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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Basket Boats on the Gulf of Tonkin

We've written before about woven or basket boats in Vietnam (see, for example, this post highlighting a canoe-form craft, and this one about coracles), but the one in the image below, from James Hornell's Water Transport: Origins and Early Evolution, so struck us by its graceful form that we thought it was worth sharing.
Basket boat, Vietnam, from Hornell
Woven boat of the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam. From Hornell, Water Transport. (click to enlarge)
The boat is common on the Gulf of Tonkin. We'll quote Hornell's comments in almost their entirety:
This is a light, graceful craft made of inch-wide strips of split bamboo, closely woven into stiff matting, a material of great strength, resiliency and resistance to strain. 
In plan it is of an elongated ovate form, the wider end being the stern. Both extremities are spoon-shaped like the fore end of a Norwegian praam [sic] and are rounded in horizontal outline. A gentle sheer toward each end carries stem and stern above the level of the midships gunwale, the stem rising the higher. The bent-up sides of the bamboo body are embraced around their margin by several broad bands of split bamboo on each side and bound together into a stout cylinder with rattan strips to form a stout, continuous gunwale. Four or five strong bamboos stretch from gunwale to gunwale to prevent spreading; they are secured partly by lashing and partly by pegging into the gunwales. Along each side above the gunwales and over the ends of the cross beam, a slender bamboo pole is lashed to form a top rail. 
On the floor two long bamboos, spaced some distance apart, serve as inner stringers. One of the thwart beams, usually the second from the stern, is supported below by two short stanchions fixed at the lower ends into a stout bamboo bar, fitted athwart the bottom. Before launching, the interstices in the matting forming the skin of the hull are daubed with a caulking mixture of cow dung and coconut oil [citation omitted], periodically renewed. Strips of split bamboo matting are fitted over the floor to serve as dunnage and so keep cargo and passengers dry against moderate leaking. 
Although very light and easily carried by one man, they are able to carry several passengers together with a quantity of baggage. 
The dimensions of one measured by Nishimura [citation omitted] were as follows: length, 12 feet 7 inches; width, 5 feet; depth, 26 inches: usually they run smaller -- about 6 feet by 4 feet, by about 10 inches deep. 
Nishimura states that this type of craft is very common in Tongking, where almost all families living near rivers and streams keep one or two.
A couple observations on the above:

1. It seems unlikely that the caulking mixture was applied only to the "interstices in the matting." It is almost certainly spread over the entire outer surface of the hull. Road tar and roofing tar have largely replaced cow dung and coconut oil for waterproofing.

2. The purpose of the top rail is not explained. They may serve as the top elements of girders that stiffen the boat longitudinally, with the thwarts or cross-beams serving to create a vertical gap between them and the gunwales. But read on.

The image below, from Ken Preston's Boats & Rice blog, shows what appears to be the same kind of boat in current use on Halong (or Ha Long) Bay, near Hai Phong on the Gulf of Tonkin. This boat has a more elaborate and substantial framework around the perimeter than the light top rails in Hornell's image, but the curve of the bow (?) rising above the transverse end-piece of the perimeter framework seems to identify the boat as the same basic type. Along with strengthening the structure further, the fore-and-aft elements of the rectangular perimeter frame serve to anchor the tholepins. This might have been another unexplained purpose of the top rails in Hornell's image.
Woven boat, Halong Bay, from Boats & Rice blog
Woven boat, Halong Bay, from Boats & Rice


  1. Er. . .that should be "Ken Preston", not "Foster". But no problem, glad you liked the photo. There are untold thousands of those boats from tiny things for one man up to quite large versions. Many these days are actually fiberglass hulls laid up over existing baskets, then reinforced with the traditional bamboos or timber framing, but the woven boats are still most common (2017 last look)

  2. Ken, I am sorry. I have corrected your name in the post. Thanks for your further input.