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Getting his sea legs

(No.4, Vol.7,Aug-Sep 2017 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)


Mr Ken Preston


A fishing boat on the beach of Sam Son City, Thanh Hoa Province, 2010


A big ‘Thailand boat’, a seiner working anchovies on overnight trips, Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, 2013


A boat on Xuan Hai Beach, near Quy Nhon City, Binh Dinh Province, 2013


A sailing boat on Halong Bay, effectively extinct in the 1990s because of the appearance of modern motor fishing boats


Last month, I received a call to introduce me to an American man, Ken Preston. His passion is Vietnamese fishing boats. A publishing house is currently translating his book to Vietnamese. The book is the result of 12 years in Vietnam taking photos and carefully recording the building technique of the wooden fishing boats.
Boats reminded me of my childhood when my family was living on the Tau Hu Channel in Saigon in the 1990s. In those days, the channel was crowded with a lot of boats transporting goods from other provinces to Saigon for trading. I loved to watch the boats and listen to the sound of waves every time a boat passed by on the water. The sound of waves hitting the river’s sides was so nice and relaxing. And I remembered the voice of peddlers rowing small boats full of fruits and vegetables. Now, the channel is so different and those images can be found only in my mind. Overwhelmed by feelings of nostalgia, I contacted Ken Preston to find out more information about his story.
Born in 1946, the oldest of four children of an American Air Force officer, he had an admiration of boats as a youngster. He joined in the US Army early in 1969 and was sent to Vietnam in 1971. Here, he made a great many Vietnamese friends, learned to speak a little of the language and love Vietnamese food. At that time, he saw Vietnamese wooden fishing boats on weekend vacations in Vung Tau and Can Tho, but did not know much about them. Returing home in 1972, he became a fisherman and then a worker constructing bridges for many years. Always, working on the waterfront, he saw his favourite thing – boats.
In 2004, he saw a travel poster advertising vacations in Nha Trang, which showed a blue sea and white sandy beach in the background with two bright blue Vietnamese fishing boats. Knowing the fate of American wooden fishing boats and fearing that a similar fate awaited the Vietnamese fleet, he was determined to document those boats before they too disappeared. ‘In America, the wooden boats have largely disappeared and been replaced by steel, aluminium or fiberglass boats. Some of those modern boats are fine working vessels, but they are usually quite "industrial" and lack the grace and beauty of many traditional wooden working boats’, he said.
He added ‘Today, the Vietnamese fishing boat is larger, much more powerful, (is) designed to use larger engines and stay at sea longer. Vietnamese boats come in a wide variety of sizes and design types from province to province. Especially, the unique traditional wooden boats without engines are found in Vietnam. They are graceful and well-shaped for the work. It is easy to fall in love with them.’
In 2005, he made the first visit to Vietnam to photograph the boats. He thought at the time that a single trip of perhaps two months would be sufficient to travel the coast and the Mekong Delta regions to take photographs he needed. However, he has made repeat trips every year for the past twelve years and taken over 1,000 photos. And the trips have not ended. He has travelled on his motorbike a total of about 70,000 kilometres all along the coast line of the country on National Highway 1A and any other roads that take him closer to the sea and follow the boats. Also, he has travelled many of the inland highways in Vietnam through the Central Highlands and the western mountains, and all along the Laos, Cambodia and Chinese borders.
Ken said ‘I've had all sorts of adventures on the road. I had some motorbike crashes and I had to deal with floods and typhoon weather on the way and terrible trails. But, it is a fabulous time that makes life worth living when finding a new species of fishing boat I hadn't seen before, meeting interesting people, admiring the beautiful landscape and tasting new dishes.’
Ken mentioned that there are few good detaied records about Vietnamese boats, including ‘Voiliers d’Indochine’ or ‘The Sailboats of Indochina’ published in Saigon in 1943 by a French technocrat, Mr J.B. Pietri, the Commissioner of Fisheries for the Indochinese government and ‘The Blue Book of Junks’ published in the early 1960’s by the United States Government. So, he is planning on many boat books with the hope that it will be a useful data source of Vietnamese wooden fishing boats in the first years of the 21st century.
He recently has finished a book in English which will be published in early 2018. The book is the result of his trips in Vietnam taking photos and researching the technique of building boats. It includes 289 photographs and captions or short essays placing the boats in time and location, with short chapters describing the designs, boat-building techniques, fishing gear and the use of woven basketry in boat construction. The book is being translated to Vietnamese by the Women’s Publishing House and will come out next year.
This foreign man is at home with many fishermen and boat building workers in the coastal villages where he went many times to take photos, learn the way to row the coracle and study the technique of building boats. This man also is known by many Vietnamese boat enthusiasts and researchers for sharing his love, his knowledge of Vietnamese traditional wooden boats, and his dreams of a maritime museum in Vietnam.
In fact, our country has many museums displaying ancient objects from shipwrecks or the occasional old boat but not yet a truly maritime one. I used to go to a maritime museum in Malacca, Malaysia. It is so interesting with a wide range of lively boat models, ancient maritime objects, and its full maritime history information.
According to many researchers, maritime history is a science which was started in European and American countries. Such countries as Japan, China, Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia also started the science years ago. However, in Vietnam, the concept of ‘maritime history’ is rather strange.
Hopefully, we will see Mr Ken’s book next year and behold his artwork on every page.


Vietnam is a coastal country with its coastline over 3,260 km, excluding large and small islands, spreading from north to south. 28 of its 63 provinces and cities are by the sea. Vietnam has a dense river system with 2,360 rivers and channels.
Many American European maritime researchers have agreed with the viewpoint of Clinton R. Edwards that Vietnam’s coastline is the place that has more different types of boats than any place in the world. Vietnamese people’s boat building techniques were very special and reached high levels of skill since ancient times.


Text by Tu Anh and photos by Ken Preston
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