Faded ochre buildings draped with bougainvillea, colourful lampions hung beautifully across the street, Hoi An is certainly one of Vietnam’s most atmospheric destinations. Adding to that is a blend of local and foreign influences which can be traced back to centuries ago.
Setting along the Thu Bon River, Hoi An was a hub of commercial activity for centuries. The Cham (people of Champa) were the first to occupy this port, between the 7th and 10th centuries. They controlled the trade in spice and silk in Vietnam’s East Sea and with this came immense wealth.
The Rise and Fall of Hoi An
Under the reign of Nguyen lords in the 15th century, Hoi An, known as Faifo at the time, began to flourish as an international trading post. Merchants from Japan, China, India, and as far as Portugal came here to trade for spice, pearls, silks, and especially pottery. Along with these goods, they brought their customs, lifestyle, and religion, turning Hoi An into a cultural melting pot.
By the end of the 18th century, Hoi An’s role as a desirable port started to fade as a result of the silting up of its river mouth. The rise of other harbours along the central coast, in particular Da Nang, further contributed to this devaluation. The end result was that Hoi An became a forgotten backwater, remaining almost untouched by the changes to Vietnam over the next 200 years.
As a twist of fate, this economic stagnation helped Hoi An to preserve its early appearance, with over 800 buildings in a remarkably intact state. It also lifted the town onto the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999. These days, Hoi An is a living museum where people can experience the timeless charm of an ancient trading port in South East Asia.
Hoi An Old Town
Wander down the golden-hued lanes of Hoi An Old Town, I feel as though I’ve stepped back in time. At one turn, I notice colonial-era facades with green louvered shutters stand side by side to Japanese timber-framed shop houses. At another, colourful Chinese assembly halls seamlessly blend into the low tiled roof houses. Occasionally, a sampan floats past propelled by a local wearing a conical hat, giving us a glimpse into Hoi An’s daily life centuries ago.
Looking at those buildings, I realise why they called this place Hội An (會安), literally translates as “a peaceful meeting place”. They represent a fusion of several cultures which used to thrive in this ancient port town. Today, these graceful historic houses have been converted into an array of tailor shops, boutiques, as well as chic cafes, and riverside restaurants.
The Japanese Bridge
The leisure stroll led me to the Japanese Bridge, an icon of Hoi An. Painted in an earthy pink tone, with an intricate pagoda roof, this bridge connects the Japanese quarter on one side with the Chinese community on the other side. Two statues of dogs and two statues of monkeys stand guard at either end of the bridge. Locals say it depicts the fact that the construction of the bridge started in the year of the dog and finished in the year of the monkey. Inside the bridge, there is a temple dedicated to the God of Weather where the locals pray to escape earthquakes and floodings.
First built in the 1590s, the bridge in Japanese style was actually a donation of a wealthy Japanese merchant guild. Driven south by the monsoon winds, these traders ended up in Hoi An. They made this place their home for several months, leaving an impact on the town. However, after four renovations, the bridge lost most of the Japanese elements. Instead, it bears the mark of the Viet culture. The current appearance dates back to the 18th century.
The Chinese Assembly Halls
Another charm of Hoi An Old Town is the assembly halls that were built by the Chinese merchants. Similar to the Japanese traders, they followed the monsoon winds and landed in this port town where they called home for several months. Thus, they needed a place to meet their fellow countrymen.
Many of these halls later took the form of Chinese-Buddhist temples to honour Mazu (the Protector of Seafarers), Guan Yu (the God of War), and Guan Yin (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy). But regardless of its functions, all those halls are characterised by vibrant colours and intricate decorations. The interiors are just as exquisite as the facades, featuring high ceilings with beams, open-to-sky courtyards, and Chinese paintings inlaid in mother-of-pearl.
Crafting Villages in Hoi An
Apart from the Old Town, the beauty of Hoi An lies in its crafting villages. From silk wares to pottery, they all reflect the history and identity of Hoi An as a production centre along the Maritime Silk Route. Though the modern lifestyle has led to a decline in the number of these villages, some still exist and inherit the spirit of this land.
Hoi An Silk Village
Looking at the silk lanterns and tailor shops in the Old Town, it’s no difficult to understand why Hoi An was considered a hub of silk and textile production. At its height, there were dozens of villages in and around the port town, with thousands of artisans created these highly sought-after items. However, as a result of regional competition and a downturn in the desire for handcrafted items, many of these villages have ceased to exist. Fortunately, Hoi An Silk Village has been established to share the 300-year-old sericulture in Quang Nam, as well as to reignite public interest in local-made silk wares.
In this interactive museum, I’ve learned about the traditional process of silk manufacturing. From raising the silkworms, silk thread extraction, dying, spinning to fabric weaving, each step is explained and demonstrated by local artisans. The exhibition ends at the showroom where I was taught to identify authentic silk ware through the burn test. Made of natural material like human hair, the item should have a similar smell when burned and stops burning as soon as the flame is extinguished. It adds the value of being fire resistant to silk – another reason why this material was so highly valuable.
Thanh Ha Pottery Village
Since its golden age, Hoi An has been known for its pottery. It’s not just an art form, but also a means of livelihood to many people in the port town. Therefore, local artisans have tried their best to preserve this traditional profession, passing the techniques inherited from their ancestors down through the generations. And by far, Thanh Ha Pottery Village is the best example.
Located just two kilometres away from the Old Town, this village has produced pottery since the 15th century. However, it only raised to fame when the potters received a prestigious invitation by the Nguyen Dynasty, to create special decorative items for the Imperial City of Hue. This one-off event granted them sufficient renown to last them a lifetime. Even today, Thanh Ha Village remains an essential part of the handicraft culture in Hoi An, with manually crafted products being sold here and abroad.
At first glance, I overlooked this place: just a maze of narrow alleys snaking through simple houses. Then, I suddenly recognised the scent of wood burning in the kiln and notice the dance of ceramics in jars, pots, stalls, and statues. All are made by hands, using traditional clay mixing, moulding, burning, and baking techniques.
Thanh Ha Village also boasts a cultural space where the past and present artworks from the village are honoured. Through three floors of this modern, architecturally beautiful museum, visitors can observe and admire the skill and creativity of the local potters. Outside, a water garden features architectural wonders from around the world. From the Taj Mahal, Arc de Triomphe to the St. Peter Square, all is intricately crafted.