A friend of mine recently sent me a pdf version of an old book about boats that were popular in southern Vietnam in the past. The book includes a lot of detailed information on boats and was published by the Battele Memorial Institute in Ohio, US, in 1967.
I read it and realised that I had never thought about the different types of boats because I had been to the Mekong Delta many times and the boats all around me just seem so familiar. But there are actually so many types that even local people can’t list them all.
It came as an even bigger surprise to me to find that only one book has been written about boats in the south since 1967, entitled South-central-style Boats and Southern-style Boats, written by Nguyen Thanh Loi and published in 2011. Forty-four years passed since the American book was published before there was a Vietnamese book that described the means of waterway transport that are, of course, quite familiar to local people.
In the book ‘Phu bien tap luc’ (Records of civil service), published in 1776, scholar and royal official Le Quy Don wrote, ‘In that area, there are so many canals and rivers and waterways that they together look like a spider’s web, making it hard to travel by land. Merchants always have canoes on their big ships so they can go into small canals when necessary. Farms are adjacent to one another while canals and rivers stretch along or cross one another all over the region. Houses are scattered here and there. There is a wide variety of fish.’
Such natural geographical conditions make the Mekong Delta a special area. Its waterways make it essential for local people to build dozens of different types of boats and then hundreds of variations were introduced, creating such a wide range of vessels that even local people can’t name them all.
The big boats include ghe bau, a pretty and beautiful boat that is a variation of the ‘proa’ boat popular in Malaysia. It is a big sailboat with oars and used for long voyages. Vietnamese people made many improvements to meet needs in south-central Vietnam. They were not only used for travelling along the coast but also along rivers in the Mekong Delta. Of course, engines have now been fixed to the proa boats and their beautiful sails consigned to history.
A rather strange variation is ghe hau, a luxury vessel that was popular until the 1960s. They were especially built for the wealthy, beautifully painted and gilded with carvings of dragons or phoenixes. Luxurious furnishings included expensive floral mats and pillows. They were always brightly-lit and music filled the air all night long, bringing a sense of excitement wherever they travelled. The ghe hau, sadly, is no longer built.
However, big boats can still be found at Ninh Kieu Wharf in Can Tho city, used as floating restaurants where diners can enjoy musical performances every night.
A half-hour car ride took us from Can Tho city to the Cai Rang Floating Market, and just a bit further away is Phung Hiep Market, where thousands of boats gather in the morning for business. The area is made beautiful by the different colours of watermelons, vegetables, oil, fermented fish, charcoal and rice. I was in Ben Tre province one day when Tet (the Lunar New Year) was coming and I remember seeing boats carrying flowers or potted plants for sale. Some vendors sell bread, hủ tiếu (flatnoodles) or coffee on small boats. Girls or women dressed in nice blouses paddled their boats along the rivers to the market in the early morning.
Only when we visit a floating market can we see a wide variety of boats, including sampans made from three boards about four metres in length and others made from five boards about five or six metres long. A five-board boat can carry two tons of goods, and they are the most popular vessels in Can Tho. A sampan may have two or four oars. Another type is a dugout, which is popular among the local Khmer people. In the provinces of Soc Trang and An Giang we saw ghe ngo, also popular among the Khmer and about 25 metres long. They are most commonly used in a festival boat race called ‘ok-om-book’.
Along the Tien River, which is quite big, we don’t often see small boats. But a wide variety of small boats and canoes make their way through canals, some with an engine. Small boats are used to navigate the tight waterways, just as city dwellers ride a bicycle or motorbike through traffic. When carrying goods they use different bigger boats, depending on the purpose and the distance to be travelled.
People also use different boats for different reasons. To carry passengers over a rather long distance, for example, they use a long motorboat called tac rang or vo lai. It splashes water when it moves along a canal, just like a car splashes water when it runs through a flooded street.
Many people in cities and town take meticulous care of their vehicles and people in the Mekong Delta do likewise with their boats. Some draw eyes on the bow or decorate them in other ways. Sometimes they just discard their boats when they become bored with them.
Many people often travel by boat over long distances while others actually live on their boat. They must cook, of course, and have an earthen stove on board. There are poems and folk songs describing their lives and even loves.
One such verse goes:
‘How could someone have the heart to cut down the tree
Making it impossible for the fishing boat to park by the shrimp boat.’
I live in the city, where fumes fill their air. Reading the book about boats and the countryside brought back many memories of my childhood in the Mekong Delta.