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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Photos and text by Sarah Comber.