The boat that is likely to catch the eye soonest when first reaching the Vietnamese coast is no more nor less than a round bamboo basket coated with tar or varnish to waterproof it. They vary in size from a one-man boat to those big enough to carry several men and their fishing gear and catch as well. Some are simply stunning surf boats working off exposed beaches through daunting breakers. Their construction and utility is remarkable: a simple and elegant solution to a number of problems.
A Remarkable & Successful Boat Style
These boats (and they are remarkably effective boats) are ubiquitous all up and down the coast, working in any number of trades. They represent everything from a simple round basket to a very large class of “true” boats (ordinary looking pointy-ended boats) either entirely or mostly made of split bamboo basketry and occurring from the far north of Vietnam at least as far as the southern coast. Mostly these woven boats are nearly invisible: hiding among ordinary wooden boats pulled up on the beach or tied up in harbors cheek by jowl with wooden boats. The larger basket boats are almost all diesel powered now, though the occasional type still carries at least an auxiliary sail. The smallest do their work under oars or paddles or very small gasoline engines.
These basket boats are not absolutely unique in the world. Old photographs of graceful canoes used by the Marsh Arabs in what is now Iraq show what certainly seem to be woven basketry of rushes coated in tar. There are other references to “woven boats” covered with animal skins or canvas in Wales, Ireland and even among the plains Indians of the US, but that really is a different sort of thing. It’s not unreasonable to credit the various people of the Vietnamese coast with developing a truly remarkable and successful sort of boat. The primary advantages of the basket boat turn out to be its cheapness (compared to tropical hardwood, bamboo basketry is very inexpensive) and its resistance to the various hazards of the coast. The tough bamboo is oddly unappealing to the tropical marine boring creatures that can devour hardwood boats in short order. Perhaps more importantly for a boat operating in shallow water or through surf, the basketry is very flexible. A blow that would start the planks and break the ribs of a wooden boat and cause rapid sinking will just briefly dent the basket. It may dislodge a bit of the tar or varnish and cause a little leakage, but the boat will survive intact, pass through the surf, squat down on the sand and, once unloaded, be hustled up above reach of the waves, where a dab of tar or tree resin will heal the leakage for very little effort.
Some bamboo basket boats have no wood in their construction at all, even up to boats of sixteen or eighteen feet in length meant for rowing or paddling. In the long lagoon near Hue on the Central Coast, you’ll find hundreds of graceful bamboo basket canoes being paddled like canoes anywhere through the shallow sheltered waters. Some will be paddled these days with kayak paddles carved from local hardwood, probably an adaptation from seeing the tourist’s rental kayaks paddling the area. The very smallest will be paddled with a pair of hand paddles: little more than wooden web feet for a person’s hands. They make a pretty sight working in the swirling current where the lagoon enters the sea at the far south end, seeming to play in the waves and current, though of course it’s all a perfectly serious fishery.
Added Wooden Structure: Composite Boats
Larger woven bamboo boats almost all have some wooden structure added for good reasons.
- Long oars for powering through the surf require a little wooden framing and wooden uprights to carry the oars to a comfortable height for a standing oarsman.
- Motorized baskets require some wooden stringers and ribs to distribute the thrust of the motor into the shell of the boat, as well as to bolt the motor firmly down.
Halong Bay Basket Boats
The baskets in the far north in Halong Bay, graceful oval baskets before they’re outfitted for work, carry a heavy rectangular wooden deck and quite a bit of wooden framing to support their engines and provide a little covered stowage. Even the smaller Halong Bay baskets have at least a pair of wood or bamboo gunnels added and stanchions to carry the oars.
Surf Boats of Hue
Perhaps the most remarkable basket boats are the magnificent surf boats working off the beach South of Hue in Central Viet Nam. (More about these boats.) Powerful vessels 25 feet long or more, they are the last of a long line of Vietnamese boats with wooden upper works and bamboo basketry bottoms. In the first half of the 20th century, there were still hundreds of such boats making long passages hauling fish sauce and rice to market up and down the coast carrying 40 tons or more at a time under sail: trade that goes in trucks these days. There were several sorts of these basket-bottomed boats with hardwood uppers fishing offshore as well. In fact the American Navy manual, The Blue Book of Junks described them as fast, powerful, seaworthy boats, capable of long voyages and living in rough seas. There are many other sorts, including the ones that look like Turkish slippers, with high slender bows and rounded sterns, fishing out of Cua Lo and Sam Son on the northern coast, all basketry from the deck edge down, but stoutly decked, with a lot of wood structure inside too, to carry the engine. They’re at least as large as the surf boats, and they don’t come ashore routinely but lie afloat in the harbor.
Basket Tugboat in Ron
If you consider the odds, these must be quite the rare beasts. You will see round basket boats doing ordinary dinghy sorts of chores on any beach or harbor in coastal Viet Nam. By contrast, since 2005 I’ve made five two-month long tours of the country dedicated almost entirely to hunting for boats. Until 2010, I had never seen these diesel-powered basket tugboats. That probably expresses the odds pretty well. Unless you know where to look and what you are looking for, you’re not likely to find these creatures. What’s more, I’m still not sure what their work is, though it’s obvious they are hard-working little vessels.
I found these boats tied up among the fishing boats that moor in a large fleet below the bridge at Ron. A glance at the photo tells you almost the whole story. A large, plumb-sided perfectly round basket boat, about eight feet in diameter and two and a half feet deep is equipped with a small diesel engine under an engine cover just about in the center of the basket. A more or less normal basket-boat stern tube carries the propeller shaft out the “aft” chine of the boat and a strut from the gunnel, or call it the rim, carries a rudder quite a ways behind the boat. A tiller is provided for steering, with or without a tiller extension to let the skipper move around on board
There are a few other interesting details to take note of:
- The boats are given a great many more ribs than usual, even for a really large round basket. The ribs form an almost solid wall on the fore and aft centerline.
- That strength is greatly augmented by the motor box itself, which forms a continuous girder fore and aft, making the hull extremely strong along that axis.
- There are a pair of “bollards” or “bitts” of wood mounted forward to tie off lines to the tow and a small wooden piece to bear against whatever is being pushed.
- The rim of the boat is heavy enough in its own right, but there are additional wraps of split bamboo below the rim to protect the hull basketry from chafing and impact.
- Fuel tanks are loose plastic water jugs carried on deck and plumbed from their bottom to feed the engine by gravity.
- There is no cooling water supply intake associated with the propeller as is common in many Vietnamese boats. The boat that is turned bottom up in the mud (with its recent tar patches) shows a through-hull fitting that is probably the missing cooling water intake, though that implies a lift pump for the water, which most of the Chinese diesels do not have. I don't have an answer for you yet.
I haven’t seen one of these boats working yet, but being, as they are, closely associated with a large fleet of fishing boats, you have to wonder if they have some function in one of the numerous fishing techniques in use along the coast. The fact that they have no towing bitts to pull on a seine net with is worrisome for that theory, and the fact that there is a very active boatyard only a hundred yards away lends some strength to the idea that they might be yard push tugs. I have seen one of them running free out in the river and can report that with the skipper sitting well aft and the prop working fairly hard, the boat carried its bow high in the air and made remarkably good speed. Certainly something over 5 kn. Its bow wave was not attractive though, with a lot of froth and fury. Worse, it was well beyond the telephoto range of my camera and I can’t show you.
One thing we can be sure of: there will be few conventional inboard powered boats anywhere that can out turn this one. If you put the rudder hard over you’d best have good hold of something solid on board, you will be going the other direction very soon.
A Unique Style of Composite Boat in Quy Nhon
On Page 20a of M. Jean Pietri’s 1943 book Voiliers d'Indochine (Sailboats of Indochina) there are two illustrations that are somewhat confusing, perhaps the result of an editing foul-up, or perhaps arranged as they are on purpose. Both illustrations are of composite boats, basket bottoms and wooden tops, but they aren’t actually the same boat and they don’t relate to the same chapters in the text. The upper illustration (figure 68), is a section through a composite boat. It illustrates the adjacent text, Construction in Central Annam. The lower illustration, a low angle view of a whole boat (figure 69) actually illustrates a chapter called The Ghe Xuong of Qui Nhon and Nha Trang.
After four years of traveling and hunting for boats up and down the coast, I believed that the boat illustrated by figure 69 was in fact extinct, and actually, I still do. However, on my last trip to Quy Nhon in 2010, I found two almost identical examples of a very closely related boat casually drawn up on the beach at the far Northern end of the bay-front. The type is a particularly pretty little boat (though these two examples were several years old and well-worn), and very different in construction from other composite wood-basket boats up and down the coast.
The structural differences from other composite boats lie primarily in the upper works, which consist simply of two wide planks, tapered to each end to serve as substantial topsides planks. They are joined by three or four thwarts which are tenoned clear through the long planks and wedged in place. The two side planks, however, do not actually touch each other at bow and stern. Rather, the “stem” of the basket projects between them and is, itself, protected by a separate bent stem guard of wood that is lashed to the basketry. The stem guard continues on to become a sort of keelson extending about one third the length of the boat at each end.
Figure 69 is absolutely unique (and was unique at that time) in that it had external ribs running from a sort of external keelson of wood below the basket, outside the basket itself, up to the wooden plank upper structure. M. Pietri explained that this was to facilitate grounding on a rocky bottom in pursuit of fish. Its ribs extend about a third of the way along the boat from each end, and thus would have fitted into the keelson of the current boat very nicely. The boat we are discussing here, however, does not have such external ribs. Rather, the ribs are very delicate little bent wood ribs spanning clear across the inside of the boat supporting the basket from side to side, and tenoned into the long batten that binds the basket work to the outer wooden topsides planks. The effect is a very tidy if delicate appearance, and the boats need protection for the ribs. So, they have separate floorboards lashed in.
There is yet another unique bit of structure. In any other basket-bottomed boat you will find the batten that binds the basket to the upper works simply terminated against the interior of the basket. In these boats, the batten is bent upward at the bow and stern, and supports the basket stem area and the attached outer stem guard-keelson piece. The effect visually is very much like the stem framing of an Alaskan Aleut baidarka (as indeed the ribs and mortises are as well). However, that is clearly a matter of necessary function, similar materials and correspondingly similar form, not some mysterious link between widely separated populations. In the older boats I first saw, the lashings are all heavy monofilament fishing line (historically they would have been rattan) and the fastenings that clamp the basket to the wooden upper works are two bamboo tree nails alternating with a single rusted bolt.
These boats have the pretty eyes and tail feathers of other double-ended, traditional boats common along the coast. Their paint is almost all gone now, but the eyes and feathers are carved in low relief in the wooden upper works and so still show. That leads to the observation that they are rowed from the front half of the boat, which is, these days at least, a purely Quy Nhon arrangement. The oarsperson (often a woman) stands just forward of amidships facing forward, with the oars in tall stanchions about a quarter of the length of the boat from the bow. Much of the Western shore of the lagoon (a large area) is very steep to and rocky, so this may be an adaptation to give the oarsperson a good view of the underwater obstructions ahead and in fact, the other, larger, all wood rowing boats in the area also normally row from the forward half of the boat.
I have not yet seen one of these basket types actually being built (and may never get to), so I must limit myself to guesswork. It seems likely that a complete bamboo hull is produced by the usual methods (see Woven Bamboo Construction) with a light bamboo upper rim formed to closely follow the shape of the lower edge of the wooden upper works. The basketwork could be wiggled into position inside the upper works, the clamping batten bent and fitted just below the temporary bamboo rim, and then the batten bolted to the basket at wide spacing with treenails added later between the bolts. Mortises must have been cut in the underside of the batten to receive the ends of the delicate ribs before the batten was bent into place and fastened off, so the springing of the thin ribs into position would not be particularly difficult. Once the structure is complete it would be a small matter to trim off the excess basketry and the temporary rim (if there really was one) at the top of the clamping batten.
This is a very different structural approach to the problem of combining a basket and some timberwork into an effective boat and appears to be limited to just the Quy Nhon area. The more typical arrangement, evident along the rest of the coast, uses heavy wooden stem and stern posts to which the side planking is fastened just as though it were an all-wood boat. Pietri makes no mention of this alternate Quy Nhon solution anywhere else along the coast and I have not seen other boats built on this scheme elsewhere.
All of this would be a moot point if, as I thought, the species were extinct. However, even if the basket-based boat of this design is disappearing (I did find a third one later) the basic design appears destined to live on into the future. Builders are producing very nearly identical boats, with exactly identical wooden upper works supporting lower hulls of either sheet metal or sheet plastic!
Having seen the two basket boats hauled up on the beach, I was very alert to the possibility of others as I explored the harbor area on the Lagoon side of town. If I had not seen the basket boats on the bay-front beach, I would probably have missed the significance of the further boats I found around the harbor and later elsewhere on the beach. As you can see from the photographs, the exact shape of the old basket boats is being nicely recreated in sheet metal, which is a common practice all up and down the coast: producing modern versions of all sorts of the basket boats in sheet metal and wood.
However, the one in the harbor which was built using panels of translucent plastic riveted together was a startling and unique adaptation. Where the sheet metal boats have no ribs to support the skins, the builder of the plastic-skinned boat clearly felt that the plastic needed the support of ribs and protection of floorboards. So the “plastic-basket” boat is built just as the woven bamboo boat would have been, and seems to be serving very well, though the sunlight glowing through its skin is startling.
The boats I saw ranged in size from about 14 feet to about 20 feet, some rowed standing and some paddled. A third basket-based boat I spotted in the harbor area was actually equipped with an inboard motor concealed under a wooden cover about amidships. It had stanchions for oars, but no oars on board. It did not have a rudder, but had a short paddle or steering oar lashed conveniently on the port side aft. No one was around when I photographed the boat, and when I passed the area again an hour or so later I was just in time to see it disappearing toward the far shore, moving extremely well with just one man aboard, running level, steering easily with the paddle and making good speed with essentially no wake, about what you’d expect of a well-balanced, powered canoe.
The moral of the story in any event is clear; keep your eyes open for coelocanths!
Woven Bamboo Construction
When I first saw woven basket boats I assumed they were woven just as you see them, in the round. Although there are a lot of variations on the theme, the fact is that they are all woven as flat mats to start. Then a rim or outline of the boat is set up on stakes driven in the ground. In this case, since the boat is a slender canoe, the rim is a pair of book-matched bamboo halves, lashed at the ends, the gunnels. If it were a round basket boat it would have a rim made from a long thin split of bamboo bent into a full circle.
With the rim securely lashed to the stakes and (in this case) the ends propped up on low saw horses, the mat is unrolled on top of the gunnels, centered up and then in a magical few minutes, squashed down into a boat shape by walking it down, thumping it and gently urging it until it’s fair and true. There is enough give in the woven mat to let it gradually become a three dimensional boat.
At that point it’s just a matter of squeezing in a pair of inwales and temporarily lashing the whole works together, sawing off the excess mat, lashing in a thwart or two and placing the permanent monofilament lashing all around. Of course, some boats will require some wooden framing, perhaps an engine with its associated stern tube, water supply pipe and so forth, and of course, they’ll all need a coat of tar or resin to keep out the water.
The Occasional Survival of Working Sail
After four trips up and down the coast of Viet Nam, I had pretty much concluded that working sail was effectively dead, except for the sailing rafts working off Sam Son Beach in the north of the country. There are also a few traditional double-ended hulls in Hoi An and Da Nang, built as motor boats but still carrying the workable (although shortened) stem-mounted daggerboard and a small lug rig on a spindly mast, but nothing capable of “working,” rather an auxiliary sail for steadying or perhaps use as a get-home-somehow rig.
So, on the 20th of September 2010, it came as a surprise to see a small sail pop up over the horizon off the barrier island that forms the south breakwater for the lagoon near Hue. It was probably no more than three or four miles off when I first spotted it. The sail was quite small, apparently triangular in the distance, and obviously cut from blue poly tarp material. The boat was on a beam reach and moving well and after a few minutes watching I concluded she would land somewhere on the beach south of me, probably among the fleet of motor surf-baskets already beached about half a mile away. I began walking briskly towards her apparent landing spot through the fine sand. Just as she reached the extreme limits of my telephoto lens though, she hove to briefly and the crew of two very quickly muzzled the sail and boom against the mast and lowered away. Within a few minutes, they were under way again rowing, one man forward and another aft. By this time it was apparent that I was watching a tar-coated basket boat of about 16 feet in length and slender, perhaps only four feet of beam. Under oars she moved very quickly from offshore through the light surf, got a good break and beached easily. She was small enough, and light enough, that the two men did not bother with lifting bars to pick up her ends as they rotated her up the beach.
I was disappointed not to be able to see the rig erected, but by examining the bundled spars and sail and the photos shot at extreme telephoto range, an adequate description is possible. The sail sets as a roughly equilateral triangle, a little taller than it is wide, looking a lot like a Sunfish sail in the distance. The three spars are roughly equal in length, the mast is the shortest and somewhat heavier than the boom and both of them heavier than the “yard,” which is the longest. In most cases all three spars were bamboo. This rig was common in Viet Nam as recently as the 1960’s, and might best be called a “gunter lug,” in that the yard simply extends the mast upward.
There is no halyard. Rather, about halfway up the yard a grommet is seized around the spar securely and arranged so that a loop projects big enough to slip over the top of the mast. About three inches below the top of the mast a short dowel is installed as a “dog bone” or toggle, projecting an inch or so to each side of the mast. The butt of the yard is held against the mast by a light lashing. To erect the rig, the tip of the mast is inserted through the open grommet on the yard so that the grommet bears on the dog bone, the lashing passed around the mast at the butt of the yard, the sail unwound from the boom (where it had been rolled up for storage), the whole rig picked up and the butt of the mast dropped into the mast step thwart.
To strike the rig, either pick the yard up enough to free the grommet from the top of the mast in order to lower it separately and bundle mast, yard and boom together, or simply leave the rig all connected, roll the sail around the boom and pick the whole rig out of the step to lay it down. The rig usually hangs over the bow a foot or two, but doesn’t impede use of the bow oar. The rowing stanchion carries the oar above the spars and sail neatly.
I spent several hours on that beach and several other nearby beaches over two days’ time. During the afternoon of the first day, seven more essentially identical boats returned from sea under sail and performed the same maneuver, striking the rig and transiting the surf zone under oar power, even when it appeared reasonable to me to sail up onto the beach. Obviously from long experience they know they don’t want to have to deal with the rig, the wind and a bigger set of waves on the beach. One of the boats had two rigs on board though only one set. After he landed, I asked about the second rig and the lone fisherman showed me the second mast step, through a thwart right in the eyes of the boat forward, making it clear that he does in fact use two sails at times.
A long walk along that first landing site turned up a few more sailing boats that had not been at sea that day, a total of eleven or twelve boats out of over forty, so they are a minority these days. As I've continued to inventory these boats along the coast, I am finding that they represent about 20 to 25% of the boats by count, but of course, only a small percentage of the fishing effort, since each one only caries one or two men, where the large composite surfboats may carry six to ten to handle their gear. If that ratio were to hold true for the whole population of boats on the island it would represent over 200 sailing boats actively working just off the island, and I've spotted similar fleets of surf boats on beaches quite a ways further south, so the population may be much larger.
An interesting variation between different sites is the number of crew in each boat. Though they were otherwise identical, on one beach almost all the boats were rigged for single handing. That is, they had only the one mast step and a single sail, but also only one oar and one rowing stanchion. The oars are nicely made, with the loom as one piece and the blade as another, or sometimes two other pieces, all lashed together with monofilament. The T handle is tenoned tidily onto the end of the loom and is about sixteen inches long. I had thought that the stern oar of a pair was primarily engaged in steering as the crew worked out through the break, but watching these single handed boats under their single oar, I realize now that it is in fact a powerful sculling stroke, and the single oarsman can move the boat remarkably well.
Demonstration of a Sail Rig
Since the fishermen seem to consistently take down the rig while still well offshore and make their landing under oars, to see the rig set up it was necessary to find a fisherman willing to make the demonstration on the beach where he could be photographed. So, on my next pass through the Hue area after a visit to southern beaches and Saigon, I set about finding a volunteer.
The weather had taken a turn for the worse and, at the beach where I first spotted the boats under sail, all the boats were battened down and deserted. I continued south along the island, checking each possible landing site, all equally empty. Eventually my luck changed and a young man approached me, obviously curious as to why I was standing alone among all the beached fishing boats. Using most of my 500 Vietnamese words (one of which, fortunately, is buom which means sail) and a lot of pantomime, I made my needs and wants clear. Unfortunately, he was not a boat owner and, however much he would have liked to, could not help. However, shortly another gentleman approached and my first young man became animated and gave me to understand that here, in fact, was a real boat owner who could show me all about sails. And so it worked out. Mr. Su (the u in his name sounds something like the oo in look) was more than a little amused at the idea of setting the sail there on the sand so I could take pictures, but turned out to be a good demonstrator, pausing at each stage to see if I was ready for him to proceed. So now we have a complete set of photos showing the erection, trimming and striking of the rig.
There is only one minor issue: the rig he set is not the same as the one I first saw and reported. This is a standing lug rig, with a yard setting at about 45 degrees and crossing the mast, quite different in shape and behavior from the gunter lug, where the yard, though curved in some cases, still basically just extends the mast upward. Both rigs were apparently common on this coast in the past century (see Pietri, 1943 and The Junk Blue Book, 1963. More about these books.).
The bits and pieces of the two rigs as they are used on these small boats and the process of setting and striking the rig is nearly identical. Basically, the sail is rolled up and stowed on the boom; the boom, yard and mast are all bundled together and secured with a single lashing against a stanchion on the gunnel that may also be the bow oar stanchion if it’s a two-man boat.
To erect the rig, pick up the whole bundle, poke the mast through the mast step thwart, unroll the sail and secure the boom to the mast with a light lashing, all very straightforward. The sheet leads from the end of the boom and there is a vang (to all intents, also a sheet) for the upper end of the yard. There is also a line from the lower end of the yard to hold the end down (and thus keep the yard peaked up to the correct angle). Even with pausing to be sure I was ready, Mr. Su had the rig set in just a couple of minutes (I didn’t time him, but it was quick). There was a minor snarl in the sheets (a common problem for all sailors) but even so, he had the sail trimmed and was grinning at me from the steersman’s seat in no time.
The only difference between the two rigs is the shape of the sail, basically triangular for the gunter rig and trapezoidal for the standing lug. That, and the fact that the heel of the yard is lashed to the mast in the gunter rig versus the yard crossing the mast and the heel of the yard being held down by a long line to the mast or thwart. Both rigs use the toggle and grommet at the top of the mast and do not bother with halyards.
Another notable outcome of my inventory of the sailing baskets; I’m finding nearly every sort of fabric and line used in the rigs, not just poly tarp and poly line, though cheap poly line is very common. This particular boat used a sail made from the same sort of fabric many workmen’s shirts and trousers are cut from in Viet Nam, a soft cotton-synthetic blend. I have also seen a few sails made from a very stiff synthetic that might make a very superior sail if well cut. The poly tarp sails are often still in use even though quite tattered and some sails are made from fabric so light and stretchy as to no doubt be terribly baggy in use. Clearly, the choice of sail cloth these days is more a matter of cost and availability than anything else. Also, it is interesting to note the use of varying lengths of line to attach the foot of the sail to the boom. Absent fancy sailmaking, it allows the sailor to adjust camber in the airfoil to a considerable extent.
Incidentally, many of these boats carry a piece of gear I did not recognize. Made of fairly heavy fabric or naugahide, about 4 feet square, with a stick supporting two edges (like the sticks in a biblical scroll), and provided with some tangled lines from the sticks, it is bundled together and stored in the bow. By pantomime I found that it is a sea anchor, used to limit drift and keep the bow up into the wind when fishing. Set off the bow on a short tether, it would provide a very effective drogue.
Model Boat Building in Modern Viet Nam
As easy as it is to find beautiful boats going about their daily business all along the coast and up the rivers of Southeast Asia, for the most part it’s quite difficult to find high quality model building. In the tourist centers you can usually find some dreadful model “sampans” in the tourist gift shops, but there is clearly another and better layer to this onion. John Doney, founder of the Vietnam Wooden Boat Foundation, (www.vietnamboats.org) on one of his trips before his death, found one model builder, apparently working near Dong Ha, who could build credible models of boats he’d not even seen, if given good photos to work from. In fact, one of John’s hoped–for projects was to establish a workshop to produce quality models of extinct Vietnamese sailing vessels for sale on line to support his larger scheme of a Vietnamese Boat Museum in country. So clearly he thought there were at least talented potential model builders available. I, on the other hand, had not met a model builder at all until 2010.
I was occupied on a long series of more or less stormy days around Hue in Central Viet Nam, poking up the tiny lanes from the main road on the island north of the beach at Thuan An. A few days before, I had stumbled on a few of the island’s sailing boats landing on a beach several kilometers farther north, boats I’d thought were extinct. Having found those few survivors, I determined to try to find every beach the fishermen were using and see just how many sailing boats there were and what proportion they were of the total.
So it happened that I climbed back up from the beach at the end of one particular lane with a few new photos and the tally from the 70–odd boats lying there. I had seen no one at all on the beach, but there was a small crowd waiting for me around my motorbike, wanting to know what I was looking for on the wet and windy beach. My Vietnamese is still very limited, but I know the words for boat and sail and mast and soon made it clear enough. In fact, there had been no sailing boats on that particular beach, but the people made it clear that there were sailing boats here and someone ran to bring an older gentleman carrying an exquisite and almost finished model of the boats I’d just been photographing below.
It was a delicate little copy though, only 16 inches long. Looking at the nearly finished hull I could see that there was no provision for a motor and they assured me that, when finished, it would be a sailing boat. I asked politely if it would be for sale or not and was assured that I could buy it the next day sometime after noon, complete with two sails (and other things I didn’t understand).
In the event, I returned just before twelve and found myself invited to a very large family gathering for some sort of serious dinner, apparently honoring or at least celebrating some family ancestor or another, whose photo sat on an impromptu table–altar on the front porch, along with much of the makings of a grand meal. In due course I was shown the finished boat, the varnish still tacky on her hull, but her two white cotton sails bent on and rigged, her improbably delicate little oars and rudder in place, ready to put to sea, or, in this case, to set out for America via Air Mail.
This little model is very detailed, using tiny little splits of bamboo for its basketwork and thin, planed planks of a fine–grained white wood for the wooden upper hull. The oars are very finely made, as are the rudder and all the grated floor boards. At a glance, the boat is very true in proportion and shape to the diesel powered boats on the beach. But the model has no motor, no propeller or shaft. She’s a purely traditional rowing and sailing vessel. Her rig is a pair of standing lugsails set on two stubby masts, the mainmast just slightly ahead of amidships, and the foremast stepped right in her bows.
She is almost exactly like a boat listed in the 1962 Blue Book of Junks (designated “HUBC-2”) which remarks that “A very small number of HUBC-2’s are reported to be motorized.“ She does not have a retractable stem-board in a slot in her stem although her rudder stock slides up and down and pivots in just such a slot aft exactly as documented in the 1962 Blue Book of Junks. Further, in the model both masts are stepped through thwarts, but in a photo in the ‘62 Blue Book the main mast is stepped on the thwart in a sort of tabernacle for easier lowering, entirely appropriate for a sailing surf boat. Cross-referencing the type in the 1967 edition, there are no boats shown with sailing rigs, and the authors note that at that time “. . .most are motorized.” In any event, given that the two old men who made the model have almost certainly lived here or near here all their lives and either built or sailed the boats from these same beaches, I don’t doubt that the model represents the reality of the last of the large sailing surfboats in this region, probably still current at least in the early 1970’s, when the model builders would have been active men in their prime and the flood of inexpensive Chinese diesels was just beginning.
Today, the two old men do their work perched on a wooden bedstead in an alcove of a small house along the lane, with a window above the bed for light and air, or on the floor in the doorway. There is no workshop, just a wooden box with a few small tools, and the pieces of the next model or two as well. The construction sequence is not quite the same as the construction of one of the present generation of diesel surfboats; the upper hull planking is first sprung and fastened to the stem and sternposts, then the thwarts and bulkheads are fitted in. At full scale I’m fairly certain the wooden topsides will be bent around at least the center thwart assembly.
The flat mat that will be the round bottom is woven separately, then formed and fastened to the upper hull and filled with the waterproofing medium. Today, the full sized boats are almost all sealed with black tar, but a few, even new ones, are sealed with the old fashioned mixture of buffalo dung (for the tough fibers) and pine resin. The model I have has her basketwork sealed with a blend of fine sawdust and the varnish she is coated in, which accents her herringbone weaving very much as the traditional sealing shows off the weave of the big boats. Not quite the same as buffalo dung, but very convincing visually. Likewise her sails are white cotton fabric and her lines are sewing thread, when at full size they would have no doubt been woven palm leaves for the sails and coconut husk cordage.
From very circumstantial evidence, I am reasonably sure these two old men are selling their boats to a gift shop in Hue somewhere, for resale to tourists. I simply stumbled on the source while out on other business. Certainly the model I bought was not a one-off, rather one in a long series of production. There were two other hulls under construction when I visited and the basketwork mat for one of them was finished after we ate the big supper, perhaps just to show me how it was done.
The two men, working together, complete one boat in two days. When I first met them at the road end above the beach they asked $5 for the completed model (100,000 VND) but next day, when I came to actually buy it, the price had doubled. I'm reasonably certain the gift shop only pays the $5, but the gentlemen realized belatedly that there was no reason for me to get the wholesale price. Fair enough. Only paying ten dollars for such a lovely little model amounted to highway robbery in any event. The Vietnamese postal service more than made up for it though, postage home was $30!
Only a few other good quality model boats have come to my attention in the years I’ve been traveling to Viet Nam, although I now know that it is possible to order a custom model of any Vietnamese boat you might take a fancy to through the Gia Nhien Company in Ho Chi Minh City. Mrs. Chi Vu, their sales manager, was kind enough to e-mail me and tell me so.
Halong Bay Models
In February 2012, through one of those improbable sequences of events that make life so interesting, I stumbled across some beautifully detailed models of a species of now–extinct, Halong Bay sailing junk. The models were built by Nguyen Manh Quy, a retired boat builder who had actually built the full–sized traditional sailing boats while they were still in daily use. While some of his models have gone to museums or private collections in Italy, Japan and Korea, several of them are in a museum in Cua Van fishing village in Halong Bay. The museum can only be visited by boat. Tour boats stop there on a regular schedule and turn their passengers loose to study the displays and buy the paintings and photographs that help pay the operating costs. Inside, there’s a series of displays of fishing gear, boats, people and history, with the fleet of Mr. Quy’s models in pride of place on a long display table in the middle of the room. For the full story of these models, see the Halong Bay section of this website.
Phu Quoc Island
Harry Duncan, my Kiwi model building friend, (his website is www.allscalemodels.com) saw a fine example of traditional boat building near his hotel on Phu Quoc Island a few years back, and on his latest trip in July 2011, he hunted down the boat builder and convinced him to produce a model of the same boat. Produced in just a few days, it also came out quite well, but much larger (perhaps even larger than intended), and it’s just the hull, not a fully rigged boat, whether motor or sail.
I have seen one other really fine model, this one on the beach at Mui Ne, where a young well-to-do Vietnamese boy standing knee deep in the bay was playing with an exquisite little model of the local beach boats. I hadn’t the nerve to ask him to sell it to me (and I had no way to carry it off on my motorbike anyway) but when I asked him where he got it, all he could tell me was “. . .here, in the town.” I did not find the maker.