Built on the Business of Boats

Hội An’s economic climb and fall as an affluent sea port froze its architecture in time.

It’s easy to imagine Hội An as it would have been in the 16th century. As a bustling stop along the Silk Road — known then as Hai Pho, or, “seaside town” — the city’s winding streets bedecked with colourful lanterns would have been filled with travellers from across the seven seas.

Not unlike today, what with the multitudes of tourists that flock to Vietnam’s most picturesque town.

Whilst much of Hội An is geared towards tourists, along the fringes of the Old Town one can catch a glimpse of local life on the water.

Built on the business of boats, Hội An experienced vast economic growth as an important mecca for merchants hailing from Holland, China, India and Japan.

The town’s fame grew from its position along the Silk Road. However, a decline in popularity enabled Hội An to retain its historic buildings and way of life.

Indeed, a Japanese settlement at one end of Hội An helped shape the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s distinct — and unchanged — architecture. The renown Japanese Covered Bridge being a prominent example of the town’s rich multicultural history.

The resurgence of Hội An as a tourist hot-spot has breathed new economic life into the quiet seaside town.

However, while the rest of the country began to change, Hội An did not. French colonization of Vietnam popularized Da Nang as a primary trading centre and ships built in later centuries were too deep for Hội An’s shallow ports.

Hội An’s backbone is its waterways,. While international traders chose other ports to conduct their business, local life remains centred around its fishing industry.

While the town’s fading popularity from the seaside trading scene cast a shadow on its prosperity, the lack of growth enabled Hội An’s golden yellow buildings, traditional temples and quiet way of life to remain undisturbed throughout the centuries.

Boats seem to have many uses in Hội An, from the robust tour charters, to fishing boats and smaller water-taxis.

Until, that is, Hội An became a hot-spot along the modern backpacker’s Southeast Asia tour. Today, tourist dollars — instead of merchant money — are making their way into the city.

Many locals looking to sell goods or provide boat rides to tourists idle along the Thu Bon River, with their boats becoming mobile means of making money.

Although, without the distractions of modern life the docked boats floating lackadaisically along the Thu Bon River, families piling into their own pontoons, and fishermen’s vessels tirelessly hunting for the day’s catch in the open water makes Hội An feel like a city stuck in time.

While boats have become a draw for tourists, many practical uses make a vessel imperative to local life in Hội An.

Hungry for more history? Satisfy the craving by reading about Hué’s Haunted History.

Photos and text by Sarah Comber. 


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