The Thu Bon River delta has been an important cultural and commercial centre for centuries. Throughout history, the hot, rainy climate and regular floods have provided the population with natural abundance and fertile soil for agriculture, even though they have also caused inconvenience and suffering. The first capital of the Champa kingdom, Tra Kieu, was located in this area, while nearby My Son served as its religious centre. Their port, Dam Chien (present-day Hoi An), was one of the largest in ancient Asia. The Cham were a seafaring people, after all, who engaged in international trade and piracy. It was here that Indian religious and artistic elements were first introduced to the country, and Champa civilisation developed.
Due to a series of wars, in the late medieval period the Champa kingdom fell into decay, and gave way to northern invaders. The Chinese-influenced culture of the Red River delta gradually spread south, where it incorporated and transformed local traditions. Thus, by 1400, Hoi An had become ‘Vietnamese’. Despite the political and cultural changes, however, it continued to be a trade centre of great economical significance. In the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth century, the port town was an important international trade hub, where merchants from different parts of East and Southeast Asia met.
For instance, until the Tokugawa shogunate implemented its isolationist sakoku policy in the seventeenth century, many Japanese traders visited Hoi An. Their influence is visible in some of the old houses, and in the famous temple bridge allegedly built to tame a dragon that caused earthquakes and volcano eruptions in the home country. In addition, large parts of the population of the town were Chinese. The powerful Chinese merchant clans built their own houses, temples and community halls, which can still be visited today. In the sixteenth century, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to do business in this town, which they called Faifo. Later, the Dutch East-Indies Company repeatedly tried to arrange a trade agreement, but their attempts were not successful.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Faifo / Hoi An was struck by several natural and man-made disasters. Most devastatingly, the river became more and more shallow; as a result, large ships could no longer get access to the port. By the time the French confiscated the land, Hoi An had been more or less forgotten, and commerce had spread to nearby Danang (which the French called Tourane). Later, during the war, Danang would become one of the most important American military posts. Meanwhile, freedom fighters took refuge in the ancient Cham towers of My Son, some of which were severely damaged by US bombs.
Hoi An was one of the few places in Vietnam that was not bombed during the war. It remained a small, unknown provincial town until well into the 1990s. At the time, very few foreigners had seen the beautiful old town or the lovely nearby beach . But the ‘hidden gem’ could not remain hidden forever. Some of the first foreign visitors wrote lyrically about the place in a popular guidebook called Lonely Planet (an overrated yet highly popular series of travel guidebooks that combine sarcasm, cultural essentialism and lyrical mythmaking about ‘hanging out with the locals’, and exercises great influence on the development of tourist infrastructures), and soon the number of visitors increased rapidly.
In 1999, Hoi An was given world heritage status (and money), and the houses and temples of the old town were restored – but also, perhaps inevitably, transformed into tailor shops, restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. Backpackers were followed by wealthy package deal tourists, new hotels and resorts were built, and within a couple of years the old town changed completely. It became a little gentrified Asian amusement park, where few locals can afford to spend time – so much for ‘hanging out’ with them. Today, prices in the most popular restaurants are several times what they used to be a couple of years ago. A cocktail in a trendy bar now costs about as much as seven meals in a local eatery.
As a result of the rapid changes, some successful entrepreneurs have become very rich, but many others have not. Hence, income gaps have widened dramatically. In fact, many of the wealthy owners of hotels and restaurants are Hanoians – people with capital, who can afford to invest in real estate in the old town or near the beach. By contrast, many local people moved to Danang as they could no longer afford living in Hoi An. Thus, mass tourism, increasing income gaps and domestic migration have contributed to inflation, the erosion of social cohesion and the loss of traditional rural and urban landscapes. This development is not limited to Hoi An’s old town: the once-gorgeous beaches between Hoi An and Danang are turning into yet another hideous jungle of concrete and neon letters. All of this is part of the mixed blessing called ‘progress’.
When our plane arrived at Danang International Airport, construction workers were just removing the letters from the old terminal building. We were taxied to a brand-new, large building we had not seen before. Danang is desperately trying to attract foreign tourists to stay (i.e., spend money) at one of its myriad new beach resorts, and the construction of an impressive new airport building is part of its strategy. So far, few (if any) airline companies are offering international flights to and from Danang, but the city government seems pretty convinced that this will change in the near future.
We took a shared taxi from the airport in Danang to Hoi An (for some reason, no shuttle buses operate on the route yet). It was cloudy, wet and a bit chilly, and unfortunately the weather would remain pretty much the same all week, with the exception of one sunny day. But we were happy to be back in Hoi An and spend time with our family, whom we had not seen for a year and a half.
It was Christmas, so we went to a church service. Vietnam is in name a communist country, but its population has always remained highly religious, including many people who are not affiliated with a particular religious institution. The dominant religious traditions are so-called ‘ancestor worship’, Mahayana Buddhism, the Chinese traditions (Taoism, Confucianism, yin-yang practices), as well as the cults of national heroes and local deities. In addition, however, a significant proportion of the population is Christian – official statistics suggest approximately six to eight percent, but the actual number may be higher. In fact, Vietnam is one of the countries in Asia with the highest percentage of Christians (only the Philippines, Lebanon and South Korea have more). Traditionally, most of these belonged to the Catholic Church. In recent years, however, as in other Asian countries, Evangelical churches have gained quite some popularity.
The church we visited was one of those American-style Evangelical churches with a neon cross on top of the roof. The lyrics of songs were projected on a large screen, the music was electronic and had a loud beat (clearly adjusted to Vietnamese preferences) and the members of the choir were bad singers, but they did wear beautiful red-white dresses and candles. The church was completely packed; there must have been several hundreds of people, many of whom probably do not usually come to church services. We had to sit on plastic stools in the back of the church, and we considered ourselves lucky, for many others had to stand. Most of the attendants were in their twenties and thirties, but there were many children as well, reflecting Vietnamese demographic developments and suggesting significant church growth.
The service lasted way too long. The first hour and a half or so were mainly devoted to singing songs. Silent Night and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing were the only traditional Christmas carols passing by; the others were Vietnamese versions of American songs (with alternative, religious lyrics) such as White Christmas and Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, as well as Vietnamese-style folk songs, performed by solo singers. In fact, it sounded more like some sort of music festival than an actual church service, and the police officials and Party officials standing outside the church to report the contents of the service to the authorities must have felt very bored. Eventually, we did get to listen to a sermon – as far as I could tell, it was mainly about the notion of wealth, and about how to achieve true happiness. As expected, political or social critique was absent.
Except for the church service, our week in Hoi An was mainly devoted to social activities. We spent a lot of time with family and friends, and my language skills – while still limited – improved quite a bit. We also did a bit of shopping. Vietnam is still relatively cheap, so it is a good place to pick up new glasses, a coat or a pair of shoes, especially if you live in the world’s most expensive country. We did not do any sightseeing, but we did enjoy the occasional motorbike ride around the rice paddies, which brought back happy memories.
So what do you do, when you spend Christmas with family? Exactly: eating and drinking. Hoi An has fantastic food, and we enjoyed our stay to the fullest. For breakfast or lunch, we could choose from many different kinds of noodle soup – pho, bun, or one of the local specialities, mi quang or cao lau. Other simple but delicious streetfood includes chao (rice porridge), com ga (chicken rice), banh xeo (savory pancakes) and springrolls. For dinner, we could choose from different kinds of fresh seafood, such as crab or fish, eaten with rau som (mixed fresh herbs and lettuce), rice crackers and nuoc mam (fish sauce). Or, alternatively, eaten in soup, with noodles and vegetables – so-called hotpot (lau). I also love the clams steamed with lemongrass and chilli, the fish-filled tofu, and of course hoa chuoi – banana flower salad with shrimp, mint and peanuts. Three of my all-time favourite dishes, in fact. Washed away with the local beer Larue (with ice, of course), cold tea or fresh fruit juice.
Yes, did I mention the fruit? Fresh tropical fruit is one of the great delights of any visit to Southeast Asia, and Vietnam is no exception. Banana, coconut, custard apple, dragonfruit, guava, jackfruit, kumquat, lime, longan, mango, mangosteen, milk fruit, nashi pear, papaya, pineapple, pomelo, rambutan, sapodilla, soursop, starfruit, sugar cane, watermelon… The list is endless, the variety of flavours amazing.
We know that Hoi An will always be a home for us, no matter how fast she changes, and no matter how mixed our feelings about those changes. It will always be the town where my wife spend her childhood, the town where we first met, the town where we got married. There will always be fresh fruit, herbs, fish sauce and seafood waiting for us. And, last but not least, there is the sea, and the beach, with all its memories. The town is like that sea – ever-changing, yet timeless.