What is a 'Sampan'?
It's a small, low-cost boat found all over Southeast Asia made from local materials to a traditional design. All are flat-bottomed for use as close inshore or river fishing boats. The lightness and ease of maintenance makes the sampan ideal for relatively calm waters.
All traditional boats are designed according to local conditions and the materials available. The Vietnamese ‘sampan’ is a good example. The most common design is a small circular craft made of woven bamboo affixed to a stronger bamboo hoop, caulked with pitch.
The result is a one to three passenger boat remarkably similar to the Welsh coracle. It's mostly used for inshore and estuary transport - propulsion is by sculling a single paddle.
On the waters of Ha Long Bay, you'll see two varieties of sampans - the traditional and a long canoe-style design used for faster passenger transport to and from the bay's floating fishing villages. The rower stands on a platform at the stern and propels the sampan with two long oars.
Other varieties, such as the boats on the Mekong’s many canals and small waterways, are larger, narrower and rectangular, and often have a rear ‘cabin’ or cockpit.
The construction process and means of propulsion are broadly similar to the Ha Long Bay variant, but the boat is rowed with the two oars crossed through high leather oar stays.
The sampans composing the Mekong's famous floating markets are almost invariably propelled by women. The unusual stance has probably evolved to give greater leverage to compensate for the oarswoman's lesser muscle mass.
Other variations can be found in places with particular circumstances. For example, Tra Co beach in the extreme northeast coast has a very shallow gradient. There, the fisherman's sampans have extra means of buoyancy and a long low prow with bamboo runners to assist in beaching the craft.