|Float on: The ancient carpentry village of Kim Bong is famous as the home of workshops building fishing boats. — VNS Photo Hong Thanh
by Hong Thuy and Hong Thanh
The ancient village of Kim Bong is known for its carpentry. Along with the old town of Hoi An, it has also worked its charm on tourists and is a welcome destination for many. But Kim Bong is also famous in central Viet Nam for its centuries-old shipbuilding craft. This, however, is becoming a dying art.
Nguyen Dan, an owner of a shipyard, said the craft was born way back in the 15th century, when Kim Bong village came into existence and Hoi An was a flourishing sea port.
Shipbuilding reached its peak by the 18th century, before plunging to a low. This was because locals started looking elsewhere for jobs, rather than staying in the village to earn a livelihood.
However, things started looking up in 1996, when Hoi An was recognised as a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO. This paved the way for the restoration of Kim Bong Village and its shipbuilding craft.
In tribute to this recognition, shipbuilders of the village returned home to restore this traditional craft, using special tools and techniques that have been passed down from the 15th century.
Another shipbuilding yard owner, 50-year-old Nguyen Nhan, is an old hand at this craft, having spent 35 years working at it. He said he had spent two-thirds of his life working as a hired labourer outside the village, though he had grown up learning the shipbuilding craft and was proficient at it.
"I was overwhelmed when skilled workers in my village gathered together to build a fishing vessel. My joy knew no bounds when I heard about the restoration of the Kim Bong carpentry village," he said.
Deputy chairman of Hoi An People's Committee, Truong Van Bay, pointed out that the revival of the shipbuilding craft in Kim Bong should be prioritised.
"Through many ups and downs, the village has produced many skilled shipbuilders. In order to develop the business steadily, a favourable environment should be created for skilled workers so that they can contribute in the future too," he remarked.
With the return of the craft village, a project began in 1997-98 to develop offshore fishing. This was implemented in Quang Nam Province, including Kim Bong.
To meet the demand, more than 20 shipbuilding yards were established in the village. This attracted fishermen from central provinces, who came here to purchase off-shore fishing vessels.
Soon, fishing boats and other vessels from Kim Bong Village developed a good reputation because they were made of strong, high-quality wood. Local shipbuilders also knew the secret of assembling marine engines for fishing boats and other vessels, thereby creating low noise, smooth-running and safe ships.
"We build ships according to our customers' orders. If they like the pattern of a ship they have seen, we can produce a similar one. It is not boastful to say that the body of the fishing ships that we produce can be made curved, slanting or straight, depending on the movement of the waves," Nhan claimed.
However, the designs and procedures of making the fishing ships have to follow strict rules approved by the Centre for Fishing Ship Registration.
Nhan said he and other owners have to spend considerable time in neighbouring provinces looking for competent ship designers as no one in the village had the wherewithal to handle the task at the required standard.
Although shipbuilding takes time, getting designs and procedures approved takes shipowners many more months. The situation has forced many owners to terminate their contracts because banking interest rates would have risen to a level where they could face bankruptcy.
"For the past decade, the procedures for the approval of designs and relevant papers have aggravated local shipbuilding owners. I wonder when we will build new ships to revive the traditional craft," he said.
Under the current rules, shipyard owners must submit documents to the Centre for Fishing Ship Registration before they are permitted to build trawlers of 250HP and above. This has put many renowned shipyards in the village in trouble, forcing them to stay afloat by repairing ships, instead of building new ones.
"I think the designs of fishing ships are merely drawings, made of soulless strokes, but are bound by rules that one must obey. Our ancestors did not ever make designs in advance, but they were still able to build good ships that won accolades from everyone," Nhan stated.
Shipyard owner Dan recalled when the off-shore shipbuilding development project was launched, hundreds of ships were designed and built in the village to fill orders from fishermen in Hue, Da Nang, Quang Nam, Quang Ngai, and Binh Dinh.
His shipyard built between 10 and 15 fishing ships of 90HP each year, thereby creating jobs for hundreds of labourers.
However, in the last five years, orders have become sparse, especially from 2010.
Many shipyards have had to temporarily close shop, forcing labourers to migrate to other cities and provinces to look for jobs.
Dan's shipyard was luckier as, from 2013, it received orders to build small fishing boats and mend off-shore fishing ships.
According to shipbuilder Huynh Suong, there are only five or six shipyards running in a perfunctory way in the village. They mainly serve as a tourist attraction for those who come to visit Kim Bong Village, Suong said.
The downturn, said Dan and other owners in the village, was because of high costs and the increasing scarcity of wood to build the ships.
Additionally, high tax and cumbersome procedures created more difficulties for the builders.
Shipyard owners also face hurdles at the bank when they apply for loans. They are asked to submit designs that bear the signatures or stamps of certified engineers or entrepreneurs before they qualify for a loan.
Failure to meet these requirements has forced shipbuilders to exit the business, while customers have no alternative but to go to other places to get fishing ships built.
Commenting on the issue, Deputy Chairman of Cam Kim Commune People's Committee Huynh Kim Hung said that the requirement of a legal contract for shipbuilding had prevented shipyards from taking new orders.
"If possible, government agencies should produce a plan for the village's development," Hung said.
Chairman of the commune Phan Trong Nhan said that the popularity of the shipbuilding craft was a matter of great pride, and the revival of the Kim Bong carpentry village was a show of significant internal strength. This highlighted Da Nang Province's ability to preserve specific industry and enrich the cultural identity of Hoi An, he added.
For this reason, the commune has asked the Hoi An People's Committee to launch a loan programme to help shipbuilders purchase materials and equipment and to build a supportive infrastructure in the village to ensure its sustainable development. — VNS