Wooden Boats, Motorcycles, Noodles and Rice...
By Ken Preston - Seattle, Washington - USA
Ken Preston wrote to tell me that he had written and self-published a book titled "The Wooden Workboats of Viet Nam - A Photographic Tour at the Turn of the 21st Century". Sensing there might be a story there I asked him to write about researching the book. The following article is the result. Unfortunately we can not reproduce Ken's beautiful images in their full glory due to limited space, but you can download the book at lulu.com or buy a printed version - Chuck

click to enlarge

Two journeys, three motorbikes, 8000 miles of Vietnamese roads, two motorbike wrecks and a dozen near misses, one case of dysentery, incredible jungle mountains, logged over hillsides all planted to tea and coffee or corn, magnificent white sand beaches, whitewater rivers, cliffs falling straight into the sea, waterfalls, landslides, thousands of islands floating high above a misty sea, rivers spreading through unbelievable expanses of rich farmland, cold miserable drizzly rain blown on a steady North wind, blistering sun in perfect blue skies, mud, dust. . .and noodles and rice.

click to enlarge That’s the bike I rode the first trip, a Minsk (made in Minsk, Belorussia) two stroke 120 cc dirt bike. It is heavier, dirtier, smokier and stronger than the modern Honda style bikes that are the norm in the country these days, but it carries a bigger load and so is used in the countryside rather like a pickup truck. Also by expats living in Viet Nam who need a heavier machine. The photo was taken about 30 miles South of the Chinese border at a tiny open air café next to a bridge over a little white water river. There is no square foot of Viet Nam that is not the responsibility of a Children’s Foreigner Greeting Committee. Just stop and they’ll introduce themselves

Actually, that is just the start of it. There were the 82 million Vietnamese, of whom I personally met (rough numbers here, I didn’t log them all) one half drunk fellow who wasn’t really a highway robber and one very pretty pickpocket, three people who were rude or unhelpful, ten thousand cute kids who wanted their pictures taken (that might be a bad under-estimate), two hundred people (more or less) who insisted on taking me home for tea and cookies, several hundred who finally figured out what I was trying to ask and managed to show me the way (or lead me on their own motorbikes) and put me back on the road I needed, another hundred or so who stopped me on the street to practice their English, forty two or forty three talented motorbike mechanics, several hundred really good cooks and one who was selling hot salty water with a few noodles, some swamp weeds and a very little gristle from a stand alongside the road. I could go on and on. . .weddings and funerals (all with fabulous banquets), delicious dinners with absolute strangers in open air restaurants, mad dashes on motorbike taxis all over strange towns looking for motorbike parts.

click to enlarge Just completed 22’ double ended utility motor work boat under thatch building shade alongside the road South of Quy Nhon (in the South Central part of the country).

All of that was just to find the boats, rowing boats, motor boats, river boats, inshore boats and distant water fishing boats, dredgers and freighters and boats so small they get to their work on a bicycle.

click to enlarge Two youngsters fishing in Quy Nhon Bay. They’ve set several hundred feet of monofilament gill net just offshore of the rocks, are now rowing along and whipping the water with a bamboo switch to scare fish out into the net. Note that the boat is rowed standing facing forward and the rowing position is in the forward 3rd of the boat, a unique arrangement to my knowledge, but very common in Quy Nhon.

Viet Nam is basically a very long coastline with two river deltas, the Red River in the North and the Mekong in the South. The country pushes up into the mountains in the West and North just a little ways, but then becomes Cambodia or Laos or China. Thus the Vietnamese have been boat builders, fishermen and sailors since time out of mind. More, their coast with a number of fine harbors has long been a stopping place for voyagers from far away, bringing boat designs and building techniques from China, Japan, the Indian Subcontinent and of course Europe and America in recent centuries. The wooden boat culture, building and sailing runs very deep in the country.

click to enlargeThe informal early morning fish market on a sandbar just inside Nha Trang fishboat harbor. The formal fish market is the long low building on the quay in the back ground, but there’s very little going on there. The fleet comes in just after daylight and is met by dozens of shore boats that take the catch ashore, where it’s washed, sorted and quickly moved off to retail market. Day-old fish is worthless here. Everyone wants it fresh. Now and then a skipper just noses up on to the sand to offload, though it’s still usually into a shore boat. Nha Trang was a major US base in the war, two good harbors and a magnificent beach front, it’s one of Viet Nam’s premier resort cities these days, with a wide range of hotels and innumerable wonderful restaurants.

I first saw Viet Nam as a soldier in the American war. It was a better trip than many. Nobody killed me. Perhaps more important, I didn’t kill anybody either. Somehow I was just never in the wrong place at the right time. I didn’t have much chance for sight seeing though and my duties were mostly in the highlands, away from the beaches and harbors and even the Mekong, which was very close, but beyond my normal boundaries. Still, now and then I managed a trip to the coast for a day or two and once with a Vietnamese friend for a weekend to visit relatives in the Mekong Delta country, so I saw some boats and took a few pictures.

click to enlarge“Almost-double-enders” rafted up above the highway bridge at Ron, a small city on the North Central coast. This was a grey drizzly miserable day in mid-January with a strong North breeze harrying me along. I was wet and cold and almost rode on by headed south looking for warmth. I couldn’t pass up this moorage though and stopped to spend an hour or so poking around. The boats are not true double enders, they have just a little bit of a transom. They’re very close relatives to the biggest St. Pierre dories. The largest of these boats at Ron are over 60’ long.

Fast forward 35 years. The world has changed, Americans are welcomed in Viet Nam as tourists and businessmen, magazines publish travel articles and travel agencies have posters of Viet Nam on their walls. In the posters, here and there are the boats, colorful bits of background beyond the shining beaches. So curiosity brought me back, to see how the country had changed since those bitter years and whether or not the boats were still being built and sailed along that beautiful coast. I had no idea what it meant when I announced to friends that I was going to take a picture of “every boat in Viet Nam”, not even if the boats and the boat yards were still there. In the last hours of 2004 I got on a plane to Hanoi with a backpack, two cameras, a box of film and nowhere near enough warm clothes. It took me a week in country, including a bus tour out to the coast at Halong Bay to figure out that the best way to hunt down all the little harbors and boat yards would be to travel by motorbike, alone. Travel by bus, train or plane is easy and inexpensive, but the busses, trains and planes don’t go where I needed to be. A car would be out of the question. I had two months to do the job, so found a bike, bought some warm clothes and rain gear and. . .headed up into the Northwest Mountains, away from the coast.

click to enlargeA very ordinary terraced hillside on the road up to Sapa, high in the Vietnamese Northwest, a few miles from the Chinese border at Lao Cai. As the mountains get steeper and drier the fields are still terraced but planted to corn and vegetable crops or sometimes cherry orchards. It’s a very beautiful bit of the world, but there’s not much level land to be had.

Uh, yes, well, the Northwest Mountains are magical and pull a bike rider like a magnet, just a day and a half out of Hanoi. The country is steep and beautiful, pine and bamboo forests, terraced fields, fascinating mountain people. The roads are narrow and winding, often little more than paved trails in the higher country. At the end of a week though, I fled South, out of the rain and cold. All winter long, the high pressure over central China pushes a bitter cold 20 mile an hour wind down the Red River valley, straight through the Himalayas and down to the South China Sea at Haiphong, where it picks up the warm moist sea air and holds it a thousand feet up and leaves it to drizzle for weeks on end. Leaving Hanoi I hurried South through the rain and cold, past who knows what marvels. Finally at Hai Van Pass near Da Nang I rode out of the cold and into the wonderful winter weather of Southern Viet Nam and began carefully poking along the coast.

click to enlargeA night-seiner, the little green boat uses the banks of fluorescent lights to attract fish at night. The net is a great heap of monofilament mesh. I never got to sea to watch the work done, so can’t tell you exactly how they fish. At night though looking out to sea you can see 70 or 80 spots of light and hints of more over the horizon, each one a fish boat working. In the morning the fish market on the quay in the lagoon side harbor is pandemonium, with hundreds of people buying, sorting, washing and icing down fish and moving them out to market in shoulder baskets, bikes, cars and trucks.

Thus that first trip focused more on the South of the country and left a large gap in the North. Home again, I struggled with the thousand odd photos, hoping to make something out of them, but they weren’t enough. I returned to the North in September of 2006 for another try. This time the weather was marvelous, though often hazy. On the second trip I pushed North along the coast almost to the Chinese border, then turned South and followed every hint of a harbor or river mouth or beach along the road. It was good hunting. The boats are there in variety I’d never imagined. The fisheries are still viable and boat yards all along the way are building and repairing large boats and small. Another thousand odd photos have almost finished the job. I know there are a few boats I don’t have on film. There’s an ugly cargo scow for moving tractors and livestock around the delta that I never got, and, just glimpsed through driving rain on my last day homeward bound, another species of surf boat on a narrow northern beach. Worse, I never saw Vung Tau and only passed through Da Nang and Phan Thiet en route and no doubt another month afloat on the Mekong would turn up river boats I haven’t seen yet. But for now, it will have to do. The photos are sorted, the book is laid out and the captions all written. There are maps to show the way if you want to go see for yourself. I hope you do

click to enlargeSunrise in the open roadstead in front of Quy Nhon. The bulk of the city lies back along the highway and the lagoon side, but the ocean beach front is a very pleasant edge of town, several hotels and restaurants along with many more utilitarian shops. A large fleet of fishing boats lies anchored off the beach and many are hauled out above high tide line to be painted and repaired. Quy Nhon is not a major resort city but ought to be. With the beautiful bay, scenic mountains north and south and the new road out of town to the South along the cliffs above the ocean, it’s a delightful place. The local moonshine can be used for cooking fuel or paint thinner if you’re not thirsty.

Ken Preston

Ken's book is available from lulu.com either as a download for $5 or as a printed version - 223 pages, 8.5" x 11", perfect binding, full-color interior ink - for $44.96