Thursday, July 4, 2013

Life in a Bamboo Basket: The Vietnamese Thung Chai

Mr. Hung and his Thung Chai
I woke up this morning at 3a.m. I put on my shoes, grabed my camera and ran to the beach by moonlight. I knew I was already late. On the water I could see the dark circles moving from the beach. "Mr. Hung!" I yelled. One turned around just in time to let me slosh into the sea and flop over its rocking edge. This was Mr. Hung and his Thung Chai, a woven bamboo basket boat, ready to start another day fishing under the stars on the Vietnam coast.

Careful hands weave a good net
My first days in Vietnam were learning from Hung just outside Hoi An. We would fish, repair and maintain his boat, and repair the kilometer long net that he drifts into his homewaters every early morning, pulling the fish in as the sun rises. The woven bamboo vessel, found throughout Vietnam in different shapes and sizes (more posts to come), is made from centermeter or so wide strips with a bamboo circular gunnel. It is coated for waterproofing in a variety of materials. Hung showed me how he applies a coconut based oil-tar. Sometimes cow dung is used while today fibreglass is becoming popular. Whatever works is the way.

Sunrise fishing. Cham Islands in the background
Paddling the Thung Chai is much like sculling an Inuit kayak. The long thin blade (also much like that of Greenland) is moved side to side patiently in the water on the side of the boat in which you are trying to go. My first attempts simply moved us in circles. Then I watched as Hung moved it, as if dancing, flipping the paddle side to side in an arch, bringing the paddle facing edge forward after each movement, all while balancing standing in the waves. The balance of strength in the strokes turns the vessel.

A basket full of one's needs
A small group of men go out fishing, each with their own vessel. I can't see their faces until the sun is up, but I already know them through their voices, passing the time with soft conversation and a bit of serene singing. It is a community of fisherman, each helping the others with their boats, observing the others catch, making the time pass easier for all. I don't speak Vietnamese, nor they English, but over time, Hung and I figure out a few things about each other and enjoy the moment. We pull fish from the net. one by one. Thats communication enough.

Lifting to shore
With the occasional swim, afternoons means repairing nets and relaxing from the sun. Hung and I sit under a tarp in his beached Thung Chai as he shows me with patience how to repair holes made by fish or the ocean bottom. We have everything we need here. Shelter, water, a bit of food, something to do. The hours pass. Now and then a motor boat rides by. Hung shakes his head in disapproval. "Hung thung chai, no motor!" he makes the movement of paddling with a big smile on his face. Thats enough for him.

Friends after a day fishing

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