Sunday, March 11, 2012

Hoi An - Vietnam

Hi An, or rarely Faifo, is a city of Vietnam, on the coast of the South China Sea in the South Central Coast of Vietnam. It is located in Quang Nam province and is home to approximately 120,000 inhabitants. It is recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The city possessed the largest harbour in Southeast Asia in the 1st century and was known as Lâm p Ph (Champa City). Between the seventh and 10th centuries, the Cham (people of Champa) controlled the strategic spice trade and with this came tremendous wealth. The former harbour town of the Cham at the estuary of the Thu Bn River was an important Vietnamese trading centre in the 16th and 17th centuries, where Chinese from various provinces as well as Japanese, Dutch and Indians settled. During this period of the China trade, the town was called Hai Pho (Seaside Town) in Vietnamese. Originally, Hai Pho was a divided town with the Japanese settlement across the "Japanese Bridge" (16th-17th century). The bridge (Chùa cu) is a unique covered structure built by the Japanese, the only known covered bridge with a Buddhist pagoda attached to one side.

The town was known to the French and Spanish as “Faifo”, and by similar names in Portuguese and Dutch. A number of theories have been put forth as to the origin of this name. Some scholars have suggested that it comes from the word "hi-ph" meaning "sea town", while others have said that it is more likely simply a shortening of Hi An-ph , "the town of Hi An", to "Hoi-pho" which became "Faifo"

The early history of Hi An is that of the Cham. These Malayo-Polynesian peoples probably came from Java around 200 B.C. and by 200 A.D. created the Champa Empire which stretched from Huế to beyond Nha Trang. In the early years, M Sơn was the spiritual capital, Trà Kiu was the political capital and Hi An was the commercial capital of the Champa Empire - later, by the 14th century, the Cham moved further down towards Nha Trang. The river system was the transportation for goods between the highlands, inland countries of Laos and Thailand and the low lands.

In 1535 Portuguese explorer and sea captain António de Faria, coming from Đà Nng, tried to establish a major trading center at the port village of Faifo. Hi An was founded as a trading port by the Nguyn Lord Nguyn Hoàng sometime around 1595. The Nguyn Lords were far more interested in commercial activity than the Trnh Lords who ruled the north. As a result, Hi An flourished as a trading port and became the most important trade port on the South China Sea. Captain William Adams, the English sailor and confidant of Tokugawa Ieyasu, is known to have made at least one trading mission to Hi An (around 1619).

In the 18th century, Hi An was considered by Chinese and Japanese merchants to be the best destination for trading in all of Southeast Asia, even Asia. Japanese believed the heart of all of Asia (the dragon) lay beneath the earth of Hi An. The city also rose to prominence as a powerful and exclusive trade conduit between Europe, China, India, and Japan, especially for the ceramic industry. Shipwreck discoveries have shown that Vietnamese and Asian ceramics were transported from Hi An to as far as Sinai, Egypt.

Hi An's importance waned sharply at the end of the 18th century because of the collapse of Nguyn rule (thanks to the Tây Sơn Rebellion - which was opposed to foreign trade). Then, with the triumph of Emperor Gia Long, he repaid the French for their aid by giving them exclusive trade rights to the nearby port town of Đà Nng. Đà Nng became the new center of trade (and later French influence) in central Vietnam while Hi An was a forgotten backwater. Local historians also say that Hi An lost its status as a desirable trade port due to silting up of the river mouth. The result was that Hi An remained almost untouched by the changes to Vietnam over the next 200 years.

Today, the town is a tourist attraction because of its traditional architecture, crafts such as textiles and ceramics preserved and visitors are exploited. Many bars, hotels, and resorts have been constructed both in Hi An and the surrounding area. The port mouth and boats are still used for both fishing and tourism.

Calm mild weather is now limited to the season of May/June - end of August when the seas are calm and wind changes direction and comes from the South. The remainder of the year the weather is intermittent between rain & cold and hot and mild. Popular activities such as visiting offshore Cù lao Chàm islands are only guaranteed to be likely during the short season of end of May - end of August, which is the high season for domestic tourism.

Heritage and tourism
In 1999, the old town was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO as a well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port of the 15th to 19th centuries, with buildings that display a unique blend of local and foreign influences. According to the UNESCO Impact Report 2008 on Hi An, tourism has bought changes to the area which are not sustainable without mitigation.

The city has various small museums highlighting the history of the region, especially ceramics, such as the Museum of Trade Ceramics. The Museum of Sa Huỳnh Culture was built in 1995, and has over 430 ceramic items from 8th to 18th Century. The items originating from Persia, China, Thailand, India and other countries are proofs of the importance of Hi An as a major trading port in South East Asia.

Get Around
The centre of Hoi An is very small and pedestrianised, so you will be walking around most of the time. Motorbikes are only banned from the center of town during certain times of day, so keep an eye out for motorized kamikazes, even in the most narrow alleys. However, the city's government does not allow motorbikes to enter the Old Town on the 14th and 15th of each lunar month. On those evenings, a lot of activities, including traditional games such as bai choi, trong quan, and dap nieu are held in all over the town.

To go to the beach or reach some of the more remote hotels, it is easy and cheap to hire a bicycle. Taxis can be found in the middle of Le Loi Street, over the river on An Hoi or called by phone. When busy, taxis may refuse your fare back to your hotel from town if it is too close, opting for larger fares. Arranging a shuttle from your hotel may be a better option although prices can be higher.

Traffic in Hoi An is minimal, so if you've been avoiding getting on a bike in the big cities, small towns and the surrounding countryside like Hoi An are ideal to get used to the road rules. Get a car to visit My Son early in the morning, about an hour away, or the Marble Mountains, about forty minutes north towards Da Nang.

The old Champa way was to travel by the river system. The rivers of Hoi An cover hundreds of kilometers and offer an interesting & adventurous alternative to travelling by road. Get on a boat and you'll begin to see a whole lot more of Hoi An and the Delta.

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