The 14-hour overnight train from Hanoi to Danang has taken its toll, and the taxi to the outskirts of the small town of Hội An is comparatively restful. Arriving at your hotel, you dump your bags and, after exchanging pleasantries with the friendly Vietnamese reception girls, you head out into daylight. Your walk takes you down a rural road and onto the concrete road into the main town. On one side of the road you see a war memorial from the 1970s and on the other side, a grand memorial of another variety. The locked up building is more Chinese in style than Vietnamese and its large scale architecture is impressive to say the least. Lamenting that you cannot enter into the grounds of the Miếu Thời Khổng Tử (Confucius Temple), you look through the fence and admire its wonderful architectural details. The porcelain spirit screen and the columns topped with lions lie just over a pleasing arched bridge. It is instantly striking as a Chinese Confucius Temple, but yet it has distinctively Vietnamese elements. This building is the perfect reference point for the rest of the town. As you are about to find out, Hội An is Vietnamese with a Chinese and Japanese twist.
Meaning ‘peaceful meeting place’, Hội An has a long history that lives up to its name. It started as a trading centre in the second century BCE by the Sa Huỳnh culture. By the seventh century CE, it had become a vital port of the Kingdom of Champa called Lâm Ấp Phố. As the Cham people were pushed further south, the trading hub became part of Đại Việt in the 14th century. Hội An came into its own in the 16th century when the Portuguese set up a trading post in the village they called Fayfo. A few years later the Lord Nguyễn Hoàng, the first of the Nguyễn Lords who ruled the southern territories of Vietnam, took control of the area and officially founded Hoi An as a town. Nguyễn Hoàng saw the importance of trade, as opposed to his brother-in-law, Lord Trịnh Kiểm, the first of the Trịnh lords who ruled the northern territories. As a result, the little port town became highly profitable and brought wealth to the Nguyễn lands. The port became the most important in the South China Sea and attracted merchants and traders from Asia and Europe.
Over the next three hundred years, the port grew and traders from China and Japan set up in the town. The settlers built halls and temples to meet the needs of their communities and today, the town is full of these reminders of the past. By the 18th century, Hội An was considered to be the best trading centre in Southeast Asia. The port finally went into decline at the end of the 18th century, due to the chaos caused by the Tây Sơn Uprising. The town continued to function after the short lived Tây Sơn Dynasty was defeated by Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, who started the Nguyễn Dynasty under the name of Emperor Gia Long. The port was eclipsed by others over the next century due partly to the silting up of the harbour. You find yourself thanking nature for that, as it has preserved the town as if the clock just stopped in the mid-19th century.
As you approach the old town, either side of the street is filled with wooden shops selling knick-knacks and cloth. As the local ladies come at you with their sales pitches and offers of tailor services, the main trade of the town is revealed to you. Everywhere you look, you see silk of both good and dubious provenance. On your left is an interesting structure behind a worn yellow gateway. Đình Cẩm Phô (Cam Pho Communal House) was built as a place to worship the tutelary god of the local Cẩm Phô Village (now a ward of the town). It was subsequently restored in the early 19th century and became a place to enshrine the ancestors of the village also. This building is a Vietnamese original and was established by natives of the area. Looking at the detailed decorative roof, you opt to continue on your journey, past the Nhà cổ Phùng Hưng (Old House of Phung Hung) a few doors down, to see the sights built by the newer arrivals in Hội An.
Reaching the end of the stall-lined street, you see the salmon coloured plaster moulded entrance of the Cầu Nhật Bản (Japanese Bridge). The covered bridge, built in the late 16th and early 17th century AD was constructed by Japanese settlers and is known as Chùa Cầu (Pagoda Bridge) to the local people. Stepping through the bridge entrance and treading on the wooden boards of the crossing, you soon see why. At the entrance to what is also known as Lai Viễn Kiều (Pagoda in Japan), there are two dog statues with red cloths covering their heads. These shrines counter the two monkey shrines either side of the other end of the bridge. The bridge construction is said to have begun in the year of the dog and been completed in the year of the monkey. Originally intended as part of a much bigger town improvement works by the fairly large Japanese community that settled in Hội An under a treaty with the Nguyễn Lords. There is speculation that the bridge, with its strong spiritual nature, was built to subdue Namazu (鯰), a giant catfish that caused earthquakes in Japan. The Japanese thought that its head was in India and tail in Japan, so Hội An was on its back. The bridge could therefore be used to pin the fish and prevent it from damaging the homeland.
The bridge was in Japanese hands for only around 40 years, as the Japanese settlers were recalled to Japan in 1635 under the sakoku policy of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Japan was effectively closed to the outside world for 250 years. Those Japanese who chose to stay abroad, were expelled permanently from Japan and sentenced to death if they returned. Trade continued between Japan and foreign countries, but only through the artificial island port of Dejima in Nagasaki. As you walk across the bridge, you stop at the halfway point. Here, a door leads to a small temple. Walking through the opening, you find yourself in a small, but light chamber with a dark central altar. Enshrined here, is the Vietnamese-Chinese god Trấn Vũ Bắc Đế (玄武北帝 Xuán Wǔ Běidì). The Mysterious Warrior Northern Emperor is considered by the seafaring folk of Hội An to be a weather deity, and should be appeased in order to have favourable conditions for travel on the waters. Leaving the room, you complete your crossing of the bridge and pass the two monkey statues. The two monkeys hold peaches, a symbol of longevity.
Having burst out into the light from the shady bridge, you are now on the main thoroughfare of the old town. Trần Phú Street, named after the martyred first general secretary of the Indochinese Communist Party, is much older than its name and takes you through the ancient core of the trading port. Only a few short steps after alighting the bridge, you stand before the decorative archway of the Hội quán Quảng Triệu (Cantonese Assembly Hall). Founded in 1786, but rebuilt in 1885, the hall was funded by Cantonese merchants from Guandong Province in China. Passing through the gate you enter through the doorway of the hall that was made in China in parts, shipped to Hội An and then assembled here by the Cantonese community. In the courtyard beyond the door is the most famous feature of the assembly hall. An incredible dragon fountain, made of porcelain shards occupies the space. Beyond the beast lies the main worship space of the hall. Richly adorned with relief pictures of scenes from Cantonese operas, the assembly hall, while newer than its neighbours, is no less grand. The hall holds the ancestral tablets of the community ancestors, but the central altar is reserved for Quan Công (關公 Guān Gōng), the famed Chinese general of the Three Kingdoms Period.
After a few moments inspecting his horses which stand before the altar, you peer into the rear garden and see that there is an even larger, but less attractive, dragon fountain, with multiple creatures writhing in a dynamic dance. The garden is quite plain and even the back wall of the hall is bare. A replica of the famous Guangzhou (Canton) Five Ram Statue shows the strong ties that the hall has with its native city. Leaving the hall you come back out onto the street and you pass Nhà cổ Đức An (Old House of Duc An), another town landmark. Soon you arrive at the Hội quán Ngũ Bang (Chinese All-Community Assembly Hall), one of the oldest in Hội An. Originally called the Hội quán Dương Thương (Duong Thuong Assembly Hall), it was established in 1741 and built in 1773. There is some speculation that it may be much older, but the hall as it is today was built with funds from the main five Chinese communities (Fujianese, Cantonese, Hainanese, Chiu Chow and Hakka).
Entering the front door, you see on the right in the entrance hall are the portraits of martyred Chinese resistance fighters from the Second World War. These Chinese heroes died in Vietnam fighting the Japanese. Next is the central courtyard. You see that the hall is well restored and maintains its community function. It is also called the Lễ Nghĩa School and was set up so that children with no clan house or assembly hall of their own community, can learn Chinese and keep a connection with their ancestral roots. Walking past the tripod in the middle of the courtyard, you pass the more modern wrought iron decorated side halls and go to the main hall. Coming to the front of the hall you cross paths with two demonic guardians on either side of the door. These two are the protectors of the goddess Thiên Hậu (天后 Tiān Hòu), the Empress of Heaven. The sea goddess is revered all over Southern China and it is no surprise to see her here looking after the families of Chinese merchant sailors. She shares the space with a tablet for Confucius, denoting the scholarly function of the hall. As the hall was also used as a place to discuss business, there is an interesting stele that records the ten principle rules for Chinese people doing business in Hội An.
After a while in the hall with the goddess, you make a move to the next grand structure on the street. You pass through another archway into a large open area and up some steps that have a dragon carved into an imperial road in their centre. You look ahead of you and see that you are standing at the threshold of a two storey gatehouse. The pink structure looks as if it has come from a fairy tale. Looking out from the top windows of the gate are the sun god and moon goddess, along with a dragon holding a pearl in its mouth. This is the entrance to the Hội Quán Phúc Kiến (Fukien Assembly Hall). Entering the gate, you walk through another open space to the hall itself. Founded in around 1690 by merchants from Fukien (Fujian) in China, the hall is one of the most spectacular in Hội An. While the gate was built in the 1970s, the hall that you are now approaching was originally built in 1697. The swallow tail roof is distinctly Fujian in style and the hall transports you directly to South China.
The hall is a temple and as you enter, the dark entrance chamber, your eye is drawn to the multiple red coils of incense that hang from the roofed courtyard in front. Animal imagery is everywhere and you note some horses that have been beautifully crafted in relief over a door on the side halls of the courtyard. To either side of the main chamber are the two demonic guardians that were at Chinese All-Community Assembly Hall. The presence of Thuận Phong Nhĩ (順風耳 Shùnfēng Ěr) and Thiên Lý Nhãn (千裡眼 Qiānlǐ Yǎn), known in English as Favourable Wind Ears and Thousand Mile Eyes, prepare you for the goddess Thiên Hậu again. In the main altar, the sea goddess looks out from her throne at you. To your left is an impressive model junk boat. You feel as if you could be standing in standing in a temple to the goddess in Fujian, Taiwan or Hong Kong. The imagery is almost identical, but there is a slight Vietnamese element to the place. Taking the side door by the altar, you find yourself in another courtyard, smaller this time, but occupied by an impressive dragon sculpture made in a ceramic mosaic style common to Fujian. The secondary hall has a central altar dedicated to six hero generals from the Ming Dynasty and native sons of Fujian who fought against the Qing forces. Next to these Chinese figures are the Vietnamese Mười Hai Bà Mụ (Twelve Midwives). These twelve fairies teach babies skills such as how to suckle. Threading back through the rooms to the front of the hall, you exit onto the street and push on.
Chùa Ông (Pagoda of the Man) sits next to Chùa Bà (Pagoda of the Lady). While the latter is dedicated to Quan Âm (觀音 Guānyīn), it is the former that draws you in. The building you cast your eye over is impressively Southern Chinese. Its deep red frontage is decorated with light coloured panels. The dragons on the doors gaze up to a flaming dragon pearl and their playful dance pulls you toward the doors of the temple also known as Miếu Quan Công (Guān Gōng Temple). The red theme continues as you move into the interior of the temple. Looking around you, you see that while renovations have taken place on several occasions, this temple, built in 1653, has retained its integrity and is a wonderful example of the architecture created by the Chinese when they first started settling in Hội An. A rack of weapons stands in the first chamber and you edge past the symbolic tools of war into the courtyard with its central pond. The main chamber awaits you and you find two horses, one white and one red, either side of the offering table. In the altar behind sits Quan Công, the famed general of the Kingdom of Shu almost two thousand years ago. The red-faced warrior is accompanied by his son, Quan Bình (關平 Guān Píng), and his weapon bearer, Chu Thương (周倉 Zhōu Cāng).
You remove yourself from the martial chambers and go back to the civilian life of the Hội An streets. Darting quickly into the grounds of a smaller assembly hall, you stand in the presence of the dead. In the closed courtyard of the Hội quán Hải Nam (Hainan Assembly Hall), you look towards the diminutive main hall. The hall differs from the others as it was constructed by Emperor Tự Đức for the people of the community in 1851. One of his admirals plundered three Chinese ships (claiming they were mistaken for pirates). 108 Chinese lost their lives in the attack and after the naval commander was punished, the emperor ordered the hall to be built in their honour. The main altar enshrines a soul tablet for the sailors so that they can be sent offerings in the afterlife.
You continue on to the bright yellow gate of the nearby Tụy Tiên Đường Minh Hương (Minh Hương Communal House). The Minh Hương were displaced Chinese who left China when the Qing Dynasty took control. The building, from the mid-17th century, enshrines the ancestor tablets of the people. Looking at the building beyond the dazzling gates, you see it is relatively sedate. Content to admire the incredibly decorative gates, you pass by and terminate your tour at the Hội quán Triều Châu (Chiu Chow Assembly Hall).
The decorative arch of the assembly hall stands before you. Beyond it is the hall built by the Chiu Chow community from Cháozhōu in Guandong Province in 1845. The roof stands out with its detailed dragons, but entering it, you find yourself in a moderately simple space. The main hall after the inner courtyard is dedicated to Phục Ba tướng quân (伏波将军 Fúbō Jiāngjūn), the General who Calms the Waves. A deified historical character, the god was originally a General of the Eastern Han Dynasty called Mã Viện ( 馬援 Mǎ Yuán). He came from Shaanxi Province and lived between 14 BCE and 49 CE. Among his many campaigns for the kingdom, he also put down a rebellion by the Vietnamese national heroes and sisters, the Hai Bà Trưng (Two Ladies Trung), who fought against the Chinese and liberated the North of Vietnam for three years in 40 CE. The Chiu Chow people installed him in their hall believing he can secure safe sea travels. It is generally considered best to spend the night praying in the hall, in order for the god to grant wishes most effectively. As you do not intend to spend the night, you leave the hall and make your way through the local market to the sea front.
In the market you see some of the famous local noodles made with water from the ancient Giếng Bá Lễ (Ba Le Well). The well has been used since the trading point belonged to the Cham. The noodles, which are brownish in colour, are famed throughout the country and are totally unique to the town, owing to the local resources need to produce them. Walking along the waterfront, you see some small boats with eyes painted on the front. Getting to the end of the walkway, near to the Japanese bridge once again, you sit down on the road by the water and order a bowl of the famous cao lầu noodles. As you chew on the delicious noodles that are so unique to the town, you realise that the food you are eating perfectly sums up the town. Made of composite parts, a real fusion, it incorporates elements from different cultures. Yet somehow, the separate influences come together to make a Vietnamese whole.
NOTE: There is a complex ticketing system in place where you can make choices as to where you can redeem them. You cannot access all of the buildings in Hội An on one ticket. However, the checking of tickets is somewhat haphazard and therefore, you can often wander into a place and find nobody monitoring the flow of visitors. This means that sometimes tickets are not clipped, allowing you to visit more than your allocated number of sites.