Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Three Incarnations of Hội An

                                   by Jim Goodman

Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai Street
       Lying near the mouth of the Thu Bn River in Central Vietnam’s Qung Nam province, the picturesque town of Hi An is one of the country’s top tourist attractions.  No wonder.  It features a well-preserved old town that has been a World Heritage Site since 1999, lies near several ancient Chăm vestiges, especially the Chăm religious sanctuary at M Sơn, itself a World Heritage site, and is close to sparkling beaches, offshore islands, riverside craft villages, attractive rural scenery and offers a range of local culinary delights.  That makes it a major factor in Vietnam’s tourist industry and thus a contributor to the country’s rising prosperity.
boats in the Hội An River, a branch of the Thu Bồn
       It used to be much more.  It was the main port of ancient Chăm states in the area, long before any Vietnamese resided here.  And in the 16th to 18th centuries, when it was known as Faifo, it was the main center of international commerce under the regime of the Nguyển Lords and the busiest port on the entire coast of Vietnam.      
       The Chăm are an Austronesian people who began settling along the central coast over 1500 years ago.  They established different states from Nình Thuận in the south to Quảng Bình in the north.  From the 7th to 10th centuries the strongest of these was Amaravati in the Quảng Nam region, with its capital at Simhapura, the Lion City, today’s Trà Kiêu, about 20 km west of Hội An.  The state and society was modeled on that of their Indian-influenced Khmer neighbors.  The important difference was in the economy.
boat and fish trap on the Thu Bồn River
       The Khmer state was based on agriculture.  The Chăm states occupied narrow strips of good agricultural land and relied more on commerce, in particular maritime trade.  Chăm ships sailed great distances to trade and in Amaravati Hội An was its main port.  After Amaravati’s demise, the destruction of both Simhapura and the successor state of Indrapura at the end of the 10th century, and the shift of power to Vijaya further south, Hội An’s role declined; still an active port, but less important to the Chăm economy. 
casting a net on the Thu Bồn River
       Hội An’s revival began in the mid-16th century, when civil war raged in the north, migrations began to the former Chăm territories of Vijaya (conquered and annexed in 1471), and rivalries climaxed among supporters of the Lê side—the Trịnh and Nguyển families--in the war against the Mạc Dynasty.  Fearing for his safety from the Trịnh commander, Nguyễn Hoàng angled himself an appointment from the Lê Court as Governor of the areas from Quảng Bình to Phú Yên, 
       The Lê side largely defeated the Mạc by 1592 but the restored monarch was but a figurehead.  All power was in the hands of the Trịnh Lord.  Nguyến Hoàng wouldn’t accept this breach of legitimacy, as he interpreted it, and so became the first of the Nguyễn Lords, setting up his own fief in Central Vietnam.  And as part of his administration he began building up maritime commerce through the port of Faifo (Hội An), already home to Chinese and Japanese merchants, taking over the trade links previously established by the Chăm.  A big portion of the government’s revenue came from taxing commerce, which it encouraged.
Nguyển Hoàng, the first of the Nguyễn Lords
       Nguyễn Hoàng died at 88 in 1613, having successfully established the foundations of an autonomous state.  His very capable sixth son, Nguyễn Phúc Nguyên, already a veteran of several years of administration, succeeded him.  By then it was becoming obvious that a showdown was inevitable with the Trịnh regime in the north.  The new Nguyễn Lord took firm steps to strengthen the realm’s administration, defense and commerce.  This included patronizing Faifo. 
       He permitted the Portuguese to set up in the port in 1615, who eventually became his suppliers for cannon and advisors on shipbuilding. He also established a customs office to collect import duties and control the trade in ivory, aromatic oils and woods, rattan mats and caulking resin.  A very pro-business ruler, he even married off one of his daughters to a resident Japanese merchant.  Relations with the Trịnh regime in the north came to a head in 1627, after Nguyễn Phuc Nguyên refused to pay tribute and the Trịnh Lord sent his armies south to compel compliance. 
Chinese Assembly Hall of the Cantonese community 
       The campaign failed, as did four subsequent invasions in following years, which included one unsuccessful Nguyễn campaign against the north.  Finally, in 1672 the two sides agreed to a truce that would last over a century.  None of the Trịnh attacks touched Faifo, however, and the port’s importance grew.  This was Hội An’s golden age.  Every year the town hosted great international fairs, attracting Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese traders and all three had resident communities in the port.  Besides luxury goods like silk and aromatic woods, these fairs also offered a wide variety of domestic use items, particularly ornaments for local consumption, an indication of the population’s relative prosperity.
Bạch Đằng Street on the Hội An River
       The Nguyển regime exported silk, sugar, pepper, rattan, cinnamon, musk, deerskins, eaglewood, lac and gold.  Imports included ceramics, silver, utensils, swords, armor and copper coins—the good ones re-circulated, the inferior ones made into cannon.  China banned trade with Japan, so merchants from the two countries met in Faifo to mostly exchange Chinese silk for Japanese silver.  After the Japanese government closed its doors to the outside world, Vietnamese trade with Japan was indirect, via Chinese merchants who were allowed to enter Nagasaki.  The Japanese community in Faifo, however, remained for a time and monopolized local silk production.
      While trade with China and Japan was more substantial, the Nguyễn regime also promoted commercial links with Southeast Asia.  Ships regularly arrived from Siam, Cambodia, Philippines and Java.  And for the first time since the Lý Dynasty, Vietnamese merchants took trading ships overseas to Manila, Java and Siam, and even formed a sizable resident community in Ayutthaya.
shop houses in old Hệi An
       Besides allowing Portuguese merchants to set up a base in Faifo, the Nguyễn Lords also permitted the presence of Christian missionaries.  The Jesuits had established a base in Japan in the 16th century, but the government expelled them in 1614.  A group of Portuguese and Italian missionaries relocated to Hội An and a decade later Alexander de Rhodes arrived, staying for three years studying the Vietnamese language.  He would later become the most instrumental person in devising the alphabetic system, adapted from Latin letters, called quốc ngũ, that eventually replaced the Vietnamese version of Chinese characters and is the official orthography of the language today. 
       In the 18th century, as Vietnamese migrants moved into the Mekong Delta and established large rice plantations, the port of Quy Nhơn became equally important to the Nguyển regime.  Ships from there sailed to the Mekong Delta to pick up the rice so needed to feed the increasing population around Huế and in Quàng Nam.  Faifo was still the regime’s principal international port, but that role began to abate when the Court, by then already in the throes of terminal decline, began imposing exorbitant taxes on overseas trade in mid-17th century, effectively cutting off its main revenue source.       
       In 1771 the Tây Sơn Revolt broke out in the area that was formerly the Chăm state of Vijaya. A few years later Tăy Sơn forces and their Chinese mercenary allies attacked Faifo and slaughtered most of its Chinese residents.  The town never recovered.  The Tây Sơn state lasted until 1802 and the establishment of the Nguyển Dynasty.  But although the new state made nearby Huế its capital, it did not favor commerce like that of its Nguyển Lords predecessor state.  International trade was only permitted at Danang and anyway by then silt deposited by the Thu Bồn River ended easy access to Faifo.
waterfront street
typical old town street and houses
       From then on Hối An was just a minor river port servicing very local commerce.  The Japanese community was long gone, though the bridge they built is still one of the great attractions of the town. Chinese communities stayed on, rebuilt their houses in a new style and added the community centers and temples that are some of the main tourist attractions in contemporary times.  But its economic importance to the state was now negligible.  In colonial times it served as an administrative center and a small French neighborhood existed just east of the original town, but the French never tried to revive Hội An’s historic role. They built a railway link to Danang, but a storm destroyed the tracks in 1916 and they were not rebuilt.  Thanks to the silting, big ships could no longer travel up the Thu Bồn, and no new port was constructed on the coast.
boats and ferries on the river
       Hội An did not suffer any war damage during the anti-colonial struggle.  It was neither bombed nor fought over during the American War and when Vietnam launched its renovation policy in the late 80s, while nearby Danang experienced fast development that replaced its old buildings with new ones, Hội An was virtually unaffected.  As a consequence, its antiquated architecture remained intact, providing the basis, with the inauguration of Vietnam’s Open Door policy, for its third incarnation as a major tourist attraction.
       Its designation as a World Heritage Site in 1999 insured that its old town, three long blocks along the river, would be preserved, with regulations put in place governing the height and appearance of its mostly early 19th century shop houses, temples and Chinese community halls.  No other town in Central Vietnam so evokes the atmosphere of pre-modern Vietnam.  Most of its houses have become restaurants and shops catering to the tourist trade, selling clothing, souvenirs, local crafts, lanterns and paintings, but are still run mostly by native residents rather than outsiders.  Cars and taxis are prohibited from the old town, so it’s a pedestrian zone, quiet and unhurried, bereft of the hubbub characterizing virtually every other town in the country.
       Besides the traditional shop houses, Hội An’s attractions include temples, Chinese assembly halls, a few museums and rich merchants’ houses.  Some of these are participants in a ticketing scheme, in which for the purchase of a single ticket a visitor can explore the interiors of one building in each category.  The money is for the maintenance of the town, but not all the interesting sites are on the ticket list.  The most beautiful structure in town, for one, the 16th century Japanese Covered Bridge, spanning a creek in the western quarter, is not. 
16th century Japanese covered bridge 
       According to legend, the Japanese built the bridge over the site of the heart of an underground beast whose head was in India and tail was in Japan.  When angry the beast shook its tail and caused violent earthquakes in Japan.  So geomancers directed the bridge to be built over the heart, so that the bridge’s piles would magically drive a sword through its heart.  With the beast dead the earthquakes ceased.
       Various Chinese communities from Fujian, Guangdong, Chouzhou and Hainan erected the Assembly Halls in Hôi An, serving as social and religious centers.  Lavishly decorated, these mainly date from the 18th and 19th centuries and a separate hall existed for all resident and visiting Chinese communities.  The old merchant houses and family chapels feature exquisite wooden furniture and interior decorations, but this is also true to a lesser extent for many of the restaurants.  In addition, the traditional shop houses along all the streets are attractive, with yellow facades, wooden beams and shutters, sometimes carved, with railed balconies and suspended lanterns.
       Taking an early morning walk through the old town, before the shops have opened, is like a stroll back in time.  And for the more history-minded visitors, various small museums specialize in exhibits of 17th-18th century trade ceramics, bronze artifacts, Chăm relics, pre-Chăm Sa Huỳnh Culture artifacts, contemporary handicrafts, minerals and gemstones, historical maps and costumes and a Folk Museum displaying traditional tools, agricultural implements, musical instruments and fishing gear.
local residents conducting a ritual in the old town
       Besides these heritage attractions, Hội An also has a typically lively local waterfront market, modern Buddhist temples, a river busy with small boats and ferries, a couple of Cao Dài temples, street stalls selling local snacks, tea and fresh beer, a variety of restaurants and some delicious local specialties.  It has a tourist-oriented theater for shows of traditional music and dance, plus a local platform where residents gather for particularly Hội An-style games and amusement, for themselves, not for visitors.  And on unspecified days a group might gather for an elaborate ritual on a public street.  A large part of the population is not at all involved in the tourist business and they simply carry on with their traditional ways in spite of it.  
       For all these reasons Hội An will continue to lure ever greater numbers of visitors, even Vietnamese tourists.  The number of businesses and facilities catering to tourists has more than doubled in the past decade.  Every year it will get gaudier and more crowded.  But that’s inevitable.  For a place as intrinsically beautiful and interesting as Hội An and its environs, there will always be so much to see and savor.
full moon in Hội An
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         Hội An is one of the stops on my Vietnam tour program:  see 


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