Hoi an is a dreamy old southest Asian trading port, renowned for its merchant’s homes, grid of riverfront streets, and Chinese Assembly Halls. While the rival 17th-century ports of Malacca and Penang involved into modern cities, Hoi An lost its raison d’être in the late 19th century after the silting of its river shunted commercial activity to nearby Tourane, now Danang. The town consequently ossified and now ranks as the best preserved port of a bygone era in Southest Asia, prompting UNESCO in 1999 to inscribed the site on its World Heriatge List.
Though its Old Town dates largely Form the late 16th to early 18th centuries, Hoi An’s otherwise dubious claim as an ancient town is partly justified by archaeology that proves Sa Huynh people used it as a port as early as the second century B.C. Before the Vietnamese gained control of the area in the 14th century, Cham merchants had developed the port into the kingdom’s primary trading center, though no extant structures date from that era. With an invitation from the Nguyen lords, the Japanese and Chinese settled on either side of a waterway spanned by the Japanese Bridge, which remains a central landmark. Portuguese merchants came calling in 1535; the Dutch; English and French followed suit in the 17th century. While the Europeans left little trace of their tenure, the Japanese and Chinese played fundamental roles in the development of the port then ans the town’s during enduring appeal today.
From five stalls in Old Town, the tourist office sells tickets that are good for admission to any five attractions, including one old home, one assembly hall, one temple, one museum, and one other attraction. All attractions center on one of the town’s three main street. Tran Phu, the oldest and best known, historically linked the Japanese Bridge and Quan Kong temple, across from the market. The route along Nguyen Thai Hoc opened in 1841, and the riverfront Bach Dang in 1886.
Along Tran Phu and south toward the river, the Chinese Merchants’ Houses are the single most potent ingredient in the spell cast by Hoi An. Nearly all claim17th or 18th-century pedigrees, which may be so, though the present structures date Form the 19th century reconstructions. It may seem odd that most of these old Chinese homes are in the half of town settled by the Japanese. But after a shogun issued a decree in 1635 restricting overseas maritime activities, the Japanese community died off. None of their houses survive, though the floor plans of later homes built by Chinese merchants do resemble those of older homes in Kyoto, Japan. The Japanese influence also endures in woodwork trusses, which include Chinese and Vietnamese aesthetics in a fusion fundamental to Hoi An’s fame.
On Nguyen Thai Hoc, the sixth generation of a Vietnamese family lives in Tan Ky House, a home their ancestors acquired from Chinese merchants out of Fujian province. like most homes in Old Town, this is a corridor house, not unlike tube houses of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. These houses are typically wider than Hanoi’s but the run of rooms from front to back is similar – shop, living room, open courtyard, sleeping quarters, and kitchen. The shop is raised slightly higher than succeeding rooms, a good omen, as income is more likely to run downhill. Tam Ky, as it’s embossed in Chinese characters on the name board in the living room, means “progress”. The triple-beam construction of the living room ceiling is distinctly Japanese, while crab motifs in the woodwork are Chinese. The flooring is Vietnamese, made from Bat Trang bricks and stone slabs from Thanh Hoa. Across the Japanese Bridge is the 1780 Phung Hung House (4 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai), whose balconies evoke China, four-sided roof Japan, and three bays Vietnam. Eight generations of the same Vietnamese family have occupied the house, selling medicine, silk and porcelain from their shop. The same Chinese family has occupied the Quan Thang House since the 18th century.
Hoi An’s Chinese settlers predominantly came from five of China’s southern provinces, and each rallied in their own assembly hall, which served as both temple and guesthouse to transient Chinese merchants. These halls are sometimes to referred to as pagodas, but are not temples to Buddha.
The red-faced Quan Kong takes center stage at the Cantonese Assembly Hall. Quan Kong is a second-century Chinese general revered in temples throughout Vietnam and Est Asia. His telltale red face symbolizes loyalty and righteousness. The goddess of the sea Thien Hau, occupied the bay to Quan Kong’s left, accompanied by two grotesque assistants, one of whom points at his eyes, the other at his ears, underscoring their central altar at back, in garments that are changed annually. To the right of the rear temple is a model junk of the type sailed by Chinese traders.
Built in 1875, the Hainan Assembly Hall (10 Tran Phu) honor 108 Chinese merchants murdered in 1851 by a rogue skipper in King Tu Duc’s navy, a massacre detailed in Chinee characters on the entry hall story-board. Next door is the largely unrestored, somewhat impoverished Minh Huong Temple.
Phuc Ba is the principal deity at the Trieu Chau Assembly Hall (157 Tran Phu).More compelling, however, is the intricately carved woodwork that frames the altar, with crab and women motifs that clearly speak to the work’s Chinese origins, if not its antiquity, which stretches back 250 years.
Unless you are an archaeology buff, Hoi An’s museums will likely disappoint. Your best bet is the Museum of History and Culture, whose collection includes bronze bells, Sa Huynh ossuaries, Cham artifacts, and a pair of wooden shutters from a wine house at 46 Nguyen Thai Hoc.
At the Museum of Tarde Ceramics (80 Tran Phu), artifacts from shipwrecks and old pottery fragments anchor the contents. The house itself, particularly the balcony doors and woodwork panels, is a prime exemple of a traditional wood house.
Past the museums, at the end of Tran Phu, the Japanese Bridge spans a stream that flows into the Thu Bon. Historically, the sream divided the Japanese district, which stretched down present-day Tran Phu, from the Chinese district. The bridge was built in the middle of the 17th century, as was as an adjacent Taoist temple. The later was dedicated to a god who the bridge builders hoped might exorcise a subterranean beast whose thrashing tail was believed to be the cause of earthquakes in Japan. Thtrippee beast’s head was beneath India, but its heart was beneath Hoi An, hence the temple. At either end of the wood-planked bridge is a pair of statues, monkeys on one end and dogs on the other, which are believed to represent the year construction was started and finished. The name board of Chinese characters on the bridge was hoisted by one of the Nguyen lords in 1791. The characters denote the span as the “ faraway people’s” bridge.