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If you’re travelling the Mekong Delta or perhaps exploring the coast, you will spot these little round boats all over Vietnam. Taking a trip on one has been likened to riding a fairground waltzer, and these small circular vessels may look like a whirlwind of fun, but they were created out of necessity and have an interesting backstory.
These vessels – thung chai – were ingeniously created by Vietnamese fishing folk in order to escape the hefty boat tax imposed during French colonial rule in the late 1800s.
Made from bamboo using traditional weaving practices, the fishers were able to effectively argue their way out of paying the tax by claiming the craft was merely a basket, and therefore could not be taxed as a boat.
Since then, the traditional woven thung chai is still a common fixture along the waterways of Vietnam, and there’s no shortage of tours offering eco-expeditions. So if you’re looking for an authentic escapade or two, make sure to include this on your itinerary.
Highly convenient for a multitude of reasons, the boats’ size and lightness make them easy to transport. Created using natural materials such as sustainable young bamboo and waterproof resin made from coconut oil, their impact on the environment and cost to run is negligible. It’s clear to see why the thung chai is still popular today.
Modern versions of these boats have been developed over the years, and you will also notice fibreglass iterations along the coast, sporting small motors to help when fishing out at sea.
Owing to their domed, circular shape (an impressive feat of engineering), these lightweight boats are quite tricky to master and have a natural propensity to spin in circles. But find an experienced rower and you’re in for a fun time – and after all, embracing the local cultural practices is one of the joys of travelling.