The wooden work boats of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (French Indochina) have a long and fascinating history of sail and trade in South East Asia and beyond. Today, the sails are nearly all gone but the boats and their builders survived by adapting the traditional sailboat hulls for motoring. As well, a more modern Western style of fishing vessel has been widely adopted throughout Indochina so that today, there are four distinct styles of boats identifiable by their construction. They can be categorized as Traditionally Built Wooden Boats, Modern Motor Fishing Vessels (MFV’s), Woven Bamboo Basket Boats, and Bamboo Rafts.
History of the Boats of Indochina
For anyone with an interest in the way of working boats on the water, now and in the past, the coasts and rivers of Indochina offer a very rare opportunity. Lying on the sea road from India, Arabia and Europe to China and the Far East, the Indochinese coast—the coasts of modern Cambodia and Vietnam—has seen a constant flow of foreign traders for the past several hundred years. The region was long an exporter of rice and timber as well as more exotic stuff and traders came from all over the world, buying and selling and leaving behind traces of their own boats and boat building methods. Under Chinese domination for a thousand years and then under French governance until 1954, the region’s methods, materials and designs of vessels remained traditional. Long after the move toward modern, engine–driven boats had overtaken the Western world, wooden fishing boats and coastal traders continued to put to sea on the Indochinese coast under sail and oar.
In Saigon in 1943, a French technocrat, Mr. J.B. Pietri, the Commissioner of Fisheries for the Indochinese government, published a book titled Voiliers d’Indochine or The Sailboats of Indochina. Mr. Pietri was a biologist, trained in pen and ink anatomical drawing. Thus he drew anatomically correct sketches of the boats he recorded and noted the connections among them. He, probably more than any other Westerner ever, knew the local boats intimately, under sail or oar, in calms as well as gales. Perhaps most importantly, he was a romantic and knew full well he was recording something whose time would soon pass in Indochina as it already had in the Western world: great fleets of wooden working sail boats, earning their livings as they had for generations, fishing, hauling cargo and running contraband. His book is a beautiful record of a world that today is gone. The English language version, The Sailboats of Indochina is available as a reprint at Lulu.com.
In the early 1960’s the United States Government wrote a catalog, The Blue Book of Junks, which was illustrated with a great many photos and backed up with really quite good research on construction methods, cultural background, normal range and type of activities. It was written almost like a bird-watcher’s handbook, with the different types of junk sorted into typical groups and duly numbered and lettered so that a lookout on a US or South Vietnamese Navy vessel could sort through the profiles and check the dimensions and construction details and the notes on appropriate fishing gear and likely range of legitimate operations and make an identification. After the war, crates of these books were used all over Washington DC as doorstops, but now they seem to be all gone. The authors of the Blue Book were aware of Voiliers but felt that it was already obsolete, given the sweeping changes in the Vietnamese fleet. When they went to press in 1963 with the first edition of the book, sails and sweeps were still the most common drivers on the coast and the cut of the sails and angles of the masts and details of the rigging were described in great detail.
This website documents the way things are now at the turn of the 21st century as Mr. Pietri’s book documented and celebrated the way things were in the first half of the 20th (and perhaps a thousand years before that). The differences between then and now are immediately apparent. Sails are almost entirely gone and diesel engines are almost universal. Perhaps most importantly, in 1943 and still in 1963, the boats differed significantly from port to port, with local types clearly different from the boats elsewhere up and down the coast. In almost any harbor today you’ll find most of the boats are one sort or another of Motor Fishing Vessel (MFV) more or less in the Western style and very similar to other boats in other harbors up and down the coast. They differ much more in the rigging they carry to manage their fishing gear than in their hull lines and construction details.
Today, in all of Indochina (that is, the modern countries of Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia), there are essentially three different sorts of boats, more or less perfectly identifiable by their construction. You could call it four types perhaps if you included bamboo rafts, which are used for both ocean fishing and mountain rivers. They are:
- Woven Bamboo Basket Boats
- Traditionally Built Wooden Boats
- Modern Motor Fishing Vessels (MFV’s)
- and Bamboo Rafts
Traditionally Built Wooden Boats vs. the Modern Motor Fishing Vessel
In the fifty years since the US Navy’s Blue Book of Junks was published, the Modern Motor Fishing Vessel or MFV type, which hardly existed in Indochina at the time, has become the most common sort of fishing boat, with literally hundreds of them in every major fishing port. In a variety of sizes, they are easy to spot, with their bold upright bows flaring from a sharp cutwater at the waterline to high rounded sides at the sheer line, fine high bulwarks protecting the working deck, sweeping in a graceful curve to their wide transom sterns. They all have their pilot house (and engine room cover) well aft and wide open work decks forward. Seen in aerial photos they look almost rectangular from their wide square transoms, with long parallel sides finally meeting in their husky rounded foredecks. They are built like Western boats, with a heavy timber keel and a full set of ribs assembled into a complete skeleton and then planked to fit.
These boats, or at least their designs, were introduced in the 1960’s to take advantage of the more powerful diesel engines that were becoming available from Japanese manufacturers. In fact, the engine factories often provided the boat plans to go with their engines. These purpose-built engine-powered boats made good use of the available power, letting the fishermen carry ice to keep their catch, to spend scheduled times at sea and to carry heavy loads of fish ashore at a good speed. Given the cheap diesel and the advantages of on-board power (electric lights, hydraulic power, powered bilge pumps) these modern Motor Fishing Vessels, in all sorts of sizes, became very popular all up and down the coast.
When Mr. J. Pietri wrote his book Voiliers d’Indochine (The Sailboats of Indochina) in 1943, he stated that the defining difference between European boats and Indochinese lay in how they are built. Simply and quickly put, European boats are built on a backbone and ribs, with the planking fitted on after the skeleton is built, though there are variations of course: some boats being built on a backbone and some temporary forms, with the permanent ribs bent in later. The traditionally built Indochinese boat, by contrast, was built without a backbone at all. Moreover, the planks were all shaped, bent and assembled edge to edge without any forms or ribs at all until the boat was completely or nearly completely planked. Then, and only then, would the ribs be fitted.
Out of the myriad of sail boats that survived to the 1960’s and are now gone, quite a few were given motors and turned into perfectly good motor boats themselves, so that today there are a number of Traditional fishing boats descended directly from sailing vessels but powered by diesel engines, and carrying a full-fledged pilot house aft. The old hull style with its characteristic sheer and flare and peculiarities of construction is still there, carrying the fishermen to and from the grounds and hauling home the fish.
Typically the opposite of the modern MFV in most respects, they are long for their width and taper sweetly from end to end. Their bows almost always arch out far over the water ahead of them and rise high above the water. They are often double ended (sharp on both ends) or very nearly so, with their sterns often rising nearly as high and as far back over the water as their bows. They move through the water, as befits a sailing hull, with a great deal less fuss than an MFV type and use a smaller engine in consequence. They are almost always built as their ancestors were, without a heavy keel timber, but simply a central plank, tapered like the other planks in the hull, and they are planked up completely (or nearly so) with the planks connected edge to edge before the ribs are installed.
Harbor and Inshore Craft
With all the changes in the fleets of larger fishing boats that accompanied the end of Sail, the small boats, that is, harbor craft and inshore fishing vessels are often very much the same as they were half a century ago, still working under oars or paddles. There are some fascinating examples of small boat evolution to be seen as well. In Hue and Nha Trang particularly, you can find the traditional composite wood and bamboo or all bamboo small boats working alongside the modern equivalent, composite wood and aluminum.
Mekong River Boats
So much for the coast then, but there’s a lot more to Indochinese boats than just the coast. The Mekong River runs through it all, from somewhere high in the Himalayas, down through China and along Thailand and Laos (where it often is the border) and finally through Cambodia all the way from North to South and thus into the vast Mekong Delta in Viet Nam. Supposedly the river has only seven mouths discharging from the Delta, but it must have a hundred main channels coursing through the flat countryside, and all of them swarm with boats. There are thousands of graceful wooden cargo boats hauling all manner of produce and rice. There are water–borne busses plying to and from the cities and villages. And in every town of any size there are large fleets of water taxis, powered and rowing boats, not to mention fleets of ferries, tugs and barges, dredges and pile drivers and even floating stores.
Above Phnom Penh, the Mekong becomes a different river entirely. Though at first it is slow and dignified, before long, as the mountains in Northwestern Cambodia start to close in, it becomes a strong swift–flowing river running through a narrow valley with mountains never far away. The boats change accordingly and become long and narrow and very shallow and, sadly perhaps, much of what they used to do for the people of the countryside is now done by trucks and motorbikes as the roads have multiplied and moved farther up into the mountains.
There may be other reasons of course, but from a boatman’s perspective, the reason there are two countries—Laos and Cambodia—is that there is a waterfall (or series of them) that completely blocks navigation on the Mekong. That waterfall, to all intents and purposes, is the boundary between the countries and a line of demarcation between the two different navigations. So the Laotian boats on the upper river are quite different from the Cambodian boats on the lower river, which of course are very different from the heavy cargo carriers in the Vietnamese Mekong delta.
In the following pages, we will review the boats and harbors all along the coast from the Chinese border in Northern Viet Nam, through Central and South Coastal Viet Nam to the Thai border (or very nearly) in Southern Cambodia. We’ll look into the boats you’ll find on the Mekong, from the Delta and on up river into Cambodia and Laos.