The “Bullboats” of Phan Thiet

Before European-American settlement of the northern plains, Indians navigated the region’s rivers and streams in bullboats.

The Indians built bullboats by first cutting down the thin willow saplings that grew in abundance along the banks of the Missouri River and its tributaries. Employing axes and stout knives, craftsmen cut away the branches and leaves from the trunk of each sapling. They then weaved the pliable willow saplings together to form a bowl-shaped frame. In order to reinforce the crude frame, the Indians tied the saplings together with bison sinew. Next, they flipped the frame over. Wet bison robes, shorn of all hair, were placed over the bottom and sides of the frame and fastened with sinew to the willow saplings. The bullboat was then allowed to dry in the sun for a couple of days. Once the robes had shrunk and hardened around the frame of willows, the Indians oiled the bison leather, making the small vessel waterproof.

Bullboats found widespread use along the Missouri River; but the Indians did not travel long distances in the tiny watercraft. Instead, they often used the boats to just cross from one side of the river to the other. For example, in the early nineteenth century, the Mandan and Hidatsa had villages located on both banks of the Missouri in what is today central North Dakota. The members of those two tribes regularly kept in contact with family and friends living in villages on the far bank of the Missouri by simply jumping in a bullboat and paddling across the wide river. At popular crossing points, overturned bullboats lined both banks of the Missouri. The vessels were left at the water’s edge for the next person who needed a lift to the other side of the river.

In the 1880s, bullboats disappeared from the northern plains. The destruction of the bison herds, European-American agricultural settlement, and the confinement of the tribes to reservations delivered a knock-out blow to both the bullboat and Indian mobility. Although bullboats have not navigated the Missouri and its tributaries in over 125 years, a watercraft similar to the bullboat is still in use over 8,000 miles away in a vastly different environmental setting.

Phan Thiet is located along the south-central coast of Vietnam five hours by bus from Ho Chi Minh City. The town is famous for its seafood and its nuoc mam (fish sauce). Nuoc mam is made from fermented fish and it comes in a wide variety of colors, flavors, and consistencies. It can be dark-brown, thick, and pungent or it can be light-orange, watery, and sweet. Nuoc mam smells awful but tastes good. The Vietnamese drizzle nuoc mam on everything from pork chops to white rice. They also dip spring rolls or little morsels of meat into it.

Since the residents of Phan Thiet are dependent on the sea for their livelihoods, hundreds of dark-blue fishing boats are crammed together in the town’s tiny harbor. Still more fishing vessels are found lying on the beach along the town’s waterfront. The small, round boats on the beach are referred to in Vietnamese as “thuyen thung.” The thuyen thung resembles the Indian bullboat. But of course, the thuyen thung is not made from bison robes and willow saplings.

Vietnamese boat builders use the materials available within the local environment to construct the thuyen thung. Men weave dried palm thatch together to form the hull and sides of the thuyen thung. After they complete the frame, a heavy, dark lacquer is applied to the outside of the vessel to waterproof it. A completed thuyen thung looks a lot like a big woven basket.

The thuyen thung is a fishing boat. The Vietnamese use it in the shallow waters immediately off the Vietnamese coast and in the numerous estuaries bordering the South China Sea. Fishers do not take the boat too far from the shoreline because of the dangers that lurk on the high seas, especially sudden storms and big waves.

The Vietnamese consider the thuyen thung a top-notch fishing vessel because it displaces very little water, is virtually unsinkable, rides atop the swells, and allows fishermen to approach schools of fish in silence.

Ten years ago, the thatch and lacquer thuyen thung dominated the seas off Vietnam. Today, an increasing number of thuyen thung are made out of fiberglass. The synthetic boat is more durable than the older version. However, the new boat lacks the simple beauty, rustic charm, and attention-to-detail visible in the woven thuyen thung. Sadly, the old-style thuyen thung will probably not survive Vietnam’s fervent embrace of capitalism and modernity. In the next decade or two, it will likely meet the same fate as the Indian bullboat.

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