Saturday, February 23, 2013

Baskets on the Ocean

                                                         by Jim Goodman

traditional basket boat
        With a coastline 3451 kilometers long, two major deltas and innumerable rivers, streams, canals, lakes, coves, ponds and lagoons, bodies of water make up one of Vietnam’s most important geographical features. To cross these waters, to gather fish and other resources from their depths and to convey goods and people from one port to another the Vietnamese have devised an array of boats, rafts and sailing vessels. They make them in a variety of shapes and sizes and power them by motors, sails, poles, paddles or oars, operated by the hands or by the feet.
basket boats off Cù Lao Chàm
        Besides the ultimate use of the vessel, wind patterns and topographical conditions determine what kind of boat the people of a given community will build. The kind used on rivers and lakes will not be strong enough for the choppy waves of the sea. The fishing vessels used off the coast of Hà Long and other rocky bays are too vulnerable to the high winds common off the shores of Thanh Hoá and around Trà Cổ, in the extreme northeast. In Thanh Hoá they prefer rafts and in Trà Cổ the hulls of the boats comprise blocks of Styrofoam in between bamboo poles. Both are better able to ride rough waves and survive storms.
Cù Lao Chàm harbor
        Yet one style of boat is common from Cát Bà to Vũng Tàu, popular since the time the Vietnamese cleared the swamps of the Red River Delta—the basket boat. Its use and design have remained unchanged over the millennia. The basket boat is the Vietnamese equivalent of the traditional coracle of the British Isles. Though the shape and construction of the coracle is similar, it is generally smaller, its seat lies across the rim of the boat and it is overly light, with a tendency to pitch, hard to paddle and easy to capsize. It is made from willow or hazel saplings. Originally the bottom of the coracle was made waterproof by covering it with ox or horse hides. This evolved into tar-treated wool or cotton and in recent times polyester cloth with a coating of oil paint.
carrying the boat to the beach at Tam Kỳ 
        Vietnamese make their basket boats from the ubiquitous bamboo, a naturally waterproof plant, cut into narrow strips for the staves. By carefully heating the bamboo strips they can bend them into the curve of the basket shape and seal the rim of the finished boat the same way. To make them watertight the Vietnamese cover the bottom of the boat with a thick coat of pitch. Boat owners will re-apply the pitch every six months to prevent leaks. Basket boats are sturdier, easier to maneuver and more trustworthy at sea than coracles. Passengers also sit on a plank set much below the boat’s rim. If two people are paddling them the basket boats can move across the water rather rapidly. If the rider is going solo he or she moves the paddle in a figure-8 pattern to make the boat move forward. Otherwise it will just spin around.
launching at Tam Kỳ
        Some coastal villages specialize in producing basket boats. In Quảng Nam, for example, Điện Dươmg, between Hội An and the Marble Mountains, makes the boats used around Dà Nẵng, Cù Lao Chàm and Núi Thành. Depending on the size, which can be up to about a meter and a half diameter, the boats cost between 600,000 and 1,200,000 đồng. The large ones can seat four passengers.
basket boats in a Hanoi pond
        It’s hard to imagine the technology having changed at all over the centuries. Back a thousand years ago, when Hanoi was made the capital again, the city was full of lakes, big and small, rivers that ran through the commercial and residential areas and land areas subject to flooding. Stilted houses were probably the norm and no doubt every house owned a boat. Some of these had to be basket boats, since it was so much easier to make one than to construct a wooden vessel. Even today some Hanoi residents use small basket boats to crop vegetables like water mimosa and convolvulus growing in neighborhood ponds.
coming off the lagoon at Lăng Cô
        Basket boats are light. Even the big ones can be easily toted by three or four men. In ancient times they were used in warfare. Đinh Bộ Lĩnh, who ruled Vietnam in the 10th century, dispatched soldiers by basket boats up the rivers fro Hoa Lư to deal with revolts and rural unrest. And over the centuries guerrillas have used them in the various resistance movements against foreign invaders.
        Today basket boats are used as dinghies in Central and South Vietnam, as minor ferries and fishing vessels everywhere. Some boat owners have entered the tourist trade and take visitors on short rides around Vũng Tàu, Nha Trang and Cù Lao Chàm harbor. At Cù Lao Chàm a few take passengers from the south side of the village to the ferryboat pier, but here the most common use is for fishing. In fact, they outnumber the standard fishing vessels and are out in the water much more often.
fishing in the Cù Lao Chàm harbor
        The bigger boats are for catching bigger fish, generally for the Hội An or Dà Nẵng markets, but they are only plentiful in certain seasons. So for much of the time the wooden boats in Cù Lao Chàm remained moored in the harbor. Basket boats, however, start paddling out to sea right at sunrise. They will venture several hundred meters from shore, casting nets for fish, squid, crab, prawn, mussel, cockle, clam and anything else edible from the sea. Only when they have a full load of sea animals or when the waves get too rough will they return to the harbor. 
        Consequently, in the Cù Lao Chàm harbor it seems like something is always moving, so often do the basket boats slip around and between the anchored wooden vessels. Attractive by their shape, whether silently bobbling across the water or lying in anchored groups near the shore, they are the most fascinating boats in the country. And with plenty of bamboo on the land and lots of fish still in the sea, basket boats are likely to be in use in Vietnam another couple millennia.

coming in to Cù Lao Chàm
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