Long before GATT, the TWO and global trade, there was the Vietnamese port city of Hội An.
From 2,000 years back the little settlement with the giant harbor served as a conduit for goods coming and going throughout the Pacific Rim and beyond. In the 10th Century spices, silks and ivory from Hội An were well known in Baghdad. Shipwreck excavations from numerous sites clearly show that ceramics passed from Hội An as far as Sinai in Egypt. Sailor William Adams long thought to be the first Englishman to reach Japan (and the inspiration for the Shōgun character John Blackthorne) travel to Vietnam and traded there in the late 1500’s. Portuguese António de Faria sought exclusive trading rights from the Nguyễn Lords after leaving Da Nang in 1535. By the 1700’s, the Chinese and Japanese merchants working the South China Sea and beyond regularly wrote that Hội An was the best destination for trading in all of Southeast Asia, And perhaps all of Asia.
Today, travel packages to Vietnam from the United States are easier to find than they have ever been before.
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Lalang trees hang above narrow and yellow alleyways defined by row upon row of tiled roof Chinese trading houses still bedecked in locally made embroidered silks, hand-made ceramics and colorful lanterns. Down by the riverbank a traditional dance troupe arrives and decaying fishing boats staffed by old men still work the waters for a daily catch.
Those who travel to Vietnam will find Hội An fascinating in the way all ancient multicultural cities spark the imagination.
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The Champa people settled the area first. They were a people from the Malaysia-Indonesia island area who arrived nearly 2500 years ago. Over time, the Champa grew a large and powerful kingdom that lasted nearly a thousand year. The harbor at Hội An centered them a place in world trade. That harbor (or the riches it allowed) caught the attention of Kublai Khan who smashed the kingdom and integrated the trading port into his empire that stretched all the way to Europe.
Later, under Viet control the town had another growth boom as Japanese, Dutch, Indian and Portuguese traders poured into the area. Boom that is until the Nguyen Lords turned in on themselves and made the mistake of banning trade. Da Nang, then controlled by the French happily took up the slack. With its harbor slowly silting up and trade being deliberate directed away from it, Hoi An became a backwater.
For the visitor however, Hội An’s fall from the world stage is a boon. While the rest of Vietnam either sought or was forced to adapt to European culture, wealth and “modernization” Hội An remained as it was, fell down the memory hole and plodded along in its ancient ways until the travel to Vietnam boom of just the last 15 years or so.
In 1999, UNESCO named Hội An a World Heritage Site and with it came a cultural and economic resurgence based on tourism. Hội An is chock full of small museums, cultural sites (Museum of Trade Ceramics, the Japanese Bridge, the Museum of Sa Huỳnh Culture) and other must-see places like the busy Central Market where street food, spices silkworms, silk clothing, souvenirs and fish are all readily available amidst a panoply of smells, sounds and colors,