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Hoi An still a melting pot

Hoi An has always been a melting pot. Nowadays, the old town is awash with international tourists keen to sup on tempting culinary treats or give their wardrobe a low-cost overhaul.

But centuries ago, it was a different class of foreigner who made a pilgrimage to ' these shores.

In the early 16th century, traders from the Netherlands and Portugal dropped anchor in this prosperous market town to scout for the sought-after oriental commodities that were keeping these far-off nations afloat.

By the 1570s, Chinese and Japanese traders had followed their noses to the bustling trade hub and were joined by boats hailing from as far afield as Britain and France by the end of the 17th century.

The Nguyen lords, who by then were guiding the nation's development, saw the potential for profit and threw open the doors of trade and it was the Chinese and Japanese who took up the invitation with the most gusto - creating the enchanting architectural mix that characterises the town today.

Hoi An's appeal lay in the fact that the town was a commercial port located on a coastal estuary. It offered river and sea access, meaning goods could be transported from within Vietnam and from across the world.

An old Vietnamese saying has it that birds alight only on benign land. Hoi An must have been very benign indeed, for it attracted a healthy flow of migrants. The convergence of these new settlers, from different ethnic groups and hailing from both far and near, helped create a diverse local culture. "Nowhere are the people as refined as those from Hoi An, and there is no place as joyful as the markets of Pho and Han," asserted a famous adage.

Vietnamese had made the trek south, or north, since the 14th century in search of a stable living. Family records under the sign of King Le Thanh Tong (1460-1497) show the village of Vong Nhi in Cam Thanh already existed. In 1553 the villages of Cam Pho and Hoai Pho were founded.

The first Nguyen lord came to Quang Nam in 1570 and waves of migrants, mostly from the northern provinces of Hai Duong and Thanh Hoa, followed his lead in later years. Migrants from further south also came, often initially for trade but decided to make the region their home.

Hoi An was crowded and joyful, but not too noisy and the people weren't given to over-excitement. They were simple-hearted, well-mannered and gentle people who conducted themselves according to the saying: "Let the customer be pleased when they come and pleased when they leave."

Pretty soon, Hoi An had a finger in every commercial pie. Customers could buy grains and food, Kim Bong carpentry, Thanh Ha pottery, Tra Que fresh vegetables, silk, handicrafts and fine art products manufactured by people living on both sides of the Thu Bon River.

A host of sailing boats were always anchored, in a disorderly tangle, along the Hoai Pho and Cua Dai rivers. Many small boats pulled up alongside them to sell Quang noodles and save their owners the trouble of coming ashore.

Even the waters of the converging rivers brought their own gift to the happy township. The water was brackish on a rising tide and fresh on the wane and the Hoai Pho and Cua Dai rivers were calm all year round.

But eventually the fickle tide of international trade turned and the foreign traders moved elsewhere to find their fortune. This too was a boon for the sleepy riverside town, where life was never harried.

Residents settled into centuries of peace and prosperity, until their beloved town was put back on the map in 1985. Since then, UNESCO has recognised the old town as one of Vietnam's World Heritage-listed sights. Scientists, architects and holidaymakers now make a pilgrimage here - bringing back some of the international flavour of its glorious past.

NhanDan - (23/09/2003)

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