When Vietnam expanded southwards towards the Mekong Delta during the days of the Nguyen Dynasty in the 18th century the region was marshy and flooded. Together with the first houses appeared xuong ba la (three-piece boats, or dory boats), the most popular means of getting around in a land where water laps up to the doorway at times.
During the wet season even moving small distances such as from the house to the garden or to visit a neighbour requires a boat. Small and light, xuong ba la are favoured as they easily glide over rivers and narrow canals and even through mangrove forests, where other boats surrender. Due to its shallow draft, or the small area that comes into contact with the water surface, the force needed to propel it forward is little, even in shallow water strewn with plant life. Known as the ‘legs’ of the Mekong Delta people, xuong ba la are a necessary part of every house. The region’s poor forego many things to get one rather than be ‘legless’.
In fact, these ‘legs’ are simple and easy to make. As its name suggests, xuong ba la traditionally comprise three long wooden planks, one forming the keel and two forming the sides. Extra pieces of wood are added it to the inside of the sides, as ribbing. The frame keeps the bilge stable, and the smaller the planks are the lighter and faster the boat is. Larger boats, made from longer planks, are slower but are better for transporting goods. The average length and width of a xuong ba la is four to five and 1.5 metres, carrying five or six people.
A special characteristic of xuong ba la is that you cannot distinguish the bow and the stern of the boat because their shape is the same. This is intentional and makes it easier to manoeuvre. The oars are also quite ingenuous. While two are attached to the boat and cross over each other at the midway point, allowing the rower to exert more power, one is free and can be used on either side of the boat for better directional control and to row a little faster when needed.
While they can rowed in a conventional manner, ‘professional’ rowers in the area are famous for rowing the boat using their feet, a skill they pick up early in life as they travel around on xuong ba la. Everyone has memories of rowing the boat as a child, on the way to school or to visit friends and even, in their teenage years, on dates. Xuong ba la truly are a part of every person’s life.
They’re also an important ‘business partner’, being cheap to maintain and convenient to use and get around in. Fishing lines and nets can be cast overboard, with the catch then taken to the floating market, where other people in xuong ba la also sell vegetables, fruits, flowers, and food and drinks. Floating markets are another unique symbol of the Mekong Delta and been in place for hundreds of years, showing again how life revolves around the river and waterways.
Xuong ba la also had a very useful purpose during wartime. They were a special ‘soldier’, carrying food, weapons and equipment to fighting units and helping them to escape the enemy’s patrol boats. Moreover, with their gentle movement and small and light shape, they were great at allowing scouts and commandos to sneak up on enemy positions. Their contribution was small but invaluable to Vietnam’s fight against foreign invaders.
More and more roads are being built these days in the Delta, but they’ll never really replace the ‘legs’. Unless the region was to somehow become dry all year round, xuong ba la will always be seen gliding along rivers and canals or tied up at wharfs, as they have been for centuries.