Hoian was first known as the commercial capital of the mighty Cham Kingdom, and later as one South East Asia’s great trading ports. At its height between the 16th and 19th centuries merchants would flock to Hoian from all over the world to attend fairs lasting months on end to trade in spices, silks and ceramics.
In 1535 Portuguese explorer and sea captain António de Faria, coming from Danang, tried to establish a major trading center at the port village of Faifo. Hoian was founded as a trading port by the Nguyen Lord (Nguyen Hoang) sometime around 1595. The Nguyen lords were far more interested in commercial activity than the Trịnh lords who ruled the north. As a result, Hoian flourished as a trading port and became the most important trade port on the East Sea (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 Hoian (around 1619). The early Portuguese Jesuits also had one of their two residences at Hoian.
In the 18th century, Hoian 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 Hoian. 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 Hoian to as far as Sinai, Egypt.
Hoian was declined as a port by late 19th century when the Nguyen King revoked its free trade status, the harbour began to silt up, and merchants were forced to moor their ships at the deeper harbour to the north at Danang. However, this abrupt change of fortunes meant usual commercial development came to a halt, preserving the town’s unique architectural heritage.
Today, the town is a tourist attraction because of its history, traditional architecture and crafts such as textiles and ceramics. Many bars, hotels, and resorts have been constructed both in Hoian and the surrounding area. The port mouth and boats are still used for both fishing and tourism.
The streets and alleyways today are still lined with brightly decked out shops and stalls selling every kind of souvenir imaginable, and in a nod to its silken past, the town is said to boast more than 200 tailors who can turn around a made-to-measure dress, silk shirt or suit in less than 24 hours.
Chinese and Japanese settlers left their architectural legacy in the form of temples, meeting halls and wooden merchants’ houses. The iconic early 17th century Japanese covered bridge and temple spans a narrow tributary of the Tho Bun River, separating the picturesque old Japanese and Chinese quarters of town. Built at the location of the heart of a mythical dragon, the bridge was supposed to pin the dragon down and calm the seismic activity it was allegedly responsible for in distant Japan.
The finest examples of meeting halls, temples and merchant houses, along with the Japanese bridge and temple can all be visited on an official ticket, purchased only at a designated ticket office. The ticket buys entry to 5 of the main attractions, and should you use up your entitlement you will need to return to the official ticket office and buy another ticket. No tickets are sold at doors.
If you feel the need to venture further afield there are numerous tours to tempt you. The thousand-year-old Cham Holly Land ruins at My Son are just 40km away. A 20 minute speed boat ride or one hour on a slow boat will take you to the undeveloped Cham islands for great snorkeling or hiking over the unspoilt hilly terrain.
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 houses that display a unique blend of local and foreign influences. According to the UNESCO Impact Report 2008 on Hoian, tourism has brought changes to the area.
Due to the increased number of tourists visiting Hoian, lots of activities have been emerging which allow guests to get out of the old quarter and explore by motorbike, bicycle, Kayak or motorboat. The Thu Bon River is still essential to the region more than 500 years after António de Faria first navigated it and it remains an essential form of transport for the inhabitants and merchants. As of such, Hoian is becoming an increasingly popular active tourist place.