Traditional Boat in Ron

The Nearly Double-Ended Traditional Boat of Ron

From the graceful, traditional working boats of Ron to the modern Motor Fishing Vessels in the beautiful sheltered bay at Dai Lanh, the Central Coast of Vietnam is a transition zone in terms of both the weather and the construction styles of the boats.

As you leave the Chinese border behind you and head south, you are clearly on the northern coast of Vietnam. Likewise, having gotten to the endless flat land of the Mekong Delta you are in the far South of the country. To define the rest of the coast is a little trickier. The geographic facts don’t give you any really prominent seamarks at the northern or southern ends of Central Vietnam. So for this website, I’ve settled on the stretch of coast where the country is narrowest: roughly, the area between the town of Ron in the north and Dai Lanh in the south. Between these two small towns lies Hue with its river full of Dragon Boats and dredges and the nearby inland sea and ocean beaches. Then on South past the beautiful (if often misty) lagoon and beaches at Lang Co, the big city of Da Nang with its famous beaches (and less famous small boat harbor); to Hoi An with its remarkable architecture and history, and Quy Nhon, with its busy harbor on one hand and sweeping beachfront on the other, and a vigorous fishing fleet. Then finally to a prominent cape and gorgeous sheltered bay full of boats at Dai Lanh, which is, on the other hand, quite a small place. In the space of a few days of traveling, you pass from what is clearly a Northern place (cold and drizzly in the winter), across the great weather-divide at Hai Van Pass, on into the warmth (or blistering heat) of the southern half of the country. It’s a transition zone, with regards to the weather, the topography and the boats.

Traditional Boats in Ron, Vietnam

Traditional Boats in Ron—Above the Bridge

Ron

The Town of Ron sits on the banks of the Ron River, just inshore from Cua Ron (the “mouth of the Ron”) a sandy, river-mouth harbor protected by what must be difficult offshore shoals and bars. The area around Ron, the north-central Vietnamese coast, is a very narrow strip of sandy shoreline backed by the mountains of Laos. In some parts of this region, the whole country of Viet Nam is less than 50 miles wide: just the shoreline and up a relatively short ways into the mountains. The land is not overly productive and the people have always turned to the sea for a living.

Highway One crosses the river at Ron a mile or so above the mouth. On many days you will see a good sized fleet of graceful traditional fishing boats there. I came that way the first time in a miserable drizzling rain, wet and cold on the motorbike, headed south. In the poor light of the gray day I rode across the bridge at speed, and only caught a quick glimpse of the fleet anchored and rafted together above the bridge. I carried on another half mile or so in the rain as the sight slowly sank into my chilled brain and I realized how extraordinary it was. Against all my instincts (seeking warmth and sun farther south), I stopped, U-turned and came back. And in fact have been back several times since, sometimes in better weather.

Modern Motor Fishing Vessels: Ron

Portion of the Line-up in Ron (Mostly MFV’s)
In the Moorage Below the Bridge

There are two sizes of these boats, roughly 60 feet and 45 feet in length, but otherwise almost identical in model and very consistent from boat to boat. They are quite slender for their length, and relatively narrow on the water line, though the sides flair outward to give added buoyancy as the boat is loaded or heeled down. Given their fine lines they move through the water with hardly a trace and probably obtain excellent fuel consumption for their tonnage.

From a little distance, the boats seem to be double enders: high at both ends with a very graceful sheer. The fleet of them anchored and rafted together above the highway bridge make a lovely sight. They are not actually double ended though, having very tall narrow transom sterns. At close quarters moreover, they are surprisingly roughly built. The hood ends of their bow planks run right past the inner “stem” and are cut off more or less roughly to match that alignment. As usual on traditionally built boats here, the “stem” is really just the upward bent narrow continuation of the central plank. (More about this construction style.) There is no outer stem or cutwater, so the bow planking gets chipped or damaged whenever there is a minor collision with anything harder than the boat. Likewise, at the stern, the planking simply runs by the narrow “tombstone” style transom, which is formed by bending up the bottom planking. Their rudders are traditional wooden-stocked blades working in wooden trunks passing through the lower part of the transom and always hoisted up out of trouble’s way when they are anchored.

Modern Motor Fishing Vessel under construction: a crew of workmen put a long, 2 inch thick plank into place.

MFV Under Construction at the Boatyard
Below the Bridge

The highway bridge is not really low enough to impose restraint on the pilot houses on the boats. Even so, many of the traditional style boats just like at Cua Lo (where the bridge really is that low), have only a low engine room cover, with perhaps enough room for a few men to huddle out of the weather if it were necessary. Even on the boats with more substantial deck structures that look like pilot houses, the skipper sits on top of the house to steer, with a long arching tiller reaching back to the rudder. In harbor at least they will rig a tarp over part of the foredeck to mend net under, but I haven’t seen one under way with the tarp rigged.

So much for the river above the highway bridge. It’s all the harbor I saw the first two years, since every time I passed through the area the weather was vile and cold and I stopped only long enough to be sure nothing important had changed there by the bridge. I didn’t realize that downstream from the bridge was the entire old town, a pleasant riverbank community of narrow streets and small shops, but much more interesting, just slightly out of sight around a bit of a bend, is a long fishing boat moorage and two vigorous boatyards. The great majority of the boats in this downstream moorage are the modern motor fishing vessel type, and the yard there builds them, to a high standard, and sometimes two or three at a time.

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Ly Hoa

Ly Hoa is a small village lying between Ron to the north and Dong Hoi to the south. It seems as though it might be a larger place, but a gentleman who watched me photographing boats assured me that it was just a very small village, only 100 meters wide from the highway to the South China Sea. It is, in any event, a flourishing little place: lovely homes, clean and well maintained streets, and a very interesting suite of boats ashore, afloat in the river, or fishing just offshore from the sandy beach.

“Five Plank” construction style with overhanging cabin sides.

“Five Plank” construction style with overhanging cabin sides in Ly Hoa.

I was first attracted by the sight of blue–wrapped boats in the river as I rode by on the Highway 1 bridge over the mouth of what turns out to be the Ly Hoa River, which has quite a sizeable river mouth, even though the stream has a relatively small drainage. The blue wrapping was blue tarping of course, stretched over ridge poles on a number of small boats and effectively preventing further inspection. There were enough boats un-tarped though to give a good idea of the fleet.

Five–Plank Boats

Right at the bridge, a small fleet of boats that might have come from Hue and Dong Hoi were moored: “Five–Plank” inland waters boats, the larger of them made of aluminum with some wooden superstructure, while others, somewhat smaller were all wood. These are long skinny boats, not seagoing vessels, but good for inland waters freight or fishing. They have the same typical cross section. They have a wide bottom plank running from bow to stern, giving long sloping shovel ends to the boat. The bottom plank may be made up of smaller planks cleated together if it’s wood, and if it’s aluminum, the final bit at either end may be part of a built–up wooden upper works. There are a pair of nearly vertical side planks, and a pair of chine planks joining the bottom and topsides, so the boats are flat bottomed, with two chines per side. The largest of these boats carried an outsized cabin projecting beyond the gunnels, but it was the only one of that sort I saw.

Modern Motor Fishing Vessels

Modern Motor Fishing Boats in Ly Hoa: bright finished squid fishermen

Bright Finished Squid Fishermen

There was a substantial fleet of ordinary Modern Motor Fishing Vessels, (more about modern MFV’s) equipped variously for towing a trawl, seining, and fishing at night for squid. These vessels were much the same as you can find in any other active fishing harbor in the country, though interestingly the squid boats were all finished “bright”, that is, their topsides were oiled a natural brown color (except for bright red, yellow and blue rub wales). The draggers and seine boats were all painted “Nha Trang Blue”, with bright trim, of course.

Modern Motor Fishing Boats in Ly Hoa: seine boats, all painted Nha Trang Blue with bright trim

“Nha Trang Blue” MFV Seine Boats

Traditional Small Boats

Farther from the highway bridge, along a really very nice riverfront drive, there was a scattered assemblage of smaller boats. There were a few really graceful and tidy small boats, finished bright (though not shiny)and built on the same general plan as a traditional boat from Ron. They are much smaller and beamier for their size, perhaps only 26 or 28 feet long and eight or nine feet beam. They have much the same stem and stern profiles as a traditional boat from Ron, both ends sweeping high above the water, with a jaunty sheer.

Smaller and beamier version of the traditional boats from Ron, finished bright with traditional blue, yellow and red trim.

Smaller and beamier version of the traditional boat from Ron.
This one’s about due for a haul out and some new paint.

Their planking and the details of their stems and transoms is very similar to the boats in Ron, with the plank ends running right past their “stem” plank and transoms, but trimmed neatly off. Their rudders slide through slots in their transoms, exactly like the larger boats from Ron. Their layout is unsurprising, a working area forward, a cabin just aft of amidships over the engine, and a small cockpit right aft. The cabin on the other hand is a good bit larger proportionally than the small cabins on the boats from Ron, though all of them function simply as engine covers and nothing more. They all steer by tiller, with a wooden rudder that works up and down in a well aft.

I watched one of these, obviously newly launched, all bright paint and smiling people, doing speed trials in the river. It moved very well, not planing, but not plowing either, making perhaps 10 or 12 knots. From the sound of the exhaust, it was a good sized single cylinder diesel: typical or maybe a bit big for this size of boat. It is interesting that these smaller boats are fairly common in Ly Hoa, but not in Ron itself, only 28 km up the coast, and, on the other hand, I didn’t see even one of the larger Ron sized boats in Ly Hoa.

Two views of Ron style traditional fishing vessel

Ron-style Rudder

Altogether they are very nice small fishing vessels, though I personally would find the awkward access to the forward working area from the cockpit questionable in use at sea. At least the layout maximizes the three useable spaces, with nothing given away to side decks.

Double Enders

There were also a number of double ended boats, about 30 feet long, that looked more like they belonged in Nha Trang, Dai Lanh, or perhaps Quy Nhon. They are lovely little hulls: round bottomed, canoe sterned, fully decked fore and aft, and entirely typical, though their upper cabin tops were rather temporary looking. The “cabin” itself is just an engine cover over the machinery, but the skipper can sit comfortably (for a Vietnamese at least) on top of the cabin under the temporary top shelter and have the tiller in hand. For maneuvering in port he’ll jump down on deck where he can reach the throttle cord and shift lever as well.

Ly Hoa Double-ended fishing boat with beam trawl aft.

Some carried a pair of power capstans on deck, directly driven through a truck rear end from the front of their engines. Of these, one carried a small beam trawl aft, apparently set up to drag for bottom fish, not dredging oysters. There was a small standing room port and starboard through the deck just forward of the capstan heads which would have let a pair of fishermen, one on each side, haul back using the capstans and stowing the retrieved tow line in the standing room under foot. The gunnels showed very little wear from that sort of operation, but the paint was missing from the rail along the stern quarters, so that is probably how it’s done. Judging from their complete lack of rust staining (unlike the smaller boats), they are almost certainly fastened with wooden trunnels. They are stout little sea boats, well able to face any ordinary weather off shore.

Ly Hoa composite basket boat: bamboo and timber.

Basket and Timber Composite

Perhaps the most interesting of the smaller local boats are a species of basket and timber composite boat, with a hull mainly of basketry, but with a pair of stout wooden upper planks (or wales) full length and a full system of wooden framing, including two or three non–watertight bulkheads, serving to separate the fish hold from the engine space and the cockpit aft. The engine space is decked over and apparently also serves as a deck for the operator to stand on when using the single long sculling oar, which is shipped over the port quarter on a low stanchion.

These basket boats are about 16 to 18 feet long and four to five feet in beam, with a relatively nice sheer and bow shape. Their sterns are about as boxy as can be done in a woven basket hull, with a central plank inside and outside bolted through the basketwork, to serve to secure and seal off the stern tube for the propeller shaft and the water intake tube. The unique feature of these boats is the way they’ve carried the wooden sheer planks out past the actual stern of the basket and planked them top and bottom, thus providing an upper and lower bearing for the big wooden barn-door type rudders. The rudders are not made to lift clear out (as for example on the basketry surf boats at Sam Son or along the coast opposite Hue). Rather, they raise and lower about ten inches all told, but are otherwise semi-permanently captured, with the rudder blade below and a dog-bone toggle and rubber-tire bearing above to limit their travel.

Ly Hoa composite basket boat: bamboo and timber.

Composite Basket and Timber Small Boat in Ly Hoa

The bow of these boats is protected and accented by a red–painted cutwater of heavy timber, through–bolted to the basketry. This false stem is slotted at the top to serve as an anchor line fairlead. All of these boats that I saw were waterproofed with tar, and the exterior of the basket was completely painted with green or red copper antifouling paint. The wooden wale or sheer plank is painted blue outside and various colors, (orange and/or red for example) inside, to match the interior framing, and they have splendid elongated eyes painted on the bows.

I didn’t actually get to examine one in detail, but the inboard engine installation looks to be entirely typical of the five to ten horsepower small diesels from China, supremely practical little motors, if desperately loud and prone to vibration.

Ly Hoa composite basket boat, glassed.

A glass covered basket boat and the local small boat,
a “kid sister” to the larger basket boats.

This model of basket boat seems to have been successful enough that I noted several fiberglass versions of it, not produced from moulds, but one–off basket boats built purposely to be coated with glass and resin.

Altogether, these are good looking little sea boats, perhaps a bit lumpy, but obviously sound for fishing a good ways from home in the open sea in ordinary weather. That said, I did see a number of them fishing within easy sight of land just beyond the river mouth, so I have no idea what their normal range might be. Some, in fact, were hauled out at the top of the beach looking directly into the modest surf, and must work off the beach rather than mooring in the river. As a surf boat they should work about as well as the boats at Sam Son.

Ly Hoa basket boat, small tender with dragon boats in the background.

Small Local Rowing Boats
Dragon boats in the background under the banyan tree.

Basket Tender

Very unusually, the dominant small tender here did not appear to be the typical round basket boat that is almost universal up and down the coast. Rather, it is a small boat–shaped basket, tarred inside and out, and clearly closely related in shape to these larger boats.

Ly Hoa Dragons

Finally, Ly Hoa presented yet another variation on the Festival Dragon Boat theme, with a fleet of four (numbered 1 to 4) hauled out and overturned along the riverbank under a tree. These are not the light and rigid bamboo–timber composite boats that race in the river at Hue, rather they are heavy wooden boats. They’re long and reasonably slender to be sure, but still, beamy enough to be stable with excited (and not necessarily sober) paddlers aboard. The gentleman who welcomed me to town explained they only race on festival days and use a crew of about 20 men. With that kind of horsepower, notwithstanding their heavier construction, they would move very well indeed.

Four dragon boats under banyan tree.

Four dragons asleep under the banyan tree.

Two views of Ron style traditional fishing vessel

Dragon One and Dragon Two

They’re really five plank boats, though Two’s
bottom has either been repaired or needed a
little bit extra added to make the whole width

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Hue

Hue, the old imperial capital of Viet Nam, and one of the northernmost cities in wartime “South Viet Nam,” presents a number of very unique local boat types, heavily influenced by three distinct local conditions. Specifically, navigation:

Lobster-style and Plank-style Construction

Plank-style Construction (top) and
Lobster-style Construction (bottom)

These are unique environments that have produced boat types quite different from others along the coast, and the local people have kept up the traditions of their local boat designs even if the materials have changed.

Hybrid-Composite (Wood & Aluminum) Boats in the Hue Area

To begin with, there are two sorts of composite, wood and aluminum boats built in the Hue area that, in the absence of historical background, you would reasonably assume were very closely related. The strong similarity is that each consists of stout upper planks and some framing forming a stiff wooden structure above the water line that supports a relatively floppy riveted aluminum hull in the water. In both cases the wooden structure is quite similar in concept if not in detail.

However, the construction of the aluminum underbody is very different. In one case, the aluminum is cut from relatively small pieces (said originally to have been recycled shipping containers from America) which are bent from left to right to give them the desired canoe-like cross section and riveted together, with the seams going from one side of the boat to the other every two or three feet. The visual effect is something like the segments of a lobster’s shell or maybe a shiny armadillo. The other sort of composite boat, by contrast, has the aluminum (often slightly corrugated) cut and riveted literally into long planks, just as though it were wood. The planks are shaped to make a 3-plank bottom—that is, a broad flat central plank tapered to both ends, and two “bilge” panels set at abut 45 degrees from the flat bottom and then finally two more planks, nearly vertical, forming the lower portion of the top sides. All that aluminum sheet metal by itself would be very weak, but with the addition of the upper planking and wooden framing, makes a very sturdy hull that is not subject to rot or shipworm, though the rivets do leak after a few years and periodically the boat needs to have all her rivets tightened up.

So, the two sorts of boats, so very similar in their present day construction could almost be listed as minor variations on the same theme. Yet they come from poles apart.

Sewn Plank Construction

Sewn Plank Construction Documentation Project
Courtesy of Vietnam Wooden Boat Foundation

Lobster Bottom Boat

The “lobster bottom” method is actually the end point (so far at least) of evolution away from what was once a very common composite of wooden upper hull and woven bamboo basketry for the lower part of the hull. Such boats are still built and flourish as surf boats on the nearby ocean beaches, (more about the surf baskets) but in the calmer waters of the Perfume River and the inland sea behind the barrier islands, the aluminum’s longevity has made it a popular solution. In the river around the city the aluminum composite boats have completely replaced the ones with woven bamboo bottoms except for the festival racing canoes. I have never seen these remarkably long slender canoes in the water, but I understand they are used for vigorous racing with crews of 12 or 16 men paddling. They are essentially wood and bamboo trusses, covered with a skin of woven bamboo and coated with tar and bright paint. The one I examined was built in the same shop that makes the aluminum composite boats as its bread and butter. Out on the ocean beaches of course the bamboo is still the better solution. With its bounce and give, it survives where the aluminum would crumple and bend in the surf landings.

Five-Plank Boat

The Five-Plank construction technique is likewise the end point of evolution away from a very odd local construction technique using all wooden planking. In the old wooden boats, which were still common in the 1960’s when the Blue Book of Junks was printed, the planks were cut to just the same shape and made the same shaped boat as we see today (complete with their striking high ends). Those all-wooden boats worked entirely under sail and oar, which is just as well, considering that they were actually sewn together using rattan lacing, laced through matching pairs of holes drilled in the edges of each plank, a remarkable system, which left no stitching exposed on the outside of the boat at all, and relied for its water-tightness on a fibrous mat under the stitching, tightened by flat bamboo shims or wedges driven under the stitches. The stitching and wedging made a boat that actually needed no frames at all. And no, I’m not making this up, I haven’t enough imagination for the job. The Vietnam Wooden Boat Foundation documented this ancient process in 2004 by filming a crew of old men hired just to build one last boat.

Five Plank boat in a ditch

Five-Plank Missing Link

In any event, the end came quickly. With the introduction of the single cylinder Chinese diesel engines that have completely replaced sail everywhere in Indochina, the sewn boats were finished. The first ones to be outfitted with motors simply vibrated apart in short order. (Those motors will deafen you, loosen your false teeth and blur your photographs.) The sewn boats had always been used primarily on the river and the shallow sheltered inland sea behind the barrier islands, only rarely venturing out into open water in particularly good weather. The same pattern continues today, though when I’ve seen the modern composite versions working just offshore in the ocean swell they looked quite able and graceful. I examined one hauled up on the beach for repairs. Her engine (a mass of rust with oil) was removed but ready to be reinstalled. Her owner and a helper were working together, one inside, the other out, each with a hammer, tightening the rivets with a few taps each. She was ten years old and appeared to have no other problems.

Five-Plank Canoe on the Beach

Smaller Version of Five Plank Boat

Missing Link

Although the frameless sewn-plank boats are completely extinct now, an interim sort may be still around. I have looked up and down the river and over much of the shoreline of the inland sea trying to find an all-wood “missing link” between the modern day composite boat and the stitched together boat and found a few examples, lying in a little inlet together, that might be that link. They were about 20 feet long: paddle and pole canoes, all wood, fastened with iron nails and reinforced with minimal wooden framing.

Five-Plank Canoe Fishing in a Flooded Field

Five-Plank Marsh Canoe: Electric Fishing

Electric Fishing in Marsh Canoes

In the fall of 2010, I spotted more (but different) five plank canoes as I rode along the highway northbound on Highway One from Hue toward Dong Hoi through flooded fields. For the past two weeks, tropical storms of one magnitude or another had made the coastal plain steadily wetter. Without knowing exactly when (the coastal plain is very flat) I had passed out of the Perfume River drainage and into the Long Dai River drainage, which joins its own smaller lagoon and lake system near Dong Hoi, before it runs into the sea. It had flooded even more than the area around Hue. The major roads were all still above water by a foot or so (that changed in the next few days) but the smaller roads were mostly gone. All the fields were wide lakes and marshes. Marsh boats of the five-plank style were poling along through the fields, one here, two or three a little further along. In one large, flooded field there were six, each with a crew of two, all of them standing and poling, or so I thought at first. When I came to two of them close enough to the road to take photos I stopped the bike and got the camera out.

Larger Five-Plank Canoe tied to the embankment.

Larger Example of All-Wood
Five-Plank Boat

It was then I finally noticed the wire mesh paddle on the end of the bow-man’s pole. . .and the wires. Following the wires up the pole to the fisherman’s hands, and from there down into the canoe to BATTERIES! Three of them and big ones at that. H’mm. I’d never seen this arrangement on such a scale but it was obvious this was the heavy duty industrial version of a sort of fishing gear you see pretty frequently in the rice fields and shallow ponds in ordinary weather. In that case the outfit is carried on the fisherman’s back, so it must be a fairly small battery or perhaps two or three motorbike batteries ganged together. The wires run from the back pack to a pair of “walking sticks”, each of which has what looks like a round fly swatter on the end. Somewhere there must be a switch, though I’ve never been close enough to see it. The technique looks simple enough. The fisherman wades slowly through the shallows, sees a spot that looks promising (that’s probably where the expertise lies), pushes his flyswatter ended walking sticks down into the mud and watches for results. If somebody floats belly up the fisherman plops him into a wickerwork creel slung on his belt and moves on. I’d always assumed you needed two of the walking stick electrodes to make it work, and I’m still not sure, but perhaps with these three monster batteries in the bottom of the canoe you have enough power available to make do just by dragging a second wire over the side. In any event, the women in the back of the canoes were definitely just propelling the boats with ordinary unarmed poles and the men in the bows were fishing with the long-handled fly swatters.

But I’ve wandered from the canoes. They were lovely things: long and slender, perhaps on the order of 18 feet long and three feet in the beam and not more than 14 inches or so deep. They were different at bow and stern, with one end coming to a sharp flat shovel end and the other with a small upright transom. You’d automatically think the shovel end was the bow of course, but that wasn’t the direction they were going. The transom end went forward, and closer inspection showed that long graceful wedge planks had been added to the upper edge of the boat to raise the sheer forward. That was where the transom came in, to close off the raised end. There was a standing deck at each end and all the couples out fishing that day were standing. With the batteries in the bottom of the boats no doubt they were wonderfully stable. Three or four batteries that large would no doubt weigh more than the two fishermen combined.

Five Plank Houseboat

Five-Plank Houseboat

From the distance I wasn’t able to tell much about how they were built but, as luck would have it, I shortly found an example ashore that must have been a very close relative, though it was a little smaller than the boats I’d been seeing earlier during the day and had neither frames, standing decks nor a raised bow. Still, the hull was otherwise the same to all appearances. The smaller boat had no framing at all, probably simply nailed together at the edges, though perhaps it is fastened with treenails or even tenons set into mortises in the plank edges. Another example—this one quite a bit larger—turned up a little later down the road tied to the embankment close at hand. It was built similarly, but with at least a little framing.

Houseboats

For generations there was a large houseboat settlement right in the City of Hue. Until 2008 there were still a great many anchored and rafted up together in the river across from the hotel zone. The City Fathers decided they were a blot on the landscape and they’ve all been moved out and a lot of their people have been resettled ashore. Both Five-Plank and Lobster-Bottom construction could be seen, but the larger boats (many of them over 60 feet) were mostly the five-plank variety. They used an arched, woven bamboo roof covering most of the length of the hull, often waterproofed with sheet metal or other membranes. The boats rarely left their moorings and most had arranged some sort of electricity from the shore. As you floated among them in the evening they were lit up with fluorescent lights and color television. Even quite small children came and went comfortably in smaller versions of the wood and aluminum boats, or rode with their mothers, who often worked as water taxis.

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Hand Sand Dredger

Manual Sand Dredger

Hand Dredger

Another unique boat in the Perfume River, until very recently, was a manually operated sand dredger. Viet Nam has a constant and enormous appetite for sand to use in construction, for concrete, mortar and plaster. Mercifully, in most areas some sort of mechanical dredge is used to get sand out of the rivers. Hue has now joined the modern world but until about 2008, it was done by sheer muscle power and ingenuity: brutally hard work. The boats are all the five-plank variety, but have only a relatively small shelter over the engine, with a little space for children or cooking. With the old hand dredge, a crew of four or five people was typical to do the work, three to turn the handles of the hand-crank hoist, one to operate the long handled digging scoop and a shovel person to shape the growing pile of sand in the boat.

Hand Dredger Hoisting the Shovel

Hand Dredger Hoisting the Shovel

To work, they anchored with four lines to hold them securely in one spot in the river. The winch was located right forward, and could seat three people, though you did sometimes see them with only two working, heaving with hands and feet together to wind up the hoist cable. The cable ran from the drum of the winch to a small pulley hanging from a davit perhaps six feet above the water and off to one side.

Starting with the empty digging scoop hanging from the davit above water and its long wooden handle projecting off to one side, the winch crew lowered away and the scoop operator angled the scoop generally down stream as it went down, guiding it with the long pole handle. When he found the bottom, perhaps fifteen feet or so below, the winch crew began cranking in the wire, which dragged the scoop along the bottom. The scoop man worked the long handle, helping the scoop to dig as it came. When the wire was straight up and down, the crew heaved away hard to bring the loaded scoop to the surface. The scoop man, balancing the scoopful of sand with the long handle, maneuvered the scoop inboard and dumped it into a pile at his feet. The scoop swung back under the pulley, ready to lower away again—and they did it again. . .and again and again.

While the scoop was down digging, the shovel person was shuffling the pile ahead toward the winch crew to make room for another scoopful. They would fill the boat’s hold to the point of nearly sinking her by the middle of the day, stow the scoop, and motor to the sand buyer’s bit of beach on the river. Then they got to shovel (yes, by hand) the whole load of sand—several tons—onto an inclined conveyor belt that carried it into a stockpile ashore.

Hydraulic Dredger

Hydraulic Dredger
Note the hoses along the side.

Things have changed now in Hue. The hoist and scoop and a good deal of that backbreaking work have been replaced by a centrifugal “trash” pump and a long rubber suction hose and a bamboo pole. (Perhaps the same one that used to run the scoop?) The pump is strong enough to lift sandy water (or watery sand) right off the bottom of the river and into the boat, where the sand can settle out and the extra water can run over the edge back into the river. It only takes two people now, the pole person (often the lady of the household) to steer the suction hose around and regulate the rate of dredging and the shovel person to move the growing pile of sand away from the pump’s discharge hose. When the sand hold is full, they still get to motor to the sand buyer’s establishment and shovel the load off by hand onto the conveyor, but it shouldn’t be long before someone sets up a hydraulic unloader to do that work with a pump, too. None too soon! There is another new variation on this method. A small pump barge with a larger, more powerful pump, has been set up and anchored out in the river upstream from town. A fleet of the old sand dredgers, with their scoops and winches stripped off, works now by letting the pump barge fill them up, very quickly, then carrying the sand or gravel to the shore to offload.

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Double Dragon Tourist Boat: Perfume River

Double Dragon Tourist Boat (Only the port side hull is powered.)

Dragon Boats

And of course, no description of Hue’s boats would be complete without the tourist dragon boats that tie up just by the hotel district. These boats—very popular with Vietnamese tourists, though any sort are welcome—carry tourists to see the riverside Imperial Tombs, prominent pagodas and the river in general, during the day. At night, they turn to carrying parties out to anchor in the river, watch the city lights, and listen to traditional folk music for the evening. The snacks and meals on the dragon boats are apt to be very good (particularly on the smaller boats) and the whole thing is quite worth doing. The dragon boats are built on the same hulls as the dredgers: the 5-plank style. They are all about 60 feet long and 10 feet beam. The primary variation among them is that some are single hulls and provide only crouching headroom in a narrow cabin, while others are built of two of the single hulls arranged as a catamaran with a large house built on deck.

Hue Area Traditionl Boats: Immigrants from the North

Hue Area Traditionl Boats: Immigrants from the North

The Hue area doesn’t have a big fleet of larger-sized, offshore fishing boats. There are a few typical MFV type boats to be seen scattered out along the extensive shoreline of the inland sea or, a few at a time, hauled out at the boat yard near Thuan An: the village on the barrier island closest to Hue, where everyone “goes to the beach.”

Typical Traditional Boats of the Hue Area

There is a small fleet of “immigrant” boats based in several moorages in the protected inland sea and working offshore through the shallow southern exit or the pass at Thuan An. These boats seem to be descendants of sailing boats noted in the 1960’s US Naval manual as having been brought south by immigrants from the North. The present boats are certainly more recent than that, but are very similar to the boats from Ron, Cua Lo and Sam Son: all of which were North Vietnamese ports in the war years. They range upwards of 50 feet in length, and, like the larger boats seen at Sam Son beached in front of the hotels, have two pronounced chines each side.

Small Immigrant Boat

Small Immigrant Boat with Bamboo Sponsons

Otherwise they are very similar to the Cua Lo or Ron boats as well, with high overarching bow, very sweet lines, high narrow stern and a wooden hoisting barn door rudder operating through a tall slot in the very narrow transom (or alternatively these days, a non-retracting steel rudder of more modern style), but unlike the boats from Ron and Cua Lo (with its low bridge) these boats have good looking pilot houses on deck aft and the skipper can steer from inside. They show a slight variation from the sweeping unbroken sheer line, having a slightly raised sheer the last few feet forward, giving just a little more freeboard for bucking into a head sea, or perhaps just for the prettiness of it.

They vary from some of the boats farther north particularly in that they are prominently iron-fastened, not fastened with trunnels. They have round-headed iron bolts used throughout for plank fastenings, with the round heads standing proud above the plank surfaces, a building technique often seen further south. Altogether, they are splendid looking vessels and obviously well liked by their owners, who lavish paint and effort on their upkeep.

Larger Traditional Boat with Bamboo Sponsons in Hue

Larger Traditional Boat with Sponsons

I had the chance to examine two examples of the large boats hauled out for annual maintenance, their new paint nearly complete, as well as two much smaller, open boats of very similar design and construction, one hauled out and the other afloat across the bay alongside a fisherman’s home. All these boats are very long and slender for their length, perhaps four to five times as long as they are wide, and narrower still on the bottom, with noticeably flaring sides. The smaller boats are commonly equipped with a pair of bamboo bundle sponsons to widen them just below the sheer line, perhaps to deal with tenderness, or perhaps just to provide one last chance to bail them out if they were overwhelmed and swamped, although that would require a terrible sea; they look to be fine seaboats. I had not seen such sponsons on larger boats of the type until 2010, probably just because I hadn’t spotted the right boats. The bamboo sponsons aren’t uncommon even on quite good sized vessels, 40 feet long or more.

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Woven Bamboo Canoe

Woven Bamboo Canoe

Hue Area Woven Bamboo Basket Boats

In the long lagoon near Hue on the Central Coast, you will find hundreds of graceful woven bamboo canoes being paddled like canoes anywhere through the shallow sheltered waters. Some will be paddled these days with kayak paddles carved from local hardwood, perhaps 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.

Small Surf Boat of Woven Bamboo

Small Surf Boat of Woven Bamboo
(powered only by oars)

Surf Baskets

Perhaps the most remarkable woven bamboo basket boats are the magnificent surf boats working off the exposed ocean beach near Hue. There are at least four distinct sizes working from various parts of the island beaches. The smallest are about 16 feet long. Slender boats, they are powered with just a pair of oars, one oar forward and the other aft. Two men take them to sea, the bowman stroking hard and steady to power through the waves, while the skipper aft will steer the boat and use a strong sculling stroke, putting in a sweeping stroke whenever he can for more power. Without an engine they are light enough to be easily beached and launched. These smallest woven bamboo boats have very little if any wooden framing, just the thwarts that support the uprights for their oars.

Working nearby you’ll find slightly larger boats, perhaps 18 or 19 feet long, equipped with the same two oars, but also a small diesel engine. Besides the engine, they have a pair of sponsons added just at the gunnels. At a glance the sponsons look like bamboo floats but are really Styrofoam flotation encased in split bamboo strips. Since the smaller boats, having no motors, do fine without the added flotation, I’m inclined to believe the sponsons are actually added to keep the engine powered boats afloat in case they are swamped. They look about the right size to offset the weight of the pig iron motor. The larger boats do use their oars for transiting the surf zone at least part of the time, but I’ve watched them approach the beach entirely under power, steering with their rudder until in shallow enough water for the bow-man to jump overboard and take control of the boat directly while the skipper hoists the rudder clear in its slot at the stern.

Basket Boat Landing Through Surf

Basket Boat Landing Through Surf

These motor driven boats, though still basically a basket boat rather than a composite, have quite a bit of wooden structure as well. There are a few frames and some stringers to serve as motor mounts and more interesting, there are wooden structures at bow and stern that provide a basis for a rudder these days and, in sailing days, also a bow daggerboard. These pieces, you might as well call stem and stern posts, stitch to the basket hull with monofilament line and bolt or trunnel to a pair of wooden planks at each end that at first glance might seem to be ornamental or perhaps there to provide a little additional freeboard at the ends. However (though they may be attractive and do raise the sheer a bit) they are actually there to take the strains imposed by the rudder and the (now extinct) daggerboard and spread the load into the basket’s rim. The sternpost is keyhole grooved to accept the rudder, and both stem and sternpost are notched from side to side to accept a lifting bar, so the two man crew can pick up the ends of the boat, one after the other and walk it up or down the beach.

Large Basket Boat Landing Through Surf

Large Basket Boat Landing Through Surf
Note engine kill-switch cord in the skipper’s right hand.

The largest of these surf boats are composite built boats, with wooden upper hulls and woven bamboo basketry below. They are powerful vessels—the largest twenty five feet long or more—and the last of a long line of Vietnamese boats with wooden upper works and 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 under sail offshore as well at least as recently as the 1960’s. In fact, the American Navy Blue Book of Junks described them as fast, powerful, seaworthy boats, capable of long voyages and living in rough seas.

These large surf boats come and go off the beach under engine power, the skipper holding the engine-kill cord in his right hand, the tiller in his left. A powerful steering sweep is available also, and while the skipper gets the rudder up out of harm’s way, the sweep man takes over the boat.

Walking the Boat

Once the boat grounds out, the crew forward jumps overboard and, two or more of them together put a lifting pole under the boat’s bow and start urging her up the beach on each successive wave. These boats are much too heavy to casually drag ashore, or even to be walked up the beach by two men like the smaller boats, even after they’ve been unloaded. Their wooden upper works include the same sort of grooved and notched stem and sternposts as the smaller woven boats and, with help from the fishwives and other boat crews from the shore, they’ll gradually walk the boats up the beach.

Walking a Large Basket Boat up the Beach

Walking a Large Basket Boat up the Beach

As many as six men will work hoisting one end of the boat on their lifting pole, while at least that many women push on the other end of the boat to help spin it around. They gain about eight feet with every evolution, the men and women changing ends every 180 degrees, so that (when they are proceeding up hill) the men always begin by picking up the offshore (downhill) end of the boat, which, given the rocker of the hull, means they shift the center of rotation somewhat uphill and thus in fact gradually move the boat above the reach of the waves in perhaps ten or fifteen minutes’ work.

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Odd Shaped Basket Boat in Da Nang

Odd Shaped Basket Boat in Da Nang

Da Nang

South of Hue along the coast, the highway climbs up over the prominent headland of Hai Van Pass (or under the mountains in a modern tunnel) often passing from cool or cold, cloudy weather north of the pass to fine hot sunny weather south of it. The road from the pass runs steadily downhill with stunning views of the ocean below and straight into the large Port city of Da Nang, which stretches, with its suburbs, more than 20 kilometers along the bay.

I have to admit to a problem with Da Nang. I have passed through the city a number of times on motorbikes, bound north and south along Highway One. In order to appreciate my problem, you need to understand that Vietnamese highways are usually very well sign-posted out in the open countryside, but in the big cities there are essentially no highway signs and Da Nang might be the least sign-posted of all. I’ve been lost every time I tried to get through the place, so I haven’t explored it properly.

Another of the Odd Shaped Boats

Note the lack of rudder.

In 2008, I did make one long day trip from Hue just to examine the harbor at the mouth of the river and found the varieties of boat there to be identical to what I am familiar with in the much more easily navigated town of Hoi An, 45 minutes further South, where I’ve spent quite a bit of time. Besides typical Hoi An-style boats, there was also a very peculiar and interesting oval diesel-powered basket boat type in the harbor. It is very nearly as broad as it is long and seems a very robust and well made boat, but I only found the one example that trip.

More recently, I spotted others of the type pulled up on the beach near the river mouth at Hoi An and I’ve seen an old photograph showing a small fleet of them on the beach at Da Nang, clearly ready to be launched through the surf. Although, in the upper photograph, the yellow-painted tube at the stern strongly suggests a rudder, in fact it’s just the cooling water intake for the engine. There is no rudder nor any place to mount a rudder on these boats. The answer no doubt has to do with a steering oar and the small upright bollard on the rim of the basket right aft, though I haven’t seen it in use yet.

Hoi An Local Boat Type

New MFV from the Hoi An boatyard in 2006. Note added deck
aft like the traditional widened decks on local double enders.

Hoi An

If Da Nang is a modern deep-water port (it was a major US Navy facility in the war years), Hoi An—to the south just a ways—is a more interesting river-mouth town whose history goes back hundreds of years. It was, for a long time, the main entry port for this part of the coast. Only in the past century has its harbor shoaled to the point it is no longer suitable for the larger ocean-going vessels, so it had no local tactical value during the war. It has a centuries-long history of trade with China, Japan, Arabia, Europe and even the young United States. The town is a treasury of antique foreign architecture and since there was nothing there worth blowing up, it survived the war intact.

Hoi An today is a charming tourist town, and rapidly turning into a major tourist attraction. Its fleet of typical double ended boats is splendid and until very recently, it boasted one major boatyard doing excellent construction as well as a number of informal building sites doing one-off jobs as opportunity allowed.

Sadly, the major boatyard is shuttered and empty, as of 2010, and a new hotel/condominium project has risen on the site. More, the hotel and condominium resort stretching along the ocean beach is growing and has swallowed up a significant part of the fisherman’s and boatbuilder’s village at the mouth of the river. The architectural treasures of the town are still there and it is becoming a very well developed resort town, and for now at least, still offers good opportunities to tour the river and see large numbers of traditional boats.

Hoi An Boat Yard

The Traditional Hoi An Double Ender with Widened Stern Deck

The defining local boat type is a round-bottomed double ender: roughly three to four times as long as it is wide, and traditionally built. A great many of them run about 35 to 40 feet long, though they range in size right down to small paddled boats. Their planks are fastened with trunnels or wedged wooden pegs, but their frames are bolted up where they touch. They are built in a slight variation on the traditional way: raising the planks a bit at a time, but stopping to add frames at critical points to give form to the boat developing. Oddly, the frames often do not join each other, so a row of floor timbers will support the bottom planking, then futtocks will be bolted between and overlapping the floor timbers, and only the strength of the planking carries the structure across the gap.

Although their sections are all rounded, some local boats show a soft chine or knuckle just below the waterline. They are the most nearly perfectly double ended boats on the coast, being almost identical from one end to the other below the sheer plank. However, the sheer plank raises the bow a little higher than the stern and, quite remarkably, leaves the hull just aft of amidships, forming a broad stern deck area that is supported on transverse beams. So from above they look to be square-sterned boats and from below, perfectly double-ended.

Hoi An Boat Yard

Part of the Old Hoi An Boat Yard—
Being Replaced Now with a Hotel

The remaining boatyards around Hoi An range from a large storage and construction yard to informal building sites on the river bank. On the northern bank of the river just inland a few hundred meters from the mouth there is an extensive boat yard that seems to be just for storage and maintenance of large MFV type boats, hauled out and lined up in rows. I saw no new construction going on there, but might have missed it since I only saw it from the water and did not return by land. All along the river bank on both sides you find casual moorage—occupied by smaller local boats, generally—including several sites with medium sized boats hauled out for maintenance.

Old Hoi An Boat Yard

There used to be a very active boatyard building first class MFV type boats using Western construction methods, and repairing all manner of local boats. The yard had a proper marine railway for hauling and launching and its own large saw for getting planks and timbers out of good sized trees. When I was there in 2010 it was shuttered and empty and newly fenced with shiny corrugated roofing. A riverfront hotel was expected shortly. As far as I could see there are no boats being built anywhere near the old town any more, and there are a great many new condominiums, resorts and spas and so forth everywhere you look. I asked after the big boat yard and I think I was told it had moved out of town about ten kilometers, but when I explored out that direction along the river, I didn’t find it.

Hoi An Passenger Ferry

Hoi An Passenger Ferry

With one exception, the Hoi An boats are quite graceful and good looking sea boats. They almost all are equipped to avoid dangers under way, having long oriental eyes painted on either side of their bows, the better to see shoals or rocks. (From Hoi An to the South such eyes are quite common on the traditional double ended boats, and the style of the eyes will give you a quick clue as to the origin of the boat.)

Hoi An River Ferry

The one exception to the otherwise normal standard of beauty and seaworthiness is the small fleet of river ferries that take people (and their bicycles, motorbikes, livestock and produce) from the town to various close-by destinations, islands in the river, or areas of the mainland cut off by the river. They are all painted an off-blue, have an open well forward, are decked over amidships by what amounts to a low cabin or hold, and have the steering station open aft. They are pretty much symmetrical double enders, about 50 feet in length, powered by small Chinese diesel engines. They’re equipped with a dozen life rings in a rack aft, and commonly carry a dozen motorbikes, twenty bicycles, a pig or two, a few cages full of fouls and fifty or more people, most of whom huddle in the low cabin sitting on a pair of long hard benches.

Hoi An River Freighter

Hoi An River Freighter

Hoi An River Freighter

The river at Hoi An does not drain a large area, but does give access to a lot of farming country in the coastal plain below the mountains. There is a remarkable species of composite river freighter built and operated here, double ended like the seagoing boats, but built like a canal boat, plumb sides, flat bottom, flat sheer line and a hull that is half steel and half wood. The steel forms the “tub” or lower hull, built on the same principle as the Lobster Shell aluminum hulls in Hue: plates bent to form the desired flat-bottomed, U-shaped underbody and riveted together, then finally, given upperworks of wood riveted to the steel hull. You will see these boats heavily loaded with produce or manure trading up and down the river.

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Model of a Sailing Freighter in Hoi An Museum of Trade Ceramics, Hoi An

A Splendid Model of a Sailing Freighter from Hoi An

Museum quality models of old sailing vessels are not at all common in Viet Nam, and this one, in the Museum of Trade Ceramics in Hoi An is really excellent. It is very unlikely that it was produced by reference to photographs (such photos are very rare and rarely clear), so it is reasonable to believe that it was built by a man with intimate knowledge of the type from first hand experience.

The 1962 Junk Blue Book shows several smaller vessels of this general type from the area, but nothing this large and not in such detail. Pietri (Voiliers d'Indochine) describes and illustrates a very similar freighter from Quang Ngai (page 161 of the pdf version) and remarks on its similarities to the same sort of boat from Faifoo (or Hoi An). Then, on page 168 he describes and illustrates the Ghe Bau (or ghe cau, used variously) of Faifoo itself, an essentially identical boat to the model. None of these illustrations however even come close to the richness of detail in the model.

The vessel type is of course extinct now. Sail in any form has almost completely disappeared from the Vietnamese coast, and heavy freighters to carry nuoc mam and rice up and down the coast have been entirely replaced by trucks, or in some cases, by modern steel freighters. Sailing freighters on this coast were largely constrained by the change in the monsoon, sailing against the monsoon wind would have been silly and pointless.

Sketch of sailing freighter

Peitri’s sketch of a nearly identical sailing freighter: 1943.

Pietri mentions a tonnage “up to 120 tons” without giving dimensions. The model is not dimensioned, but it is so carefully done in detail that we could reasonably deduce dimensions from it. A very unsophisticated analysis would use the little rowing boat carried as a shoreboat on deck and assign it a length of 16 to 20 feet. The ship is 4.5 times as long as the little boat, so the ship is probably between 70 and 90 feet in length and about 20 feet in beam. She is a very symmetrical, round–bottomed, double–ended vessel, as indeed, are most boats built around Hoi An to this day. She steps two masts on the centerline, the main amidships and a powerful foresail. The mizzen, or jigger is stepped on two projecting thwarts outboard of the hull.

The model is not shown on any particular point of sail, but Pietri mentions elsewhere, when describing this sort of jigger, that it was normally carried on the weather side, and that it was easily stepped by a single man. Besides the sails, the model carries six long, T–handled oars. Since the sails are hanging listlessly, the oars would have been in use, in fact. It must have been grueling work in the tropical sun.

Pietri’s description of the vessel is a nearly letter perfect fit for the model. Here are some points from his 1943 text, as translated into English:

The ghe bau of Faifoo is, with the one of Mui–Ne, the sailboat that has the highest tonnage on the Annamese coasts. These days it is limited to about 70 tons, though in the past they carried as much as 120 tons.

The ghe cau can be recognized from far by its after deck and its three wales following the sheer of the deck.

The underbody has no keel and the planks or strakes are edge fastened by tenons and mortises, nailed on the floor timbers with boat spikes. The joints of the main parts are bolted.

At the fore foot, we notice a sort of sharp cutwater or vertical fin, whose effect as a lateral resistance when sailing close–hauled, is considerable.

Cant frames support the planking of the runs fore and aft.

The hull is divided into nine compartments of a relative water–tightness like all the sail boats in Annam, bulkheads consisting of boards edge nailed and supported on one of their sides. They are leaned up against beams and end above the deck by light deck beams, forming an arc provided with notches to receive the stringers. The whole deck is covered with moveable panels made of varnished bamboo mats shaping the deck into a humpback, so common to the junks in Annam.

As usual, the compartment aft of the mast is a pump–well.

Stern of the sailing freighter model

The deck line starts at the height of the first wale which forms the rail with the rest. It is raised with wash-boards nailed on futtocks extending the floor frames, sort of small stanchions.

The stern castle, with its wings extending over each side of the flanks, of the Chinese model, can be found on this ghe bau. In the South, one has to reach the Phu-Quoc Island, to find it. The captain’s cabin is positioned under the poop, while the crew has the ’tween decks forward.

There is one significant discrepancy between the model and Pietri's description. The model has a plain stern, without the widened aft deck, stern castle, or wings. The widened deck is still a feature of many (or most) of the larger sized traditional fishing vessels built in Hoi An, but clearly, there must have been some of these working with the small aft deck of a double ender.

His reference to the planking being fastened edge to edge with mortise and tenon is fascinating. I have never seen that connection in use in modern day Viet Nam, nor found it in examining debris from old vessels being repaired. If it was still the norm in the years before 1943, it raises the question of when it fell out of favor. Smaller vessels built today near Hoi An show pencil marks on the inside of their planking to index from one plank to the next. I have assumed that these mark the location of small dowels pinning the planks edge to edge, (see this article for more detail) since they clearly are not edge nailed in the northern style and the locked tenon fastener requires a pair of pins through the planking that would be visible and are not evident. This is a matter for further investigation!

There was no question of touching or dismantling the model in the museum on a casual visit to examine its interior, though it might be an appropriate undertaking for a scholar with the skills to do so without damaging the model. From the exterior though, here's a link to photos that show her in some detail.

The museum displays of ancient pottery will be fascinating to a scholar of the subject, but anyone will be delighted with the old house that holds it, and the photos and descriptions of the restoration projects that have made the old building available to see.

And why is such a splendid sailing ship model in a museum about local pottery?? The pottery export trade went in ships like this one. And the pottery on display here was, in significant part, recovered from shipwrecks (and other archaeological sites). This model is simply one of the ships that wasn’t wrecked.

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Typical Kim Bong Island /Hoi An area small boat with great lines

Lovely lines and no rust!

Trunnels and Lovely Lines at Kim Bong Island

In 2005 and 2006 on my first visits to Hoi An, I took the small local ferry over to Kim Bong island and each time found one or two nice mid–to–large sized boats under construction on basically unimproved sites along the river bank. That was where I first became aware of the use of tree nails or trunnels in Vietnamese boat building. They are not a prominent part of boat building in northern Viet Nam, where the normal fasteners are carriage bolts and boat spikes, usually black, though sometimes galvanized.

Trunnels are by far the preferred fastener in the area around Da Nang and Hoi An. They are simply tapered wooden dowels, split from straight grained wood and whittled round, used like a through bolt. They are cut long enough to project well beyond the frame and plank inside and out. The hole for the fastener is drilled through the frame from inside the hull and the trunnel is driven in (forcefully) from the outside. Such a fastener wouldn’t hold much at all though, unless it were also tightened on the inside. So the projecting end on the inside is finished by splitting it with a chisel and driving in a wooden wedge, then shearing both wedge and projecting end off with a quick blow from the chisel. Then, in a couple of quick moves, the remaining wedge stick is re-sharpened and ready to do the next trunnel. Several wedges come from one length of wood. The operation goes very quickly really, it’s faster than threading on a nut and tightening it up on a carriage bolt for example.

In Europe and America, wooden fasteners have been out of use for 200 years, though they were once commonplace. Having the evidence of these boats that live to ripe old age, whose fastenings never rust (in dreadful contrast to the northern Vietnamese iron-fastened boats which weep rust within weeks of launching), one must wonder if we were wise to give them up.

In any event, now in 2013, the building sites on Kim Bong are quite busy. One site with a railway with a side haul is building a matching pair of what will be 60–foot–long, typical modern motor fishing vessels and has several older style boats out for bottom work and repairs. Another is finishing up a major refit on a nicely shaped traditional boat. But the great find for the day was a pair of shops, right near the ferry landing, building a number of small to mid-sized boats, all of the same local traditional model. The workmanship here is splendid, with really good attention to fit and detail. The boats are almost entirely fastened with trunnels, so they will last for years without becoming nail-sick (the fate of all northern boats sooner or later). Given my photos from earlier trips and these, we have enough examples, in enough different sizes and stages of construction that we can piece together almost the entire building process and have a very clear understanding of the structural details.

Overall design of Kim Bong Island, Vietnam small to medium sized traditional boats.

Overall Design Concept

The boats are all nearly perfectly symmetrical double enders, their stems and sterns almost exactly alike up to the sheer plank. The smaller boats continue their symmetry all the way to their ends, so much so that, if the engine is out of commission for any reason the boat is rowed from the bow, where the oarsman’s weight will pick the propeller clear of the water (or nearly so) and make a much easier vessel to row. The larger boats, from about 20 feet upward, are likely to be built with a wide aft deck, arranged by slightly letting in two or three cross beams into the plank below the sheer strake, decking those beams, then carrying the sheer strake straight aft from amidships to enclose the extended deck as bulwarks. In that case a transom plank will be added to tie the two together.

Small Kim Bong traditional boat and builder

They are very round bottomed, their hull section nearly the arc of a circle. The hull profile has only a little rocker before the ends. These boats are not intended for rotating up and down a beach, nor for working through breaking surf. Though the mid–to–large sized boats fish far to sea, they enter and leave through the river mouth, not off the beaches. The nearly identical stem and sternpost sweep up in a sweet curve at each end.

The boats are extremely fair, all the curves flow sweetly from end to end. Not surprisingly, they move through the water with hardly any fuss at all at displacement speeds (and, of course, would never plane in any event).

More so than anywhere else in Viet Nam, the same hull shape and construction details cover the range of boats in use here from small one–man (or woman) utility and fishing boats for paddling, rowing or sculling (with a startlingly long curved oar), all the way through quite good sized offshore fishing vessels, up to about 50 feet long overall. The same hull shape and overall design was described in both the US government Blue Book of Junks of 1963 (see QNBC-1, page AI-57) and in Pietri's Voiliers d'Indochine in 1943 (see Ghe Truong, page 65). In both cases, it’s shown as a pure sailing vessel, with two lug rigged masts. Now, some few of the larger, older offshore boats carry a much smaller single sail for steadying or perhaps as a back up in case of engine failure and on occasion I have seen a smaller version fishing in the river near Hoi An under a single lug sail.

Even if they do not carry a sail, a good many of the older offshore boats are equipped with the remnant of the sliding bow centerboard that was characteristic of the sailing vessels. In sailing days, these bow centerboards were quite long, the blade projecting down and back under the boat to provide lateral resistance for sailing upwind. Those boats that still carry the bow-board have a shorter—sometimes much shorter—version, which may help handling under some conditions, given the entirely smooth bottom of the boat otherwise. Or perhaps it was just an aesthetic holdover (and yes, the fishermen and builders must have a substantial aesthetic sense, the boats are often beautifully kept and tastefully painted). Now however, the newer large vessels are being built with their stems left un-grooved and they carry no rig, so the motors must be proving adequately reliable and the days of even limited sail are ending.

Construction Details

The boats start life as a single narrow central plank with the stem and stern post, pre–rabbeted, fastened at each end (with trunnels), braced up with pieces of crossed scrap lumber under stem and stern post and tied down with a twist of heavy wire and a pair of wedges on a pair of horizontal beams set on deadmen in the sand, a solid foundation to build on.

Construction details of Kim Bong Island traditional boat using trunnels: Vietnam

Two carefully matched pairs of planks are fitted and added on (flame bent, as needed, on the ground first) and held in place, not by edge nails, but with a number of “wedged clothes pin” type heavy wooden clamps. . .and chains. Floor timbers (“Da” in Vietnamese) are added and fastened so the clamps and chains can be removed and more planking is added, up to the turn of the bilge, when futtocks (upper frames, “Giang” in Vietnamese) are added, which define the shape of the hull for subsequent planks. The futtocks overlap the floor timbers a bit, but they are carefully spaced between the floors, so the framing is discontinuous. To a western eye, used to complete frames sturdily bolted together, the sight of frame tops completely separated from the floors is alarming. I suspect that design detail would not work for American boats made of soft woods, but with the very dense and hard woods available in Viet Nam it is a very common arrangement. I have not seen a boat at exactly the right stage to be sure what the sequence was for installing the futtocks versus the planks and no indication whether the planks are sprung into position and futtocks cut to fit or vice versa, and of course, some combination is most likely.

If the boat is small, whether motorized or not (and many are set up just to row and paddle) then the sheer strake continues the perfect double–ended design, floorboards are fitted in panels and the boat is ready to launch. Larger boats with the widened stern deck have their deck beams slightly let in aft and decking laid before the sheer strake is sprung into place and fastened off.

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Engine & Rudder Detail

The engine installation is a typical inboard arrangement, with the Chinese diesel engine bolted down to timber bearers. A stern tube of galvanized pipe is fitted, supported against the hull by a gracefully shaped wedge of wood with long U–bolts fitted to swallow both the pipe and its little wedge of timber and clamp them against the hull. There’s no skeg below to protect the propeller or rudder and one has to wonder how much trouble that causes in service. The way the rudders are hung is amazing. The sailing–days rudders were typical (or maybe rather large) wooden crescent shaped rudders, hung on pintles and gudgeons on the sternpost. Today the rudders are steel plate and light shafting or pipe, with the rudder shaft long enough to raise and lower it significantly. On small boats the rudder shaft has almost no bury at all in the hull, the shaft passing through the stern post vertically, perhaps fitted with a plate washer to limit travel downward. Larger boats are somewhat more reasonable, with three feet or more of bury from deck through the sternpost. The rudders are arranged to hoist and lower with help from two lines, one plumb line, leading through a hole just aft of the rudder tube and another farther aft. When fully lowered into position behind the prop the cantilevered length of the bar stock-rudder post, unsupported by a skeg, seems extremely vulnerable. Yet it must work! There are hundreds of these boats in all sizes up to almost 50 feet long working from Da Nang and Hoi An, all with this sort of rudder arrangement.

All in all, these are very superior boats in whatever size they’re built. Their model is economical to power and seaworthy. They have good carrying capacity and provide a good and well proven working platform for the fishermen. Perhaps most important, both their materials and attention to fit and detail are extremely good. A modern westerner might find the idea of wooden plank fastenings to be worrisome, but the evidence is that these boats are long lived, and the freedom from rust and nail sickness would seem to be a very significant advantage over iron fastenings.

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Quy Nhon Beachfront

Quy Nhon Beachfront

Quy Nhon

South of Hoi An, the next significant harbor is Quy Nhon, a charming small city with a bustling seagoing atmosphere. There are two major areas to look for boats in Quy Nhon. The first is the oceanfront. The hotel zone and promenade has a large fleet of good sized Modern Motor Fishing Vessels (MFV’s) anchored off shore.

The waterfront shantytown at Quy Nhon, with its constantly changing row of boats hauled out at the top of the beach for repairs and paint is gone. The shantytown itself was actually demolished in 2006, but the boat wrights continued working at the top of the beach for a time. They are gone now too. I did not visit Quy Nhon from 2007 until September of 2010. The change is utterly amazing. Not only is the old shantytown gone, but so are sizable parts of the old waterfront neighborhoods the full length of the bay. In 2005 there was already a significant start on a fine waterfront boulevard and park in the north end of the bay. In 2006 they had begun extending the very nice beachfront promenade through what had been the shantytown. In 2010, the promenade now extends the full length of the bay from north to south.

Launching a Boat at Quy Nhon Harbor

Launching a Boat on the Open Beach at Quy Nhon: 2005
Before the waterfront park displaced the boat builders.

Those make-shift boat yards had a remarkable launch system. At low tides they would launch down the beach using a pair of axles with truck tires and a pair of long pipes, which, when assembled under the boat, made a wagon of sorts. The essential remnants of an old GI truck with a winch on the front bumper pulled the boat up over the edge of the hole it was sitting in, the wheels were chocked, the winch wire disconnected, the truck got out of the way and then the vessel was sent rushing down the beach to launch herself, a spectacular sight.

Quy Nhon is poised to become a really major seaside resort. Realistically, the shantytown was a foul place, no sewers, no running water or proper electricity, unpaved paths for streets and really dangerous looking shacks for houses, so the beautifully groomed waterfront parks are a much better face for the town, and no doubt many of the boatyard workers will find better jobs in the new hotels and restaurants. Still somehow I feel it partly as a loss, the bright boats were beautiful there, cheerful, even hopeful in their repairs and new paint.

The second major boat area is the very busy harbor not far north of the hotel zone, fronting on the bay or lagoon that is formed by a long rocky peninsula running down from the North. There you’ll find a large formal boat yard, a major fish market and wharf, and a typical harbor support business zone, with shops selling anything a fishing boat might need for supplying, building or repairing. There are machine shops, welding outfits, rope makers, ice houses, and at least a hundred often somewhat battered MFV’s tied to the long wharf cheek by jowl. The harbor is in the midst of great change too though. There is a large pile driving rig busily installing the piles for a new L—shaped pier and much of the waterfront is a mess with the construction effort. The one remaining pier is very busy with fish being offloaded and the local shuttle boats coming and going from the quay wall stairs. It’s a little too early to tell exactly how the new harbor will be laid out, but no doubt it will be quite a change.

Traditional Quy Nhon Boat with Eyes and Tailfeathers

Traditional Quy Nhon Boat
with Eyes and Tailfeathers

There are still a number of traditional boats there, some rowing boats sixteen or eighteen feet long, both the graceful bamboo basket boats with their perky up-tilted ends and the bigger heavy wooden peapods. The largest are all-wood boats in the thirty foot range, some working as fishermen and others clearly in the harbor freight and taxi business, having no fishing gear but carrying an array of tires over the side to fender them off of larger boats or the concrete wharf.

The smaller motorized fishing boats are broadly similar in size and model to the boats at Hoi An, except that there is clearly a lot of evolutionary experimenting going on. Besides the traditional double ended boats, quite a few have the very typical traditional arching bow design but continue their maximum beam well aft and end in broad transom sterns: clearly a hybrid between the traditional double ender and the modern motor fishing vessel hull type. They all have pilot houses of one sort or another, though this may amount to no more than an engine house. Most of the Quy Nhon boats are quite nicely kept up, brightly painted, and besides having eyes similar to the Hoi An boats (but more ornate), many also have painted tail feathers, like a duck’s!

Quy Nhon ”Peapod“

Quy Nhon Boat with oarsman forward

Quy Nhon Row Boat
with Forward Rowing Position

There is a typical local traditional boat in the inland bay: a small rowing boat, usually about 18-20 feet long, a lovely double ender, rowed standing up and facing forward, but oddly, from a position well forward in the boat. This is the only instance I know of where the oarsman rows from a position so far forward, but it seems to be the norm in the harbor as well as out in the lagoon. Perhaps it is a response to the very rocky shoreline; the oarsman, standing so far forward would have a good view of what was coming up underfoot. The boat would seem right at home in a gathering of State of Maine peapods, at least when seen from a little distance. However, its heavy sawn frames and trunnel fastened planks would be out of place in Maine these days.

Quy Nhon Double-Ended Row Boat

Quy Nhon Double-Ender

Just South of Quy Nhon, where the new cliff top coast road rejoins the highway and crosses a small stream, there is a tiny open-air repair yard among a few shrimp ponds. Passing by on a Sunday I spotted a beautiful brand new (not even painted yet) double ender about 22 feet long. She provides a splendid view of the details of planking, fastening with trunnels (more about trunnels)and the lovely easy lines of the type.

Derelict boat hull on the beach north of Quy Nhon

An Interesting Hulk Near Quy Nhon

Examination of an Interesting Hulk Near Quy Nhon: The use of wooden or bamboo pegs to connect planking edge to edge.

In November 2013, I had an opportunity to examine the hulk of an old example of the local double ended fishing and utility boats that was nearly complete. This is a very rare opportunity, since derelict vessels rarely linger long in Viet Nam. Rather, they are dismantled for their wood. What planks or timbers can be reused in another boat will be carefully taken, and the balance will be sold for firewood. Thus an intact boat containing still a lot of useful material and certainly a lot of firewood was an unusual opportunity and provided at least two significant bits of information.

The boat was lying on the inland side of the long rocky peninsula that shelters the large inland bay north of Quy Nhon. She was pulled up on the shore stern first and someone had, in the past few years, begun refastening her with new trunnels. That work was itself several years old (judging from the weathering of the material) and it must have been several years since she was in service. She was apparently an open boat about 24 feet long and 8 feet wide, though she had distorted and the beam may have been a little more. She’s missing some planks and a few futtocks (upper frames). Her engine and its bearers are gone, but the old staining in her bilge from crankcase oil and the bolts that would have held her engine bearers are still evident. She has what seems to be a skeg aft that would have protected her prop. It was an after thought, not part of the keel, though it may have been original construction.

Detail of trunnels

Newer trunnels in the abandoned repair work.

She is essentially fastened with 1/2 inch diameter wooden trunnels (not bamboo) and the repair work that was started used wood trunnels as well. She had holes bored through her sternpost to receive the stern tube and shaft for her propeller as well as a single, smaller hole above the stern tube, which would have passed the cooling water intake line. Again, the engine installation is obvious, but it is not certain that she was originally engine powered. She is possibly old enough to have originally been built to sail and row.

The most compelling evidence for considerable age is that her stern post was bored vertically to pass a large diameter wooden rudder stock. Most modern Quy Nhon motorboats use steel rudders, similar to the ones in use at Hoi An, a steel rod passing through the stern post, with a steel blade, capable of being raised and lowered.

Bamboo Pegs for Edge Connection
Detail of edge fasteners

Evidence of bamboo edge fasteners to the right.
Frame with cut-off trunnel ends to the left.

The most interesting discovery in her carcass was that she had bamboo pegs, about 2/10ths inch square, connecting all her planks. Matched holes had been drilled, probably originally somewhat under sized, and the pegs were driven into the lower (previously installed) plank, then the new plank put in place and down on top of the pegs. They were surprisingly uneven, penetrating about 5 times farther into the lower plank than into the new, upper plank. Perhaps that is a result of wear and weathering rather than original configuration. There are two pegs spaced evenly between each pair of frames, so about 6 inches on center (but not placed where the frame falls).

In her present condition the pegs have no effect in tension. I was able easily to pull two out of their holes in the lower plank where the upper plank was missing, using just bare fingers. Again, it is easy to believe that the loose fit in the hulk is due to wear and weathering rather than original construction technique, but in that case, it argues that the life of the peg as a fastener is less than the potential life of the plank it is placed in.

New boat planking with marks suggesting edge connection

Small black alignment marks between frames suggestive
of edge fastening.

As a matter of speculation only, when examining a recently completed boat in Kim Bong, near Hoi An earlier in the month, I noted that, although it was clearly not edge nailed in the northern tradition, there were index marks inked onto the inside face of the planks, exactly as though it were being prepared for edge nailing. I think it is almost a certainty that the Hoi An area boats, built in the same overall tradition as the Quy Nhon area boats (round bottomed, nearly symmetrical double enders, fastened with trunnels) also use pegs between the planks, even today.

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Two Unusual Quy Nhon Basket Boats

Unusual Basket Boat Design

Unusual Basket Boat Design

Finally, besides literally hundreds of the ordinary round basket boats working, being built and slowly returning to their component parts in the shoreline debris, there are just a few very pretty little rowing basket boats in Quy Nhon: different sorts, and both of them not quite like anything I’ve seen elsewhere. One sort is about 14 feet long and four feet in beam, they are sharp at one end but quite round at the other and have an interesting bit of added basketwork above their rims around their sterns. I haven’t seen any of them working, but it is obvious they would be quick little boats and very good in a small seaway. I could not find their maker and only a few intact examples.

The other sort is another rowing boat, but longer and very graceful. I hadn’t seen them before my 2010 visit to the area and believed the type was extinct. (It is described in Pietri’s 1943 book, Voiliers d’Indochine.) But I spotted two of the truly traditional baskets and later several modern adaptations during that visit. More about these baskets on the Woven Bamboo page.

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Dai Lanh Harbor

Dai Lanh Harbor

Dai Lanh

Proceeding south along the coast on Highway One, you pass the promontory and beautiful bay at Dai Lanh. At the northern end of the bay, Dai Lanh, a little string bean of a town, squeezes in between the ocean on the east and the highway and the railroad tracks to the west. The highway and the railroad meanwhile are shoved up as tight as they will go against the mountainside, so there’s very little chance for the town to leapfrog and grow to the west. Sheltering in the bay at most seasons of the year you’ll find a fleet of at least a hundred or more pretty blue painted modern MFV type boats, mostly fifty feet or more in length and a number of very pretty double ended traditional boats, generally about thirty-five feet long. Both of these boat types are very similar to the boats built at Nha Trang, which may be a better place to see them.

Dai Lanh

The water front face of the town is a fascinating scene, densely packed with the fishermen and their families, boats hauled out for repairs, perhaps hand-made rope being twisted, nets being mended or cleaned: all the coming and going of a very active fishing village operating off the beach without a wharf or breakwater. Things are changing here too. Most important no doubt, is the new pier almost completed in front of the village. When it is complete, people will be able to land their fish and load their gear aboard without having to use basket dinghies. The people here use the same sort of pipe and axle wagon to haul their boats up onto the beach as you used to see at Quy Nhon, and they seem to be very casual about dragging at least the thirty-foot class of boat home to sit in their gardens in the off season.

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