Walking through the Japanese Bridge

Hoi An: The Beauty of an Ancient Port Town

Faded ochre buildings draped with bougainvillea, colorful paper lanterns 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 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.

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 harbors 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 Port
The classic scene at Hoi An
Hoi An during the pandemic

1. Hoi An Ancient Town

Wander down the golden-hued lanes of Hoi An Ancient 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, colorful 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 realize 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.

Sampan on the Thu Bon River
Perfect symmetry

1.1 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 with the Chinese community on the other. 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 bridge construction started in the year of the dog and finished in the year of the monkey. Inside the bridge is a temple dedicated to the God of Weather where the locals pray to escape earthquakes and flooding.

First built in the 1590s, the bridge in Japanese style was actually a donation from a wealthy Japanese merchant guild. These traders ended up in Hoi An driven south by the monsoon winds. They made this place their home for several months, leaving marks on the town. However, after four renovations, the bridge lost most Japanese elements. Instead, it bears the mark of the Viet culture. The current appearance dates back to the 18th century.

Japanese Bridge in Hoi An

1.2 The Chinese Assembly Halls

Another charm of Hoi An Ancient Town is the assembly halls that the Chinese merchants built. Similar to the Japanese traders, they followed the monsoon winds and landed in this port town which 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 honor Mazu (the Protector of Seafarers), Guan Yu (the God of War), and Guan Yin (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy). But regardless of their functions, all those halls are characterized by vibrant colors 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.

Chaozhou Assembly Hall in Hoi An

2. 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 center 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.

2.1 Hoi An Silk Village

Looking at the silk lanterns and tailor shops in the old town, it’s not 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 creating these highly sought-after items. However, due to 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 and reignite public interest in locally-made silk wares.

In this interactive museum, I learned about the traditional silk manufacturing process. From raising the silkworms, silk thread extraction, dying, and 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 stop burning as soon as the flame is extinguished. It adds the value of being fire-resistant to silk – another reason this material was precious.

White and golden silk threads

2.2 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 for 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 kilometers 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 from 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 recognized the scent of wood burning in the kiln and noticed the dance of ceramics in jars, pots, stalls, and statues. All are made by hand, using traditional clay mixing, molding, burning, and baking techniques.

Thanh Ha Village also boasts a cultural space where the past and present artworks from the village are honored. 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. Everything is intricately crafted, from the Taj Mahal, and Arc de Triomphe to St. Peter Square.

Museum at Thanh Ha Village
Artwork in Thanh Ha Village


21 thoughts on “Hoi An: The Beauty of an Ancient Port Town”

  1. Kate – I am currently a 4th-year JET participant living in Hirosaki, Japan. My time in Tsugaru is now limited, but the time I have spent here has been fantastic and my hope is to share the beauty of Tsuagaru with the world.
    Iwaki Mama says:

    Your photos are always so beautiful! This city has such a fascinating history and culture. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Dạ phải nói là họ chịu khó đầu tư ghê. Mấy bức tượng họ làm sống động lắm. Nếu không nói thì mình không biết là làm bằng gốm đâu 🙂 Cháu cũng định tham gia cái workshop làm gồm. Nhưng mà do ít du khách quá nên họ chưa mở lại.

  2. Greg Taniguchi – Newport Beach, CA – That D+ in high school and college was not a fluke, so I hope you grade me on a curve based on effort.
    Greg Taniguchi says:

    I had no clue the architecture was along these lines

  3. It’s so interesting to read the history of this town and to learn that the silting of the harbour was actually what ended up preserving its amazing cultural heritage. I imagine it has been hurt economically these past 6 months by the lack of tourists, though selfishly, I’d love to visit in its less crowded state. Beautiful photos!

    1. Thank you, Caroline! Personally, I also like this “new normal” state in Hoi An. I imagine it would be very difficult to explore the town, if I had to push through people all the time. But it’s sad to see many establishments went out of business 🙁

  4. Nice blog with very attractive pictures. It will be on my traveling bucket list once the pandemic is over!

  5. The Snow Melts Somewhere – As I wait for the snow to melt, up here in the far North, I daydream of palm trees and join my kids for adventures in our living room. Come join me! You can call me Snow. thesnowmeltssomewhere.wordpress.com
    The Snow Melts Somewhere says:

    What a visual feast!

      1. The Snow Melts Somewhere – As I wait for the snow to melt, up here in the far North, I daydream of palm trees and join my kids for adventures in our living room. Come join me! You can call me Snow. thesnowmeltssomewhere.wordpress.com
        The Snow Melts Somewhere says:

        My pleasure! 😍

  6. SueT唐 梦 琇 – Canberra, Australia – I live in Australia's capital and spent three fantastic years in China and visited nearly every province, so I have decided to write about my travels and since commencing my blog I have also decided to write about some other world travels and eating at restaurants in Australia. (www.tangmengxiu.wordpress.com)
    SueT唐 梦 琇 says:

    Wow. Fabulous photos. Once we can travel I def need to visit.

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