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Hoi An sampan riders: the hardships and the smiles

Entering a new normal phase after more than two years of being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, sampan riders in Hoi An City are eager to get back to work, expecting prosperous, stable tourism development for the town.
Sampan riding on the Hoai River is one of the most popular tourist activities in Hoi An City. Sampan riders in the ancient city are eager to get back to work after more than two years of suspension due to COVID-19. — VNS Photo Bao Hoa

The main riverside walk in Hoi An in the central province of Quang Nam – one of the most beautiful cities in Vietnam – is usually packed with sampans, which tourists can hire for about VND50,000 per hour for a small one and VND100,000 for a bigger one.

Sampans are long and low boats with a wooden hull that two to four people can sit on comfortably. They are used as taxis, fishing boats and for tourism.

Nguyen Thi Nhanh, a sampan rider, said that over months, Hoi An had become more and more crowded with visitors again.

From late afternoon, the Bach Dang Wharf area in Bach Dang Street is already quite busy, she said.

The waves undulate the small boats up and down, causing the rider to hunch her back and stretch her hands to control the oars in the reverse wind.

Having just arrived at the wharf, reaching out to wipe the sweat stains on her face, Nhanh said she had many clients that day and earned a tidy sum.

Remembering last year when tourism froze due to the pandemic, she said that she hardly had any clients, so her income from the sampan was not enough to cover her meals for a day.

The 69-year-old Nhanh from Kim Bong Village said that she worked on a sampan for more than 20 years.

When she was a child, she often followed the villagers to row a boat back and forth between Cam Kim and Old Quarter wharves, so she is familiar with the water there.

Another sampan rider Tran Thi Nhuong, 45, said that she had done that job for nearly 20 years and just earned enough to make ends meet for her family.

"Riding the sampan on the river is not as hard as offshore fishing except on windy days," she said.

"Sometimes, when I encounter a reverse current, after riding guest around the river, I breathe fast. Of course, it's hard. But it's interesting as I meet many people, hearing them talk about things here and there."

Tang Thi Ni, 70, said that this job required hard work. Sampan riders have to sit outside to welcome guests in the rain or intense heat.

"Although the income is not much and it is a hard job, for many years, thanks to the sampan rides, many families earn a living and have money to send their children to school," Ni said.

"Never mind! Let it be! Although rowing the boat is tiring, I feel very uncomfortable without it. When local tourism was closed for the last two years, dozens of boaters like me were sad because we couldn't earn money, and we missed the boat and the oars!" 

"Say cheese"

The biggest obstacle between foreign tourists and boaters is the language barrier.

As Bach Dang wharf is an eco-tourism area that regularly receives foreign tourists, most boaters take advantage of learning to speak a little of a foreign language.

Nhuong laughed: "Here, we all speak Vinglish. If tourists don't understand what we speak, we use body language instead. A nod means, okay."

"As for the familiar greetings to know where visitors want to go and negotiate prices, we already know them. Not only young people but even old boatmen can speak to foreigners ​​very well."

Besides the young people, many ageing men and women over 70-years-old still row boats to bring tourists a leisurely experience on the Hoai River.

In his seventies, a male sampan rider named Tam said that he rowed from one bank of the Hoai River to the other every day to pick up guests.

Sometimes, when his eyes are too blurry to see clearly in the evening, or his hands shake as he is so tired, his wife rows instead.

Riding a boat is hard, but when it comes to discussing his job, Tam's eyes light up, and he talks about it proudly.

He said that he knows a little English that he learned from cyclo drivers so that he can invite guests from Europe or the US onto his boat. However, when he meets Asian tourists, he cannot speak to them, though they usually muddle through somehow.

On a vast stretch of river, beside the prosperous streets, there are still people who quietly make a living by doing this most simple but tiring jobs every day. On these boats, travellers from the world are excited to see Hoi An ancient town.

Tourists often photograph the many sampan riders, and if you look at photos, you can see that the boat men and women are always smiling despite the difficulties of their daily lives. 

Source: Vietnam News

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