History of Hoi An, a World Heritage Site

The charming old town of Hoi An in central Vietnam, with its
lovely wooden shop-homes and unique bridge, has been
recognised as a world cultural heritage site by UNESCO.
Subject to severe floods in early November and becoming a
cultural heritage of the world value in early December, the
centuries-old international seaport, as we take a look back to
its history, has experienced many ups and downs.

Hoi An, historically known as a once prosperous seaport under
the various names of Fayfo, Kaifo, Faifoo, Faixfo, Hoai Pho
and Hoi An, is the only place in Vietnam to have many of its
original streets and building preserved intact, which are
typical of an old seaport town in South East Asia.

The town was a crossroad of economic-cultural flows in Vietnam
and Southeast Asia from the end of the 16th century to the
early 19th century. It was also the gate through which Buddism
and Christianity were introduced into Vietnam in the 17th
century. In the process, Hoi An acquired unique cultural
characteristics which are manifested in its customs until

Hoi An boasts 87 pagodas, temples and communal houses, 82
ancient tube-shaped houses, 24 ancient wells and an ancient
tile-roofed bridge.

Current excavations at Hoi An uncovered evidence of a
pre-historic culture called Sa Huynh that occupied the central
part of Vietnam in the Bronze Age. We are just starting to
learn of the relationship between that culture and the Cham
people, who later occupied the area. Champa was a kingdom on
the central coast of the Indochinese peninsula. The Cham
people, an Indianised seafaring people skilled at coastal and
river transport, had an “outlook on the sea” that engaged them
in international coastal trade.

The estuary of Hoi An has an ancient name, Cua Dai Chiem,
which means the “Great Cham Estuary”. It is believed that Hoi
An was a seaport for the upstream sacred Cham cities of My Son
and Tra Kieu. The estuary once consisted of many lakes,
rivers, and sandy islands. Hoi An was founded on the largest
and driest of these islands.

From 650 to 800 AD, Sumatra flourished as a connection between
China to the North and Egypt, Arabia, and Persia to the West.
Persian and Indian sailors visited ports up and down the coast
between India and China. Along the central coast of what is
now Vietnam. there were more than sixty trading harbours
within one hundred miles of each other. Among these ports were
the present-day cities of central Vietnam: Phan Rang, Nha
Trang, and Hoi An. Hoi An and its Cu Lao Island were one of
the busiest fresh-water and re-supply stops. Also traders
could buy some Chinese goods there without sailing all the way
to China.

Previously a large portion of the trade from China into Europe
went by way of the overland “Silk Road”. When the Turks gained
control of the Moslem world in the 14th century, they
restricted trade through the Eastern Mediterranean. That
obstacle pushed European maritime powers to attempt to reach
Asia by sea. Columbus sailed to America in an effort to find a
westward route to India, the “Land of Spices”. Europeans
sought the precious spices to preserve and flavour their food.
In 1498, the first European ship returned from India with an
enormous and valuable cargo, stimulating a frenzy of seagoing
merchant competition to the East.

The first Europeans to trade with Vietnam were the Portuguese,
then the Western World’s best navigators. In the 15th century,
Portugal established a navigation school, which provided
information on routes and developed practical navigational
aids. Detailed sailing directions and more sophisticated maps
made sailing around Africa safer. With the advent of new
technology, boat builders designed ships sturdy enough to
carry bulky items across oceans.

In 1509, a heavily armed Portuguese fleet appearing in South
East Asia acted quickly to beat their Spanish rivals. The
Portuguese language, the a lingua franca, later became the
language of trade and negotiations in many South East Asian
seaports. However, in Hoi An, a Malay dialect continued to be

In 1535, Antonio De Faria anchored in Da Nang and visited Hoi
An. He was one of the first Westerners to write about this
land. Portuguese ships under his guidance began to visit Hoi
An regularly.

After the Cham kingdom disintegrated in 1471 and the Cham
kings established their centre further south, the Vietnamese
came to Hoi An with soldier-pioneers. In the 16th century, the
Vietnamese Dai Viet kingdom under the Le kings was politically
divided into rival groups. The Trinh family ruled the northern
part, called Tonkin. The Nguyen family ruled the southern part
with its capital at Phu Xuan near Hue. Nguyen Hoang was the
first of the Nguyen lords who ruled the South. He moved from
northern Vietnam to the centre of Vietnam with his followers
in 1588 and took control of the existing seaports.

The Nguyen lords became quite independent from the Trinh in
the North. They had the advantage of a “frontier spirit” free
from northern, restrictive Confucian values.

The Nguyen lords reopened foreign trade at Hoi An, which
stimulated the town’s development and resulted in an
immigration policy open to a diverse population. The Harbour
saw its most brilliant stage of development during the time of
the Nguyen lords.

The Nguyen set up their capital on the bank of Huong Giang
(Perfume) River. Since the river was not suited for large
international vessels to dock, the sheltered deep-water port
of Hoi An acquired that role. Foreigners who wanted to trade
in Hoi An were required to dock in Hoi An and travel by
smaller boats along the coast or over the Hai Van Pass to Hue
to negotiate with the Nguyen lord.

Vietnamese goods attracting foreign merchants were silk,
ceramics, ivory, cinnamon, eaglewood, sugar, gold, sea-swalow
nests, sandalwood, pepper, dried areca nuts, ceramics, timber,
tortoise shells, and fish. Muslims and Buddhists in India and
Southeast Asia used sandalwood to cremate their dead. Trading
in these products in the centre of Vietnam led to farming
areas specialicing in these export crops. Mulberry farms and
silk production developed. Craft villages flourished,
including Kim Bong carpentry village, Thanh Ha caramics
village, and Thanh Chau village, which processed sea-swallow
nests. In return, foreign ships brought defence-related items,
such as saltpetre, sulphur, and guns.

Because they were less dominated by Confucian orthodoxy than
the Trinh in Ha Noi, the Nguyen rulers were more relaxed about
the Christian preaching that came with foreign help. Christian
missionaries and their Japanese converts arrived in Hoi An in
the early 1600s after Japan closed its doors. In 1618,
Christopher Borri joined the Hoi An Mission, which had been
founded a few years earlier. The French missionary Alexander
de Rhodes arrived there in 1624. He started his work adding
tone marks to the Romanised (quoc ngu) version of the
Vietnamese language.

The Dutch and the English followed the Portuguese. Global
competition between European maritime powers forced open new
markets open in Asia. The Netherlands had highly developed
financial institutions that supported their trade ventures
with accurate information on price fluctuations as well as a
business ethnic that inspired confidence in their contracts.
By 1590, the Dutch had become a great sea power in the
Mediterranean, the Near East, and the South Atlantic. Rival
Dutch Maritime trading companies united into one powerful
cooperation, the Dutch East India United Company (called “VOC”
from the Dutch Verenigde Ostindische Compagnie), which linked
the countries in East Asia, including Vietnam, into a complex
trading system.

After the Japanese trade ban, the Dutch set up a post in Hoi
An in 1636 under Abraham Duijker. The Dutch presence in Hoi An
lasted until 1741. The Dutch brought heavy weapons, their own
delicate glassware, and Japanese copper, which could be made
into weapons.

England’s fleet, confident after its defeat of the Turkish
navy in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, turned to raiding
Spanish ships, the most powerful sea power at that time.

After repelling the Spanish Armada’s attempted invasion of
England in 1588, the English challenged the Spanish throughout
the world with even greater vigour. In 1613, Richard Cocks,
chief of the newly established English East India Company in
Japan, dispatched two colleagues to Hoi An via a Japanese junk
to investigate trade possibilities. The English finally
arrived in Vietnam in 1672. They were interested in exchanging
silks, sugar, tea, and porcelain for their manufactured
woollen cloth.

The French sent Pierre Poive to survey the Hoi An business
scene in 1742, but not much resulted from that trip. Two years
later, the French were granted permission to set up a
warehouse. Poive returned to Hoi An in 1748 to establish a
firm to monopolise the trade in aromatics; however, French
influence did not take hold in Hoi An until a century later.

A trade between Japan and Vietnam in iron-glazed pottery was

flourishing in the 14th century. When Japanese tea rituals
became popular in the 15th century, Vietnamese stoneware kilns
opened to produce export ceramics similar to Chinese products
in an effort to please a market already accustomed to Chinese
wares. The Japanese had come to Hoi An about 1560, before the
Chinese, but also left before the Chinese. However, some
Japanese set up long-term establishments, from which grew the
statement “Japanese Town”.

The Ming Dynasty banned direct contact between China and Japan
to safeguard the government’s monopolistic role and to control
rebels and pirates along the Chinese coast. Private ships were
forbidden to trade with foreign countries. Only the imperial
fleet could travel abroad, and only foreigners carrying
tribute were allowed to enter Chinese ports. The ban was
lifted in 1565; the Emperor, who wanted Viet Nam’s silk and
porcelain, authorised trade with South East Asian ports.
Instantly, Chinese traders appeared in Hoi An and set up trade
organisations and residences.

However, Japanese ships were still banned from Chinese ports,
and export of important products to Japan was forbidden.
Vietnam and especially Hoi An became a source of silk for
Japan through Chinese and Dutch intermediaries trading in
Hirado and Nagasaki.

In 1644, the Manchus overthrew the Ming Dynasty; Ming
loyalists who did not recognise the Manchu rule fled China.
Some set up businesses in the Chinese Street of Hoi An and
called their little enclave, Minh Huong (Ming People). In
1683, China ended its “closed door” policy toward Japan.
Chinese textiles and ceramics could be exported world-wide and
began to compete with those from Vietnam.

China, faced with an adverse trade balance, tried to make up
its deficit by acquiring silver bullion. After the Spanish
Conquistadors opened the New World to trade, silver mines
belonging to the Aztec and Inca empires in what is now Mexico
and Peru in South America became a source of precious metals.
Gold and silver were shipped across the Pacific Ocean to South
East Asia by way of the Spanish colony of Manila, or it
reached the East by way of Lisbon. In 1540, a new method was
discovered to extract silver from ore using mercury. Silver
mining became a major industry in Mexico and Peru; silver
surpassed gold in shipments. This stimulated a boom in trade
throughout East Asia, which used the Spanish real and the
Mexican silver dollar as hard currency.

In the mid-16th century, Japan’s silver and copper mining
industries flourished, also stimulating trade in East Asia.
China, lacking silver reserves, was forced to make
concessions; European traders with silver found the Chinese
goods cheaper. In addition, the Chinese so valued their silver
that they were reluctant to use it to purchase imports. They
preferred to sell their own products, especially silks, for
foreign silver.

At the same time, Japan wanted Chinese silk, which was
considered superior to their own product before the 18th
century. This combination of the Japan wanting silk whist
having silver and the Chinese wanting silver whist having silk
could have been the basis for a healthy direct trade pattern.
However, it did not.

In 1593, the Japanese rulers attempted to restore the
country’s devastated economy after internal turmoil and a
failed invasion of Korea. The Japanese had intended for the
invasion of Korea to open relations with China; instead, the
invasion made it impossible for Japan to approach China for

During the first two decades of the 17th century, Japanese
shoguns granted licenses to a few traders in the so-called
‘Red Seal Ships’. Eighty-six such “safe conduct” ships came to
Hoi An during the 30 years of this license to trade mainly in
silk that was used in the increasingly pompous ceremonies
favoured by the Japanese shoguns and aristocrats.

That brief flourishing of authorised trade lasted until 1637,
when the Tokugawa Shogunate restricted Japanese trade. Rebel
uprisings had seriously challenged the authority of Japanese
rulers, who feared the interference of Christianity and
European powers in aiding the rebels. The country went into
200 years of isolation, foreign trade was then confined to
Nagasaki, where a few Dutch, Portuguese, and Chinese were
permitted to operate under strictly controlled circumstances.
These were the intermediaries who brought silk from Vietnam
into Japan.

Chinese-Japanese trade declined. As a result, business in Hoi
An also declined. About 50 Japanese traders remained in Hoi An
and Hue after the trade ban. By the end of the 17th century,
many of the Japanese silver and copper mines had been
depleted, and the Dutch intermediary trading network between
Japan and China also declined. Meanwhile, Japan developed its
own high-quality silk looms. In isolation, the Japanese
learned to do without Chinese silk and to rely on domestic
resources. By the 18th century, Japan had no demand for
foreign silk. Hoi An’s main trade items became dried
agricultural and sea products for consumption in China.

A civil war broke out in 1773 in Vietnam. The Tay Son peasants
fought against the power of the Nguyen lords. By 1786, the Tay
Son had taken over the land from Qui Nhon to Hanoi. Hoi An was
burned in a series of attacks. A Nguyen lord tried to persuade
the French government to help him regain power, but the French
were deeply involved in supporting the American colonies’ War
for Independence from England. England and France were rivals
at the time of the American Revolution, with France supporting
the colonies’ independence, which was achieved in 1776. No
French aid came to the Nguyen; as a result, the Tay Son won.
Vietnam was unified under the Tay Son leader, Quang Trung. For
a few years, the seat of power shifted to Hanoi, leaving Hoi
An to receive a few Chinese junks each year.

In 1793, Macartney went to China to negotiate the
establishment of a Bristish base. During his jouney, he
stopped in Da Nang to explore possibilities for close,
long-term relations with Vietnam. The British mission saw the
Cham Island as a possible base. They knew that the Vietnamese
pretender Nguyen Anh had sent Prince Canh to France to
negotiate concession of the Cham Island to the French in
return for French help to fight against the Tay Son. The
British also knew that if the French took the Cham Island,
there would be no other site for them in Indochina.

The Tay Son rulers received the mission in a guest house
decorated with British cloth. Their soldiers wore dark red
felt shirts made by British factories. A clue to the visitors’
long-range intentions was that they called Da Nang “New
Gibraltar”. Gibraltar had been occupied by the British since
1704 and already had a British naval base. However, because of
political instability, the British mission did not risk an

After the American War for Independence, French resources were
freed up for the international arena to negotiate trade
concessions. More successful than the British, the French
established a trading post and garrison in Hoi An in exchange
for French military support of Nguyen Anh’s claim to the
throne. Nguyen Anh was a descendent of the Nguyen lords who
had overthrown the Tay Son and established the Nguyen Dynasty.

In 1804, representatives of the British India Company in
Canton attempted to negotiate with Nguyen Anh and again, in
1821 and 1822, with Emperor Ming Mang. The British discussed a
base on the Cham Island three times but failed. They continued
their efforts after the French army attacked a Vietnamese
warship in 1847. Hong Kong envoy John David brought letters
from Queen Victoria to the king, asking to build a fort at the
entrance of Da Nang Bay and to form a British-Vietnamese
alliance against the French. The British failed in the long
run to establish a commercial, diplomatic, or colonial
foothold in Indochina, leaving it clear for French conquest.
After that Hoi An reverted to a traditional village economy.

The charming old town of Hoi An, with its lovely wooden
shop-homes, surely has had it ups and downs. Hoi An was set up
in the 16th century; thrived in the 17th and the 18th
centuries and declined in the 19th century. It has been
revived in the 20th century with a new role: to commemorate
the long history of Vietnamese international trade and
influencing and responding to global conditions.

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