Located by the estuary of the Thu Bon River, Hội An is an incredible charming and magical little town in central Vietnam. Representing a great example of a South East Asian trading port (active from the 15th to the 19th century), this well preserved town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While the oldest recognizable structures date back to the 15th century, historical records indicate that Hội An was the largest harbor in Southeast Asia as early as the 1st century CE. It was then known as Lâm Ấp Phố or the Champa City.
The Cham people, now reduced to an ethnic minority group, were the original inhabitants of this place and were a part of what is referred to as the “Indianised Kingdoms” of South East Asia. They practiced a form of ancient Hinduism centered on the Hindu God, Shiva and the Mother Goddess.
Between the 7th and 11th centuries, the Cham people controlled this harbor town – an important link in the strategic spice, ceramic and sandalwood trade route. It was a valuable and exclusive trade conduit between Japan, China, India, Egypt and Europe. Shipwreck discoveries have shown that Vietnamese and other South East Asian ceramics were transported from Hội An to as far as Sinai in Egypt.
From the 11th century onwards, many Cham people converted to Islam, but some communities held on to their Hindu cultural traditions.
Subsequently, in the 12th century, the Cham people were defeated by the Khamer Empire. The Cham kingdom shrunk further with the Vietnamese people’s southern territorial expansion. Following the Cham-Vietnamese War in 1471, the Cham Kingdom was reduced to a small enclave near Nha Trang, with many Chams fleeing to Cambodia. Hội An thus came under the control of the Vietnamese from the 15th century.
Between the 16th and 17th century, Chinese, Japanese, Dutch and Indian traders settled in this important harbor town and imparted their distinctive architectural and aesthetic elements, creating the rich and diverse architectural and artistic landscape that we see in the old town today. A thriving Japanese settlement developed across what is called the Japanese Bridge – a unique covered structure with a Buddhist temple attached to one side. This beautiful little Japanese bridge was constructed in the late 16th century in order to link the Japanese community with the Chinese community on two sides of the stream.
Hội An’s importance as a harbor town and a key regional trading point declined dramatically at the end of the 18th century, with the emergence of the nearby town of Da Nang as the new port and trading center, promoted and controlled by the French. Another reason that probably contributed to eclipse of Hội An was the gradual silting up of the estuary, making it increasingly unfit as a port.
Hội An thus became a forgotten and neglected backwater in Vietnamese trade and politics and remained almost unchanged in the next 200 years – almost untouched by the dramatic development and changes that took place in rest of Vietnam. This well preserved old town therefore represents one of the very few places in Vietnam that gives us a very authentic and astonishing glimpse into the past.
Ending over two centuries of neglect, the tourism boom from 1990s once again transformed Hội An into an affluent, vibrant and cosmopolitan place, while holding on steadfast to its old world look, feel and charm. With thriving tourism, restaurants, cafes, lounge bars, boutique hotels, shops and travel agencies have sprouted. However, none of these have undermined the essential old world character of the town. These have only made it more living, breathing, vibrant and viable.
Today, this colorful and vibrant little town is an important tourist destination and a travelers’ delight, on account of its checkered history, multiple influences, rich and diverse traditional architecture and an enduring tradition in handicrafts such as textiles (mainly silk), ceramics and perfumery. It is also an important center for Vietnamese cuisine.
Hội An is a very tourist friendly town and I found that tourism was very well organized here. Tickets can be bought at the tourist office at the main entrance of the town (and at a few other points) and for a reasonable fee, you can hire an official guide and secure your entrance into five main historical attractions of the town. It is a good idea to hire an official guide, see the important highlights and then explore the place on your own. That is what I did.
The small town has four small museums highlighting the rich history of the region. The Museum of History and Culture is housed in a 17th century pagoda, situated next to the Quan Cong temple. This Museum gives us a fascinating glimpse into the history of Hội An, from its early beginnings, through to French colonial times. The Folklore Museum is housed in the largest double storied wooden building in the old town. Displays in this museum are organized around decorative arts, performing folk arts, traditional occupations and artefacts related to the daily life of Hội An residents from the past. The Museum of Trade Ceramics has artifacts from Persia, China, Thailand and India. It indicates the importance Hội An had as a major port in South East Asia, trading in ceramics. And finally there is the Museum of Sa Huỳnh Culture that has important artifacts from the 2,000 year old Sa Huỳnh culture – considered to be the original settlers of Hội An site. This museum has the largest repository of ancient Sa Huỳnh artifacts in Vietnam.
Apart from the Museums, I visited the Assembly Hall and Temple of the Fujian Chinese Congregation. This hall-turned-temple has a deep green glazed tile gateway and is dedicated to the worship of the female Fujian deity of Thien Hau. There is a dramatic mural on the right hand wall, as you enter the main building. It depicts Thien Hau crossing a stormy sea to rescue a ship lost and tossing in the turbulent sea. Her way is lit by a lantern. This temple has few other beautiful murals, in addition to a statue of Thien Hau and those of the six heads of Fujian families that had fled from China to Hội An. I was fascinated by the profusion of deep red, conically spiraling incense coils hanging from the ceiling.
The other highlight of my trip was the beautifully preserved, two hundred years old Tan Ky House. The house, made predominantly of wood has Chinese, Japanese and indigenous influences. The ceiling and roof, with its three progressively shorter wooden beams, are of distinct Japanese influence. The Chinese influence can be seen in the beautiful Chinese poems executed in inlays of mother-of-pearl on some of the columns. Chinese characters are depicted in the form of exquisitely stylized birds in flight. The house has a beautiful courtyard, surrounded by carved wooden balcony. From the courtyard, you can approach the rear side of the house that faces the riverfront.
The narrow streets, lanes and by lanes of Hội An are lined by incredibly graceful and harmonious old-world buildings, whose facades and interiors have changed very little over the last few centuries. The place is dotted with beautiful old Japanese merchant/guild houses, Chinese temples, colonial buildings, warehouses and traditional residential buildings. Most houses are decorated with colorful paper lanterns, which along with the riverside setting and traditional architecture, make this historic place intensely alluring, romantic and atmospheric.
It is a very good idea to spend a night, if not a couple, in one of the beautiful hotels in the old town. Apart from the town, you can explore the surrounding areas by bicycle, motorbike or boat. Hội An is surrounded by exceedingly beautiful, rustic and serene countryside of central Vietnam and the nearby beaches Cua Dai and Bang are worth exploring, apart from visiting the beautiful little villages dotting this area.
The old world architecture, numerous temples, museums, stately houses, colonial buildings, shops, restaurants, markets and lively street scene make the historic old town intensely atmospheric. I spent almost the entire day, wandering through the lanes and by-lanes, admiring the buildings, photographing the stunningly beautiful paper lanterns, and observing the friendly people of the town going about with their day to day lives.
The old town is predominantly pedestrian and hence, largely traffic free. The unchanged street plan, layout, architecture and aesthetics of the town reflect both indigenous and foreign influences, making its heritage rich and unique. At dusk, with approaching darkness, the riverside town started gradually transforming itself under the shadows, with the colorful lanterns lighting up one by one. The street scene became even more colorful, vibrant and magical. This well preserved ancient port town is permeated with an old world charm, difficult to find in any other town in Vietnam. It is a place, difficult to leave behind.