Friday, June 7, 2024

Book review: Classic Wooden Fishing Boats of the Vietnamese Coast

cover image of book Classic Wooden Fishing Boats of the Vietnamese Coast by Ken Preston

Classic Wooden Fishing Boats of the Vietnamese Coast: Their Design, Construction, Rigging and Fisheries

by Ken Preston


328 pages

Vietnam Women’s Publishing House, Ha Noi

ISBN 978-604-56-7858-9 

When Ken Preston served in the US Army in Vietnam, he saw little of the country’s vernacular boats. But decades after the US withdrawal and the end of the war, he travelled back to Vietnam for pleasure and was fascinated by the variety of boats he saw and their methods of construction. Starting in 2005, he returned year after year, spending weeks at a time traveling the country on a small motorcycle, taking thousands of photos of boats and boatyards, and talking to boatbuilders and fishermen. His book, Classic Wooden Fishing Boats of the Vietnamese Coast, is the result, and a fine one it is.

The book is organized unconventionally but with an undeniable logic. The very brief first chapter, “Wooden Boats and Nautical Culture in Vietnam, Past and Present”, is more like a second Introduction, barely mentioning thousands of years of boat history prior to the middle of the 20th century. From that time forward, though, it describes how the local fleet was documented by French colonial observers and, later, by the US government, and how it changed rapidly to leave behind much of its traditional roots and adopt larger, more Western-like designs and diesel engine power.

The book really hits its stride in Chapter 2, “Vietnamese Wooden Boat Designs,” which describes the basic structure of traditional wooden fishing boats, some of which are still in use, and contrasts it to the structure of newer, larger “modern fishing vessels” (MFVs). The latter, although constructed plank-on-frame by methods not dissimilar to Western methods, are still different enough in design from Western vessels to be of interest. The chapter also discusses how traditional and modern methods are sometimes combined, and shows how even fairly large boats are built in temporary and ad-hoc shipyards with a minimum of tools and infrastructure. The building sequences for both types of vessels are described and illustrated in good detail.              

Man squatting on bottom boards of boat under construction, with another boat whose construction is more advanced in the background.
A boatbuilder fitting the port side planks of a traditional fishing boat. The fully-assembled side will later be lifted and attached to the already-framed bottom, visible in the background.

Chapter 3, “Seagoing Baskets,” looks at small fishing boats where part or all of the hull is formed of split bamboo basketwork. Some readers may be familiar with Vietnam’s iconic round basket boats that may be paddled, rowed or – surprisingly often – powered with small outboard or even inboard engines (see previous post on round basket boats). Less well known are small canoe-shaped basket boats with light bamboo gunwales (see previous post for more on these narrow basket boats) and larger, oval-hulled basket boats built with heavy rectangular frameworks of full-round bamboos around their top perimeter, many with cabins, also of basketwork (see previous post on round basket boats of Tonkin Bay). Then there are even larger, heavier open boats, almost indiscernible from plank-built boats due to the substantial strakes that sheath their topsides (see cover image at top).

Three basket boats in foreground, with other fishing boat types in background
These large, round basket boats have inboard engines. Boats like this are used both for beach fishing and as dinghies for larger fishing boats. 

Chapter 4, “Boat Building techniques” takes the reader step-by-step through the main procedures of wooden hull construction, with excellent detail on tools and tool-use techniques. Chapter 5, “Modern Fishing Gear on the Vietnamese Coast”, describes the many methods of fishing practiced, including drift nets, seines, lift- or dip-nets (called “push aheads” due to their mounting on the bow of boats), longlines, squid gear, and more. Preston describes which boat types employ which types of gear and the basics of their use.

Comprising just shy of half the book’s page count, “A Trip Up the Coast: From Phu Quoc Island to Mong Cai” is the final chapter. It is a valuable “moment-in-time” record of boat building facilities and fishing boat use in dozens of major and minor fishing ports. Because Preston visited some of the ports numerous times over the course of years, he has sometimes documented the pace of change and shown how quickly Vietnam is developing in some areas.

Classic Wooden Fishing Boats of the Vietnamese Coast is a lovely, coffee-table size volume, produced entirely in color, and wisely formatted in landscape mode, which is by far the better choice for presenting photos of boats and ships. Preston’s photos are lively and colorful, and most do an excellent job illustrating the matter at hand. For the few that don’t come up to that standard, anyone familiar with photographing industrial workplaces will acknowledge that ideal composition and lighting can be elusive, and Preston has done a fine job working in challenging conditions. One must admire his dedication to the project and the opportunities he made for himself to hang around boatyards and gam with builders and fishermen. He has produced a valuable body of ethnographic data that captures fishing and boatbuilding practices as they were during the early 21st century and will never be again.

Given its value to vernacular boat students and enthusiasts, it is unfortunate that Classic Wooden Fishing Boats of the Vietnamese Coast is so difficult to obtain. It was published only in Vietnam and never properly distributed in the West. One hopes a Western publisher will pick it up someday or that it will be made available by other means.



  1. This nice book is available at:

    1. Thanks for this link, but it shows as Out of Stock at this time.