600-year-old craft village makes sailboats that can travel upwind

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Made in a traditional craft village, the sailboats that can travel against streams and the wind are legendary among river workers.

Người giữ 'bí kíp' làm thuyền buồm đi ngược gió ở làng nghề hơn 600 tuổi
Artisan Le Duc Chan cherishes the sailboat models he has made.

When people ask about Mr. Chan who makes ships in Phong Hai ward (Quang Yen town, Quang Ninh), all directions lead to Cong Muong region, where the craftsman and his family live and build ships.

Le Duc Chan can speak vividly about the highs and lows of shipbuilding over the past 600 years in the hamlet where he was born.

In a soft voice, he said that this territory was known as Ha Nam Island, based on his research and that of his father. In 1434, the monarch gave instructions to a group of 17 elderly men, among them military leaders, Confucian scholars, artisans, fisherman and farmers, to sail up the Red River to the East Sea.

They rested their boat at the mouth of the Bach Dang River in Yen Hung district (now Quang Yen town). When they heard frogs croaking in the morning, even though the location was bordered by saline water, they understood that the place had fresh water.

Người giữ 'bí kíp' làm thuyền buồm đi ngược gió ở làng nghề hơn 600 tuổi
The “upwind” sailboat on the Chanh River.

The elderly folks, seeing that this was a favorable location for both living and doing business, began encroaching on the sea to create the foundation for the future Ha Nam land. Fishermen and seafood producers thrived in this area because of the abundance of fish and shrimp, and the mild Chanh River.

As a result, everyone received instruction on how to construct wooden boats. Since then, the island of Ha Nam has developed a tradition of making wooden boats. Three-beaked sailboats have been around for a while. Although it’s not known when they first came into being, they have helped people build their economies and reach out to the sea.

The craft village has a shrine dedicated to the ancestors. However, after a large flood in 1955, the dyke was breached and Ha Nam Island was submerged, wiping down the ancestral church.

Chan said: “This is a traditional family profession, I am the seventh generation to continue it, and now my eight children are all doing it. They all are very experienced and can educate others who wish to learn.”

Người giữ 'bí kíp' làm thuyền buồm đi ngược gió ở làng nghề hơn 600 tuổi
Chan’s family shipyard on the banks of the Chanh River is the largest in the region, providing vocational training for many people who want to study.

He recalled the battle against the United States in the 1960s as he pointed to the Chanh River behind his house. Orders from the central government were issued to Yen Hung district to improve the service of opening the Ho Chi Minh Road at sea.

Four water transport cooperatives, Dai Thanh, Hong Phong, Phong Hai, and Bach Dang, were established. They sawed wood all night long to construct boat-building boards and supplied ships and boats to the historic transport route, notably during the VT5 battle in 1968, in order to get the cargo ships and weaponry to help the South as quickly as possible.

Sailing boats with bat-winged sails were used by Tran military leaders during the Mongol invasion by sea, according to local history in Phong Hai ward in Vietnam. It was a historic victory, and hundreds of enemy ships were destroyed at the battle of Bach Dang foothold.

The naval commanders used the sailboats to lure the Mongols into the area during their invasion, according to village history.

Wind-sailing ‘legend’

Người giữ 'bí kíp' làm thuyền buồm đi ngược gió ở làng nghề hơn 600 tuổi
Mr. Chan no longer directly builds ships but entrusts his eight children to take charge of preserving the family’s traditional profession.

Many replicas of boats can be seen in Chan’s residence. He explained how the sailboats can run downwind, across the wind, and upwind. This is due to the flexible method of fastening the sails according to wind conditions. It is a characteristic seen only in Ha Nam sailing boats.

The best wood for boatbuilding, in his opinion, is ironwood, chestnut or apitong. Drilling and then threading rattan ropes were used to join the boards because there were no screws at the time. Ruffled cloth coloured with tree bark was used to make the sail.

Only Chan and a select group of skilled village elders are able to construct these sailboats. As a result, he has taught and passed on the secret numerous times, but the new hires lacked the patience to learn it.

Former President Truong Tan Sang honored him with the Distinguished Artist of Folk Knowledge award in 2015.

Người giữ 'bí kíp' làm thuyền buồm đi ngược gió ở làng nghề hơn 600 tuổi
Mr. Chan was awarded the title of Distinguished Artisan in 2015.

A team of international researchers arrived in Quang Yen in 2016 with the purpose of studying an upwind sailing boat. He and two of his grandsons built and tested an 11m-long boat put through its paces on Chanh River for the expert team’s inspection, evoking fond memories of their glory back in the day.

“My initial strategy was to let the wind blow down and then sprint to tighten the ropes and flip the sail angle, which caused the wave-riding boat to pivot and go in an anti-wind pattern. At this point, chanting could be heard from the coast. They embraced me joyfully as I arrived at the shore, since they’d never seen anything like that before,” Chan said.

An upwind sailboat model was also constructed by Chan and given to the Quang Ninh Museum for an exhibition afterward. Passersby across the foyer can spot the boat with red sails bearing witness to a historical era of the inhabitants of the coastal area of Quang Ninh.

Người giữ 'bí kíp' làm thuyền buồm đi ngược gió ở làng nghề hơn 600 tuổi
Mr. Chan’s sailboat on display at the Quang Ninh Museum.

Chan is no longer personally involved in shipbuilding, but he has entrusted the task to his eight children. Every day, he remains in the workshop to provide guidance and instruction to the other boat builders, as well as to newcomers alike. Chan’s boatyard is the most well-known in the area. Fishermen’s boats in need of repair are brought to the Chan family for assistance.

“We need to keep the profession alive, but we also need to incorporate, update and make the most use of current skills in order to keep sailing against the wind alive. Because the village’s lengthy history is tied to its sailboats, I’m determined to preserve the traditional craft of sailboat making, which is the cradle of the village’s culture.”

“Sailors must not only preserve the profession but also use more contemporary and innovative techniques in the process of doing so. Despite this, everything must be built on a foundation of traditional craft, notably in the manufacturing of sailboats, because this is the source of the village’s long history, which I will not allow to vanish,” Chan said.

Người giữ 'bí kíp' làm thuyền buồm đi ngược gió ở làng nghề hơn 600 tuổi
The sail and the rope system are the main details that allow the boat to run against the wind, depending upon how the rope is tied.

Pham Cong

Hang Trong painting, a genre of Vietnamese woodcut paintings originating in the Old Quarter in Hanoi serves as “food for the mind”. The art form had been nearly lost, but one man is trying to preserve the traditional folk painting.

Mr. Tran Ngoc Tiep, a former information and communication officer, founded an incense factory in Thanh Liem district, in Ha Nam province, at the age of 57.

Bodhi leaves, which at first glance appear to be lifeless, become ‘storytellers’ and have even helped hundreds of people have a livelihood thanks to Mr. Hoang Thanh Phuong’s skilled hands.

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