Ancient coracles provide link to the past
VietNamNet Bridge – Craftsmen in this tiny fishing village are keeping alive the centuries-old tradition of weaving round bamboo boats by hand, passing the valued knowledge down from generation to generation.
Whatever floats their boats: Coracle making has become one of the main occupations for local residents in Son Tra Peninsula.
Traditional craft: Phan Thanh Anh (R), a grandson of Liem, splits bamboo to weave a coracle.
Tourist trade: Renting out coracles has become a thriving business on the Son Tra Peninsula.
Fixing up: A fisherman repairs the waterproof layer of his coracle on the peninsula.
Riding the surf: A local coracle race.
Phan Liem, 73, who lives in Tho An fishing village near Da Nang City, practices the ancient craft of making coracles from plaited bamboo smothered in tree resin and rice bran. The knowledge has been passed down in the family from father to son.
Liem, who was born and grew up in the old village on the Son Tra Peninsula, is one of a dwindling group of coracle makers in the village of 8,000. Eighty per cent of adult males in the village are fishermen, so he has had plenty of work since he stopped fishing 40 years ago.
Despite the undoubted antiquity of the small, round vessels, which are also found in India, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, the craft is said to have first appeared in the village in the 15th century when northern Vietnamese fishermen moved south along the coastline.
However, membership of the craft has shrunk since urbanisation begun about 20 years ago. Local fishermen still place about 100 orders each year. A few travel agencies and beach resorts also order the manoeuvrable little boats. The highly seaworthy vessels are also rented out to tourists in summer when the beaches on the peninsula are crowded.
"I learned the craft as a teenager," Liem said. "Like other men, I found fishing and boat making were the main breadwinners before the education system improved in our poor village. Families use coracles for fishing up to five or six kilometres off shore.
"Making coracles is a hard job that requires plenty of skill and patience. So, it's not a job for everyone. This is why we still live well, even in the economic downturn."
Fishermen say coracles are safe and easy to use. The round bottoms and light weight of the little vessels allows them to float over the waves with ease as well as moving quickly.
A 2.2m diameter boat can carry two people and hundreds of kilogrammes of fish for an overnight fishing trip. Coracles are also often used to check rudders on bigger vessels and also as rescue boats.
Liem's son, Phan Van Anh, 22, said large oval shaped boats were often up to six metres long. They sometimes use an engine for fishing trips of up to 20km out to sea.
Anh said the smallest coracles cost VND2 to 3 million (US$100-150, which was quickly repaid because each fishing trip earned a few hundred thousand dong. The little boats last for 10 years or more, providing a steady income and plenty of free time.
Anh said he sometimes went fishing in his coracle during breaks from building them. "An early morning start usually provides buckets of fish by lunch time," he said.
He earns about VND6 million ($285) a month making the traditional craft, a good income in a village with 10 per cent of its people living in poverty.
Liem's family produces about 100 fishing coracles a year, plus others for hotels, resorts and travel agencies who use them as decoration.
Coracles are made totally by hand. Scars and calluses fill the palms of craftsmen endlessly weaving the strong, but pliant bamboo strips.
All materials are natural. Bamboo is the main component, while resin from certain trees is slathered on to make them waterproof.
The bamboo comes from mountainous areas around Da Nang. A small coracle uses about 10 bamboo saplings and takes four craftsmen about a week to complete.
First, the craftsmen split the bamboo into different widths, but only the outer layers are used because they are waterproof. Production starts two days after the split lengths are dried in the sun. Craftsmen begin by weaving the thin strips into the shape of a large basket with one or two hoops of thicker strips at the top.
"Traditionally, the hoop is fastened by rattan, but we now use plastic cord," the old craftsman, said. "Fixing the hoop is the most difficult process because it has to be strong enough to cope with big waves and salt water."
Liem said the finished boats needed to dry for another day or two before the last stage of production.
Eight layers of sap and bran both outside and inside are needed to make a coracle waterproof. Another two days of drying and the vessel is finished, apart from a light trim to cut off any projecting ends.
"Modern composite materials are often suggested as a replacement for bamboo, resin and bran, but this makes the coracles easier to capsize. This is because there is less friction between the waves and composite materials," said Anh.
"Fishermen prefer the old fashioned craft, even though composite-covered boats are said to last much longer," he said, adding that coracles needed new coatings of sap every five or six months.
Ho Thi Cam Ha, a resident in Tho Quang, said her family had used one of Liem's coracles for many years. "Coracles are the favourite option for fishermen in the area. They do not cost much and we can pay for one in just a couple of months. We use our boat for catching shrimp and fish and leave it on the beach every evening," Ha said.
Nguyen Van Bon, from Phuoc My ward, uses a fleet of coracles for fishing. "We also have three big ones with diesel engines attached for long journeys to Cham Island, while small coracles are to fish closer inshore," he said.
Fishing families often use two or three coracles. Liem's family usually works all day. "Only two or three households still make a living from fishing on coracles. Young people often prefer jobs in industrial parks," Liem said. He added that only two of his five children plus a grandson continued the trade.
Phan Thanh Anh, 17, started training as a coracle builder two years ago when he left high-school. "I did not study well, so I found the job provided quite a good income."
Son Tra Peninsula, about 10km from downtown Da Nang, is a favourite destination for local and foreign tourists in summer. It has pristine, sunny beaches and many other natural attributes.
In the high season, when the peninsula hosts up to 1.5 million visitors, renting out coracles has become a thriving business.
Nguyen Ngoc Hiep from Da Nang beach travel agency, said his company promoted the service in conjunction with local fishermen.
"Tourists sometimes rent coracles for fishing or sailing along the beach. We make about VND1 million ($40) a trip. Fishermen can double their income if they want to provide this service after fishing," Hiep said. "Fishermen also provide fish and cook for tourists for up to VND20 million ($900) a month."
Doan Huy Giao, who own a private museum on the peninsula, has collected many local wares for show. "Coracle making has blossomed since the 15th century. But while the village still makes fishing boats and equipment, the crafts are fading away as urbanisation moves in rapidly. Villages become towns and the old equipment is often stored in the back of the home," Giao said.
"I collect old fishing boats to remind younger generations of what an interesting and busy past the village once had."
My Dung, a photographer from Da Nang who was born and grew up in the fishing village, said he kept people in touch with the past through photos in an exhibition room at his house in the city. "Coracles are a typical symbol of Vietnamese fishing villages," he said.
Nguyen Minh Thien, manager of the Dana Bar at My Khe beach, said he had bought some basket boats for his restaurant and bar. "Our customers find them interesting.
They bring the smell of the ocean and an ancient way of life into a modern setting. Visitors can even eat seafood and drink beer inside the coracles," Thien said.
Liem said he hoped more young villagers learned how to build coracles. "I am afraid that the craft will eventually disappear from the village," he said.