The gentle ‘put-put’ of a single- cylinder Chinese diesel engine is the soundtrack to the waterways of Vietnam. While large, modern, metal-hulled freighters and sand barges have taken over much of the heavy lifting required for Vietnam’s rapid modernization and industrial development, the more traditional wooden boats, skiffs, barges and coracles still ply their trade along Vietnam’s thousands of miles of rivers and canals.
American Ken Preston has dedicated himself to studying the large variety of Vietnamese boats, and regularly makes trips across the country to seek out relics of Vietnam’s maritime tradition. It is a quest that began almost half a century ago. “I was born in August 1946, which made me just about the perfect age to tour Vietnam for free as soon as I finished college. Fortunately, I had an easy war compared to many. Nobody killed me, or even made a very serious attempt at it. More importantly, I didn’t kill anyone else,” he recalls. Despite such inauspicious beginnings, Ken has an enduring relationship with Vietnam and its people, aided by his bodyguard and interpreter, Mr. Mui. After several years examining boats in North America, looking for the “perfect boat,” a work that grew from Ken’s childhood experiences as a fisherman and boatman in Alaska, he set off for Vietnam in December 2004, with the aim of “photographing every type of boat in the peninsula.” Unsurprisingly, he remains engaged with the task to this day.
The freighters of the Mekong Delta are particularly iconic; almost all have red-painted bows with a pair of large oval eyes to watch for traffic and help the captain find his way back to safe harbor. While there is a lot of variety to the Mekong Delta freighters: some with large deckhouses to transport dry goods, some with a floodable central live well for fish transportation, others simply with a flush deck for loading more robust cargo, all are built to a similar plan. “All start with an exquisitely curved barrel stave hull. The hull is built right up to the deck edge with no frames whatsoever, formed entirely by the curve of the planks, which are pre-bent at each end. These boats are as well-fitted together as a lute or a whisky barrel, and are endlessly adaptable,” he explains.
The freighters are most commonly between 40 to 60 feet long, and are built in a scant three months. “While the hull is an exquisite piece of construction, they are often rather frumpy looking when finished. They are generally powered by a long-tailed outboard motor, a wonderfully simple unit that is ideal for the shallow and often rubbish-laden waters of the Mekong Delta, tangled with rafts of water hyacinths. The whole unit can be picked off and rebuilt as needed, and the prop can easily be hoisted out of the water to clear any blockages. The outboards are almost always started in the air, an unnerving sight when in close company!”
Many of the larger boats also have covered living quarters for longer journeys, extending over the stern. Protruding beyond this is an area for hanging laundry and for slinging hammocks that provides some respite from the sun. Despite the various additions to the superstructure, when cruising light these boats are fine river crafts, nosing along at a good pace. They are, however, more often than not seen loaded right down to the waterline, trusting to their exquisite construction to carry heavy cargo without foundering.
One of the most common cargos, especially at this time of year, is sugarcane, though the crop is providing bittersweet sustenance for farmers. Due to bumper harvests earlier in the year, sugarcane prices have plummeted to around USD40 per ton, sometimes dropping even lower than that, while yields have dropped significantly due to adverse weather conditions. Still, sugarcane is ubiquitous, and the VND5,000 nuoc mia refreshes and revitalizes Saigon’s busy commuters at almost every street corner. The Mekong’s wooden freighters constantly serve this demand, piling their boats high with sugarcane loaded crosswise, to be sold at waterfront markets or taken to refineries on the outskirts of the city.
For the captains who work these boats, it is a life that is at once lazy and full of industry. Floating soporifically downstream under the beating heat of the sun is work in itself, and this easy motion is only achieved with a lifetime’s knowledge of the river and its traffic. Working a heavily-laden freighter in narrow waterways, navigating between dozens of other craft, requires constant vigilance and careful management of the engine and tiller bar. It is a privilege to watch a skilled captain at work. The Saigon River is incredibly tidal, and when the tide is coming in, it is difficult for any large boat to make any progress. Many instead choose to anchor, which can be a complicated process in itself amongst so much traffic.
It is unsurprising that the Mekong freighters, so characteristically Vietnamese themselves, play a leading role in one of Vietnam’s most iconic celebrations, Tet. For Tet, the sugarcane and scrap metal cargoes are replaced with brightly colored bouquets of chrysanthemums, marigolds, bougainvillea, mao ga flowers, lavender, kumquat trees and, particularly in southern Vietnam, the ochna integerrima or mai vang (“Mickey Mouse plant”). Even the smaller ferries can carry more than 500 small flowerpots, while larger boats handle the kumquat and mai vang trees. Together, the gathered boats create a riotous explosion of color, bringing together plants from across the Mekong. One of the most notable gardening regions is Sa Dec, located near the Tien River and once known by the French as le jardin de Cochinchine. Sa Dec boasts 400 hectares of land on which more than 2,000 different varieties of flowers are cultivated, and the months before Tet are the busiest of the year for this fragrant and beautiful little town.
The assorted transport boats of the Mekong bring the produce of Sa Dec to the banks of Saigon, and one of the most vibrant flower markets of the Tet period takes place along Tau Hu Canal in District 8. The captains moor their craft over several kilometers, and hundreds of boats blooming with all manner of flowers line the bank of the canal, nosing onto the street. Saigon explodes with color and fragrance in January, and the blooms spill onto the street in front of the boats. Every Vietnamese family bedecks their home with flowers for Tet, some of the larger kumquat trees can be sold for up to VND5 million – traders make a good profit at this time of year, made all the better for carrying such a pleasant cargo.
Images Provided By Ken Preston