Hoi An is ancient town best preserved in Vietnam with the unique Cau Pagoda, old features, peace, tranquility, and simple people. The town is home to a unique architecture heritage: a complex of ancient houses kept intact affter hundreds of years. The architectural, historical and cultural values hidden in these ancient houses have made Hoi An attractive destination to both domestic and foreign tourists.
Hoi An was well know in the business world with different names such as Lam Ap or Hoai Pho. Thank yo favorable geographic and weather conditions. Hoi An was once a busy international trading port where trading boats from Japan, China and Europe often gathered in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Before this period it had the traces of Cham Pa trading port, which was associated with the Silk Road on the Sea. In the 19th century, Dai Estuary gradually became narrow and the Co Co River was filled with alluvium so big boats could not reach Hoi An port.
Therefore, the port lost its position of an important international port. Through vicissitude, Hoi An’s architecture has been maintained avoiding the urbanization in the late 20th century.
Apart from architectural buildings the town is home to a rich intangible heritage culture. Life of the people in the ancient town has been maintained with many customs and practices preserved.
Hoi An, for that reason is considered a living museum of architecture and urban lifestyle. The values of Hoi An ancient town should be mentioned as:
- first, values of the general urban architecture and
- second, architectural values of each building.
in terms of general urban architecture, it was a trading port of Vietnam, which developed strongly from the 15th to the 19th century. It can be referred to as a door for Vietnam to reach the world.
As it is a trading port Hoi An gathers different flows of culture. However, we have learnt the cerefully to create the urban architecture of Hoi An. So Hoi An has a special location. The architectural style is a combination of essence of the countries we got access to. It’s an urban area with the features of a trading port. I think we should pay attention to this. Hanoi is a typical urban area with many craft guilds. Duong Lam is an ancient village. Meanwhile, Hoi An is an urban area and a trading port where we get access to foreigners.
What makes the ancient town special is a complex of houses imblued with the unique features of people who used to live and do businesss in the past. Chinese and Japanese people came here in the 17th century. They established guilds to trade with the locals and with traders from other countries.
When living here, they created many valuable architectural buldings such as houses, ancestral houses, temples and assembled halls.
Most of the houses in the town were built during the 17th and 19th centuries along small streets. These houses, narrow in the front and pretty deep connect two parallel streets together which is really good for business activities.
The houses are roofed with double titles, the tiles in different rows are turned in different sides, creating alternate lines along the roofs. Houses in Hoi An are basically divided in three main spaces with suitable fuctions:
- trading space
- living space
- and worshiping space.
The houses were built for many purposes in harmony with surrounding landscape. This is a typical feature of Southeast Asian architecture. One of the ourstanding ancient houses in Hoi An is Duc An ancient house at No.129 Tran Phu Street. Entering the 180 year old house, we can see realize the ancientness from simple utensils.
In modern life, daily activities in the past seem to be revived through the furniture and utensils that have been kept intact up to now. That why visitors often think that everything in this house has the ancient beauty that belongs to the old days.
Despites yearly floods and several restorations the time honored cultural values of Duc An ancient house have been kept almost intact. From outside the house looks pretty small. Actually it is very spacious because it serves trade activites. Our ancestors enlarged the house to get more light and wind because they didn’t have electricity.
The road in front of the house was earlier dedicated to mandarins only. That’s why earlier, houses by the road were not allowed to have a second storey facing the road. Even if ithad a storage the storage could not be higher than a mandarins’ palanquin.
The living room plays a very important role in an ancient house. Here the owners of the hosue place a set of sofa and hang many horizontal lacquered boards, pairs of parallel sentences, and sets of four pictures. The solemn arrangement in the living room as such shows the deph of the owners’ soul and their appreciation of fine values of Vietnamese culture.
The worshipping space is also located at an honourable place, revealing descendants’ gratitude towards and respect for their ancestors. The door of the house is always opened for prosperity to enter. When we enter the house, we can see the ancestral altar on the left because our heart is on the left. And it faces South because it is the best direction. Our ancestors thought that the East is for placeing flowers, while the West is for placing fruit. The South is the best direction. There is a small flat bed in front of the altar. Children who made mistakes would be asked to sit on the bed, the elderly would burn incense to inform their ancestors. Then they sat on the flat, the old inside and the young outside. This was an educational method associated with spiritual concept, which was believed to be more effective. People in the past thought that they should be granted by the superiors when they taught their children. Apart from ancestral worship, Hoi An people worship Quan Cong. In their house, the altar of Quan Cong is placed at the highest position.
Hoi An people have long worshipped Quan Cong as a guardian god who brings safety and peacefulness to their family. Perhaps this practice orginated when Chinese people came to Hoi An.
Especially, slim houses in Hoi An always have a yard inside for pond, rockery, bonsai, etc… to welcome the sunlight and create the green space. Therefore, their houses are always filled with fresh air, which makes everyone relaxed and enables them to get closer to nature.
This is the solution for ventilation and lighting in slim houses. This is also a strong point of houses in the ancient town. which helps the locals adapt to the weather conditions here. This is the space for relaxing activities such as drinking wine, playing chess, watching the moon and admiring the flowers. There are also spaces for women and children to sleep, study, cook and eat, it extends rearwards.
The house has a big reaward garret, which we cannot see when we enter the house. Earlier, no high buildings were allowed to build. Thus, our ancestors put up roofs to hide the garret. We just see the garret standing on the second yard looking upwards. It means the garret was put up reawards.
Tan Ky ancient house at No.101 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street is another house that has the typical features of Hoi An.
On the main entrance door is a pair of eyes in the shape of the yin-yang circle. Like human eyes, the eyes of the house leave the very first impression on visitors and carry the owner’s wishes of prosperity and happiness.
So far 7 generations of a family have lived in this house. Tan Ky ancient house has many vestiges that are the evidence for the most brilliant time of Hoi An when trade activities with foreign partners flourished and rich traders built luxury houses. Despite changes made by the time and floods the house remains almost intact because it was built from good materials.
My family has lived and been engaged in agricultural product trading here since the first generation. However, we were engaged in small-scale business in the late 18th century. The 2nd generation had a thriving business and made a condiderable fortune in transporting goods upstream.
Later, the Thu Bon River was gradually narrowed by silt so the 3nd generation saw a decline in business, which was associated with the decline of all business activities in Hoi An. That’s why Hoi An is no longer a busy port.
Wodden pillars create the frame of the house which supports the roof, eases the pressure on all the walls of the house. We can see the features of the Japanese architecture such as the “chong ruong gia thu” style, i.e. beams piled up into the shape of a hand with five fingers.
Curved beams consolidate the house. The frame to support the eaves of the house is carved with images of carp. This 200-year-old house has a system of rafters that divide its compartments lengthwise, a typical feature of Vietnamese ancient architecture. Like many other ancient houses, Tan Ky has two fronts: One is used for trade activities, and the other facing the river is where goods are exchanged in the first generation, the rear part of the house faced South, the main direction.
In fact, the whole house also faced that direction although the front part was sophisticatedly made. The rear part is for our ancestors to bring goods in. Boats landed in the back and people brought goods through the back entrance. Therefore, the altar also faced that direction. In other areas, altars turn towards, while the altars here turn backwards. However, the back was the main direction in the past.
Tourists can find interesting features of Chinese sculpture through carvings of bat and pomegranate, for example, the symbol of good things. Decoration items inside the house are mainly made of wood and carved elaborately, reflecting the well-off life of the house owners.
Besides, Tan Ky ancient house still keeps a pair of parallel sentences which means:
A row of willows of several hundreds of meters ong can stop remote rain. A piece of the moon 10sq. cm can light up a room full of books In terms of sculpture, remarkably, these Han characters create 100 birds that are going to fly into the sky.
Apart from Tan Ky and Duc An, Hoi An ancient town has preserved many other beautiful ancient houses such as Phung Hung and Quan Thang. Each house is an architectural masterpiece featuring Vietnamese traditional art and cultural interactions with China and Japan.
Rafters of Vietnamese traditional architecture are arranged in the Japanese “chong ruong gia thu” style and decorated with Chinese motifs. Such clever combinations leave a strong imprint and honor long-established values of Hoi An ancient town today and Hoi An trading port in the past. Whoever comes to Hoi An ancient town will be mesmerized by the beauty of the ancient houses here.
The utensils in the houses have been preserved and handed down from generation to generation. The worshipping house of built by Nguyen Tuong Van from Nguyen Tuong family is an example. In the first year under King Minh Mang’s reign, Van was promoted to the post of “Binh Bo Thuong Thu”, similar to Minister of National Defense today.
Entering the house, visitors can see pillars and trusses decorated with beautiful patterns in the shape of stylized chrysanthemum which means eternality and longevity. The house also keeps a portrait of Nguyen Tuong Van, which was drawn when he was sent to China as the King’s envoy, and many royal titles given by Kings Minh Mang, Thieu Tri and Tu Duc to Van and his oldest son, Nguyen Tuong Vinh.
This house was designed according to the style of a royal palace. It is actually the palace of a mandarin. Its structure is like the Han character of “Gong” including 3 compartments and 3 lean-tos. Paterns in the shape of chrysanthemum of windows in the shape of Buddha’s hand fruit are aimed to highlight brotherhood.
The house was built to connect family members. Chrysanthemum symbolizes prosperity. Descendants of the Nguyen Tuong family also include members of “Tu Luc Van Doan” such as Nhat Linh, Thach Lam and Hoang Dao. This explains the display of these writers’ books in the worshipping hall of the family. The romantic space of “Doan Tuyet” (Farewell) and “Buom Trang” (White Butterfly) seems to be revived in the house.
In these ancient houses, modern utensils cannot be seen. Perhaps the owners of the houses keep them backstage. In such houses as Duc An, Phan Ngoc Tram, its owner, even works as a tour guide to help visitors understand more about the asset. That’s why ancient houses to visitors not only carry time-honored beauty but also show their owners’ determination to preserve valuable heritages.
Hoi An authorities have succeeded in honouring the role of community in preserving and promoting cultural values. Other countries have not succeeded in helping their people realize their responsibility towards cultural heritages.
Hoi An people know very well that they have an asset with huge cultural values, which brings about great benefits and makes people proud. It’s the most outstanding feature of Hoi An. Everyone in the town is willing to preserve it as a national heritage. The aesthetic, cultural and historical values of the ancient houses have contributed to making Hoi An stand out as today. Going back time, these ancient houses were shops that buzzed with activities of domestic and foreign traders, creating a busy trading port.
Today, the ancient houses are no longer used for business purposes because they become tourist sites revitalizing Hoi An economy. These architectural buildings are the best evidence for trade activities between Hoi An people an Japanese and Chinese people in the previous centuries. Through many ups and downs, Hoi An remains there with vestiges of an ancient port with ancient beauty and with traces of time.
Source: VTC10 Netviet