Hitchhiking Vietnam
travel tips
Boat
"Later, I warily followed Thuy's toothless old father into an unstable three plank boat and sat as low as possible, cradling my cameras and watching a ten-year-old squish mud into the many wormholes that were welling water around our ankles. We poled down a channel barely wide enough for the boat, stopping at intervals to lift narrow walkways aside. The soupy trenches I had taken for drainage ditches were in reality waterways for these tiny, canoe-like craft. No wonder the Vietnamese had left no footprints during the war, and passed like silent wraiths under the very noses of the American sentries."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam
ABOUT BOATS IN VIETNAM
I couldn't begin to try to describe all of the different types of boats in Vietnam. They come in every size and shape, from woven baskets to cross-country ferries. You can take a small covered boat all the way down the Red River, a motorboat down the Mekong, an inter-city ferry from Haiphong to Saigon, or a little paddle boat around the harbor in Hong Gai. How can you go wrong?

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WHY
Boats are a terrific way to see the countryside - leisurely, friendly, cool, and calm.

In places like the Mekong, boats are the most efficient way to get around.

Unlike buses and trains, you can sit outside. Unlike bicycles, you don't have to pedal.
WHY NOT
Sometimes they sink.

Sometimes they tip. Then they sink

If they haven't tipped or sunk, they will probably break down at least twice.

They move only slightly faster than a water buffalo.

Going to the bathroom usually means baring your bottom and hanging it over the stern.

SURVIVAL TIPS
On any small boat, wrap your gear in dry bags. Rain and splashing can do as much damage as sinking.

Watch out for theft, especially on the ferries.

Avoid the tourist boats around My Tho. They are hugely expensive and will try to pull a number of scams on you, like making unscheduled stops at various islands along the way and then surcharging you.

Those little three-plank boats will go over if you shift your chewing gum to the other side of your mouth.

YOUR ITINERARY
The Mekong begs to be seen by boat. This is easy enough to do, either through a package tour or by traveling to any of the larger towns or cities along its banks and flagging down a ride. Try to stay off the tourist boats - they are expensive.

The ferry from Haiphong/Hanoi to Saigon takes about a week and costs about ten dollars.

Rent a small motorboat when you're in Halong Bay. The karst islands are stunning.

You can take a bus/train/truck up into the Tonkinese Alps and take a slow boat back to Hanoi along the Red River. You may be able to talk your way onto one of the fishing trawlers in Nha Trang and nearby harbors. They tend to go out for 3 -10 days. They have several superstitions against taking women on board (especially menstruating women, though God knows how they think they can tell...)


"The canal, barely twenty feet wide, was strewn with gossamer gillnets dangling from crudely hacked poles. A bottle with a stub of candle hung here and there to warn off nighttime traffic in a land that traveled by water. I imagined returning home in the evening to the song of crickets and the rhythmic whisper of the pole, guided by flickering candlelight in thick green bottles, and it seemed the most poetic place in the world.

Then we turned the corner and ran smack into a row of outhouses the size of packing crates, all built over the water. One was occupied, its owner plainly visible from the hips up. A few feet away a clutch of women stooped over the river's edge, washing cabbage for their evening meal. We paddled on."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam
THE MECHANICS OF IT ALL
You will often come across motorized boats with ten-foot, unsupported propeller shafts. They look (and are) extremely awkward to handle (turning the boat around can be almost impossible in a narrow canal). Before you give in to the urge to take a hacksaw to the shaft, understand that the engine has a much more important purpose than ferrying you around.

When it comes time to fill the rice paddy the engine is removed from the boat (which has a very shallow draft so that it can maneuver through the flooded fields) and set up on a tripod near a break in the dike. The shaft is inserted in a long plastic tube set up across the dike. The propeller effectively draws water up through the tube into the higher field (it can similarly be used to drain paddy). The alternative to this method is to scoop the water by hand from one paddy to the next - a backbreaking job.

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