Each and every beach along Vietnam’s 3,260 km of coastline has its own beauty thanks to the diverse geography of the country. In the central region, however, people have made the beaches uniquely but unintentionally charming, by using basket boats.
On yellow sand adjoining blue sea, huge bamboo baskets lie peacefully under the sun in a poetic scene. The baskets, though, are not for decoration; they are taking a break before getting back to work. These thuyen thung, or thung chai in the local dialect, known as ‘basket boats’, are an indispensable companion of fishermen in the area.
It is said that the first thuyen thung appeared during the French colonial era. When the French arrived in Vietnam they began levying many types of taxes on the people, including a tax on the ownership of boats. Poor Vietnamese fishermen depending on boats for their livelihood couldn’t afford the tax but couldn’t live without a boat either. Necessity is the mother of invention, though, and people in the central region created something that did not look like a boat but could be used like one in order to avoid the tax: thuyen thung.
Since then, thuyen thung have become an important ‘member’ of all fishing families in the region. It is used to catch fish, octopus or shellfish. The basket boat cannot travel far offshore but is convenient for fishing reasonably close to land.
Together with large vessels, it also plays a key role as a lifeboat when accidents strike. While a large boat can resemble a leaf in big waves and be easily overturned, a basket boat is more like a ball, with neither bow nor stern, and almost always stays afloat. People only need to learn how to move the boat through the waves. Therefore, one of the first lessons for local boys and girls is how to control a basket boat. There is also basket boat racing at festivals, which always prove popular.
All local people know how to control a thuyen thung but only a few have the patience and skill to make one. The most well-known makers of thuyen thung are in Danang, Hoi An ancient town, and the trade village of Phu My in Phu Yen province.
Making a thuyen thung involves many stages, all of which are done by hand, according to Phan Liem, who has been engaged in the work for more than 30 years in Danang’s Son Tra district. Three generations of his family now do the job. Though his father’s products were favoured by fishermen in the region, like other young coastal boys, Liem was attracted by the sea more than the land. He was first employed on a fishing boat when he was 14, but at 30, having survived a major storm, he decided to leave the sea and follow his father’s trade.
It took him about 20 days to make his first boat, but now it takes just five to seven days. Completely made of bamboo, making a thuyen thung requires many small steps.
Five to seven bamboo trees about one and a half years old are selected, for their durability. The artisan must then chop the bamboo into smaller pieces, taking out the core and retaining the outer layer. ‘In my first days on the job I only chopped the bamboo. My hands bled because the bamboo was very sharp,’ he said.
And yet that’s the easiest part. The most important and difficult step is whittling the bamboo into splints, weaving them and making the shape and the hoop of the boat. Every family in Phu My village used to perform all the steps, but today they are all specialised in one function.
The bamboo splints must be even or the boat will be convex or concave and out of balance on the water. Women, who are generally more meticulous and patient, are best at whittling bamboo. Tran Tinh, a 52-year-old housewife in the village, usually does some whittling while she’s cooking, picking up around VND100,000 ($4) a day, which is a good source of extra income for her family.
After drying under the sun for a few days, the splints are then woven. This requires both skill and strength, as close weaving not only provides durability but also gives the boat a better look. This part is done by men in the village. They also make the shape and the hoop of the boat. While artisans in other places use their arms and energy, people in Phu My village brainstormed a way to make it easier. A hole is dug in the exact shape of the boat, like a mould, where the woven splints are placed and curved. The hoop, a very important part for balance, is also made in the hole. This unusual way has brought fame to the village for its good-looking, even, round, balanced and durable boats.
But the most unique thing about thuyen thung, and which is done nowhere except in Vietnam, is daubing the bottom of the boat with cow dung. In the past, dung was everywhere and free, but today artisans must go to the countryside and buy it. The dung expands when meeting water, covering all the tiny gaps between splints, according to Liem. There is no glue that works better. After the dung is dried, an oily resin from dipterocarpus alatus, a tropical tree, is used to make two or three more layers for the boat, which is dried under the sun for a few more days.
A thuyen thung is a perfect blend of the forest and the sea. It costs VND1.2-4 million ($50-180), depending on the size, which doesn’t seem enough to compensate the artisan’s aches and pains but is acceptable for families in Phu Yen on an average monthly income of VND4-5 million ($180-220). One of the artisans, 40-year-old Van Tao, said that he and his wife followed the trend of making thuyen thung as a part-time job besides farming when it began its golden age two decades ago. They found they could earn more with this new job, and so it became their full-time livelihood.
In recent years, fewer artisans have been involved in the work, after the appearance of plastic or composite round boats, which are cheaper and made faster. But they are not as safe as the bamboo version and easily capsize in waves. Many fishermen therefore have only bamboo thuyen thung.
Across the ocean
One day, while going about his work as usual, Liem unexpectedly welcomed a group of curious Australian tourists who wanted to watch what he was doing. They then bought a dozen of his thuyen thung. ‘I told them it was very difficult to control the boat if they didn’t know how,’ he said ‘But the translator said they wanted to take it back home for the tourism business. They also advised me to paint “Thuyen thung by Liem” on the boats, for copyright and marketing. I really appreciated that. After the Australians, I received more orders from Japanese, Filipinos, Spanish, and French customers.’
Meanwhile, the thuyen thung of Phu My have figuratively crossed large oceans and arrived in Western countries. At an international trade fair in Zurich, Switzerland, a few years ago, a local fisherman showcased the skill involved in controlling the boat on the water, which attracted a lot of attention. Since then, thousands of Vietnamese basket boats have been exported to Europe. They are also imported by Thailand, where floods regularly hit coastal areas. Thuyen thung have now become something of an ambassador of Vietnam.