Coracles 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 coracles are used.

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

Why came coracles into existence?

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

What are the main applications of coracles?

Coracles 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 coracles over a wide area and collecting them for eating and sleeping again. Each trawler will carry about one dozen coracles as a kind of satellite fishing unit.

How are coracles manufactured?

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

Raw material Bamboo

The 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 areas will be smoothed. The 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 onto the neighboring bamboo stripe. The weaving pattern depends on the available bamboo stripe wideness, the size of the final vessel, and the craftsman. Coracles 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 coracle

There are two basic techniques for 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 coracle 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 loosen 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 have 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 wooden poles. These reinforcements 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 the coracles

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 interlinking fibers and also as fillers for bigger holes. The big advantage of bitumen is, that holes can be ironed out just by heating the cracked areas. For most boat owners nowadays it is easier just to paint them over with whatever color of oil paint is available.

How to paddle coracles?

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 anymore. The paddle technique is unique. The paddle will not be lifted out of the water but just turned 90 degrees when moving forward and backward.

Lessons learned from coracles at Duy Hải

  • Local available raw materials and craftsmen’s 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 creates often high values.

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