Halong Bay

The Limestone Mountains of Halong Bay

The wooden working boats of the North coast of Vietnam cover a broad spectrum of styles from the elaborate but relatively un-seaworthy tourist boats of Halong Bay to the woven bamboo surf boats and bamboo rafts of Sam Son and the now extinct, large woven bamboo basket boats of Cua Lo.

The Northern coast of Vietnam stretches from the Chinese border at Mong Cai, past limestone mountains that run right out into the ocean in the bay of Bai Tu Long and Halong Bay. Those mountains make a fabulous landscape, with towering limestone mountain tops springing from a wonderfully blue sea and climbing, all but sheer, hundreds of feet into the sky. Farther south, beyond the mouths of the Red River, around Haiphong, the land becomes very low lying and flat—rich farmland right to the edge of the dunes at the sea. Sam Son is the closest beach resort to Hanoi, but more importantly for our purposes, a very interesting place to watch the comings and goings of a vigorous surfboat (and surf-raft!) fishing fleet as well as a densely packed river mouth harbor. The differences between the boats in the Halong Bay region and those farther south are startling. You haven’t come all that far in actual mileage, but you’ve passed from the relatively protected waters among the thousands of islands to an open coastline looking out over the South China Sea with a clear view. I have arbitrarily drawn the line between the Northern Coast and the Central Coast somewhere south of the town of Cua Lo. South of Cua Lo, the country becomes very slender, in places not much more than fifty miles from the salt water up into the mountains of Laos or Cambodia and the boats in the harbors and on the beaches gradually change to the types you’ll find on the Southern coasts.

Halong Bay Big Tourist Boat

Luxury Tourist Boat in Halong Bay

Halong Bay

Tourist Boats

The peculiar conditions in the Halong Bay region (in which I would include the Bai Tu Long area just to the north) have produced the only fleet of large tourist cruise boats in Indochina, to carry the world’s vacationers into and through the incredibly beautiful scenery. The bay is strewn with literally thousands of rocks and islands rising hundreds of feet straight out of the sea. Those beautiful islands provide a remarkable degree of shelter so that relatively small or unseaworthy boats can safely trade and fish over a wide area. The tourist boats have evolved from their earliest versions, with hulls based on an old Chinese style sailing vessel from the last century, with the addition of adequate diesel engines and nearly full-length cabins. They have an upper deck for promenading, keeping stubby masts with ornamental sail rigs that are never set except for photographs. Today, the largest of them amount to small floating hotels, complete with oriental roofs, balcony gardens, potted palms, dining rooms and staterooms as well as fleets of plastic kayaks, all floating on what is still an old style sailing hull at heart. They are a comfortable and enjoyable way to see the place, just not terribly graceful or traditional.

Woven Bamboo Basket Boats

Halong Bay Basket Boat

Halong Bay Basket Boat

There are also an enormous number of very distinctively designed motor and oar-powered woven bamboo basket boats in the area. The basic basket portion of the boat has a plump oval shape. Except for the smallest of these boats, (which are all bamboo) on the basic basket hull they build a heavy wooden rectangular structure, perhaps as little as just a frame to carry the oarlocks, but often an extensive deck and internal framing to support a diesel engine. These basket boats effectively fill all the niches of inshore work in the area—fishing, small freight and water taxi—that can be done by boats up to about 18 feet long.

Halong Bay MFV

Halong Bay MFV Set Up for Squidding

Beyond that size limit, ordinary wooden planked boats do the work. The most common of these, particularly in sizes over 35 feet long, are variations on the universal Modern Motor Fishing Vessel. (We’ll call them MFV’s most of the time hereafter. More info on MFV’s.) Halong Bay, and particularly Cat Ba harbor on Cat Ba Island, is a home port for a large fleet of these boats in lengths up to 100 feet, many engaged in fishing in distant waters offshore, though a great many still fish the nearby coastal region. Although most of these MFV type boats would blend in anywhere in the country, they have some local characteristics worth noting. They often have very plump bows above water, while being very sharp at the waterline, giving them somewhat the appearance of a child with a pointed chin puffing out his cheeks. This must present some serious problems for their builders—making the planks wrap around such an extreme shape. The larger, distant-water boats though are normally big, powerful hulls, with raking stems and tall bulwarks.

Square Heads

Halong Bay Square Head

Halong Bay Square Head

Halong Bay is also the home of a traditionally built small motorboat directly descended from a Chinese style of sailing junk. These boats, which I refer to as Halong Bay Square Heads or just square heads, are unique in Viet Nam, but very common here. They range from about 18 feet to perhaps 40 feet long and have a very prominent squared-off bow above a perfectly normal hull otherwise. The squared-off area makes an excellent foredeck for handling anchors or gear and no doubt keeps down spray when butting into a head sea. To produce that foredeck, the uppermost hull plank runs normally from the transom along the hull until past the midships point, then begins to roll out toward horizontal and separates itself from the rest of the hull, finally ending on a headlog, a stout horizontal timber that forms the bow. The space between the upper plank and the rest of the hull is filled in with short tapered planks, and the whole extended bow area is supported on wide flaring ribs.

Halong Bay Square Head Double Transom

Tea Under a Square Head Double Transom

This widened foredeck is always decked in and provides some really useful working space right forward for handling anchors or gear. No doubt it also provides some additional buoyancy going into a head sea and knocks down a lot of spray. On the other hand, in a large head sea it is easy to imagine it pounding hard. I have not seen them working in really rough conditions though so that’s just surmise. Aft they are also very different from the great majority of traditional Vietnamese boats. They have what amounts to a broad double transom, the upper one somewhat farther aft than the lower one. In sailing days, a big wooden barn-door rudder was hung between the two, so that the upper transom provided some protection for the rudder when running off before a big sea. Nowadays though, the rudder is a small steel blade and is fitted below the lower transom just behind the propeller where it does the most good steering a motorboat.

Halong Bay Square Head Dragger

Halong Bay Square Head Dragger

The Halong Bay square heads are used in essentially all the trades in this part of the coast. As fishermen, the smallest usually work either hand lines or long lines, that is, they fish with hook and line, either one line in hand per person (not that common) or with a heavy long line equipped with a great many baited hooks, strung out for quite a distance on the bottom and marked at each end with buoys. In somewhat larger sizes, say over 32 feet long, you may see one rigged to fish for squid, with the typical long outrigger poles to spread the net far out on all sides of the boat, and the big banks of lights to draw the squid to the trap. Somewhat less common is a rig set up to allow a net to be pushed ahead of the boat in the top few feet of the sea, scooping whatever fish are swimming near the surface. This rig, in the Halong Bay area, usually includes a short mast just in front of the pilot house, with a pair of long booms suspended from the mast. They can be hoisted up to raise the net out of the water and bring it closer to the boat, or they can be lowered so that the net is shoved through the water somewhat like the blade in front of a bulldozer. Other Halong Bay boats tow a net behind themselves, presumably dragging along the bottom, though, rocky as the bottom is, one has to wonder how the skipper keeps his net out of trouble. You are likely to see almost any sort of fishing gear on these boats and some of them no doubt change their gear with the seasons.

Besides fishing directly, many of the smaller boats earn their living hauling the catch ashore from larger boats that want to stay out on the fishing grounds and continue working. The smaller boat takes a full cargo below and on deck and runs home to offload, leaving the catcher making money off shore, so you’ll see these boats, with no fishing gear aboard, tires hung from their sides to cushion them against the larger boats while they’re loading in the offshore swell, running for port in a nearly sinking condition, loaded down with fish.

Others are in the fruit and vegetable trade, an adjunct to the great number of tourist boats and houseboats scattered in anchorages through the islands. The tourist boats put out from Bai Chai (the modern half of Halong City) every day before noon, sometimes short fresh fish or other supplies for the sumptuous meals they’ll serve their guests (the best of them are superb and the ordinary standard is quite good). The small Halong Bay boats will lay alongside and do a brisk business in whatever they have on offer.

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Old Batwing sailboat in Halong Bay

Halong Bay Sailing Junk in an Old Postcard

Models of an Extinct Species of Sailing Boat

In old photographs of Halong Bay, there are two distinctive subjects. For the most part the photographers were showcasing the incredible limestone islands that have made the Bay famous, and lead to its listing as a World Heritage Site. However, many of those photos will include the romantic sight of a batwing sailboat working her way through the protected seas. Now and then the order is reversed and the sailing junk is the primary focus and the islands are just for background. Either way, these photos are as close as most of us can get to seeing the actual boats, they’ve been extinct at least since the mid 1970’s.

Through one of those improbable sequences of events that make life so interesting I've stumbled across the last remnants of those vanished boats. To begin with, I met an American Scholar whose interest is the history of the North Vietnamese Army Medical Corps during the American—Vietnamese war. He is also a tugboat skipper and enjoyed my research into Vietnamese boats and took the time to write. He eventually introduced me to another scholar (an American diplomat) who has a contact in Viet Nam who had been deeply involved in establishing a museum in Halong Bay. In that museum is a small collection of highly detailed models of the variations of the lost boats, made by a retired boat builder who had actually built the traditional sailing boats while they were still in daily use.

And so, in February 2012 I carried a letter of introduction to Tran Xuan Cuong in Halong City. Mr. Cuong is a brilliant young man, working for the Provincial government, presently working on projects involving major investments in the area, but in an earlier position with the Department of Conservation he had worked with UNESCO to build the museum in Cua Van fishing village. Through Mr. Cuong I met Nguyen Manh Quy the builder. Mr. Quy was born in 1943, the fourteenth and last in a long line of local boat builders. He worked as an apprentice and then journeyman boat builder from the time he was fourteen years old, then opened his own boatyard in 1983. Thereafter, he and his workmen built, on average, six to seven significant boats each year, as well as numerous smaller boats. They could build four or five “small boats” in a month. I asked him about the size of boats he built and he answered in terms of tons of carrying capacity, from small boats of one or two tons to the largest he built, 1,000 tons.

Model of a rowing boat from Halong Bay, Vietnam

Although he built or worked on the traditional sailing vessels, he would rather be remembered I think, as an artist and an innovator. For example, he smiled when he explained that he was the builder who first combined the best characteristics of the Chinese and the Thailand boats to produce the modern fishing vessel. People will call him “Quy the Artist” to please him, or “Bald Quy” (though he has more hair than I!) When his health began to fail a few years ago, Mr. Cuong urged him to build a series of models of the old sailing vessels. Several of them are in the museum out in the islands and others have gone to museums or private collections in Italy, Japan and Korea.

The museum is still there and open to the public, but it is located far out of the way in a floating fishing village north and east of Halong City, Cua Van. Through Mr. Cuong’s introduction I was able to arrange a speedboat ride out to the village, courtesy of Mr. Doan Van Dung, the owner of “Indochina Junk”, the premier fleet of tour boats on the bay. Without the help of Mr. Dung and his excellent assistant Ms. Cuc, I would never have managed to get to the museum at all. They sent me off in a small white fiberglass speedboat with a 100hp Yamaha and a large fuel tank for a forty minute ride over a glassy sea on a gray hazy day. We made very good time, flying low!

The museum floats on a raft of several hundred blue plastic barrels, all neatly corralled by a steel frame and decked with timber. It’s an attractive place, with its green roof and white-framed window wall. Tour boats stop here on a regular schedule and turn their passengers loose to study the displays and buy the paintings and photographs that help pay the operating costs. Inside, there’s a series of displays of fishing gear, boats, people and history, with the fleet of Mr. Quy’s models in pride of place by themselves on a long display table in the middle of the room. There are small labels standing at the bow of each model, but at least some of them have been misplaced over the years (one all-wood boat is labeled “Lang Cau Tay, Basket boat for fishing with a rod”) and in any event the descriptions are not in enough detail to be much use. The models on the other hand are splendid and yield much detail that cannot be gotten from the period photos I’ve been able to find.

A row of model sailboats from Halong Bay, Vietnam

The fleet of models consists of six sailing vessels representing boats from about 20 feet to about 40 feet in length, two rowing boats, a dragon boat (racing canoe), a basket boat and a raft. I’ll ignore the raft, the basket and the racing canoe and concentrate on the family of rowing and sailing junks. The smallest is a rowing boat, decked over completely, with a single sculling oar, and otherwise completely different than the others. A cruel visitor might compare it to an 1958 Cadillac with tail fins. These boats were seen during the war years working out of Vung Tau in the far south of Viet Nam, operated by Catholic refugees from the Halong Bay area. Again, I’ll ignore that boat for now and move on to the boats that were more typical of the area. There is a boat that might have been 18 feet long or a bit more, rigged to row with sweeps. With her oarlock stanchions fore and aft, she might have rowed as many as four long oars at once. However, her midships section is covered with a black tarp with a white boltrope sewn on all around and bamboo battens sewn across, very possibly a sail but not necessarily intended for this boat, since she has no mast, rudder or centerboard. That’s a puzzle.

The rest of the models are all one or two masted sailing vessels, rigged with classic Chinese junk sails, and, though they vary in the details of their arrangement and gear, they all share a very similar hull. The hull design is different from any Western boat, but it wouldn’t be too far wrong to call them “Dory Prams”. They are all flat bottomed with with flat flaring sides, a broad transom stern and a smaller bow transom that, in several cases, is actually concealed by the side planks which project ahead and are cut to a rounded cutwater profile. In practice, I suspect such a bow shape will behave like a boat with a normal sharp bow, cutting through the water rather than butting at it. The models depict boats adapted variously to fishing and freighting, and except for their size, are otherwise all very similar and consistent with many of the photos from that era. They are all fully decked, with a small round topped cabin top of woven bamboo and hatch boards down the center line forward to give access to the cargo or fish holds below.

They all have a prominent daggerboard, running in a waterproof trunk clear through from deck to bottom plank, to provide lateral plane for sailing to windward. Daggerboards of this style were common on sailing work boats in many areas along the coast and are still in use in some smaller Vietnamese motorboats, not for sailing anymore, but to improve handling in a seaway. The sailing models all are equipped with Chinese style “barn door” rudders, all wood and sharply raking, several of them perforated with diamond shaped holes, and all capable of being hoisted up for operating in really shallow water or beaching, or able to be removed completely through a slot in the after deck.

Model of a sailboat from Halong Bay, Vietnam

The masts of these models are all stepped in tabernacles for easy lowering, and the standing rigging is set up with lanyards and large wooden thimbles like deadeyes. The main mast is always rigged plumb and the foremast, if there is one, rakes sharply forward. Each mast carries one sail, all set up as fully battened, high-peaked Chinese junk lugs. The fore sail, or the only sail of single masted boats, has the boom (or lowest sail batten) extending well forward of the mast, moving the center of effort forward somewhat and serving to balance the weight of wind in the sail and make it easier to handle. None of the models are rigged with sheets of any sort, though Pietri (Voiliers d'Indochine, 1943 or the English Sailboats of Indochina reprinted in 2006) describes the sheets of such sails, arranged just like a Chinese junk. Portraying that web of sheetlets and small blocks would have been a real challenge to the model builder and Mr. Quy was, after all, a boat builder, not a sailor, and may not have cared that much how the running rigging was set up.

The models were not built to a consistent scale so they are all much the same size in model form and you need to use the relative height of cabin top and other Human-linked dimensions to get a feel for their size. From photos on old French post cards from the early 20th century it appears the boats ranged from about tweny feet long to perhaps a little more than 40 feet, which is consistent with surviving photos I’ve seen. The smallest of these sailing boats did without winches, but the larger models show handspike capstans set up to handle halyards, the anchors and fishing gear alike.

Model of a sailboat from Halong Bay, Vietnam showing bow detail

Mr. Quy has painted some of these models black, with or without some colored trim, but others he painted brown as though they were natural finished. However, most (all?) of the photos I’ve seen of these boats working showed them black all over, and Pietri and the Blue Book both mention that the boats were often put ashore and the hulls charred to kill the borers and shipworms that otherwise would have eaten them in short order.

The one (perhaps unavoidable) inaccuracy in these models is that they are so neat and tidy. All the photographs available show the boats in service, and mostly that service included housing the family that worked the boat, so they were often covered with wives and kids and cooking food and drying clothes and the like.

I have never seen a live boat that resembles these models or photographs either rigged to sail or equipped with a motor. In our conversation, Mr. Quy stated that he has not seen one in twenty years at least. There are still innumerable boats in Halong Bay, but the smaller sizes are now all of one of two possible types: the “square head”, a typical wooden boat with a sharp bow but a widened fore–deck, built in a variety of sizes comparable to these models, and the woven oval basket boats that are so common in the smaller end of this size range, from perhaps 18 feet down to as little as 10 feet or thereabouts in length. It’s hard to guess just why these Halong Bay natives have disappeared, but perhaps it is simply that the pram bow, though it worked well in a sailing vessel that heeled when working into a chop against the breeze and always struck head seas at an angle, was less successful on a motor boat driven squarely upwind on an even keel.

There is one full–sized sailboat of this design in existence, in another fishing village: Vung Vieng. Mr Dung, of Indochina Junk, had the boat built faithfully to the old design a few years back and had it set up in dry display ashore at Vung Vieng as part of his effort to improve Community–based tourism in the Bay. Passengers on the cruise boats arriving there have the chance not only to see the old boat, but to go fishing right alongside the local people and visit them at home. However, if you want to see both the Museum at Cua Van floating village and Vung Vieng fishing village with the full sized traditional boat, you’ll have to take two separate cruises, the villages are at opposite ends of the Bay and many miles apart.

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Lower Red River Workboats

Lower Red River Workboats

Red River Basket Pushing a Net

Red River Basket Boat Pushing a Net

Lower Red River Delta

In much of the Lower Red River Delta, although it seems as though most of the boats are heavy modern steel vessels, hauling sand, gravel, cement and bricks for the most part, there are also some fascinating oval basket boats, very close relatives to the Halong Bay baskets, but without the timber decking. They range from absolutely tiny, hardly enough to float the one man crew and his gossamer net, up to fairly substantial boats, twenty feet long or so, with small arched woven-bamboo shelter cabins. Some are powered with small diesel engines, but many run under oar power alone. I found one couple working such a boat along the banks of a canal, the missus rowing, often with her feet, and the gentleman of the family raising and lowering a push-ahead net as they nosed repeatedly into the shallows, working slowly along the bank. I’ve not yet had a chance to go aboard one or see one hauled out, so cannot describe their framing or interiors.

Sam Son

Sam Son MFVs

Sam Son MFV’s

Sam Son (pronounced “Sum Sun”) at the mouth of the Ha River in Thanh Hoa province, is one of the first major fishing harbors south of the Halong Bay area and the big port city of Haiphong. It is the closest seaside resort to Hanoi. In the warmer months of the year, its beach and hotels are full, but in the winter it’s as cold and dreary as Hanoi. Then the hotels are empty and the beach front belongs to the local fishermen, who make a living launching from the beach and landing their catch through the surf. There’s also a major river mouth harbor north of the hotels and beach area a mile or so, but with on-going redevelopment of some of the waterfront, some military installations and generally confusing roads, it’s not a particularly easy spot to find. If you do find it however, you’ll find a great many of the local version of the ubiquitous Modern Motor Fishing Vessel (some of which have remarkably round bows) rafted up at the concrete piers or hauled out in the little shipyard just downstream. Less obvious, there are a few somewhat smaller but really graceful old style traditional boats.

The MFV type boats, by and large, are very similar to the boats you’ll find almost anywhere on the Vietnamese coast: heavy, deep bellied boats, nearly rectangular, with straight sides and square transom sterns, and more or less flaring rounded bows. Although most of them seem to be typical, there were three hauled out in the small boat yard at the downstream end of the fishing boat harbor that were remarkable among Vietnamese MFV’s in having almost completely flat bottoms and hard, nearly square chines, though their bows were nicely shaped.

Sam Son Traditional Boats

Smaller Traditional Boats at Sam Son

Sam Son Traditional Boats

The local versions of traditional boats that I’ve seen, range from about 30 feet to boats of 60 feet or thereabouts. They are very graceful, with an unbroken sheer line springing far out over the water forward and ending well above the water aft. At first glance you might think they are just larger and smaller versions of the same boat, but that’s not quite right. The smaller sized boat has much the same bow profile, raking well ahead, out over the water. Her sides stand nearly plumb as well, much like the larger boat.

However, typically the smaller boat’s bottom will be an arc from side to side and meet the sides at a hard chine below the waterline but the larger boat’s is built quite differently, with a dead flat central plank and a pair of “bilge panels,” so she has a very angular shape, with two chines each side. The biggest difference in hullform between the boats is the stern. The smaller boat is built with a relatively broad but shallow transom (usually nicely ornamented with carving and paint). The larger boat has a narrow transom that is actually just an extension of the center bottom plank, bent up with heat to form a sloping dory stern.

The first time I saw one of these larger boats (about 60 feet long) she was beached on a misty, cool morning on the hotel–front beach of the town, with a stern anchor out offshore and a headline tied to a pole driven into the beach sand. Her registration numbers indicated she was a local boat. The tide had almost completely left her and it was possible to examine her lines quite well forward (though I couldn’t quite make out the details of her stern without getting wetter than I wanted).

She was well maintained and in excellent condition, obviously in daily service at sea as a fisherman, with great heaps of bundled up monofilament tangle net on deck. Her sides stood nearly plumb and she had two chines each side above her flat bottom which rested on the sand. Her bottom was arched fore and aft such that her propeller appeared to be clear (or nearly clear) of the sand where she sat, and her wooden rudder, which was mounted in a well just forward of the transom, was hauled well up where it could come to no harm while she lay on the beach.

Pietri illustration of sailing Ghe Manh and modern motorized version in Sam Son.

The sailing version of the Ghe Manh from Voiliers d’Indochine, and its modern, motorized equivalent.

What is obviously the sailing grandfather of these larger present day boats was documented in Jean Pietri’s 1943 book Voiliers d’Indochine (Sailboats of Indochina) as the Ghe Manh of Cua Lo. Cua Lo is the next river–mouth harbor south of Sam Son, 120 kilometers by road, perhaps a day’s sail away. The sailing Ghe Manh was a beautiful thing, with spectacular Chinese Junk Sails and a long lean hull. The modern descendant is truly a motor boat, 62 feet long usually (19 meters), powered with a single small diesel engine, with no trace of a sail rig.

However, between the old sailing vessel and the modern-day motorboat there are differences besides the missing sailing rig. Most notably, the sailing vessel had her stern higher than her bow and the modern boat carries her bow out in a long, curved cutwater reaching higher over the sea. This is a rational evolution, since the sailing vessel could never sail directly into the waves, and the first thing a sailor loves about his engine is that he can proceed in any direction he chooses, wind or no. The sailing vessel can never poke her nose straight into the sea, but the motor boat has to. Hence the higher bow to keep the vessel dry when going upwind.

Other than that, the old sailor and the modern motor boat are very similar indeed. Oddly enough, there’s nothing like that boat in use in Cua Lo these days, Cua Lo has evolved yet another sort of boat. But the boat from Sam Son is built to much the same lines and size as the sailing Ghe Manh, with the same construction techniques. I think it is reasonable, in the absence of a modern Vietnamese name, to call this boat the “Motorized Ghe Manh.”

Modern Motor Fishing Vessel and Motorized Ghe Manh, both in construction phase.

Stern Views of Sam Son MFV and Motorized Ghe Manh Under Construction

Compared to a modern MFV of similar length, the traditional boat is much narrower and shallower, with a long raking bow and a nearly sharp stern. She is built of lighter wood (though the scantlings are still quite heavy), needs a much smaller engine, and very likely she has no proper wheelhouse or accommodation for her crew. The MFV will have adequate shelter and cooking facilities for several days at sea, as long as her ice lasts. The MFV, not surprisingly, will fish with much heavier gear and will probably have winches or power capstans to handle it. The lighter traditional boat, with no real accommodation for the crew, and often no power equipment, will make shorter trips, perhaps with larger crews to handle the gear by hand. The MFV will never be seen fishing push-ahead gear, but the traditional boat may use it a good part of the year. They are also seen spreading long gill or tangle nets (in port they look like huge bundles of twine on deck) or setting long lines of hooks between buoys. They are very different vessels working in different traditions.

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Sam Son Bamboo Rafts

Sam Son Bamboo Rafts

Bamboo Rafts

If it’s a bit difficult to find the mouth of the river and the large boat moorage at Sam Son, you cannot avoid finding the fascinating fleet of beach boats, some of which are woven baskets and some actually bamboo rafts with sail rigs and big diesel engines. A fleet of about eighty tar-coated woven basket boats, is based on the beach right in front of the older part of the Beach Hotel zone and a kilometer or so to the North, actually on the beach in front of the newer, larger hotels, there is a fleet of about forty Ghe Be or bamboo sailing rafts.

These rafts were once fairly common along this whole stretch of coast according to M. Pietri’s Voiliers d’Indochine, but this fleet at Sam Son is the only large group I’m aware of now. (More about bamboo rafts.) Not withstanding the obvious possible disadvantages involved in a sea-going, powered sailing raft, if you consider it as a vessel for routinely passing through surf to get to and from the fishing grounds, it makes a good deal of sense. Supremely flexible, unsinkable, (indeed, not even swamp-able) extremely stable, it seems they can hardly come to grief on the wide sandy beaches of the Vietnamese coast. The historical boats were all bamboo, stepped one to three masts and had dagger boards (up to three) as well as a rudder to balance their helms on various points of sailing and help them work to weather. The modern rafts are actually styrofoam floats encased in split bamboo to protect the styrofoam scrap and blocks and keep it all together, with whole bamboos used for structural strength. They step one or two masts, each carrying a single standing lug sail that stows, all wrapped around the boom and yard, up the mast in a bundle, just as such sails have been furled in these waters for a hundred years. They also carry good sized diesel engines built up on a typical long-tail outboard frame, but nowadays they have no daggerboards and only rarely a rudder. They all have a large T-handled sculling and steering sweep permanently mounted on a stanchion on the port quarter that serves for both steering in general and propulsion in water too shallow to run the engines. There was very little breeze while I watched them working and only one set sail to make a long tow to the South a quarter mile offshore. At the end of the tow, nearly dusk, they furled the sail and ran under diesel power back to the beach.

The Ghe Be fish in the nearby offshore area, usually within an hour’s run from home, though I’m fairly certain I understood one man to tell me that they do sometimes spend up to two days fishing off shore at a stretch—with no shelter and only a small platform raised slightly above the presumably often wet deck. When I saw them working, they were dragging a very fine mesh net and catching tiny pink shrimp, with a small by-catch of sardines. The ox and pony carts back right down alongside to pick up heavier things. More about the rafts.

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Sam Son Bamboo Basket Boat

Small Woven Bamboo Basket Boat

Sam Son Basket Boats

The Sam Son basket boats are a distinct species, of a completely different sort from baskets further north, where all the basket boats that aren’t completely round are very symmetrically oval, and likewise completely different from the basket boats further south, which are long, narrow and sharp ended. (More about woven bamboo basket boats.) These Sam Son boats (all apparently now made in one shop in town) are basically in two sizes and very consistent in form. The smaller size is about twelve feet long and five feet in beam, two feet in least depth (amidships) with a somewhat bulbous “Turkish slipper” profile. That is, the bow is quite high and comes to a sharp point, while the stern could almost be called a full transom, within the limits of what can be accomplished by weaving stiff bamboo. These smaller baskets are all rowed from a standing position aft and show a remarkable turn of speed for such rough skinned chubby boats. They are, of course, very cheerful about landing or leaving through at least a small surf.

The larger boats are not that much larger, only about sixteen feet long and six feet wide, a little deeper and bulkier overall than the twelve-footers and are all powered by small inboard diesel engines. The twelve foot boats have no need for rudders, steering with their oars, but the larger boats have very traditional wooden barn door type rudders working in a slotted hole bored in a massive single chunk of wood bolted and lashed to the stern of the boat. When beaching they hoist the rudder clear of the sand and jam it up by simply pulling the top of the rudder stock forward, jamming the rudder in its slot. On leaving the beach outbound all it takes is a bump from an elbow and the rudder will drop into working position and they’re off and in control

Sam Son Bamboo Basket Boat on Trolley

Large Basket Boat Ready to Be
Wheeled Up the Beach at Sam Son

I have not seen these boats working in a real surf at all. In calm conditions they simply motor up onto the very gradually shelving soft sand beach until they ground. If they are ready to move up the beach above high tide for the night they will coax the boats onto a launching trolley consisting of two automobile wheels welded to a very low slung axle with a single plank bolted on. This trolley is handled with a pair of short ropes, one for each side. One man (or woman) can easily tow it down the beach to the water unless he (or she) drops one rope, in which case the two wheels will run off out of control with occasionally interesting consequences. At the water’s edge the axle is shoved under the bow of the boat and a gang of people lift the bows and shove the stern and quickly get the boat on the axle and neatly balanced. Eight or Ten people can then trundle it up the beach safely out of reach of the night time high tide.

The fleet seemed to all be working within a few miles of town, not very far offshore, fishing with anchored drift nets marked by flag buoys. They left the beach early in the morning setting out their nets and then, mostly, returned to the beach and to meet for tea and breakfast while the gear soaked for an hour or two. During this time they casually left the boats at the water’s edge, perhaps lightly bumping, sometimes with a small grapple anchor run up the beach, but not always. The tide was slowly ebbing so boats left aground were soon dried out. After a while ashore the crews returned, one or two at a time, to their nets and by early afternoon were beginning to land their catch, which seemed to consist mostly of large opalescent jelly fish of some sort, though some also landed baskets of small fish.

The strong sense of cooperative community that was apparent among both the raft and basket boat people was interesting to see. Managing the heavy basket boats up that long beach and the successful beaching and turning around of the rafts would be entirely beyond any two or three-man crew, so crews from nearby boats or rafts and any number of wives and fishmongers (perhaps also wives, of course) cheerfully turned to, to help any incoming boat or raft, though never interrupting the constant vigorous discussions.

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Deep Water Port at Cua Lo

Deep Water Port at Cua Lo and Large MFV’s

Cua Lo

Cua Lo (pronounced Koo-a-LAW), the town at the mouth of the river Lo, is about 60 miles south of Sam Son, near the major town of Vinh on the highway. It is the next major river mouth port along the coast South of Sam Son. The river mouth is a deep water port with a small but modern wharf where large fishing vessels or small ships tie up. There is, however, a small tidal creek entering from the south bank of the river, and in that small harbor is a fascinating fleet of mixed woven basket boats (of considerable size) and traditional wooden boats.

Cua Lo: Traditional Wooden and Woven Bamboo

Mixed Moorage of Traditional Wooden and
Basket Boats (center of photo) taken in 2008

Cua Lo Woven Bamboo Basket Boats

The basket boats in Cua Lo are very similar in design to the sixteen foot boats at Sam Son, but are substantially larger, twenty-four or twenty-six feet long, and fully decked with timber, presumably also with substantial timber framing inside, like the smaller Sam Son boats. Their rudders are similarly mounted in a single heavy block of wood bolted to framing aft, but lashed to other structure on deck, and so do not appear to hang as far outboard as the ones on the boats at Sam Son. Likewise, it does not appear that these large baskets are routinely beached, but rather they tie up rafted side by side with the other boats in the shallow creek. In any event, it is obvious that the basket boats from these two harbors come from the same tradition. I did not find the builder of these boats or see his shop. There are not very many of them, ten or fifteen were visible in the moorage when I was there, so it is unlikely that building them amounts to a full time employment. They are built to a high degree of fit and finish (for what they are) though, so they are not a casual amateur product either.

2013 Update: I wrote the paragraph above five years ago. Last year when I passed through I almost didn’t notice, among the other boats and the stormy weather, that there were many fewer of the very large basketry boats. This year there are no more at all. One or two may have still been at sea and I missed them that way, but I doubt it. I was in the harbor morning, mid day and evening and they were not. There are still the hulks of two large boats of very similar build up among the tamarisk trees above the beach at Sam Son 100 km to the north, but these were the last of the active fishing vessels of their sort and they are gone now.

Big Round Woven Bamboo Boats

Large Round Basket Boats
About 8 feet in Diameter

Besides the boat-like large baskets anchored in the harbor (which are probably the biggest woven basket boats anywhere), Cua Lo has the largest round baskets of any town on the coast. Veritable Titanics nearly eight feet in diameter, they actually have a raised half deck taking up one half of their hold, built in bilge pumps and an elaborate system of bamboo ribs. They all seem to go to sea on deck of the larger traditional wooden boats fishing from the town. I didn’t see any of them working off the beach independently.

Two drawings of traditional boats from Cua Lo by Pietri

The Ghe Manh (left) and the Ghe Ghia (right)
Two Cua Lo boats identified by Pietri in 1943 but no longer to be found in Cua Lo.

The Traditional (but Different) Fishing Boat from Cua Lo

Cua Lo had a place in Jean Pietri’s 1943 book on Indochinese sailing boats with descriptions of a pair of representative types. Both were really attractive bat-winged sailing fish boats, but in the harbor today there is nothing that looks at all like them. The first one, the Ghe Manh of Cua Lo, lives on as the most common motorized traditional fishing vessel in Sam Son and parts of Halong Bay, but not in Cua Lo. The second, the Ghe Ghia, is apparently extinct now, nothing resembling that boat is seen anywhere along the coast.

Cua Lo traditional boats on low tide mud flats with Push Ahead nets stowed on board

“Push Ahead” fishing gear on board, but stowed while in harbor.

The active fishing fleet now consists of motor boats that are built in the same general manner as many northern Vietnamese traditional boats. You will see a scattering of identical, or very similar, boats in Sam Son (and I’ve seen a matched pair being built there) and very occasionally a stray up north in Halong Bay, but Cua Lo is the best place to see them, there’s almost nothing else in the harbor! Large or small, the modern boats are very much the same model. They are built on a central plank or pair of planks laid flat, not a keel backbone. They have bows sweeping out high over the water ahead in a sweet curve. They’re almost round bilged to the casual glance, but, like many northern Vietnamese boats, they have two noticeable chines each side. Unlike other traditional boats in the North of Viet Nam, they are relatively broad beamed, and have a broad near–flat bottom with a wide transom stern. The deck aft is extended out to either side an additional foot or so by three small beams. The bulwarks (which look like a sheer plank from a little distance) follow the line of the deck and appear to broaden the transom even more.

Those that have cabins (only the smallest of them don’t) keep their cabins low, really just engine room covers. They steer by a long straight tiller, with the skipper seated on the cabin top for comfort, or standing and steering with his ankles when he needs to see farther ahead. Most important to the photographer, these graceful boats are beautifully painted, with contrasting colors for their topsides planking: excellent additions to any seascape!

A lot of their design specifics were dictated by the nature of the fishing harbor at Cua Lo, which is a broad but shallow tidal creek entering from the South bank of the main river mouth harbor where visiting ships and larger fishing vessels may moor. Not only is the creek shallow, it is also obstructed by a low fixed bridge across its mouth, so a boat that will live here comfortably will have to be able to take the bottom over low tide without damage, and not scrape her cabin top off when leaving harbor at high tide. Thus the design: the broad flat bottom to ground safely upright, the lifting rudder to hoist out of harm’s way and the low, engine cover sort of cabin top to clear the bridge.

Cua Lo traditional boats on low tide mud flats with Push Ahead nets stowed on board

A boat rigged to push a net ahead, with the poles and net ready to fish, just leaving harbor.

The boats can be rigged for several fisheries, opportunistically fishing for whatever is available when it’s in season. The most popular methods here seem to be fishing with pots for crabs or prawns or, alternatively, pushing a net ahead of the boat on a pair of long poles to skim schools of fish out of the near-surface water. This is a popular technique from here north to the Chinese border, and it’s sometimes hugely successful, with the boats landing enormous quantities of small silvery fish.

Dock in Cua Lo with large mounds of small fish

The results of a good night’s fishing with the “Push Ahead” gear.
Tenders shuttle the fish ashore in hundreds of plastic boxes.

At other times the larger boats make a living by hauling a small fleet of round basket boats out to sea to drop them off to fish independently with hook and line or tangle net. They pick them all up again with their catch at the end of the day, hauling the whole works back to port to sell the catch.

Traditional Boat Construction in Cua Lo

These boats are normally seen in a range of sizes, with the smallest being only about 22 feet long and almost eight feet wide, the middle size more nearly 32 or 34 feet long and ten to twelve feet in beam and the largest nearly 50 feet long and proportionately beamy, about 3 times as long as they are wide. There are two small boat yards in Cua Lo and, until November 2012, I had not seen any new construction under way there. I wondered where such boats were made, different as they are both from their own local antecedents as well as the typical boats both north and south.

In November I finally found a matched pair of the middle sized boats well started, one somewhat farther along than the other, both on the small marine ways in the boatyard near the bridge on the southern bank of the creek. I had never previously crawled through one of the active boats since they always moor out in the stream or are busy offloading fish, so this was my first chance to inspect their internal structure and figure out their building sequence. I only stopped briefly on my trip to the South of the country in early November, when they had the bottom planking complete and sprung across two solid horses, the stem bolted on and braced to the ground, a transom timber fitted and permanent mold-frames bolted in and braced. I returned a month later to find the boats well advanced with framing nearly complete. Between these two visits it’s possible to describe most of the details of construction.

Cua Lo traditional boat under construction.

Bottom planking complete, stem bolted on, transom timber fitted.

Overall Design

The boats are built on a pair of fixed “saw horses” raised two feet off the ground more or less, with the bottom planks cleated together and braced or weighted to their bottom profile curve. There are no separate floor timbers. Rather, the lower portion of each frame spans across the bottom. Initially only four or five frames are fitted, including what will eventually be the lower part of the transom. They are well braced off and trued up.

Hull Framing

The boat is only flat bottomed for a short ways aft of amidships, and all but a few of the lower frame pieces are actually sawn out to include the first chine each side. The four frames, evenly spaced along the length of the boat, are given upper frame pieces (secured with short sawn knees) to define the shape of the future hull. Each of the upper frame pieces is sawn into an obtuse angle to form the upper chine. These first few frames are used essentially like the building molds of a traditional European boat, though they are permanent frames. A separate rabbeted stem is bolted on to the central bottom plank and braced up early on and the third plank and each succeeding one on each side is fastened into the rabbet. There is no knee or deadwood to reinforce the stem, so it takes all its eventual strength from the completed planking.

Cua Lo traditional boat under construction.

A month later and somewhat further along: framing nearly complete.

With the stem and the four mold-frames braced off, a pair of upper planks and a pair to run along the upper chine are cut and permanently fastened, thus defining the eventual curve of the topsides. With the boat advanced to that point additional frames can be cut and fitted (including short splice knees joining upper and lower frame members) and, as the boat gains strength, more planks can be bent around. Although each plank lands neatly in the rabbet at the bow, the planking at the future transom is allowed to run wild and trimmed off much later.


Interestingly, in 2012 when I first saw new construction on the site, I saw no traces of flame–bending the wood and there was no fire smoldering under planks anywhere on the site. I concluded from that, that the curves in the planking could be managed by bending the plank stock cold. That turned out to be a significant mistake. In 2013 when I again found them busy with the three boats under construction, there was a very ordinary smudge fire going and long planks were rigged over the fire and scorching just like any other boatyard’s. However, when they took the newly bent plank from the fire pit they flopped it scorched side up, and with a few passes of the electric hand plane, erased all traces of scorching before they offered the plank up to the hull! Even so, there really was no edge nailing from plank to plank except for a very few spikes driven to fasten the short raised-sheer bulwarks at the bow of the finished boat. These two hulls were fastened with black iron carriage bolts, well countersunk, with a twist of caulking wrapped around each bolt before it was driven home, which is good attention to detail, though you have to expect the bolts to rust over time.

The boats have what is probably a vestigial two–transom arrangement, with an upper transom and a lower, inner one. A similar arrangement was common on some northern sailing vessels in the last century (Pietri), though with clearer purpose. A similar design is common on the Halong Bay Squarehead boats.

Cua Lo traditional boat under construction.

Bottom planking nearly complete but still running wild.

With the bottom and sides planked up most of the way, complete up to the under side of the transom frame timber, a pair of sheer planks are fitted from the stem back to—but landing on top of—the transom timber. At that point, the run–by ends of the bottom and side planking can be trimmed off and the final outer transom fitted to cover the plank ends, and just incidentally, provide a space for some attractive, painted ornamentation on the finished boat. The “sheer plank” will actually become the bulwarks fore and aft of the engine house, with the decking laid at the height of the top of the transom timber and a separate, upper transom finishing off the ends of the sheer planks.

Almost all these hulls are built with two closely spaced frames right forward, with their frame ends projecting well above the bulwarks. These will eventually carry the loads imposed by the Push Ahead fishing gear down into the hull structure. Bulkheads separate the fore peak from the two main fish holds forward, the fish holds from the engine compartment, the engine compartment from the cockpit, and the cockpit from a separate lazarette aft. The bulkheads, as is almost universal in Viet Nam, are built up on ordinary frames. Heavy deck beams and the upper edges of bulkheads carry the thick deck planking from end to end.

Cua Lo traditional boat under construction with top sides nearly complete.

Nearly Complete


Very low coamings support the edges of the hatches through the decks, which are, as usual here, shipped loose, and clearly not intended to seal the deck against a boarding sea. There is a nicely fitted two-piece cap rail on top of the bulwarks around the cockpit and the work deck forward and the cabin top is finished with a sheet of herringbone woven split bamboo (the same material you’d make a basket boat from). Rather than tarring it or filling the weave with dung and resin, the basketry is left plain as a non–skid surface and the engine room is waterproofed with a layer of blue tarp material beneath it.


The fore and aft cabin sides are provided with small sliding doors above deck level to give access to the engine room. The engines will have to be hand cranked to start and physically shut down when finished, so people will be down there routinely. When I last saw these two boats there was still no sign of shifting linkage or throttle, but those are usually provided, often a simple lever for shifting within reach of someone on deck and a throttle cord that can be hooked back for full throttle operation, or slacked off for less.

Cua Lo traditional boat engine detail.

A pair of Chinese made single cylinder diesels.

Both these boats were being built as straightforward twin-screw vessels, with a pair of identical, new Chinese single cylinder diesels coupled to separate marine reverse-reduction gears. These were all bolted down rigidly to heavy timber engine-bearers bolted to all the available frames: a necessary approach given the vibration of the heavy engines, even with their large flywheels. A twin screw boat in most western cultures would have two rudders, but these boats have only the single rudder on center line. The twin screw installation seems to me to be more a matter of reliability rather than a quest for close-quarters maneuverability. Arguably two engines are better than one, though I think the most common cause of engine failure in small engines is emptiness in the fuel tank.

While the use of rough sawn and generally poor quality wood, and fastening with black iron seriously detract from the quality of the boats, the workmanship overall, and particularly the framing seems to me to be noticeably better than the typical Halong Bay (Cam Pha) small boat work. Either style is really rough compared to the best workmanship you’ll see in the country.

All told these broad beamed boats seem to be very sturdy little fishing vessels, well suited to their work and able to put to sea in any reasonable weather. Their ability to take the ground comfortably over a low tide is critical to their use from the Cua Lo moorage. Their complete lack of shelter for the crew means they’re purely day boats, so their suitability for long voyages is not an issue.

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