The modern version of traditional wooden boats in Vietnam and Cambodia are all powered by diesel or gasoline engines. Today even auxiliary sails are rare, but the modern, traditionally designed vessels come from a long line of sailing vessels with characteristics unique to the area of South East Asia that used to make up French Indochina and today, are the countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
The Past: Sailboats of Indochina
In 1943, Mr. J. Pietri, the French Commissioner of Fisheries for Indochina, published Voiliers d’Indochine (The Sailboats of Indochina), a careful description of the traditional boats of the coast all the way from what is now Cambodia to Southern China, that is to say, the region controlled by the French colony of Indochina, which included the present-day countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. At that time there were a great many local types of fishing vessel up and down the coast, differentiated by their sailing rigs as well as hull designs and materials. Mr. Pietri’s excellent drawings are a great help in understanding the types of boats and their distribution in that era, which amounts to a direct link back many years, perhaps centuries of gradual development of sailing fishing vessels. By 1963, only twenty years later, the situation was radically changed and still changing fast. The Vietnamese war of liberation from the French had been half won and half the country had become North Vietnam, which was determined to reunite with South Vietnam. The American government regarded South Vietnam as a client state and a critical bastion against the further spread of Communism. The ensuing war involved every aspect of life in the country, including the fishing boats and small freighters.
War, Dislocation and Emigration
The dislocation caused by the partitioning of Vietnam in 1954, with some Northerners emigrating hastily to the South, caused a corresponding radical change in the distribution of traditional fishing vessels. The people emigrating included particularly Catholics from the North, but also others who were sympathetic with or invested in the French administration. Many of those people were fishermen and brought both their existing boats and their preferences for boat designs and sail rigs South with them. Thus, in the US Navy guidebook to Vietnamese boats The Blue Book of Junks, which was published in the mid 1960’s there are a number of “immigrant” Northern boat types established in Southern ports, so that, for example, one of the most visible sailing types fishing out of Vung Tau in the far south of the country at that time, was a Chinese style bat-winged boat that originated in the Haiphong area in the far North. The type is now extinct and has been replaced by the Modern Motor Fishing Vessel type.
Moreover, the American presence included a vigorous effort to encourage motorizing the South Vietnamese fishing fleet and Japanese engine makers were eager to enter the market. So, in the South particularly, motors began to be fitted to existing boats and new boats were built specifically to use the new motors more efficiently. To that end, Western and Japanese boat designs were imported and built in local boatyards. Thus it is that Peitri’s 1943 book, by great good fortune, left us a record of local types of boats being built and working locally from the moment in time just before an enormous upheaval. The forces of war and the advent of cheap diesel engines (and cheap diesel to run them) caused sweeping changes to the types and distribution of boats all up and down the coast. With the end of the American war in 1975 things changed yet again and have continued to do so steadily, so that today you will find what I call the Modern Motor Fishing Vessel as the dominant type in almost any harbor on the Indochinese coast. However much that type—which is essentially a Western or Japanese motor boat with a Vietnamese flavor—may dominate, still there are many sorts of Vietnamese and Cambodian boat types that have survived the changes, albeit almost entirely as motor boats themselves, very few keeping any sailing ability.
The forced migration and mixing of boat designs during the turbulent years of the middle twentieth century and the near-complete end of sailing working boats means that, though many local variations persist, there is a fundamental type of traditional Vietnamese fishing boat, derived from the sailing hulls, and still very viable all along the coast.
The Present: Adaptation to Motor Power
If sailing vessels could not compete with motorized fishing boats, there are still many fundamentally traditional designs that adapted to motor-power quite well. They’re still built in the traditional manner, with a central flat plank to start, additional planks added edge to edge, shaped and bent to fit and make a boat in thin air with no ribs or frames at all until they are completely planked up or nearly so. In fact, built to the same lines as their sailing predecessors they move easily through the water and can use smaller, cheaper engines, though they may not go as fast. In some cases they still carry short sailing rigs as steadying sails or as emergency propulsion to get home if the engine fails offshore. Many of them still are built with vestiges of their sailing equipment intact though they don’t carry masts or sails. Others have evolved away from their sailing history, most normally by adding pilothouses and gear handling equipment that would have been incompatible with their sailing rigging. From the deck down, most such traditional hulls are built today just as they were in sailing days. Particularly in Hoi An and Da Nang you’ll find pretty little double ended motorboats with nicely sized pilothouses built over their enginerooms, and still carrying a sliding daggerboard in their stems, left over from sailing days. Perhaps it helps with steering in rough conditions?
Halong Bay Square Head
One particular style of sail boat, what I call the “Halong Bay Square Head” is a direct descendant from a Chinese-style sailing boat, native to the North of Viet Nam, which had a graceful bat-wing sailing rig. They are all motorized now and have pilothouses on deck and none are rigged to sail. They make a perfectly good small to medium sized motor boat and are popular among the fishermen and small freight carriers in the Halong Bay area, right up to the Chinese border (which I have not yet crossed, they may be popular in China too).
Construction and Design Details
It is interesting that in 1943, Mr. J. Pietri (author of The Sailboats of Indochina) often used differences in sail rig to distinguish among otherwise very similar boats. By 1963 with the publication of the Blue Book of Junks by the US government, sailing rigs were still important for identification of the boats, but the authors were clear that the most widely distributed boats had certain strong similarities in hull form and construction, which persist today and, moreover that the boats often became indistinguishable if they were motorized and removed their sailing gear. Now, with the sailing rigs almost universally gone, the hull construction and design details that define the traditional Vietnamese fishing boat can be summarized as follows:
- The hull is relatively slender and gracefully tapered toward both ends, no matter how large the hull is.
- The bow in particular rises in a long curve with a very long overhanging cutwater reaching out over the sea.
- The boat is either double ended (that is, sharp on both ends) or very nearly so. It may, however, have the aft deck extended to the sides to provide a better working platform, by decking over a few transverse beams or spreading just the last topside plank.
- The sheer line sweeps unbroken (or nearly so) from end to end, with the stern rising well above the water, though almost never as high as the bow.
- There is a pilot house or at least an engine enclosure aft and a fish hold or several fish holds forward of the house.
- The boat steers with a tiller operating an outboard “Barn Door” style rudder hung on the sternpost or transom, or in many cases dropping through a slot or trunk in the bottom of the boat right aft. Almost without exception these rudders are easily hoisted up for beaching or grounding in moorings.
- The boat may show a vestigial bow daggerboard operating in a slot in the stem, or at least the vestige of the structure that made the slot in sailing days. Such dagger boards, more or less saber-shaped, apparently were originally an adaptation to give basket bottomed boats the necessary lateral plane forward to allow them to sail into the wind. Since it was essentially impossible to make a waterproof trunk through the basket bottom, a slotted stem was fastened through the basketwork forward and the dagger board operated in that slot. The method worked well enough that it was adapted to many all-wooden boats as well, though others rigged more or less ordinary dagger boards through water tight trunks inboard.
With the sole exception of the placement of the pilot house or engine cover aft, essentially all these characteristics are direct opposites of the Modern Motor Fishing Vessel.
In the far south of the country, in the Mekong Delta, the heavy freight boats are built with absolutely no framing or temporary forms until they are planked clear up to their deck edge. One of those boats, as well fitted together as a mandolin or a lute or a whiskey barrel, planked well up, is an exquisitely pretty thing, all curves and grace. The ribs in the Mekong freighters are fitted one at a time on close and very regular spacing, neatly sawn. With their stout cabin sides (which are also watertight, to allow really heavy loads to be carried) and their often odd-looking crew’s quarters aft, (with an outdoor kitchen hanging out behind the boat and the laundry drying behind the kitchen) they are often a little frumpy looking when they are finished and have been working for a while. No matter, the underlying boat is superbly built and graceful, with almost nothing about it to hold it back in the water.
Not surprisingly, there are a good many boats built along the coast that are somewhere between the Traditional Indochinese construction style and the Modern Motor Fishing Vessel style. The traditional building style in Halong Bay for example, (the Halong Bay Square Head style) amounts to starting out with the flat central plank, bending it sharply up fore and aft and narrowing it forward to make an “inner stem plank.” Thereafter, the planks of the nearly flat bottom are fitted and edge nailed together, just starting to wrap up around the two ends and around the turn of the bilge. Then a very few floor timbers and a rib or two are fitted in—to help visualize the rest of the boat—and the planking will continue on up the sides, fitting in the transom when they get to it. When the planking is nearly complete the rest of the ribs and floor timbers will be fitted in, cut to patterns or to suit the builder’s ideas, they may not fit the shape of the shell exactly. In that case the builder will use long bolts and a lot of effort to pull the edge-nailed shell into the line of the unyielding rib. Thereafter the rest of the framing, the bulkheads, deck and coamings are added, the house (if there is one) built on deck and the whole thing caulked and sealed.