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Vietnam’s popular sailing junks face extinction

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Traditional wooden vessels to be banned from famous Ha Long Bay due to accidents

The name might sound trashy and inappropriate, but the vessels known as junks represent one of the most successful shipbuilding designs in maritime history.

Ingenious, versatile and dating as far back as second-century China, the half-watermelon shape of the junks ensures their stability in cyclone-prone seas. The keelless hull gives them access to rivers, while bulkheads create watertight compartments sailors can use to repair leaks at sea. And their curved sails redirect wind into each other to make junks as fast as … the wind.

Junks with motors are still used for fishing in parts of China and Japan, for sightseeing in Hong Kong, and cruising in Cambodia and Vietnam. But after a series of fatal accidents in Vietnam, including a 2011 tragedy that cost 12 lives when a boat broke in half, the country’s Quang Ninh Provincial Transport Department that administers Ha Long Bay, a scenic tourist destination in the northeast, announced in 2016 it would phase out passenger junks within five years. The deadline was extended with a two-year grace period during the pandemic but will come into play at the end of this year.

To learn more about Vietnamese junks before they disappear, I traveled to Ha Long Bay to meet Nguyen Van Cuong, who owns a small fleet of the vessels.

In 1980, when Vietnam was still reeling from its recent conflict with the U.S., Cuong left his village in Ha Long Bay for compulsory military service. Afterward, he moved to the city of Haiphong on the coast and worked different jobs until the 1990s when two events coalesced to plot his future.

His first job came just as tourism was beginning in Vietnam, a trickle that he and many others predicted would grow into a storm. The second was the designation of Ha Long Bay as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 and the resulting global attention it generated. Sensing an opportunity, Cuong used his life savings to commission the construction of the Cat Ba Imperial, a resplendent 27-meter junk with four en-suite cabins and two 12-meter sails.

By 2019, a record 18 million foreign tourists visited Vietnam and Cuong’s fleet had quadrupled in size. The sector took a massive hit during the pandemic but is recovering. Vietnam is on track to welcome 8 million tourists this year.

“My junks were inspired by the little sailboats I went fishing on with my grandfather when I was a kid, the same kind of boat fishermen in Ha Long Bay still use to survive today,” said Cuong as we motored out of Ben Beo, a harbor in the southeastern corner of Cat Ba, the largest island in the bay. “They’re different from Chinese junks. Their hulls are flat-bottomed because the waters in Ha Long Bay are very calm and the rectangular shape gives them much more deck space than a curved Chinese junk.”

At first glance, the Cat Ba Imperial looks literally like junk. Bits of paint are peeling off here and there. Some of the wood has rotted, while there are rust spots on the metal railings. But what the vessel lacks in finesse she compensates with character and beautiful handmade features. Brass lanterns light up the deck at night, ornamental handcrafted woodwork line the eaves and the ancient Vietnamese symbol for longevity is carved into window frames and cabin doors.

On the tip of the bow, a circular teak staircase leads to the observation deck where I lie on a sun lounge and watch in awe as the natural scenery of Ha Long Bay unfolds before my eyes — jade-green mountains, clusters of conical peaks, and karst towers capped with jungle stretch as far as the eye can see.

A sailor appears on the observation deck and raises the sails that have been dyed crimson with tannins to protect the cotton fibers from mold. Fluttering in the wind, they create a picture of old-world splendor and charm that captures the attention of every single tourist in a modern white metal cruise ship that passes by. The end of junks will not only limit cruising options on Ha Long Bay, it will make the views less colorful for all and sundry.

I ask Cuong about the irony of the longevity symbol stamped all over his boat in the face of the impending ban. “Yes, it’s sad. This will be the last generation of wooden yachts in Vietnam,” he said.

“Those junks that sank, they were badly designed. The owners were greedy. They added two or sometimes three stories on the deck of their boats to squeeze in more cabins. But the hulls weren’t big enough to support the weight. All it took was one big wave and down they went. Flat-bottomed junks should only have one level, like my boat,” he explained.

“You’d think the government would support us because junks are not just about money. They’re part of our history, our culture, a symbol of who we are.” It is hard to disagree. I have sailed on wooden yachts in the Maldives, Indonesia, Tasmania and New Zealand, but I have never seen a more photogenic marriage of wood and water than the junks of Ha Long Bay.

After two days at sea, I return to the mainland and visit Ang Hang, the boatyard where the Cat Ba Imperial is hauled out of the water twice a year for servicing. Located in the shipbuilding hub of Ha Long city on the coast, the business is named after the owner’s daughter who is the company’s bookkeeper. “I didn’t choose this job. The stars in the sky choose it for me,” said Guyen Dinh Chuong. “My family has been building wooden boats for six or seven generations.”

Chuong takes me on a tour of his ramshackle yard. Old bits of wood and metal scrapings are strewn all over the ground, congealed by years of sawdust and rain. I see half a dozen men use high-pressure hoses to strip barnacles from a style of fishing boat known as the Ha Long Bay square head, a local variation of the Chinese junk, with a pilothouse in place of a sailing rig.

I ask Choung why he thinks so many junks in Ha Long Bay gained a bad reputation.

“They were cheap backpacker boats that weren’t serviced regularly, and the people working on them knew nothing about junks,” he replied, mirroring Cuong’s point of view. “When the fires started or the boats began taking in water, they didn’t know what to do. They jumped overboard to save themselves. They left passengers to their doom.”

But one tragedy should not create another, Chuong laments, adding, “It will be sad to see the junks go because they’re a part of our tradition.”

By Ian Lloyd Neubauer – Nikkei Asia – August 12, 2023

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