Eyes in the sea

Published: 06th October 2011
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Why do fishing boats in Vietnam feature painted eyes on their bows?
I have many fishermen who have survived storm on the ocean. All are convinced that the eyes painted on their boats help them to find their way back to land. These fishermen find joy on the ocean, but also fear the wrath of ocean storms. Believing that a simple set of menacing eyes can scare off bad weather, fishermen across Asia paint eyes on the bows of their boats.

On the sand, the eyes are rigid and lifeless but out on the ocean, in the arms of the waves, they sparkle and come to life. Having asking several fishing why they paint eyes on their boats, I heard a variety of answers: "Boats are just like fish, they are both of them should have eyes to see the way and to stay away from danger," said one local fisherman. Another said, "Boats need to have eyes to lead people to varied fishing ground. Boat eyes also scare sharks because they think they are facing a giant enemy." Yet another said, "Boat eyes bring fortune to the men on-board and protect them from illness."

No one knows for sure when painted eyes began to appear on the bows of boats off the shore of Vietnam. Legend has it they an early Vietnamese king drew the eyes on a boat after a giant fish harmed his closest friend. He then commanded all fishermen to tattoo their bodies in an effort to keep them safe from ocean predators. Along with fierce eyes, early fishermen also drew shapes and designs along the sides of the boats to give the craft an aggressive appearance that would scare away attacking sea monsters.

The first record of this practice involves painting the eyes of the god Osiris on Egyptian boats during the second millennium BC. The image was later painted on Arabian merchant ships plying the sea route from the Levant to china. Fishermen in the central region of Vietnam saw these eyes and began painting them on their boats. They believed that these painted eyes helped them to find good fishing sports and to navigate through dark waters. Eventually, fishermen from different regions began to draw their boats’ eyes differently. From the southern shore of Hien Luong to Phan Thiet fishermen favor narrow, black and white boat eyes with pupils the look straight ahead. Around Vung Tau and Ho Chi Minh City, boats typically feature oval eyes, some of which are pointy at the front end. Boats from Rach Gia, Phu Quoc, and Kien Giang often have black, red and green eyes. Along the coast of central Vietnam and in southern China, seafaring ships became famous for sharp eyes with blades extending behind them.

Along with the boat eyes, yen-yang symbols began to appear on Chinese boats, representing the traditional dualistic ways of thinking about life and the harmony on board the ship. The symbol of yen-yang was usually painted in black, white, red, or yellow, popularly appearing on the rudder or tail of the boat was for the eye.

To this day, fishermen in Vietnam depend on their boats’ eyes, which are always open and the lookout for door catches and a safe route home.

This article written by Lanh Nguyen from Vietnam Heritage Travel
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