Sunday, April 24, 2016

Vietnamese Coracles

Coracle fishing boats at Mui Ne Bay, Vietnam
"Coracle fishing boats at Mui Ne Bay, Vietnam" by Ray Zhoul
(Click any image to enlarge.)
Vietnam is the only land where coracles remain in widespread use and continue to serve a significant economic function. They are ubiquitous along the coast in the central part of the country, where they serve in the roles normally filled by inflatables and hard-shell dinghies in other parts of the world. They are also to be found in country's northern and southern portions. 

In Coracles of the WorldPeter Badge states that coracles are carried aboard almost all larger fishing boats, where they are used as tenders and for handling nets. They are also used for net fishing in their own right as much as a mile offshore. In flooded-field agriculture, they are used to gather vegetables and spray fumigants. In some flood-prone areas, almost every home has a coracle for emergency evacuation, and no doubt they are also used for all sorts of casual transportation. 
Coracle in flooded-field agriculture, Vietnam
Small coracle in use in flooded-field agriculture.
Source: Badge/Coracles of the World
The Vietnamese coracle is a true basket boat. Construction begins by erecting a round gunwale of split bamboo on top of short posts driven into the ground, so that the gunwale is supported at its ultimate height above the bottom. Woven matting is then placed over the gunwale, pressed down to the ground, and literally kicked into its desired shape. On larger versions, frames are inserted, but many smaller coracles have no frames at all. An inwale is then sprung into place so that the matting and frames are held between the inwale and the gunwale. The wales are then tied together -- originally with rattan, now usually with nylon cord. Wire was sometimes used during the transition from rattan to nylon.
Vietnamese coracle matting detail
The weave of the mat changes at the turn of the bilge, which allows it to be formed into a bowl shape without folding or puckering. Source: Badge/Coracles of the World.
The matting is made by the coracle maker from 1-inch strips of bamboo which he himself produces. The mat is woven as a piece for each boat, with a distinct mix of weaving patterns that allows it to be pressed into a bowl shape without puckering.
Bowl-shaped coracle, Vietnam
Bowl-shape coracle with two right-angled sets of three parallel frames. Source: Badge/Coracles of the World
Where frames are used, they are usually placed parallel and at right angles to one another, not radially. Frames are tied at intersections and they are not interwoven: one parallel set is laid at right angles over the other. On larger coracles, a pair of radial frames may be inserted at right angles to one another, above and at a 45-degree angle to the first set of parallel-and-right-angle frames to provide diagonal bracing. These bracing frames are tied to the lower level of frames at the intersections. A circumferential riser frame may be tied about halfway between the gunwales and the bottom to support a sitting thwart.
Coracle with both parallel/right-angle and radial frames
Coracle with parallel and radial frames, riser and sitting thwart. Source: Badge/Coracles of the World
The exterior is waterproofed by spreading on a layer of ox dung, followed by resin from the "raie" tree, according to Badge. I can find no references to this tree online, and I invite readers with knowledge of the subject to provide further information in the comments.

Sizes range from 1.2 to 3 meters in diameter, with depths from about 50cm to a maximum of about 72cm. Almost all are perfectly round, but a few oval ones have been reported, one measuring 3 X 4.5 meters.
Vietnamese coracle with flat bottom and straight sides
Vietnamese coracle with flat bottom and straight sides. Source: The Junk Blue Book of 1962.
The cross-sectional shape varies somewhat. Some coracles are shaped like a shallow bowl with sloped sides. Others have nearly flat bottoms and vertical sides.

A single paddle is the most common means of propulsion, with paddling done kneeling or standing or, more rarely, sitting. Paddles may have a T-grip or no end grip. They tend to be long (Badge reports a paddle 1.83 meters on a boat 1.5 meters in diameter), so that they can be used for paddling while standing and as punt poles. 

Paddling technique varies greatly: some use a figure-8 scull to draw the boat forward; some use a J-stroke off to one side; still others use a "scooping" technique, lifting the blade out of the water and pulling it straight back. Sometimes, the paddle is tied to the gunwale and pivoted back and forth in a forward sculling motion. If there are two paddlers, they will sit or kneel on opposite sides of the boat and use a regular canoe-style paddling stroke. 

The use of lugsails has been reported, but this was apparently never very popular and appears to be extremely rare, possibly extinct. Less rare is the installation of inboard engines, of which, unfortunately, I can find no details. 

Another method of propulsion involves rocking the boat forward and back, creating a stern wave upon which the coracle slides forward. As unlikely as this sounds, it apparently works well enough so that it is a practical means of propulsion. (Examples can be seen briefly in this video that mainly shows the equivalent of coracle break-dancing.)
Coracle on a Vietnamese fishing junk, early 1960s
Coracles on a Vietnamese fishing junk, probably late 1950s or early 1960s. Source: The Junk Blue Book of 1962.
The continued popularity of the coracle in Vietnam is attributed in part to the government's promotion of the fishing industry, in which the coracle plays a prominent, practical role. No doubt, the country's relative poverty is a factor in its people preferring a boat that can be inexpensively produced on a craft basis from natural, native materials. And, no doubt, the coracle's surprising practicality, along with its entrenched cultural acceptability, are important influences as well.

Primary sources: 


  1. Interesting read about bamboo coracles - thank you! I'm interested in designing an elipsoidical shaped tree house based on bamboo coracles style segments. Do you know roughly the weight of larger (2,5m diameter, 1m depth) corcacles?

    Best Regards from Vienna!

  2. Hi Alex. Your project sounds fascinating -- in a weird kind of way. I don't know the weight of these coracles, but we'll throw it out here in the comments and see if anyone else does. If you complete the project, we'd love to see photos.

  3. here the tree:

  4. To the anonymous contributor, above: Thank you for providing this link to a Wikipedia article about the "raie" tree (Dipterocarpus alatus) mentioned in this blog post, the resin from which is used to waterproof Vietnamese coracles. Your input is much appreciated.