Story: Nguyen Trung
Photos: Ngoc Dung, Ba Ngoc, Khanh Phan, Nguyen Phong
In Vietnam, which is home to over 2,300 larger rivers that run for 10 km or more, plus countless smaller ones, it’s no surprise that the image of a wharf is well known. Waterways once played the key role in connecting different regions, with each village having its own wharf that served as a gateway for trade with the outside world.
Centuries ago, before an extensive road network and motor vehicles, overland travel was done on foot or on horseback. Without bridges, crossing rivers was time-consuming. Those same rivers were extremely useful for transporting heavy loads or serving military campaigns. History books tell of famous naval battles on the Bach Dang River and other rivers that remain etched in people’s minds: Chuong Duong, Ham Tu, Tay Ket, and many more. Many places bear the names of long ago wharfs, carrying the ancients’ aspirations for prosperity and their rich culture.
A RURAL WHARF
In the old days, a village’s wharf formed its gateway. “Best near cities, then near rivers” states an old proverb, reminding us that it’s best to live where markets and wharfs bring prosperity, for rivers enable fishery and water transport, a source of wealth along with agricultural production.
For centuries, the image of a typical village included a “banyan tree, wharf, and “ferry” or “a banyan tree, a wharf, and a communal house”. These features comprised the landscape and the basis of Vietnamese social structure throughout many centuries. While the communal house represented the shared space and local customs of a village, the wharf connected that village to the outside world.
Traditional wharfs were easy to spot because they served as landmarks, sometimes near ancient banyan trees or tall red cotton trees along the dikes at the front of the village, where the roads needed a symbolic boundary marker. Beside the big banyan tree and the step leading down to the ferries and boats lay the inns, forming an iconic and recognizable landscape. These elements became the subjects of countless poems, rural love songs, and landscape paintings imbued with the soul of the countryside.
While lovers of art and literature might not have visited the Thuong River, they will know of it from popular songs like Con thuyền không bến (“The boat that does not dock” by Dang The Phong) or Trương Chi (by Van Cao). Verses like “The water flows in waves on the Thuong River” or “Tonight the Thuong River rises, yet someone is singing under the ivory moonlight” have become part of our collective memories.
The poet Anh Tho often alluded to a rural wharf in her poems and the memoir Từ bến sông Thương (From the Thuong River Wharf), adding to the mystique of this inspiring river. In the land of Quan Ho songs, sentimental folk music was enriched by images of the Mother’s Wharf (Tan Yen, Bac Giang) on the Thuong River and Van Ha Wharf (Viet Yen, Bac Giang) on the Cau River. The same can be said about the Lo River, as people have sung famous songs about the wharfs of Binh Ca, Then, and Viet Tri throughout our country’s long history.
From North to South, many wharfs have become local symbols, such as Thuong Bac Wharf and Phu Van Lau Wharf in Hue, Binh Dong Wharf and Nha Rong Wharf in Ho Chi Minh City, and Ninh Kieu Wharf in Can Tho. These are places where people bid fond farewells, as in A Nam Tran Tuan Khai’s poem, “Tiễn chân anh khóa xuống tàu” (Seeing the off at the wharf). During the French colonial period, people would depart for conscripted labor or military service from the wharf, forcing tragic farewells, like those described in Doan Man’s song Biệt ly (Separation): “Waves form on the river, oh the sound of the boat’s horn tears the heart apart.” But wharfs were also places from which great hearts and minds departed for a greater cause, like Nha Rong Wharf, where a young man named Nguyen Tat Thanh set off in 1911 and returned thirty years later by the name of Ho Chi Minh to lead the revolution.
LET SHIPS SAIL TO NEW WHARFS
In modern times, wharfs became more dynamic, turning into industrial ports to support the economic activities of large cities. Their appearance also changed when many large bridges were built to replace boats and ferries, eliminating the distance between river banks.
Industrial wharfs like “Binh, Xi Mang, Cau Rao, Cau Dat Wharfs” have left lasting impressions on people’s minds, as have those wharfs that “let ships sail away to new wharfs” (lyrics from a song about Hai Phong). The same can be said about wharfs along the Huong River in Hue and the Han River in Danang as tourism grew, or the interwoven streams of the Mekong River system, linking cities in this new era.
Wharfs are now fulfilling many functions and relieving pressure on land transport routes. Prime examples include the water taxi system along the Saigon River and scenic routes linking Hanoi to surrounding cultural relics. The Red River and Thai Binh River systems are dotted with wharfs associated with heritage sites. When it comes to the Mekong Delta, what impresses visitors the most is its water transport system. After decades of turning its back on the Red River due to tall dams blocking the views and fluctuating water levels during the flood seasons, Hanoi is creating a new facade for the city. The largest river in the North flows through the capital. Landmarks include ancient wharfs like Nghi Tam, Dong Bo Dau, Ha Khau, Bo De, Thuy Ai, etc. Hanoians yearn for the day when the city will have beautiful roads overlooking the “mother river”.
Modern wharfs are also part of a trend to bring living spaces closer to natural landscapes by incorporating and changing geographical features and making the most of our rivers. Vietnamese cities and villages formed around land and water. Wharfs connect the two.
Wharfs don’t just form the soul of the countryside but also modern urban faces. They are places where banyan trees with ancient souls cast their reflections, and beautiful modern landmarks. Wharfs are the gateways of communities, overlooking waterways full of life.