Saturday, April 25, 2015

Halong City, Cam Pha and Where in Heck did They Take Me??The Diep

Written late evening and in great haste, the 25th of April, 2015 in my quite comfortable garret in Hon Gai (old town, Halong City).

I spent part of the afternoon fighting the internet connections available here. . .and finally got a 3 day old post off to you and at supper this evening realized that I'm changing theaters of operation entirely tomorrow and have two days to report some fairly momentous news (well. . .as those things go on these trips).  So this will be short and sweet and to the point (for a change) with a minimum of nonsense or philosophical musing.

After the tremendous day with Ms. Cuc and Ms. Cuong in and around Yen Duc village on Thursday I was in the position of having yet another fabulous day promised by Ms. Cuc (let us say Thank You very much to Indochina Junk for all of this. If you're coming this way, check out their website!) and yes that's a plug but you'll be glad you did. The promised day, what turned out to be a nearly complete answer to several questions I've had about the typical Halong Bay basket boats, was, however, promised for today, which left yesterday wide open and unsupervised.  I took care of myself, and even that worked out well.

Friday then, to start, I schlepped around for breakfast and coffee, answered emails, and finally got the horse out of bed and we tried to not get lost wandering around Hon Gai.  We got lost for a while but finally stumbled into something I recognized (this was an exercise in trying to remember rather than just following a telephone around) and straightened ourselves out.  Hon Gai used to be the older, tired poorer sister of the pair of cities, a Vietnamese town not a tourist place, and not very exciting (actually, compared to the night life in Bai Chai across the narrows, that's a good thing).  It doesn't seem that way so much now, still very "local" but very upbeat and often simply very nice.  Across the narrows, for a short time at least things are going backwards.  They're remaking the Bai Chai waterfront all the way from the old ferry landing (new bridge = no more ferries of course) to the old tour boat harbor, what used to be an 2 kilometer long line of beach, beach restaurants, beach shops, beach rentals. . .and beachfront hotels. . .is now turning into a very long and fancy (eventually) beachfront park, enclosed with a long breakwater, and no doubt a fine thing.  Now the whole area is being cut off from view by an endless sheet metal wall covered with quite nice photographs and renderings of what someday will be there. . .maybe one year hence, there's a lot going on.  If you've been here before you'll be surprised at the changes by the time it's over.  We shall see.  Well, actually, the horse and I saw and kept going.  From there it was an easy run, 30 km or so to Cam Pha, just north on Hwy 18 out of town, no turns, no confusion and only a little dust...both dirt and coal, but more dirt I think.  Sometimes the dust here is pretty black.

Cam Pha is the first place I found really traditional Vietnamese boat building going forward, back in 2005.  I've been back every year since.  I've seen the old man who kept the place going, building a boat or two every six weeks or so with a small gang of men. . .saw him move on or die. Then a year later younger man came and tried to make a go of it on the same site but he built two boats on speculation in 2008 and they didn't sell and he left.  Another bright young fellow started a separate building site and set up a small sawmill as well and he's kept going, though a year ago I wrote the obituary for the place.  It was down to building a really bad boat with a one man crew at one end of the beach and a raft for a floating restaurant at the other end.  It seemed the end.  So this year I expected to find the place's gravestone growing flowers and was delighted to find things are moving again, after a fashion.  There are three creditable old style (well, almost anyway) fishing boats on the building sites at various stages of completion and two larger boats (identical twins) lying on he foreshore waiting on money for their motors.  It could be a lot worse.  There are still too many little houses. . .shacks I guess taking up space where they used to build boats, and there's no big gang of men building a boat every month or so. . .just a few fellows keeping it going at both ends of the beach, but still.

One of the bright spots of the place has been the growing little family of the young lady with the beer and soda pop stand and her husband the partly-albino boatbuilder.  They're simply a cute couple, and they've kept me in a steady supply of cute new children every few years, kids to photograph  and keep track of as they grow.  This year as soon as I got off the horse and walked on the site someone called out for the young mom and her man.  They popped out of one of the tiny shacks . .she, with her newest son in hand. . .all three months of him.  Well!  Congratulations and admiration of course (they were so obviously proud of the little guy, complete with all the required fingers, toes and male equipment. . .) and I took the obligatory photographs even though this baby is still small enough she can hold him up clear in front of her face. . .which makes it much harder to get a good Mom and Baby portrait. . .all you get is a kid and his mom's ear and a bit of hair. . .but I'm persistent, so the event is documented after a fashion.  But then she stepped up and put him in my arms!  This has never happened in Viet Nam.  Heck, it doesn't happen anywhere very often!  People I know just don't go around having babies and then handing them to me.  This one is one cool kid.  He didn't mind a bit, and after we got used to each other a while I walked him and jiggled him and patted him on the back and the whole neighborhood commented in loud voices and cheered us on.  He didn't pee OR burp on me either.  What a kid!  When I gave him back (I'd almost gotten used to it. . .could be catching I think) he grabbed my little finger with a fine manly grip and held on tight.  Okay, I admit I GAVE him the finger, but he really did hold on and wiggled it back and forth firmly.  Three months old by golly.  Just right.

Well, there was a big lunch later (I'd had to claim I was full to avoid taking the last of their lunch) at a little hole in the wall I like and a fine back rub at the municipal hot springs, and a ride back through the valley with the traffic and the limestone cliffs and much later a small bowl of noodles (it was a BIG lunch) and later still a hot tea with sweet milk while I worked on the journal.  That sort of day.

And that was just Friday!  Today happened too, and in the context of farm houses it was a complete bust. . .but it was a visit to something I didn't think existed. . .a going business building the traditional local woven basket boats (the ugly, black, squared off things that swarm into every seascape around here these days. . .).  Ugly they may be, but that's only skin deep, or in this case, only "frame" deep.  They're enormous baskets that are really quite nicely shaped, waterproofed with tar (nice black ugly tar) and then framed in with herky timberwork to the point you often can't even see the basket underneath.  But they are cheap and they work and the people love them.  There's hardly any other sort of small boat around these parts.  They work under oars or little diesel engines and they do any water-job there is to do.  I've never found a shop making them on a production basis before and had come to believe they were purely an owner-operator-builder sort of thing since a lot of people do build them in their back yards. . .or alongside the road or wherever.  So when I asked Ms. Cuc to try to help me tie down the history (when they really first turned up around here) she came up with today.  I still don't really know when they turned up around Halong Bay but I have a historical reference to check out that would put it back in. . .er. . .something like AD 800.  H'mm.  Well, they ARE a traditional boat style.  You'll have to check the boat website or maybe the book to get all the details, but I'll put some photos here too.
Nearly ready for caulking, the carpentry is all finished unless she gets a cabin, which a lot of these don't.  This is a fairly presentable job of building, the typical dreadful wood, full of splits and knot holes, but they work with that.  The fastenings are all black forged iron, and they'll rust in no time. . .she'll be nail sick in ten years, fifteen at the best.  At twenty she'll either be completely rebuilt or pulled apart and used for firewood. . .depending.  Or, that's how it would have gone in the past.  With the changing government regulations she may have a short life indeed.  Things are a-changing in the Vietnamese fishing fleet, though I think a lot of the fishermen don't know it yet.  

These have been the stock in trade of the second yard for the past six years at least, dead flat bottomed up to the bow, which has a lot of V worked into it.  They're a little better built and on a different structural system than the traditional boats.  These don't have their machinery yet (and one of course hasn't been painted either.  You can see how the checks and knots are dealt with, caulked and puttied just like the regular seams.  It works, even with really poor wood.

Almost the traditional style, or what it has evolved to in the past ten years.  Now a separate timber for the stem (though the stern is still built traditionally) and the flat bottom is much wider now, making a more burdensome boat for her length. Her central plank is narrower and thicker now than the older boats were, perhaps to take the bolts that hold her separate stem.  

Come on Mom, get out from behind that kid. . .

That's it?  well, I guess it's a portrait. . .and, yes, he's a boy.  Beats the heck out of wet diapers.

The little sawmill is doing well though, lots of squared off inventory and lots of sawdust. . .and a couple of logs you'll get real planks from.  He saws for his own boats but also sells lumber to house builders and other boat yards.

Ugly squared off black tar coated. . .boats.  Life is better when Mom takes you to work with her.

The little gal in the yellow shirt kept waving at me to walk down the rocks and go for a ride.  I kept trying to catch her at it.  Dang.  She's fast and I'm. . .not.  The brightly newly painted little boat could easily be a twin of the boats in Cam Pha, though this style is built all around the region.  From the shelter and the "goal posts" which help with hanging laundry as well as fishing gear and serve as a way to extend the living space under tarps in foul weather, I'd think she's probably a young couple's home and business.

She'll float off within the hour.  She's rough, but perfectly serviceable.  This is not a rich man's boat, but a pretty good little fisherman. . .rigged for pushing a net ahead (the two red poles rest on the crossbar back of her bow and she shoves a sock shaped net along ahead of her, picking up anything that swims (or floats) in the top few feet of the sea.  

There's both of the little gals at once.  I just almost caught her waving that time, thought I'd done it until I looked at the photo.  Sigh.

Just before the cracking sound.  They knew they were close to too high out of the water, trying to get to the ice house dock at high water and having to squeeze under the bridge I'm standing on.  I've now figured out that they'd been filling those barrels on deck with water (hence the deck hose still pumping the sea back into itself forward) but they hadn't loaded her down quite enough and as the foredeck man waved the skipper back (too late) and the bow slipped slowly under the bridge the cracking sound made it clear he'd gotten it wrong.  They rolled another couple of barrels and a plastic box out on deck, did a turn around the bay filling them up and slipped under easily the second try.  Too bad about the mast.

Mr. Tran Van Diep, serious builder of basket boats, with a true woven bamboo boat almost ready to go out the door.  This one is a rowing boat, no motor, intended for hauling tourists around, though it would serve well with a few changes as a fishing boat as well.  

One of the smallest sort, pure rowing boat, keeping company with an old tar barrel.  H'mm.

Oops.  I'd thought using copper wire went out fifteen years ago, and here's some on a brand new boat from one of the biggest builders around. Dang.

Ms. Cuc, my superlative guide and Mr Diep,  That's his modern impression of the traditional hole in the ground for forming the baskets in.  this is much easier--you can stand to your work and it's much cleaner.  The mold itself is concrete and masonry blocks, the sand is added and troweled to a fine finish to adjust the mold to produce smaller hulls as required.  The bamboo stays clean. . .Oh. . .how it's done. . .the basketry is first woven flat on the ground, a mat big enough to turn into a boat if/when it's forced down into a hole in the ground.  Once there and in the right shape, the rim is lashed all around tightly, usually (or often anyway) with really heavy monofilament fishing line.  These boats use copper wire, which I thought had gone out of use in the 1990's.  H'mm.  Anyway, with the rim lashed on the excess basketry is trimmed off, the thing is tarred and you have a boat.  A floppy boat, but that's where all the timber framing comes in.

The Diep family home.  This is not a traditional house, but a very popular style in the prosperous countryside.

Oh look, Mountains!! and that may be a farmhouse on the right!  I'm staying on course, really, I am. . .er.. .

Tar anyone?  

And this is a fiberglass hull pulled out of the same mold as a bamboo hull. . .much lighter and expected to last a very long time, it will cost less than twice as much as the bamboo model the same size, which will only last ten years.  Fishermen do not like their lighter weight, though I didn't understand quite why. . .the heavier boat may be steadier at sea.  A rowing taxi-driver would certainly enjoy the lighter hull though.  Time will tell.  Bamboo is still plentiful!

Full interior framing, a traditional boat.

Chinese engines, very inexpensive, 10 kw and 15.   Lots of pig iron, they're a two-man job to pick up!

I'm not sure how the mold photo got clear back here. . .Blogger and I don't always agree about such things, but this makes it clear how the thing is done.  

And with that I bid you good night.  Tomorrow's a day on the road, on North a little further, then inland and beginning the trek westward.  No more dates to keep, we're on our own now.

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