Traditional wooden boat makers face a hard time staying afloat

Update: October, 15/2021 - 09:02

The number of skilled boat makers in Bà Đài Village is dropping. — VNA/VNS Photo An Nhựt 

ĐỒNG THÁP — Bà Đài Village's wooden boat industry was recognised in 2015 as an important cultural heritage of Việt Nam, but now the 100-year-old tradition is under threat from a double whammy of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its heyday, the village had over 150 households and business establishments in the boat building business, creating jobs for more than 1,000 workers.

Traditionally local boat makers built the Xuồng Cui boats, a type of small wooden boats used to travel and catch fish in canals in the Củu Long Delta region.

More recently they have diversified their production to supply customers in neighbouring provinces of Cần Thơ, An Giang, Kiên Giang and Vĩnh Long with different kinds of boats. These boats are in particular demand during the flood season between July to October of the Lunar calendar.

However, in recent years the floodwater from upstream has been low and late, leading to a fall in demand. This is forcing many households and business establishments away from traditional boating jobs.

This year the village only had 80 households and establishments that continue traditional boat production.

Võ Văn Bé Mười, who has 35 years of experience making wooden boats, said: “In the past, the flood water brought an abundance of fish and shrimps. Bà Đài wooden boats were the first choice for fishing in canals.”

“To meet the needs of customers, we had to work even in the evenings. The village was always crowded and busy, all day,” Mười said.

“Gradually, the market shrank. The wooden boats had to compete with composite boats. Although I was very sad, I had to quit my family job," he said.

This year, after nearly three months of social distancing and pandemic control measures, only about 20 boatbuilding households came back to production.

However, problems in production and consumption persist. Trần Thị Bé Năm, an owner of a boat building workshop, said that this year’s consumption dropped by 70 per cent against last year.

“Since the beginning of the flood season, I had only received orders of 100 boats from Bến Tre Province but so far I was not able to deliver the boats to the customers because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bé said.

Accessing raw materials is proving difficult as restricted travel between provinces is leading to a shortage of timber. 

According to local boat makers, the price of Bà Đài boats has not changed for many years.

The price of a 1-1.4m wide boat ranges from VNĐ1.3 million to VNĐ2.1 million (US$57-92). At this price, the seller's profit is less than VNĐ100,000 (US$4.4) for a boat.

Due to low floodwaters, COVID-19 restrictions and a lack of profitability, many traditional boat-makers are trying to diversify their appeal while preserving their traditional occupation. Some have begun producing produced miniature boats as souvenirs to sell in tourism sites, in the hopes tourists will be welcomed back soon. — VNS