The History of Hoi An's Ancient Town

Today, westerners know the Vietnamese city of Hoi An mostly as a tourist destination. Thanks to its proximity to the Marble Mountains and lovely China Beach, Hoi An draws many visitors each year. But at one point in its history, Hoi An was far more than a tourist destination; in fact, it was one of the most important seaports in all of Southeast Asia.

Early History of Hoi An

Hoi An was first settled by the Champa people, a Malay-Indonesian people who arrived in Vietnam from Java originally around 200 BC. In the first century AD, the Champas founded Hoi An. At that time, the city was called “Lam Ap Pho”, or Champa City.

The Champa Kingdom was a large and powerful one, and although My Son (which no longer exists except for a few ruins) was the Cham's spiritual capital, Hoi An was its commercial capital. In the first century, Hoi An was the largest harbour in Southeast Asia. From Hoi An, the Cham gradually built control over the spice trade, bringing great wealth to the city. From the seventh to the tenth centuries, Champa-dominated Hoi An ruled the trade in spices and silks, with their influence stretching as far west as Baghdad. The Cham exported aloe and ivory, and supplemented their trading income with calculated acts of piracy and caravan raids.

The Decline of the Champa Kingdom

Hue's Royal Tombs and Pagodas

    The imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945, Hue is filled with beautiful monuments, impressive architecture, and is especially well-known for its royal tombs. Sadly, the city suffered a lot of damage during the Vietnam War, due to its location close to the border of North Vietnam. American bombs damaged many of the historic sites at Hue, and once the war was over, the Vietnamese Communist Party intentionally neglected the remaining historic sites because they were seen as remnants of a “feudal regime”.

    Happily for Vietnam and visitors to Vietnam, recent years have brought a change in policy, and the history of Hue is gradually being restored. Despite the damage done, Hue remains a beautiful, fascinating place to visit.

    The Citadel

    The Nguyen emperors made their home the Citadel, a massive stone fortress that conjures up more scenes of battle than of luxury – the Beijing Forbidden City this is not. Although it's referred to as 'ancient', the Citadel was built in the early 1800s, and covers an area of 6 km. Walls ten metres thick surround the outer edge, but inside are open courtyards filled with beautiful gardens and private apartments.

    Vietnam's version of the Forbidden City was almost totally destroyed by French in the late 1940s. The Citadel became a battle site again in 1968 during the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War. Today, less than a third of the inner palaces and apartments remain. Renovations are starting to restore some of the Citadel's former glory.

    Royal Tombs of Hue

    Museums in Saigon

    Vietnam has a fascinating 2,000 year history and there is plenty to learn about the country's past and how it affects life today. Sadly, however, while there are some excellent museums in Vietnam not all live up to the same standard - many are lengthy photo galleries with few English translations of the contexts or history behind the photos, leaving the visitor bewildered even if they have some prior knowledge of the subject.

    That being said, if you choose the right museums on your trip you can learn a great deal and begin to appreciate more the rich history of this country.

    The Museum of Vietnam's History
    (Inside the gates of the HCMC Zoo/Botanical Gardens, Le Duan, District 1)
    Possibly one of the best museums we've seen in Vietnam, the natural history museum of Ho Chi Minh City manages to chart the country's history from prehistoric times and 10,000 year old artifacts to the wars with China and the numerous dynasties that have shaped the development of the Vietnamese nation over time. There are some fantastic examples of sculpture and art from the Cham and Oc Eo civilizations, statues of Buddhas from across the region, collections of porcelain and art from various historical periods and a even a mummy found preserved in Saigon. The narratives on the walls throughout the museum also go some way to helping the visitor understand the many periods of Vietnamese history, with only a few gaps. Highly recommended.

    The War Remnants Museum
    (28 Vo Van Tan, District 3)

    Night Markets in Saigon

      While they may not be as bright and shiny as malls or supermarkets, night markets have their own character and are popular destinations for local people and travellers alike. For many travellers the day is just too hot to spend shopping, and the cooler night air offers an ideal opportunity to grab some souvenirs, while for locals the evening is an ideal time to meet and gather outside and share a meal or a drink under the stars.

      There is an enormous variety of goods on offer including clothes, footwear, hats. hair clips, jewellery, watches..etc The prices are normally cheaper than day markets or supermarkets as the sellers pay less for the rent, so there are some great bargains to be had. As well as the choice in souvenirs there's also a great range of food, with many street vendors setting up shop to take advantage of the passing trade.

      Some night markets specialise in cheap goods for students and workers, and are located out of town near universities and textile factories, such as the huge Ky Hoa night market on Cao Thang in District 10, where many student live. In these markets the prices are often cheaper than in town and less bargaining is necessary; many people also come to these markets and buy wholesale to stock their shops in town.

      The food in Ky Hoa is delicious and surprisingly cheap, just $1 for a bowl of noodles or a plate of broken-rice with grilled pork and fried egg, plus a glass of sugar cane juice on the side. You will find a similar atmosphere at Binh Tay / Cho Lon, Hoa Hung and Ba Chieu night markets.

      Ben Thanh Night Market

      Updated Vietnam blogs and websites

      After more than a year of neglect I realised it was high time to update the listings of English language blogs and websites devoted to Vietnam - after all, some people on the list have left Vietnam and returned since I last edited it like Jon Hoff at

      As well as some notable publications that were missing - , a guide to living in Saigon, and , Tuoi Tre's (the most popular VN newspaper) new English language publication - there are a whole host of great blogs that I'd not got round to adding before.

      Notable additions are , a great blog with excellent in depth writing covering the history and background of the subjects covered - see the recent post on for an example.

      Also great are whose posts on food (and gorgeous photos) have filled a gap since other dedicated food bloggers have left Vietnam, who has also just returned to Vietnam, and with more food and slices of life from Saigon.

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