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Archaeologist helps legacy of Vietnamese boats float on

On our visit to Pham Huy Thong Antiques Museum in Quang Yen Commune, the northern province of Quang Ninh, the antique boats left the biggest impression on me.

The museum is the brainchild of archaeologist Nguyen Viet, director of the Southeast Asia Prehistoric Research Centre. Viet named the museum after Professor Pham Huy Thong (1916-1988), who inspired much of his archaeological research.

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The museum is home to thousands of ceramic objects. VNS Photos Tran Mai Huong



Bronze drums at the museum.


The museum stores thousands of valuable antiques like ceramics, stone objects, bronze drums and sets of swords dating back to the Hung Vuong era (258-7BC). One of the most interesting parts of the collection is a set of wooden pillars that were installed in the Bach Dang River as a trap to destroy the war vessels of Chinese invaders between 938 and 1288.

There are also 22 ancient wooden boats, which were taken from the bed of the Kinh Thay River in the northern province of Hai Duong between 2016 and 2018.

“We have sent 12 samples of wood from the boats to Australia, Germany and France to determine their ages with the radiocarbon dating method (C14),” Viet told Việt Nam News. “Results show that six boats in the collection date back to the Dong Son civilisation (2,000-2,400 years ago); five date back between 800 and 1,200 years; and only one is 400 years old.”

Six of the boats are displayed on land while the 16 others are submerged in water as a natural method of preservation.



A collection of metal weapons.



A wooden boat preserved on land at the museum.


In 2018, Viet teamed up with Australian professor Peter Bellwood to measure each boat. They drew sample designs and called for help from international researchers.

Scientific reports on the boats have been presented at professional workshops both domestically and abroad, and comprehensive articles on the research on Dong Son-era boats are being compiled.

“In the next few years, the research centre will preserve and restore these boats,” he said.

Viet’s passion for preserving the country’s unique boats extends beyond ancient artefacts. In 2017, he built a fully functioning sampan with bat-winged sails, a style which was popular in the north of Vietnam few decades ago. The boat has fallen out of favour and fewer and fewer people these days know how to make them.

Viet said he and his colleagues had collected more than 400 hours of film and 800 images detailing the techniques and skills needed to make and sail the wooden boat.



Most of the ancient boats are kept underwater at the museum as a natural method of preservation.




The new sampan with bat-winged sails, made by Professor Nguyen Viet and his colleagues to preserve the out-of-favour style.


“The boat will help preserve the art of making sampans as the final generation of boat makers gets old,” he said.

“I think the boat will aid research and honour the long history of the Vietnamese shipbuilding industry and the seafaring tradition of Vietnamese fishermen.

“My boat with bat-winged sails could be the last of its kind in the country,” he joked.

By Tran Mai Huong



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