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HANOI: At least 40 people, mostly women and children, drowned in Vietnam on Sunday when a heavily crowded river boat sank while taking people to a market for lunar New Year shopping, officials said.
The wooden boat overturned amid strong currents and chilly winds 20 metres from shore on the Gianh river in central Quang Binh province when passengers scrambled to get off as it approached the pier, they said.
"More than 80 people were on the boat," provincial Communist Party chief Luong Ngoc Binh told AFP, adding that the boat was licensed to carry just 20.
"We have recovered 40 bodies and we will continue to search until we have found the last body. About 36 people have been rescued."
Thirty-two females, including two pregnant women, were among the bodies recovered from the river about 500 kilometres south of the capital Hanoi, said the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper in an online report.
At least two or three people remained missing and were feared dead hours after the accident on the river south of Vinh city, Binh said.
"We have mobilised soldiers, fishermen, anyone who has experience on the river, to join the rescue effort," Binh said by telephone.
"The survivors are now back at home or in local clinics."
Hundreds of bereaved relatives crowded the rocky river banks after the accident, crying as volunteers carried off bodies using hammocks and nets suspended from shoulder poles, online news images showed.
The tragedy happened around 8:00 am (0100 GMT) on the eve of the Tet lunar New Year, Vietnam's biggest annual festival, when extended families reunite for traditional feasts and to pray for good luck in the year ahead.
The boat sank when passengers stood up in a rush to get off the vessel as it approached a pier on the river, one of the survivors, identified as Cao Thi Huong, 39, was quoted as telling online news site VnExpress.
Binh said: "The passengers didn't obey the law, and they rushed to shop for Tet, to buy new clothes and goods. That's the reason the accident happened."
Two young men, aged 17 and 19, on a river boat nearby in Quang Trach district heard shouts from survivors drifting in the chilly and fast-moving waters and rescued at least 16 people, said VnExpress.
Binh added that "the waves on the river were big, the wind was strong and it was cold, so it was very difficult for people to survive."
“We have used dozens of fishing nets to recover bodies and find the missing, but we are afraid that the two or three people who are still missing are dead already," he told AFP by telephone.
Binh said the captain was detained after the accident because the river boat had been heavily overloaded with passengers.
VnExpress identified the detained captain and owner of the boat as 44-year-old Nguyen Xuan Quy.
Binh said that "there were some life buoys on the boat, but the accident happened so quickly that the buoys weren't of any use."
Many families rushed to bury the bodies of their relatives before midnight as funerals early in the New Year, the year of the Buffalo, would be believed to bring even more bad luck to the surviving relatives, said Binh.
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