Story: WINLINH – Photos: BA NGOC
Visiting Central Vietnam on a sunny day, I was swept away by the pure white clouds hovering over the blue water, the bright smiles of the locals, and the sight of basket boats riding over the waves.
A basket boat is a simple fishing vessel that has remained essential to the lives of fishermen in many coastal regions, especially in Central Vietnam. These boats are popular in coastal areas of Ha Tinh, Nghe An, Quang Binh, Danang, Quang Nam, and Quang Ngai, and all the way to Binh Dinh, Nha Trang, and Binh Thuan, among other provinces. Fishermen use basket boats for various types of near-shore fishing, with their specific use varying by locality. They are used to catch shrimp and squid in Binh Thuan, scallops in Ly Son, and fish in Phu Yen. Basket boats are sometimes towed along by large vessels to transport passengers and supplies, or even serve as a lifeboat in case of emergency. They are also popular for eco boat tours as their leisurely motion allows tourists to fully enjoy the landscape, whether they are viewing coral reefs on the vast ocean or exploring rivers shaded by rows of palm trees. Basket boats are also used in boat racing competitions during village festivals. These events build community spirit, enrich the traditions of the hardworking locals, and carry people’s dreams and aspirations for a prosperous, peaceful life.
Thanks to their light weight and small sizes, basket boats are easier to push into the sea than long-bodied vessels. They rarely capsize as they ride on the waves instead of cutting through the water. Basket boats typically have a diameter of either 2.2m or 1.8m. Boat-weaving calls for dextrous hands, patience, great skill, and a lot of experience. More importantly, the artisan must work with devotion and meticulous care, as one simple mistake could lead the finished boat to leak or even capsize.
The average basket boat is made using five to seven solid bamboo trunks that are just ripe. Only the nodes from the middle down to the root are used. After the thin green outer layer is scraped off, the bamboo stem is split into many strips of uniform size. The inner skin is removed from each strip, and the remains of the culm wall are left to dry under the sun for four to five days. When stripping the stems and removing the inner layer, great accuracy is needed to ensure each strip is the same thickness. This allows the strips to be woven perfectly together.
The artisan must ensure that the boat is evenly shaped before trimming the excess strips from the top edge of the hull, where a rim or gunnel will be placed. This rimming process is known as “lận vành”. A rim made from good outer layers of bamboo provides better balance. The cord used to tie the rim must be made of strong fibers to withstand the harsh weather. Afterward, the boat will be left to dry under the sun until it is sturdy, then plastered with cow manure. Fresh manure is smeared over the crevices between the woven strips to fill in the gaps, creating a waterproof layer of protection. The boat is sun-dried again and coated with dipterocarpus alatus oil, resin, or composite oil to improve its sturdiness and longevity. In some places, the boat is shaped in a pit, a process known as “thúng chai”. The craftsman digs a hole of the same size and shape as the desired boat, then puts the woven mat into the hole. As the boat is shaped, sand is gradually added to hold the mat in place. This method takes more time and effort but the finished product is more durable and has a more complex structure.
In recent years, a new type of basket boat has been introduced, made from glass-based composite materials. These boats are lighter, sturdier, waterproof, and resistant to corrosion. They require little maintenance. A smaller base diameter helps to minimize turbulence, reduce the risk of capsizing, and enhance hydrodynamics. All of these features allow the composite basket boat to carry more passengers than bamboo ones. In case of a shipwreck, the composite pieces remain afloat and can be used as life preservers. In many places, a sail or engine might be installed to save human labor and improve traveling distance. There are even boats with tempered glass installed on their bottoms to allow tourists to observe the coral reefs and sea flora and fauna under the water.
A basket boat is not only a tool for earning a living but also the bearer of both happy and sad memories as it has witnessed the ups and downs of fishing families’ lives over the years. It testifies to the fervent aspirations and everlasting will of people who live with the summer heat and stormy rains of Central Vietnam. To this day, basket boats can still be seen sailing on the boundless ocean like sparkling rays of hope for peaceful and prosperous life.