An abundant number of boatmen offer their wooden vessels for rent along Hoi An’s riverside. Since its coastal position afforded the charming mustard-yellow city such a great trading fortune in centuries past, we were eager to explore the Mekong’s waters by boat.
With a Vietnamese dong rate negotiated, we hopped onto the watercraft. The last morsels of a bundle of incense sticks burned at the helm, honoring the spirits and expressing the driver’s and passengers’ wishes for a safe voyage. Like most boats in the region, a primitive eye was painted on the bow – designed to ward off evil spirits and to find the way.
Unlike Hoi An’s bustling marketplaces and tourist districts, the waterways were tranquil. The overcast sky lended comforting hues to the Mekong’s waters. It was fascinating to watch the action on land from the water. Two teenage boys rode a bicycle in front of a saffron home’s front. An elderly woman dipped a bucket at the water’s edge. Water buffalos waded through the water. Two ladies, piloting a boat and wearing nón lá hats (or ‘leaf hat’), gracefully glided by.
Just as I had entered a relaxed state, an opportunity for adventure arose. Before us was a charismatic local man paddling a basket boat. He playfully splashed his oar in the water, pretending to tip the basket boat deep into the water. He then saluted us. In the background, Vietnam’s red flag – adorned only with a bright yellow star – flitted in the wind.
“I want to ride in the basket boat!” I exclaimed to Shawn, flashing the puppy dog eyes of a little girl at him.
“I’m afraid you’ll fall in,” Shawn replied. “Is that basket sea worthy?” he asked.
But it was too late. The energetic boat’s navigator had rowed his boat to meet ours. With a wave of his hand ushering me in, I knew that I had the unique opportunity to ride in a Vietnamese basket boat. And I indulged with great gusto.
As Shawn chuckled, our boat’s driver chivalrously held my hand as I tiptoed onto the unsteady vessel. Small trickles of water ran along the bottom of the boat, cooling my bare toes. The basket boat’s impish driver clapped his hands energetically as I sat inside. The boat took a few dramatic dips before I realized how to ride gracefully in it.
Within seconds we were off. Sensing my desire to command the boat basket, the driver handed me the oar. I enthusiastically paddled and the boat shot around 360 degrees.
The driver continued to madly applaud, as if I had just finished a grand operatic performance. In Vietnamese, he prodded me to modify my rowing technique. When he rowed, the boat inched forward. When I was at the helm, it spun around in choppy circles.
Before I knew it, I was sporting the driver’s woven hat. Though we could not understand each other’s language, the gift of universal laughter filled the void.
After fifteen minutes of childlike fun, I decided it was time to return to Shawn, our driver and the conventional wooden boat. Shawn gave some dong to the frolicsome basket boat man, in exchange for his maritime hospitality. We could feel his playful energy all the way back to Hoi An…
During the return to Hoi An’s city center, we floated past a couple dramatically casting a net into the water. We also encountered Chinese fishing nets that were waiting to be dipped into the water for an early evening catch. They stood with impressive posture. Then we saw the early stages of a bridge; the engineers waved to us in a proud manner as we passed underneath.
Soon, our boat had returned to the bustling port of Hoi An. Our driver bid us farewell and off we walked onto the lively streetscape as fruit vendors offered us vibrant rambutans and mangosteens out of overflowing baskets. Indeed, I’ll never look at baskets – or boats – in quite the same manner following that afternoon floating in traditional and unconventional vessels!