A veteran Vietnamese engineer in shipbuilding called for the establishment of a national museum dedicated to the country’s long-standing maritime tradition, which is also an American author/photographer’s persistent pursuit.
Engineer Do Thai Binh, a member of the Vietnam Oceanography Association, wrote to Tuoi Tre (Youth) Newspaper regarding a recurring question that why Vietnam, a country with a notable seafaring history, has yet to build a museum devoted to the tradition.
Binh said the question has been put forward multiple times by local researchers and ethnologists including Ph.D. holder Tran Duc Anh Son, Dang Nghiem Van, Ngo Duc Thinh and Nguyen Duy Thieu.
A number of foreign researchers have also expressed noted interest in the issue, he added.
One of them is veteran American author/photographer Ken Preston, a successor of John Doney- another American who was infatuated with Vietnamese wooden boats and founded a fund called “Vietnam Wooden Boat Foundation.”
The fund is dedicated to preserving the Southeast Asian country’s glorious maritime past.
Doney was killed in a car accident in the U.S. in 2009, but his artifacts brought over from Vietnam such as round fishing boats and traditional boats from Vietnam’s Thua Thien- Hue Province are still being preserved at a center housed in Townsend Harbor in Massachusetts.
Ken Preston spent two years roaming Vietnam on his Minsk motorbike and taking over 1,000 photos of Vietnamese boats starting in 2005.
Preston, now 69, first visited Vietnam briefly in his 20s, which was followed by his longer visits later, Binh said.
The elderly author, who shared he can speak around 500 Vietnamese words, just returned to his beloved country in December last year to seek answers to the persistent issue of a Vietnamese museum.
“I think it’s time that a national maritime museum be established in Vietnam, where, in my visualization, will be home to a wide array of the country’s yachts and row boats and a traditional shipbuilding firm. The museum will be Vietnamese people’s major source of pride and also provide the resources based on which foreigners can do extensive research,” Preston also wrote in one of his recent letters. He chaired a seminar which addressed the issue in greater depth in Hoi An City in the central province of Quang Nam in mid December last year.
Learning of Preston’s trip to Vietnam this time, boat enthusiasts, researchers and students from Ho Chi Minh City and other cities and provinces flocked to see him in Hoi An.
The elderly man also travelled from one province to another in Vietnam on his weather-beaten bike.
Preston has visited Vietnam and two neighboring countries on a regular basis in the past 10 years.
All his records during the trips are posted on his blog called “Boats and Rice” and published in his several photo books on Vietnamese vessels.
Ken shared the sight of a foreigner riding a motorbike to local fishing villages, taking photos of them and trying to find out about Vietnamese boats was quite uncommon almost 20 years ago.
His actions met with locals’ suspicion, but gradually won their trust with his sincerity and passion about Vietnamese vessels.
Preston edited the English version of “Voiliers d’Indochine” (Yachts in Indochina,) a classic late-colonial account of Vietnamese ships and junks by J.B. Pietri - Controller of Fishing of Indochina- which was published in 1943.
'Predecessors' of a national maritime museum
Binh observed though Vietnam has yet to establish a comprehensive, systematic maritime museum, museums across the country do boast maritime elements.
Such elements can be easily found in Hai Phong Navy Museum, Nha Trang Oceanography Institute’s Sea Creature Museum, and massive antique collections from aquatic excavations currently housed in provincial museums.
Binh urged that current museums which boast maritime elements, and maritime-related agencies and firms strive to retain as much as possible of what’s left of the historic vessels.
The engineer concluded his writing with a suggestion put forward by Nguyen Tien Thua, a lecturer at University of Da Nang located in the central city of Da Nang, which also offers training in shipbuilding.
Thua proposed that while we have yet to build age-old vessels, we can still sketch them based on witnesses’ accounts, leftover artifacts, and similar components found in currently used boats by making use of hi-end software to create a virtual library.
The records in that virtual library will be of vital help to our reconstruction of the vessels when we’re fully capable of.
Thua and his students have embarked on such a project by meticulously sketching a “ghe nang” (a special type of traditional boats) before it is brought over to a museum in Hoi An City.
The Vietnamese edition of the above-mentioned “Voiliers d’Indochine” (Yachts in Indochina) book, translated and compiled by Binh based on the original in French and its English version, is poised to be released in March this year.