The History of Hoi An's Ancient Town
Today, westerners know the Vietnamese city of Hoi An mostly as a tourist destination. Thanks to its proximity to the Marble Mountains and lovely China Beach, Hoi An draws many visitors each year. But at one point in its history, Hoi An was far more than a tourist destination; in fact, it was one of the most important seaports in all of Southeast Asia.
Early History of Hoi An
Hoi An was first settled by the Champa people, a Malay-Indonesian people who arrived in Vietnam from Java originally around 200 BC. In the first century AD, the Champas founded Hoi An. At that time, the city was called “Lam Ap Pho”, or Champa City.
The Champa Kingdom was a large and powerful one, and although My Son (which no longer exists except for a few ruins) was the Cham's spiritual capital, Hoi An was its commercial capital. In the first century, Hoi An was the largest harbour in Southeast Asia. From Hoi An, the Cham gradually built control over the spice trade, bringing great wealth to the city. From the seventh to the tenth centuries, Champa-dominated Hoi An ruled the trade in spices and silks, with their influence stretching as far west as Baghdad. The Cham exported aloe and ivory, and supplemented their trading income with calculated acts of piracy and caravan raids.
The Decline of the Champa Kingdom
Unfortunately for the Cham and Hoi An, great wealth brings great jealousy. Riches, combined with raids, didn't make for good relationships with their neighbours. The Cham frequently came into conflict with the Viet people north of their kingdom, and the Khmer people in Cambodia. Fighting between the Cham, Viet, and Khmer weakened the kingdom, and finally in the thirteenth century, Kublai Khan, the Mongolian warlord, invaded and occupied the Champa Kingdom. In the late fourteenth century, the strong Cham leader, Che Bong Nga (“The Red King”) managed to unite the Cham one last time and led a brief resurgence. In the fifteenth century, the Cham fell once and for all to the Viet people.
Hoi An's Return to the World Stage
Under the leadership of the Nguyen dynasty, Hoi An gradually began to recover, and rose to prominence once again. During the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries, Hoi An, which at that time was called Hai Pho (meaning “seaside town”), once again became the most important port in Southeast Asia. With a Japanese settlement on one end of town and a constant influx of Chinese, Dutch, and Indian merchants, Hoi An was a centre for global trade before such a term existed. In the early eighteenth century, Japanese and Chinese traders in particular considered Hoi An the best place to go for trading in all of Asia. A key stop on the Silk Road, Hoi An exported its ceramics as far afield as Egypt.
Fall of the Nguyen Lords
But Hoi An was destined to slip into decline and obscurity once again. The Nguyen dynasty eventually became opposed to open trade, in an attempt to limit the influence of foreigners in the nation – an ongoing problem that would plague Vietnam for the next two centuries. The closed trade policy led to Hoi An's stagnation, and by the time the Nguyen lords changed their policy, Hoi An's decline had already become irreversible.
Simultaneously, French influence in Danang was rapidly increasing, making Danang the new centre for trade in Vietnam. Furthermore, the new trading vessels constructed during the eighteenth and nineteenth century required a deeper port, something that Hoi An couldn't offer.
Although Hoi An's days as an important trading centre were over, there was a benefit to its decline: as other cities in Vietnam modernised and followed the European lead in culture, style, and wealth, Hoi An remained an example of a traditional Vietnamese port city. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hoi An was all but forgotten, allowed to continue its ancient traditions with little influence from the modern, European-dominated world.
Hoi An Today
As a result of its isolation, Hoi An remained a small city with its history intact. In 1999, UNESCO named Hoi An a World Heritage Site, because it was such a well-preserved example of a 15th - 19th century Asian trading port. With UNESCO's recognition came tourist recognition, and the last decade has seen a different kind of commercial resurgence for Hoi An, as western tourists gradually rediscover the charm of this old Vietnamese city. Today, Hoi An is a common stop along the trail for backpacking adventurers, and meanwhile, a number of bars, restaurants, and internet cafes have opened to cater to tourists. Many craft shops can be found in Hoi An, including traditional Vietnamese ceramics and fabric production. In particular, Hoi An has become known for its tailors, who can produce custom-made clothes for a fraction of what it would cost in the west.
In short, if you're planning to visit central Vietnam, Hoi An should definitely be at the top of your list. Rich in history and culture, and only a stone's throw from China Beach, the Marble Mountains, and the Champa Islands, Hoi An remains one of the only gems of Southeast Asia not yet overrun with tourists.