Exclusive to Vietnamese’s sea travel, basket boats are more than just vessels of livelihood for the people. Underlying the smiling faces of the skilled basket boat operators is a sense of pride and belonging.
Spotted along the central coast region of Vietnam, the colourful basket boats today offer to carry tourists for a fee to cruise in the river. But away from the crowd of foreigners, local fishermen pull the net-filled basket boat towards the sea to begin their morning.
“Thung chai” would be more familiar on the lips for the people. It is a big round woven basket used as a transport to catch fishes by the shore and ferrying people or cargo on waters. So much so that these basket boats were used by the Hmong and Vietnamese people to escape to America during the Vietnam War.
When you watch closely, the basket boat actually wobbles on the surface of the water. It is a wonder how the brilliant invention came about, but the origin of basket boats is not officially documented. Many believed that the basket boat is an ingenious resistance of the Vietnamese to the French during colonisation. When the French announced taxes on boat ownerships, poor local fishermen had to abandon their boats–but not without a backup plan. They created “baskets” as transportation and successfully avoided tax, well because these baskets do not work like boats.
Operating the circular basket boat requires a special set of skills and understanding; paddling without technique will set one spinning in the same spot. Vietnamese experts of these basket boats will move the wooden paddle in arc motion back and forth. As time pass, some basket boats embrace modernity with motor engines or sails to go further in distance.
Despite that, each basket boat is still meticulously handcrafted by Vietnamese artisans till today. It would take days for a skilled craftsman to weave dried bamboo pieces to the shape before coating it with resin or tar to make it waterproof. Cow dung mixtures are sometimes applied at the bottom of the basket to reinforce the waterproofing.
It is truly an incredible feat for the Vietnam locals to seek independence with boats that only they can engineer by hand. For many families, basket boats have become the way to sustain a daily livelihood through fishing and through some eyes, it shows hope to the war-torn communities.
Text by Jessy Wong • Photos by Adobe Stock