The Basket Boats of Hoi An

The Basket Boats of Hoi An

“Come on,’ he said, “it’s easy.”

Perhaps for someone raised on these waters. Perhaps for someone who had been using these boats from the time they could walk. Perhaps, like the gondoliers of Venice, they are born with webbed feet, the better to walk on water. Or so the myth goes.

As I went around in circles, my guide has his boat rocking and rolling across the water.

The Basket Boats of Hoi An
Boats at My Khe

Basket boats (or thung chai) are a traditional fishing boat used along the stretch of coast around Hoi An in Vietnam. (I also found them in Sado, Japan.) They began life as a way of dodging the French taxman when Indochina was a French colony; with boats being taxed, the local fishermen wove these ‘baskets’ from bamboo. It was just a coincidence they happened to float and were large enough to hold a few fishermen. Thus the tax was successfully avoided.

Thung chai remain a common sight. One morning I rose before dawn and went out on a local fishing boats in Hoi An; the basket boats were be among them, fishing. Mostly they stay closer to shore for the design means the boats are incredibly buoyant, and can turn quickly in any direction – perfect for darting in and out of all the nooks and crannies along a rugged coastline, where larger boats can’t go.

The Basket Boats of Hoi An

My Khe (the famous China Beach of the Vietnam war) is the place many tourists go to see and take a ride in these boats, but driving along the coast around Hoi An and the large baskets are everywhere. If not working out to sea, they will be on the shore, covered with nets spread out to dry after a day's work. Spy a cluster of them, and someone is bound to be nearby selling freshly caught fish. I saw them in use at a local market, used to ferry the fresh catch from the larger boats to shore. The poor guy steering the thing was literally swamped by buyers as he reached the dock, everyone desperate for the freshest buy.

Although raised around boats I found these ridiculously hard to steer. Round, flat bottom, no rudder, just one oar and I had to stand up to row. The idea is to make circles with the oar, but I ended up very wet, and going nowhere. Yet as I made a fool of myself, the captain of our boat cooked up a delicious breakfast of fresh clams and prawns, sticky rice, and stir-fried morning glory, followed by a strong Vietnamese coffee. A perfect start to any day.

The Basket Boats of Hoi An

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