Boat racers in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta upgrade their composite boats with extra powerful outboard motors and propeller blades to be out in the competition in Can Tho City’s Vo Lai Championships.
“I’ve known vo lai all my life, but the races in Can Tho are really something to talk about,” said Pham Van Tiem, a resident of Truong Long Ward, Phong Dien District, Can Tho.
'Vo lai' refers to a thin, elongated motorized boat that is popularly used for waterway transportation in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam.
Vo lai captains sit at the end of the boat and navigate the waterways using an outboard motor.
According to Tran Cong Tao, deputy director of the Center for Culture, Sports, and Radio Broadcasting of Phong Dien District, the city held vo lai races in 2018 and 2019 as a way to promote tourism.
The sport has become extremely popular with boat captains throughout the Mekong Delta eagerly awaiting the next event, scheduled for the first quarter of 2021.
An extravagant investment
Can Tho’s first composite boat championships, held in 2018, drew racers from all over the Mekong Delta, including Ca Mau, Kien Giang, Soc Trang, and Hau Giang Provinces.
For most of these races, boating is about more than competition; it is also about family.
“There are over 15 racers in my neighborhood. They’re all farmers. My sons are among them,” Tiem said, pointing to his son, Tien.
“He just had the boat ready at a garage. It’s brand new. Tomorrow he’ll get together with his partners for some practice."
In the 2018 race, Tien entered the competition with a seven-horsepower (HP) outboard motor he purchased for just VND2 million (US$87).
He then put an additional VND10 million ($435) worth of mechanical work into the boat. The boat itself was manufactured in Ca Mau Province.
Though Tien is quite well known in the local vo lai scene, his boat is not such a big deal compared to other racers.
Tran Van Thai, another vo lai captain, is not shy about admitting he has spent hundreds of millions of Vietnamese dong on the sport. (VND100 million = $4,355)
“My friend Luan and I love collecting boats and outboards,” he said.
“We farmers have to wait for several harvests to earn enough money and, if everything goes well, we’re able to buy a new boat and outboard.”
Thai currently owns six composite vo lai vessels.
“I find them in Tac Rang, Nam Can, or Giong Rieng Districts. There are so many different sizes for us to choose from,” he added.
As for Thai’s family, they fully support his hobby. After explaining that Thai does not trade his family time for his boating time, his wife, Duong Thi Be, full-heartedly says he deserves “two thumbs up.”
According to Nguyen Van Hong, a well-known 'vo lai' collector in Truong Long Ward, Phong Dien District, “anyone who wants to break into boating has to spend quite a bit.”
“I myself have been doing this for more than ten years and own over 40 boats. It has cost me a billion dong [$43,200],” he said, explaining that his uncle in the U.S. finances part of his hobby and even brings back boating accessories from America to Vietnam for Hong when he visits.
Some of Hong's outboard motors are 7PH, others are 13HP.
“The racers in Ca Mau are all intimidated by me,” Hong laughed.
|Two vo lai racers in Phong Dien District, Can Tho City prepare to practice along a local canal. Photo: Chi Cong / Tuoi Tre|
A dangerous game
Racers often gather at the HK9 canal in Dinh Phong District, Can Tho to prepare for races and show off their flair.
According to racer Pham Van Giang, the canal is wide, sees little traffic, and is shielded from wind, making it a prime spot for vo lai racing.
Giang says that it takes only three steps to turn a 6HP Honda outboard into an impressive composite boat.
Mechanics first dismantle the motor and widen the pistols, then change the gas tank and add a gas pump. Finally, they cut off the smoke pipe and enhance the sound of the machine.
“It’s done the same way everywhere. A Honda outboard of 6HP can normally run at only 30-40km per hour [depending on the weight of the boat and the racer], but after an upgrade it can reach 60-80km per hour,” Giang said.
“Bigger machines can reach up to 100-120km an hour.”
Of course, faster speeds often spell danger.
“It was my first time, so I got super excited and had the outboard roaring like a beast,” Tien said. “Unfortunately, I crashed right into the riverbank. I was scared to death!”
Sometimes, vo lai accidents just mean a few bumps and bruises on the driver's legs, but other times they can lead to far worse.
“It’s risky. Capsizing, sinking, and getting hurt are not uncommon,” said Giang, explaining that a few crashes are basically an ‘initiation’ into the community.
|An up-close photo of a 13HP outboard motor that can reach 100 kilometers per hour. Photo: Chi Cong / Tuoi Tre|
The river war
Tran Van Thai from Phong Dien District, Can Tho explained that he first began racing vo lai to pass the time. In 2018 though, after a successful showing in the Can Tho championships, he turned his new hobby into a profession.
“The machinery is the same for everyone so a good racer needs to have a good grasp on how to run the motor,” said Thai.
“To understand it means to choose the right outboard for the boat and the right propeller blades. That way, the racer can reach maximum speed. If the propellers are too weak for the boat, it won’t move fast enough.”
For National Day (September 2) in 2019, Thai and Le Chi Luan, a racer from Ca Mau Province, took three vo lai to a race in Thanh Binh, Long An Province.
The conditions, however, were a bit different than usual. The duo was not boating in a canal. Instead, they were on a river.
“Racing on a river is more difficult. There are lots of obstacles. Some got stuck with trash or hyacinth. Some simply had engines that stopped dead,” Thai said. “But we were so lucky. Our outboards worked perfectly and we won the first prize.”
That was a freestyle motorboat race, different from the annual race in Can Tho City and its strict guidelines.
Racers in Can Tho are expected to adhere to rules regarding the size and style of their boats. Outboards are provided by the organizers.
Based on their guidelines, a 7HP outboard goes with a 5.9-meter boat, weighing 70 kilograms and above.
A 16HP machine, by comparison, goes with an 8.1-meter boat, weighing 112 kilograms or more.
“I heard that this year’s competition in Can Tho will be freestyle. Racers can bring their own stuff,” Thai said.
“If I win the first prize, I’ll buy a new propeller, a new boat, or a new outboard.”