The Basket Boats of Hoi An

May 17, 2018 ·  Vietnam

“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. As I went around in circles, my guide has his boat rocking and rolling across the water.
Basket boats (or thung chai) are a traditional fishing boat used along the stretch of coast around Hoi An in Vietnam. They began life as a dodge from the French taxman; 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.
The thung chai are still used. Rise before dawn and watch the fishing boats head out; the basket boats will be among them, fishing. 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.
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 drive along the coast around Hoi An and you’ll see the large baskets everywhere. If not working out to sea, they will be on the shore, covered with nets spread out to dry. 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.
But the boats are ridiculously hard to steer. Round, flat bottom, no rudder, just one oar and you stand up to row, making circles with the oar. 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.