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.
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.
From a little distance, the boats seem to be double enders: high at both ends with a very graceful sheer.
The highway bridge is not really low enough to impose restraint on the pilot houses on the boats. 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. 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. Farther from the highway bridge, along a really very nice riverfront drive, there was a scattered assemblage of smaller boats. I watched one of these, obviously newly launched, all bright paint and smiling people, doing speed trials in the river.
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. 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. Some carried a pair of power capstans on deck, directly driven through a truck rear end from the front of their engines.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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 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. 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. 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. The Five-Plank construction technique is likewise the end point of evolution away from a very odd local construction technique using all wooden planking. Although the frameless sewn-plank boats are completely extinct now, an interim sort may be still around. 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.
Another unique boat in the Perfume River, until very recently, was a manually operated sand dredger. 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.
While the scoop was down digging, the shovel person was shuffling the pile ahead toward the winch crew to make room for another scoopful.
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. 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 vary from some of the boats farther north particularly in that they are prominently iron-fastened, not fastened with trunnels.
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. 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.
Perhaps the most remarkable woven bamboo basket boats are the magnificent surf boats working off the exposed ocean beach near Hue.
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.
These motor driven boats, though still basically a basket boat rather than a composite, have quite a bit of wooden structure as well. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. Hoi An today is a charming tourist town, and rapidly turning into a major tourist attraction. 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. Although their sections are all rounded, some local boats show a soft chine or knuckle just below the waterline. The remaining boatyards around Hoi An range from a large storage and construction yard to informal building sites on the river bank.
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 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. 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.


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. 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. 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. The ghe bau of Faifoo is, with the one of Mui–Ne, the sailboat that has the highest tonnage on the Annamese coasts. 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. The stern castle, with its wings extending over each side of the flanks, of the Chinese model, can be found on this ghe bau. His reference to the planking being fastened edge to edge with mortise and tenon is fascinating. 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. 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. In Europe and America, wooden fasteners have been out of use for 200 years, though they were once commonplace. The boats are all nearly perfectly symmetrical double enders, their stems and sterns almost exactly alike up to the sheer plank.
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. 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. 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. 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. The engine installation is a typical inboard arrangement, with the Chinese diesel engine bolted down to timber bearers. South of Hoi An, the next significant harbor is Quy Nhon, a charming small city with a bustling seagoing atmosphere. But the second, 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.
Launching a Boat on the Open Beach at Quy Nhon: 2005Before the waterfront park displaced the boat builders. The remaining 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 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 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. 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. 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. 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.
The boat was lying on the inland side of the long rocky peninsula that shelters the large inland bay north of Quy Nhon. The most compelling evidence for considerable age is that her stern post was bored vertically to pass a large diameter wooden rudder stock. 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.
Nhon Ly, 2013: Wood and Woven Bamboo Surf BoatStored on the beach with motor and floorboards removed. Speed boats have always been a Bond thing, featuring in many flicks such as 1962’s Dr No, The Spy Who Loved Me and From Russia With Love.
The Antagonist travels at the top speed of 42 knots and features a 1960’s design all over it. A small storage space, a bathroom, seats with cushions and a wooden work bench are the things hiding below that deck.
The price for the Antagonist is yet to be determined, which leaves many the fate of anticipating misery. Likewise, having gotten to the endless flat land of the Mekong Delta you are in the far South of the country.
The area around Ron, the north-central Vietnamese coast, is a very narrow strip of sandy shoreline backed by the mountains of Laos. The fleet of them anchored and rafted together above the highway bridge make a lovely sight. 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. 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.
At least the layout maximizes the three useable spaces, with nothing given away to side decks. Of these, one carried a small beam trawl aft, apparently set up to drag for bottom fish, not dredging oysters.
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. With the introduction of the single cylinder Chinese diesel engines that have completely replaced sail everywhere in Indochina, the sewn boats were finished. Until 2008 there were still a great many anchored and rafted up together in the river across from the hotel zone. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. A great many of them run about 35 to 40 feet long, though they range in size right down to small paddled boats. 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.


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. These days it is limited to about 70 tons, though in the past they carried as much as 120 tons. 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 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. 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. The shantytown itself was actually demolished in 2006, but the boat wrights continued working at the top of the beach for a time.
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. 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.
It features an ergonomic pilot’s chair that took nine months to design and the seats have been furnished with Boxmark’s Xtreme Maritime leather which is resistant to water and the sun’s UV rays. 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. I came that way the first time in a miserable drizzling rain, wet and cold on the motorbike, headed south. 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. They are much smaller and beamier for their size, perhaps only 26 or 28 feet long and eight or nine feet beam. 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 visual effect is something like the segments of a lobster’s shell or maybe a shiny armadillo.
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. 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. At a glance the sponsons look like bamboo floats but are really Styrofoam flotation encased in split bamboo strips. Their planks are fastened with trunnels or wedged wooden pegs, but their frames are bolted up where they touch.
When I was there in 2010 it was shuttered and empty and newly fenced with shiny corrugated roofing.
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.
These boats are not intended for rotating up and down a beach, nor for working through breaking surf.
They have good carrying capacity and provide a good and well proven working platform for the fishermen. Kurt set up his boatbuilding company in 1946 and began working on pure speed machines designed to take part in the post-war sportsboat racing scene both in Europe and around the world.The Berlin lll was built in 1950, it was an all-new design from Max Steaves and was built by Bootsbau Gersch for the racing driver Jurgen Baginski. 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. 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. 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. 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. Slender boats, they are powered with just a pair of oars, one oar forward and the other aft.
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. The hull is laminated timber over a rigid cedar framework, the two-seat cockpit is surrounded with a curved acrylic screen and has a left-hand side steering wheel to suit German drivers.The engine is a marinised-BMW Veritas double overhead camshaft alloy engine with 6 cylinders and a 1998cc displacement producing approximately 100bhp.
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. They have a wide bottom plank running from bow to stern, giving long sloping shovel ends to the 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. 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.
Hue has now joined the modern world but until about 2008, it was done by sheer muscle power and ingenuity: brutally hard work. 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 hotel zone and promenade has a large fleet of good sized Modern Motor Fishing Vessels (MFV’s) anchored off shore. 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. It starts with an unusually large open cockpit big enough to accommodate eight people, a concealed refrigerator and picnic box to enjoy a bit of bubbly under the sun, and a large deck for sunbathing which can be accessed by two teak paths and a swimming platform off the back.
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.
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). To a western eye, used to complete frames sturdily bolted together, the sight of frame tops completely separated from the floors is alarming.
Not only is the old shantytown gone, but so are sizable parts of the old waterfront neighborhoods the full length of the bay. 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. He specialises in creating images that look like well-taken photographs at first glance – only becoming noticeable as a painting after closer examination.
With its bounce and give, it survives where the aluminum would crumple and bend in the surf landings. Larger boats are somewhat more reasonable, with three feet or more of bury from deck through the sternpost.



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