From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, the harbour town of Hội An, not far from Danang, attracted merchants from all over Asia. Although they comprised mainly Japanese and Chinese, they also included Portuguese, Dutch, French and British. All came to trade in cinnamon, pepper, paper, ceramic, medicinal plants and, above all, the silk that was – and still is – the region’s main glory.
Sailing requires good winds that are not always blowing at the right time, and trading companies like to have people they trust in harbours. Thus, foreign merchants began to settle in the city. Even if it never had more than a few hundred permanent residents, it often housed thousands of foreigners, especially Chinese and Japanese (until 1637), each living in their own areas, with their own rules. They built their own dwellings, temples and congregation halls. By the end of the sixteenth century, the town was split between a Chinese district and a Japanese one.
The Chinese district, where scores of merchant houses have been preserved, is a must for any art and architecture lover. The ground floors of the long, thin houses were devoted to trading, while the second floor housed altars of the ancestors and Taoist deities -customarily just below the ceiling.
One particularly noteworthy example of a Hội An merchant house is the Phùng Hưng Ancient House. Built-in 1780, to date it has been inhabited by eight generations of the same family. The house has kept its original structure because it was built with fine materials and has been very well maintained over the years.
Most Hội An houses have no openings other than on the façade and at the back. The narrow shady streets in Hội An, bordered by picturesque dark wooden and tiled houses, and well organised and run in a grid pattern inwards from the river. The town’s almost total absence of modern architecture and cars makes for a tranquil escape into a traditional way of life.