Saigoneer

BackSociety » Life on the Last Remaining Ferries in Hoi An

Life on the Last Remaining Ferries in Hoi An

These ferry boat trips may no longer be seen in Hoi An in the future, but they have been reliable partners in daily life and work for years.

Cam Kim Commune is in the countryside in Hoi An city. It's separated from Hoi An's downtown by the Thu Bon River. People from both sides travel across on a daily basis to conduct business. When there was no bridge, the ferry boat was the primary mode of transportation.

Over time, bridges were built to connect the two areas, but they still cannot completely replace the ferry boats. For their own reasons, a few locals still continue to use the ferry as their favorite mode of transport.

The ferries have been part of life in Hoi An for years.

People used to take small rowboats from Cam Kim to Hoi An. In the 2000s, the boat stations were paved, and the boat trips became more organized. Boat drivers gradually improved their transport, first to larger boats, and then to proper ferries with an engine.

Liên, a 54-year-old vendor from Cam Kim, often takes the ferry to Hoi An and back carrying fish to sell at the market. “I cannot ride a bicycle or motorbike. I only walk places, so taking the ferry is convenient for me. If I walked and used the bridge, my legs would be broken. It’s too far,” she joked.

A daily routine for many.

Today, these boats still play an essential role in many lives. “We can only ride the ferry to Hoi An for our business. So if Hoi An lacked these ferry boats, we would lack food,” Tới, Liên’s 67-year-old sister, added.

While riding on the ferry, passengers often make use of the time to rest and chat with each other.

“On the ferry, people treat each other as family members. We openly chat about everything, about our daily work and life, happy and unhappy. Sometimes, our goods are sold out and bring in much cash, and we excitedly share about that,” Nhã said.

Ferry passengers can often only walk or ride a bicycle.   

Nhã is a 60-year-old vendor selling corn. She lives in Cam Kim, and every day she takes a ferry into town to do her business in the morning and goes back to Cam Kim in the afternoon.

“At noon, riding through the bridge will make me tired. Going by ferry boat, I just put my bike on the boat, sit down to rest and chat with my mates for a while. Then I will get home effortlessly,” she shared. “I’ve been taking the boat for about 18 years, and I preferred the scenes on the boat in the past when it was crowded.”

Many years ago, hundreds of people used to travel by ferry boat daily. Every morning, many vendors traveled to Hoi An to trade. “In earlier times, this boat station was full of sellers and buyers every morning. It was bustling and joyful,” Nhã recalled. 

Left: A passenger arranges her goods on the ferry boat. Right: A woman returns to Cam Kim from Hoi An

Farmers in Cam Kim say the ferry is the only way to deliver their produce downtown to sell. They also buy food and other necessities to take back home.

When tourism in Hoi An began to grow, many buildings were constructed in the downtown area, many Cam Kim residents took the ferry to work on construction sites.

Students living in Cam Kim also rode the ferry to go to school. “The number of students is enormous, so there used to be separate boats to transfer them. They were so playful and talkative. They looked lovely and made the boat full of joy,” said Nhã.

Lê Viết Nam helps passengers transfer their goods and bicycles from the boat to its station.

The hardest period for those working the ferry route was when the boats were operated by rowing.

“Rowing the boat is so hard and tiring, especially when it’s so windy. I had to row the boat to transport people to work on time. Sometimes, I wouldn't eat breakfast until almost noon. I often grab a milk pack to drink when I feel hungry while rowing the boat,” Lê Viết Nam said.

Nam is a 72-year-old Cam Kim resident. Since quitting work as a fisherman eight years ago, he has worked as a ferry boat captain. Every morning, he wakes up at about 3am to prepare for his first daily trip departing from Cam Kim at 4am.

“I work almost every day, except for when it rains heavily. During those days, I miss my ferry boat while I cannot drive it,” shared Nam.

These ferries have gone through many ages, from impromptu stations to officials docks, from rowboats to diesel-powered boat, from the bridge-building to the COVID-19 outbreaks.

The ferry boat trips have been part of Hoi An life for years.

Since the bridge was built, the number of ferry boats operating on this route has gradually decreased. Some captains sold their boats and quit. When Hoi An’s tourism industry grew, many boat owners switched tourism transport. Then the pandemic came, and demand for tourism boats dropped.

“My working life with the ferry has been going up and down like the waves of the river,” Nam poetically shared.

He said that a long time ago, his work had brought in hundreds of thousands of dong per day. Besides his regular daily trips, he also made use of time to ferry tourists around to earn more. After the bridges were built, and when COVID-19 appeared, he now makes less than VND100,000 per day, but he still keeps working.

“I believe it is love that keeps my loyal local passengers using this old-fashioned transport to this day. I not only drive the boat but also usually help them transfer their bicycles and goods between the boat and its station,” Nam said.

Heading home after a day in Hoi An.

There are only about three remaining ferries on this route now, and they only run a few trips in the morning and afternoon.

“I think that these boats will no longer exist in a few generations. Society is becoming more modern day by day. The younger people will use motorbikes and cars so they can go across the bridge for convenience,” said Nhã.

Nam stated: “If this route stops, I will retire. I still work now because I want to live a healthy life while also working to assist the locals who still find this ferry convenient and useful.”

These boats are not only part of local life, but also the beauty of this ancient town. “I feel that Hoi An will be missing something if these ferries are discontinued. I hope they will keep running in the future to preserve a beautiful Hoi An,” said Nam.

To keep the ferries as a dear memory, here is a poem composed by Nam and his friends:

Cây đa tróc gốc trôi rồi
Đò đi bến khác, em ngồi đợi ai
Ai về xứ Cẩm chiều mai
Cho tôi nhắn gửi vòng thơ tặng nàng
Cẩm Kim có chiếc đò ngang
Cho anh đi với, đừng sang một mình

After a storm, the banyan fell and floated away
The boat changed its station, why do you still wait there
If someone goes to Cam village
Please deliver this poem to my dear
Cam Kim has the ferry boat trips
Please take me as your companion