Hoi An's Buildings

Hoi An's architectural development passed through three stages. The first was early period as an insignificant village of bamboo shacks, of which none remain.

The second period was some time after it expanded into to become a flourishing commercial port attracting merchant ships from afar. From the middle of the seventeenth century, the growing Chinese and Japanese communities began erecting places of worship, assembly halls and, later, residential houses.

The first of these were Chinese assembly halls that also served as temples for ancestor worship, followed by pagodas dedicated to the worship of Taoist gods, Confucius and Buddha. As the town became more prosperous and populous, further assembly halls and pagodas were built together with fine houses for merchants who had become full-time residents servicing an increasing volume of exports and imports.

All were built predominantly of wood on a stone foundation. Those that survive are the architectural heritage that justified its World Heritage listing and are the main attraction for the hundreds of thousands of visitors that arrive each year.

The architectural styles are based upon that of China and Japan, but there are also Vietnamese features and some influences from Europe and other countries that frequented the port.

As the port declined during and the number of traders dwindled during the late 18th century, some of the buildings fell into disrepair and collapsed. The gaps were in-filled by unattractive rendered brick structures built in the boxy Vietnamese style.

The main architectural attractions
There is a good municipal museum in the Ancient Town that is worth a visit, not only in its own right, but also as a resource of informative guide books at varying prices and degrees of detail. The following is a brief list of the most distinctive of the town’s many old buildings.

The Japanese Bridge
The most famous is popularly known as the Japanese Covered Bridge. Unfortunately, the name leads most visitors to overlook the small pagoda of which it is an integral element. Indeed, it’s debatable whether it was of Japanese construction at all. Nevertheless, it’s an attractive structure and is probably enhanced by the mystery surrounding its origins.

The Assembly Halls
Tran Phu, one of the main streets, has five interesting assembly halls all on the left hand side with your back to the bridge. Four are for specific ethnic groups in China, but the Chinese Assembly Hall is open to all Chinese seafarers. From the bridge, the Cantonese Assembly Hall is the first you come to, followed by the Chinese, Fukien, Hainan and, somewhat further, the Chaozhou Assembly Halls. All combine social and welfare functions as well as places for ritual and worship. Each has distinctive features usually relating to the sea, sailors and shipwrecks.

The Merchants’ Houses
The many Merchants’ Houses are scattered around the town. Typically, they are a melangé of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese architecture, each with distinguishing features and styles of interior decoration. Many combined commercial and residential functions – a storage and trading area in the front, and accommodation at the rear. They were usually long and narrow, with one or two interior open courtyards, sometimes with decorative pools, providing light and fresh air.

Many also contained private temples, either incorporated into the structure or in a separate building, and family tombs.

Larger houses had extensive lofts, also at the front and used as warehouses. A few similar structures can be found in Hanoi's Old Quarter. Apart from that, the architecture of Hoi An's old houses is a unique example of a blend of many cultural styles.

There are also several pagodas in Hoi An. One of the oldest is the Ong Hoi An, dating back to at least 1653. Inside, a huge red-faced effigy of General Quan Cong dominates the array of statues and votive objects.

Believed to be the first pagoda in Hoi An, the Chuc Thanh was actually built in 1744, not in thirteenth century as described in most guide books. The confusion has been traced to an error by a long-dead artisan who carved the Chinese Emperor’s name wrongly on the roof beam, thus locating him in a much earlier dynasty. Nevertheless, it’s well worth a visit.

Among the other pagodas and temples, you'll find a small Cao Dai temple tucked away. Comparatively modern, it is an outpost of Vietnam’s ‘tailor-made religion’ based in the south.

Both the Truong and the Tran family chapels are interesting. Both were built by ethnic Chinese people, and reflect the architectural styles of both China and Japan. The altar in the Tran chapel has a set of hand carved stone tablets commemorating the ancestors. The rear garden is a delight in miniature.

Apart from the municipal museum, housed in an unprepossessing brick structure, some of the old buildings have been converted into museums. The Museum of History and Culture is housed in a redundant pagoda, and provides a good overview of the town’s development. The Museum of Trade Ceramics, funded by donations from Japan, is more specialised. It has some fascinating exhibits of ceramics and porcelain, one of the mainstays of Hoi An's trading past, and some detailed architectural drawings.

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