place in mind as I worked my way south from Hanoi for the March 2012 expedition. The story of how I actually stumbled around the countryside finding the boat harbor and then tried to get back to retrieve my daypack which I’d left behind is reported in painful detail on my blog, but I finally succeeded and found the boats.

Fiberglassed, Woven Bamboo Boat in La Gi, Vietnam

Glassed Version of a Woven Bamboo Boat in La Gi

I found them moored in the harbor. The smaller ones also work off the beach to the north of town, though I only found that out while looking, more recently, on Google Earth. In the harbor there was a selection really, ranging from about 16 feet long and a little more than four feet beam to perhaps 26 feet long and six to seven feet beam. Though they were obviously based on woven bamboo, it was also pretty obvious that their construction involved a good deal of fiberglass mat or roving and polyester resin. The smaller boats (or their immediate ancestors) might be the archetype for the fleet, with larger boats developing some interesting refinements. The modern examples are all motor boats, with inboard engines about amidships under a wooden cover, almost certainly small Chinese made diesels though I couldn’t verify that. The exhaust is routed through the engine cover deck and straight up into the helmsman’s face, a dreadful arrangement, though it is not uncommon in Vietnamese small boats.

They are a very graceful design, with an elliptical stern and a sweeping sheer, quite low amidships and then rising in a single sweep to a proud but slender bow. Round bottomed of course and, like almost all basket boats, inherently fair, they should be very dry and able little sea boats. They are, in fact very similar to a boat type I had spotted anchored out in the outer harbor in Phan Thiet in the past, which isn’t altogether surprising, the harbors are only about 50 miles apart. Their elliptical sterns are all but identical and their rudders are rigged just the same. The Phan Thiet boats though, seem to be a little more robust, higher sided and with a less dramatic shearline. Perhaps more interesting, the Phan Thiet boats all had added sponsons made of split bamboo encasing Styrofoam and lashed to the hull each side, just below their gunnels. It would be very interesting to compare the two styles in a good chop.

Larger Fiberglassed Woven Bamboo Boats in La Gi, Vietnam

The Larger Boats

Besides the bamboo form they were built on and the outer skin of glass and plastic, they have solid timber stem pieces attached with two or more bolts through the bamboo and fiberglass hull. The gunwales, inner and outer, are solid timber, not bamboo, and in the case of the smaller boats, they are wrapped with the same glass mat or roving as the hull itself. If you look closely at the forward end of the gunwales you’ll see the wood running out from under the glass and a through-bolt holding them to the stem. Likewise there are a few sawn frames as well as two bulkheads that define the motor space and a third one aft that supports the edge of the skipper’s seat aft and defines what is no doubt the “fish hold.”

The rudder arrangements vary slightly. All the rudders are fabricated from bar stock and flat plate, and all are operated with a short tiller. Although most of the rudder stocks pass through the stern deck and hull in short pipe rudder tubes, some hung clear outboard.

The larger boats are a little more refined, with their hull form a little more conventional, but clearly showing their ancestry. They have sawn gunnels inboard and outboard of the hull, with the same three bulkheads amidships and aft and a fourth one just aft of the bow. The wooden outer stem is proportionally much heavier than on the smaller boats and extends 18 inches or more above the sheer line. A graceful added wooden bulwark raises the sheer forward and is rabbeted into the stem. A cap rail runs along the gunwales all the way to the stem and extends out over the frame tops (which eliminates some dreadful hang-ups for the fine mesh monofilament net that is most common along this coast).

Larger Fiberglassed Woven Bamboo Boats in La Gi, with simple shelters over the skipper’s seat

Simple Shelters for the Skippers

Several of the larger boats have rudimentary shelters aft over the fish hold and skipper’s seat, some of them no more than four posts and a bit of framing above to carry a scrap of blue tarp material, with some blue tarp side curtains rolled up under the eaves. Others are a little sturdier, but still pretty rudimentary.

In sum, they are a good looking family of practical small fishing boats. It seems really likely that there must have been a rowing and sailing progenitor, but equally likely that I’m too late to find it.

An Unexpected Bonus—Nice Little Water Taxi

As an unexpected bonus, the visit to La Gi turned up another species of small harbor water taxi. The boats (quite a few of them, though I didn’t get a count) are really quite nicely shaped multi–chined prams about 16 feet long and just over 4 feet beam. At first glance they look a lot like the flat bottomed prams that are the standard water taxi in Vung Tau, which wouldn’t be surprising, given that the two harbors are only 50 miles apart. They are both heavily built utilitarian harbor boats intended to carry the oarsman (or woman) sitting to row, facing forward, using feet, not hands. Like all foot-rowed boats, they have a seat for the oarsman with a tall backrest, all well fastened to the boat, to take full advantage of the power available from the rower’s legs.

La Gi Water Taxi being rowed by foot

La Gi Water Taxi

There are no straps on the oars nor suction cups on the rower’s feet, though there are large T—grips on the ends of the oars that let the oarsman control the angle of the blade. Watching the rowing action, it all seems perfectly natural and straightforward. Easier to say, perhaps, than to figure out how to do. The oars, like most oars in Viet Nam, are simply lashed to stanchions that are well bolted to the hull. On boats where the oarsman stands to row facing forward the stanchions will be quite tall. If the boatman sits to his (her) work, the stanchions are lower, and in this case, rowing with the feet, the stanchions are just long enough to let the oar clear the gunnel.

La Gi Water Taxi, close up of oarsman

Both have an open hold amidships and a bow deck forward, where the passengers sit or stand and they’re both painted blue. The boats at La Gi though are quite a bit nicer to my eye, beamier at the gunnels (and thus steadier, particularly when loaded), but about the same beam on the water line, with their additional chine plank. They’re a little deeper over all, and they carry their ends farther out of the water. Altogether, they’re a very handy and useful little boat for harbor–taxi work.

La Gi MFV on Marine Railway

La Gi–Style Modern Motor Fishing Vessel

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The Really Ugly Heavy Fishing Vessel from La Gi

On a second trip to La Gi in November 2012, I stood on the beach just north of town. A stiff onshore breeze was bringing a big chop out of the East and kids were playing in the surf while their folks ate shrimp and fresh fish and other interesting things in the sheet metal restaurant up the beach behind me. Though the sun was shining, it looked to be a dirty day to go fishing. So it was surprising to see a fleet of fishing boats steaming out of the protection of the harbor a mile or so to the south, plunking straight into the wind and sea, to pass just south of the lump of island offshore. They seemed completely unworried by the sea state and simply pushed slowly along on the horizon, one after another like plump beads on a string. I counted 31 of them that day, each one neatly spaced. The first was out of sight in the distance by the time the last one cleared the harbor. They seemed to be identical at that distance. All seemed to have a single mast amidships and pilot house aft, and they seemed oddly tall so far away, standing proud above the sea, though that might have been a trick of the light and the atmosphere.

Bow shot of the La Gi MFV

When I found them later in the harbor, some hauled out for bottom work and paint and a number of them lying alongside the dock, I realized they were unique. They are Modern Motor Fishing Vessels certainly, built to take advantage of heavy diesel engines and carry a huge load, but they’re very different than any other such vessels along the whole stretch of the Vietnamese coast. They are by no means the only boats here. It’s a vast fleet and fills the river mouth below the bridge just about full. Many of the boats, even most of them, are quite lovely. But these boats are the largest in the fleet—and the ugliest.

They’re all very much the same size, about 80 feet long, about 22 feet in beam, and tall. They really are tall. I couldn’t measure depth of hold (all the dimensions here are by eye and subject to error) but judging by the height of men standing alongside them on the beach, they must be fifteen feet or more depth of hold and their pilot houses stand twelve feet or more above the deck.

Actually, the height of the deck house is deceptive. The engine room is raised above the bulwarks by cabin sides another two feet high, that are nearly completely sealed. A pair of sliding ports opening for light to each side and a companionway aft leading below are the only openings. The pilot house and crew quarters are built as a separate unit on sleepers above the engine room overhead. It’s an arrangement I’ve never seen elsewhere and its advantages aren’t immediately apparent.

They are painted the same bright blue as so many of Viet Nam’s beautiful fishing boats, and they’re trimmed with a certain amount of bright red, yellow and white around their cabins, but their bulwarks, sides and the lower reaches of their towering cabins are all the same blue. It’s a lot of a good thing.

Side view of La Gi MFV

They carry their beam all the way aft, with great wall–like sides planked with the seams running as square as clapboards on a house. Their bows are nearly bolt upright (raked and curved just a little) and extremely bluff, transitioning from the stem to the full beam of the vessel in a very short distance. Their sterns are nearly dead flat above their runs (which are admittedly an almost graceful slight arc), planked straight across like a heavy cargo scow. With their scow sterns, wall sides and bluff bows, and deep as they are, they can carry an enormous load on their length. It shows in their propellers, great bronze screws nearly five feet in diameter, the sort of prop you need to move all that bulk through the sea.

On deck, their gear and fittings carry on the massive theme. Just forward of the cabin they carry a heavy winch with a drum nearly seven feet in diameter and eight feet across, with a capstan head a foot in diameter and 18 inches long on each end of the shaft. Their “masts” turn out to be big steel pipe, bi–pod, A–frame ladders set up for hoisting heavy nets out of the water. They’re guyed off to four stanchions fore and aft with ¾ inch wire rope, tensioned with good sized turnbuckles. Heavy winch lines lead from the capstan heads to blocks at the peak of the A–frames. With a pair of lines they can alternate picks. Along with their tall engine exhausts and radio antennas, the masts add to the impression of imposing height and bulk.

They have no deck cleats. Rather their mooring lines make off to heavy timber bollards (bigger than a man) fore and aft, no doubt deeply rooted in their framing below decks. Their bulwarks are deep enough to give a man a real sense of security working on deck, though they have no freeing ports and only one small scupper each side, so if any water ever does get on deck it will have to slosh back overboard. They seem to all have “flopper stopper” bilge keels bolted on at the turn of the bilge, so perhaps they roll hard enough that water never lingers on deck anyway. On the other hand, their pilot houses are set well in from their sides, with relatively small windows high up. It’d be a big sea indeed that would threaten them.

Cockpit of La Gi MFV

Note the heavy timber bollard, and the tiller and tiller line.

Besides that, the house and its overhanging aft shelter a really big and comfortable cockpit, where the steering gear lives. The rudder is a flat slab of steel plate reinforced by bar stock. It’s about the size of a small barn door (three and a half feet by six feet, more or less) and managed by a steel tiller above deck rather than a quadrant hidden below. The tiller is scaled to fit that big rudder. It’s a piece of round bar stock (or it might be pipe) two inches in diameter and about seven feet long, reinforced with rods each side that wrap around the rudder stock. Standing tall above the deck aft and sweeping at least a 90 degree arc, it would be very dangerous company in rough weather, but it seems they manage that brute with little more than kite strings. The tiller lines are only 5/8 inch white nylon line, lead through dainty little blocks on the quarters and thence through small fairleads along the engine room roof to the forward bulkhead of the pilothouse, where they answer to a traditional spoked wheel. The boats must be easy on the helm, with such light tiller lines and the lines—such as they are—nearly slack.

I did not see their catch or watch them set their gear, so I can tell you very little about their work. They seem to carry a crew of ten men, more or less, most of them strong young fellows, all of whom seem quite happy. Perhaps it’s not surprising. The boats seem well suited to work in quite a sizable seaway and keep their people dry and safe. Though they work heavy gear, they carry enough men and have machinery to make reasonably light work of it. Ugly as they are, they seem to be solid, work-wise fishing vessels. I would not, however, want to pay their fuel bills!

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Traditional Vung Tau Boat and MFV’s

Vung Tau Traditional Boat (foreground) and MFV’s

Vung Tau

Vung Tau is the closest beach resort to Ho Chi Minh City and has grown enormously in the past forty years. When I first visited on a short weekend in 1971, there were still moldering old piles of French hotels to choose from, all clustered around the “front beach.” There were a great many little restaurants, most with their menus in French and English as well as Vietnamese, and all serving really fresh seafood prepared both French and Vietnamese style. Tiny horses clip-clopped up and down the shady streets pulling little two-wheeled cabs or waited quietly for a fare outside a rowdy GI bar.

Things have changed. The place has spread out in all directions, a long ways to the North, covering the hillsides and waterfront with world class hotels and restaurants. There is hardly a blade of grass out of place anywhere and no candy wrapper would dare blow down the street. Even the freeway coming into town has been planted as a fine flower garden for twenty kilometers. Platoons of gardeners keep it trimmed and watered.

And, instead of a good sized fleet of fishing boats anchored in front of the town along the “back beach,” now there are just a few boats, lending a little maritime color to the scene. But not to worry. The large fleet of bright blue boats I remember from those days has multiplied several times over and now fills a fishing boat harbor around the cape to the South. There is a large upland boatyard where several different builders are doing maintenance and a lot of new construction, and an amazing volume of fishing boats anchored off. The harbor has one long, narrow, dredged and buoyed channel leading in from the open sea and is otherwise no more than extensive mud flats. The boats, in their hundreds, sit over much of the tide nearly up to their waterlines in soft mud.

Gulf Style MFV at Vung Tau

Gulf-Style MFV at Vung Tau

Vung Tau Modern Motor Fishing Vessels

The US Navy’s Blue Book of Junks, published in the mid 1960’s reported a fleet of over forty Chinese-rigged “refugee” boats fishing under sail from Vung Tau, but also stated that the motorization of the entire fleet at Vung Tau and at Rach Gia was proceeding much more rapidly than elsewhere in South Viet Nam. More to the point, the Japanese and Western style motorboats that have become the modern MFV (motor fishing vessel) style boats were adopted here very early on, and by the early 1970’s when I visited, there were either no boats visible fishing under sail, or I missed them. Rather, even then, the broad sterned motorboat, with a good sized pilot house aft, painted bright blue with red and white trim was the normal larger fishing boat. Now the harbor is full of such boats, very similar to the boats you will see in Nha Trang, as well as strays from farther South and the Gulf of Thailand.

The differences between the Gulf of Thailand boats and the Nha Trang/Vung Tau designs are subtle but the net effect, on seeing them, is that they seem to be very different boats. The Nha Trang/Vung Tau style boats have relatively low, single-level pilot houses that stop, even if they have an overhang over part of the aft deck, well before the transom. The Gulf boats have taller houses, with, in some cases at least, accommodation for crew in the uppermost layer, which will overhang the entire back deck. Even more, the roof of the pilot house will have wooden handrail all around to contain a potpourri of buoys, baskets, tubs and buckets or other light gear.

The hulls are different too. The Nha Trang/Vung Tau boats have raking transom sterns, often planked up with vertical staving to give them a pleasant rounded shape. Their sheer lines run in a long S curve from the bow—a powderhorn sheer—sweeping back up from the low point amidships to a higher transom. The Gulf boats profile, by contrast, usually sweeps in a pronounced curve down from their high bows, then the line flattens out amidships and continues at the same height above the water to their wide, flat, vertical transom sterns.

Dory Style Traditional Boat at Vung Tau

Dory-Style Traditional Boat

Fishing Gear

You will see every sort of fishing gear imaginable among this large fleet: pots, longlines, seines, gillnets, draggers, night-fishing gear for squid and other fish, basically, anything at all to catch a fish. There is such a huge fleet here that one wonders if they operate on a schedule or quota basis. For that matter, if all the fishing boats in Viet Nam put to sea at once you would have to believe they could sweep the sea clean. On any given day there will be large fleets at anchor and tied up in any Vietnamese port, even if there are a good many boats at sea.

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Traditional Style Boats of Vung Tau

There are two remnants of Traditional Style boats in Vung Tau. Both are much smaller than the MFV’s. The larger sort, twenty four to thirty feet long, have evolved a long ways from the traditional, double-ended style of boat to become quite nice small motor boats, with the typical Vietnamese sort of sweeping, overhanging bow but a very broad somewhat raking transom stern.

They are essentially open boats, although the larger ones will have a full deck, but neither pilot house nor separate engine cover. They essentially all have small sun-shade-and-spray sorts of shelters more or less tacked on aft, often no more than four upright posts and a flat bit of roof, perhaps no more than canvas or poly tarp. Their sides flare out far more than is common elsewhere on the coast so that, even though their bows are unmistakably Eastern, their aft sections have a decidedly Western motorboat look.

Band Saw in Vung Tau Boat Yard

Band Saw in Vung Tau Boat Yard

Anchored out off the town or moored stern-to near the beach, there are also a few of the old dory-style open boats that I remember from the 1970’s, sixteen to twenty feet long. Then, they had neither rudders nor motors, but fished for lobster close to the rocks of the cape under oars, with the oarsman standing aft of amidships and facing forward to row. Now, they seem to be all a bit larger, and all have welded-up iron rudders hung through their transom sterns and small Chinese diesel engines inboard. They are, in almost every regard, comparable to New England, Canadian or Breton style dories: flat bottoms, flaring flat sides, overhanging bows and raking, narrow transom sterns. They are easy to beach or moor in shallow water, economical to build and operate and carry a heavy load well through rough water.

Eastern (Top) and Western (Bottom)Construction Techniques, Vung Tau

Eastern (Top) and Western (Bottom)
Construction Techniques, Same Boatyard

Vung Tau Boatyard

The boatyard at Vung Tau is particularly interesting. There is one saw mill on site, capable of slicing up quite large, long logs and producing planks or timbers of almost any dimension from the hardwood logs of the country (or from nearby Cambodia). The saw is the typical sort of Vietnamese band saw, electric powered in this case, with enormous wheels carrying the blade, all held at the correct height by a carriage on four posts that run on steel wheels on rails. The height of the blade is adjusted with a crank handle and three men push the screaming blade through the log while a barrel of water drips coolant on the kerf.

There are at least two different builders working on the uplands, building much the same sort of vessel, but, when I was last there, in two very different traditions. One group of vessels, roughly 65 foot class Motor Fishing Vessels, were being built essentially as they would be anywhere in the Western world. They had their heavy timber keels and stemposts set up on blocking, then each individual frame laid out, full sized and fabricated, on a separate lofting-building floor (open to the sky) nearby. Each frame, when bolted together and painted, was set up on the correct station on the keel, bolted and braced to the ground and to the adjacent frames with light timber battens. Eventually, the entire skeleton true and fair, the builder would plank the boat up.

On the same building site, shoulder to shoulder, essentially identical-looking hull forms (at least from the outside) were being produced by the Eastern technique of planking first and adding frames later. No doubt the two systems will both produce serviceable hulls, but the similarity will stop with the shape. The structures are radically different.

Besides the boatyard itself, the area has a full array of maritime businesses. Anything a fisherman or boatwright could want will be available somewhere nearby, whether a monster rough-cast propeller waiting for finishing at the machine shop or a hand welded anchor or parts and pieces for engines or boats or fishing gear. And ice and fish buyers, of course.

Vung Tau Water Taxi

Vung Tau Water Taxi

Water Taxi

Coming and going through all of this is yet another unique harbor water taxi design. There must be a hundred of them, maybe more, all nearly identical. They are very simple boats, with transom bows and sterns, flat bottoms and moderately flaring topsides. Originally, they were probably built of three planks and two transoms and little else. They are all rowed by foot, with big blocky T-handles on the oars for the feet to work with. The oarsmen row leaning hard against backrests right in the stern. Here there does not seem to be any discrimination. The boats are rowed by men and women alike, of all ages. They’re not noticeably good little sea boats, and when I asked to be rowed out the harbor mouth we only went a short ways before it became obvious that the small chop outside was more than the little square nosed boat wanted and we gave it up as a bad idea. They are all painted the same dark blue as the great majority of the fishing boats, with perhaps just a bit of red or black trim.

Vung Tau Harbor Freight Boat

Vung Tau Harbor Freight Boat

Harbor Freight Boat

There’s another class of harbor service boat: a heavy, square-sterned, round-bottomed, open motor boat. Eighteen to twenty feet long, they are equipped with cut up tires for fendering, carrying heavy loads from the wharf out to the anchored fleet. They are simple, sturdy boats, very burdensome and no doubt very capable, just not particularly pretty. They typically have a low deck just forward of the transom for the operator to stand on, and a bulkhead forward of that to cut off the engine space from whatever is riding in the open hold forward.

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