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 today.
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 spoken.
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 already
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 expression “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 negotiations.
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 agreement.
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. (VNA)