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Reflections on the Vietnamese Bamboo Coracle: China Beach, Vietnam

The stars were smothered - not by any one visible cloud but by a uniform blanket made known by the complete lack of light. The past two mornings at the same hour the stars were brilliant, the moon crisp, the light from them both turning the ocean a knowing silvery gray. The beach was populated with people still winding down from the night-long Young Communist gathering. Music from the police compound where the festivities took place was so loud as to pump through my blood. Dark figures were scattered across the beach laughing, eating and swimming in the cottony blackness of early morning.

We walked down to the circular bamboo boats looking for Thanh, the fisherman we had befriended. His wife appeared, her tiny body emerging from the surrounding night, to tell us that he would arrive soon. We sat down in the sand to wait, and I wiped the sleep from my eyes tiredly. Rest had been difficult with the night-long music and laughter from the Young Communist festivities. I read in the newspaper that a group of Young Communists from France had flown to Vietnam to show their support for the occasion. I wondered what exactly was involved in being a member of the Young Communists.

I looked out on the horizon trying to divine how the sun would rise. Each day it was as different and intricate as a human fingerprint. Some days the horizon was aflame with orange, burning into red and pink as the sun rose. Other times the moon held its ground, keeping half the beach in the dark, letting the sun know that day was not to come quickly or easily. The clouds varied - fluffy, hovering, smudged, undefined - the possibilities infinite. The ocean kept pace with the clouds: one day waves choppily slapping at the bamboo boat, throwing it around like a rubber duck in a child's bath water, while the next the waves are no more than minute ruffles.

Thanh arrived, his white teeth walking through the night like the grin of the Cheshire cat. He is half my size with sinewy legs and a small muscular body. After greeting we began to push the bamboo coracle into the ocean. Leg-deep, we all hopped in, the successive weight causing the boat to tilt wildly. Thanh took the singular oar in his calloused hands, and paddled us towards the horizon.

Sitting cross-legged on the bamboo palate in the center of the small boat, I leaned over the edge to catch sight of the oar plying the waters, a trail of emerald phosphorescent following behind. Mesmerized, I watched the oar move in large round U leaving glittering trails with each thrust. Thanh stood flat-footed on the bamboo, legs like roots. Then he motioned for my husband Isaac to take over. Isaac had been practicing for three days to learn the proper technique for paddling. The oar was attached to the boat at its midpoint which caused it to act as both an oar and a catapult depending on the rowers’ skill level. A novice rower could easily be flipped over the side of the bobbing boat. We slowly moved in the direction of another group of bamboo boats.

Thanh motioned to me and pointed to the oar. I stood up, my body feeling huge and awkward next to his tiny one. I took hold of the thick bamboo oar, and Isaac simultaneously hooked his fingers through my belt loop to prevent me from being catapulted into the water. I rowed in a figure-eight, then from side to side, the boat spinning around in circles, me laughing. Thanh got up and put his calloused hands over mine, showing me how to grip the oar properly. Then he moved it in a U-shape, propelling the boat forward. I gave it a try on my own, sometimes moving towards the shore, others towards the horizon.

Isaac took the oar again as Thanh yelled greetings to another fisherman and gestured to Isaac to row over. The dark boats kissed and Thanh pulled out two cigarettes, giving one to his friend. The lighter changed hands, and with a few words the boats parted, the lighted cigarette floating out into the dark morning almost as if unconnected to the figures holding them.

Thanh began rowing again, heading in the direction of his squid bait marked by Styrofoam squares off in the distance. Once there he pulled a spool of fishing line from under the bamboo platform. Attached to the end was a weight with a circular spray of fishing hooks. He dropped it over the edge, jerking it sharply as it sank. No luck. We moved to the second Styrofoam block, Thanh repeating his actions. After a minute he excitedly pointed to the line, pulling the translucent body out of the water. The squid spurted water and ink, desperately trying to propel itself away. Thanh held it proudly, the squids iridescent eye looking out accusingly, its body filled with water moving up and down with the pumping of its breath. He threw it in a woven basket and started paddling off to the next Styrofoam block.

The rest of the morning produced no more squid, making me think that the 20 or so larger boats on the horizon had gobbled everything up. Thanh told us that every other day he catches no fish or squid. Our three outings with him produced respectively: 30 small palm-sized fish, 2 fish and 1 squid. One has to wonder if his fishing trips prove economical or if he is living out a rich tradition that is meaningful but no longer economically feasible for those who carry out the ritual each day.

Thanh paddled to shore, the boat moving swiftly through the clear, unruffled waters. Once near, we all jumped out and pushed the boat onto the sand. Isaac and Thanh attached a large bamboo pole to the ropes on the side of the boat and hoisted the pole to their shoulders. Thanh's 15-year-old daughter and I grabbed the sides to help lift it off the ground. The boat sitting in its place on the sand, we shook hands and Thanh invited us to his house to eat the solitary squid for lunch.

By Alice Driver

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