Basket boats at Duy Hải, near Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An is located about 35 km south of Da Nang, which is roughly in the middle of mainland Vietnam. It is one of the most picturesque towns in Vietnam and attracts lots of tourists. Which in turn requires lots of fish and seafood for the restaurants there. The fishing fleet is anchored at and around Duy Hải port. For tendering the catch from fish trawlers to the market area, traditional basket boats are used.

Such basket boats can be seen all along the eastern coast of Vietnam. They change in style depending on the various requirements and on the specifics of every craftsmen. Basket boats can be anything from non-reinforced watertight baskets to a combination of basket hulls and wooden upper structures. Shape is in majority round, but also long stretched basket boats can be seen.

Why came basket boats into existence?

During the French colonial area, fishing boats where levied and most fisherman could not afford the taxes. They therefore did not use fishing boats alongshore any more. Instead they used watertight baskets, which the French did not consider as ‘boats’. These baskets proofed to be seaworthy, were fast to ride and cheap to manufacture. They therefore quickly caught-on all along the middle- and southern Vietnamese coastline. Only disadvantage was, that the fishermen sometimes became quite dizzy riding these boats in disturbed waters. As they got no keel, they tend to rotate around.

What are the main applications of circular basket boats?

Basket boats (Welsh and Irish like to call them ‘Cornicles’) are used for:

  • Tender goods from fishing trawlers to shore and vice versa
  • Are used as fishing boats alongside shore and in freshwater
  • And are also used as fishing boats on trawlers. These are spreading basket boats over a wide area and collecting them for eating and sleeping again. Each trawler will carry about one dozen of basket boats as kind of satellite fishing units.

How are basket boats manufactured?

Due to the variety of basket boats, we mainly concentrate on such boats used at Duy Hải. The manufacturing techniques are similar for others.

Raw material Bamboo

Basic raw material is thin, straight bamboo, with a long distance between the nodes. The stems will be halved and quartered, and the inner and outer node area will be smoothed. Result are long, straight, and flat bamboo stripes. These stripes still consist of two different types of wood. An outer part of dense wood with a high silica content and an inner, softer part. This inner, softer, wood will now be cut away, as it would rot earlier in water.

Weaving pattern

As a first manufacturing step, a flat mat will be woven. Each stripe of bamboo will be hammered with a mallet and hardwood block on to the neighboring bamboo stripe. The weaving pattern depend on the available bamboo stripe wideness, size of final vessel and craftsman. Basket boats at Duy Hải use a 1-over-1-under pattern. In other areas 2-over-2-under patterns are more common. After weaving the ‘flat bottom’ part of the basket, the semi-finished mat will be put into a weaving frame.

Producing the half-round shape of the basket boat

There are two basic techniques in producing the half-round shape. Either using a special weaving frame or a sink in the ground.

‘Sink in the ground’ means hollowing out this typical Vietnamese clayey sandstone. The negative shape of the final basket boat will be dug into the ground. This is done in such a way, that the upper rim will be still above ground. The craftsmen lay the semi-woven mat above this hole and other people step on it. These people press the mat down and if necessary put heavy stones on it. This gives enough space to  hammer bamboo strips together, in case they loosened during the initial shaping-procedure. Thereafter they continue weaving stripes to each other in a pattern, which are overlapping in every quarter of the circumference. If the mat in the sink still behaves springy, the future basket boat can also be filled up with sand.

Special weaving frame

A ‘Special weaving frame’ follows the same principle as above. These are stilts above the ground with a sturdy circular ring. Into this ring the flat semi-finished weaving mat will be pressed. Craftsmen got a variety of rings with different diameters, so that the customer can choose his required size.

After weaving and shaping the basket, the rim will be cut and internal reinforcements be placed. These can be either made from bamboo or are wooden poles. These reinforcements and will keep the shape of the basket boat stable, and also serve as stepping places for passengers. A composite ring of split bamboo will be installed to keep weaved material and internal poles in place. This ring also keeps the round shape and protects the open ends of the weaving material. This massive rim also serves as a fixation point for the paddle. In former times, Rattan vines were used for holding all these materials together. Nowadays heavy monofilament nylon fishing lines are the call of the day.

Waterproofing basket boats

After final construction most of the boats at Duy Hải are getting coated with bitumen. In former times, various tree resins were used and dried buffalo dung was mixed into the resin. This created a web of inter-linking fibers and also as fillers for bigger holes. Big advantage of bitumen is, that holes can be ironed out just by heating up the cracked areas. For most boat owners nowadays it is easier just painting them over with whatever color of oil paint is available.

How to paddle basket boats?

Most of the paddles are linked to the boat by a piece of cloth. This gives good maneuverability and can easily be changed when worn out. Most of the paddles originally had T-handles, but when lost, in most cases, they will not be replaced any more. Paddle technique is quite unique. The paddle will not be lifted out of the water but just turned 90 degrees when moving for- and backwards.

Lessons learned from Basket boats at Duy Hải

  • Local available raw materials and craftsmen skills and ingenuity, can result in totally new products
  • Forget established norms and standards (a boat has to be long and made of wood). Think out of the box.
  • Simple is not primitive, but got often high values