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    Unique architecture in Hoi An

    It is fun to enjoy the old architecture, but it is even more fun to imagine the people who lived in the buildings.

    Unique architecture in Hoi An - Photo by Mai Linh
    As I roam the now-quiet streets of Hoi An, I try to imagine what life was like in the 17th century, when they city was in its prime as the busiest trading port of Vietnam. I needn’t proceed much farther than the teeming market along the waterfront: boats off-loading their mysterious sacks, vendors calling to each other or bargaining furiously with their customers, chickens squawking, crabs scurrying up the sides of baskets, fish still alive dancing the dance of death. Coconuts, bananas, sensual hot-pink dragon fruit. This is the lively spirit of Hoi An Market today. I walk a few blocks inland, and the noise ceases; the streets quiet down.

    I try again to bring to mind a picture of the merchants’ house and shops 300 ears ago. The houses in Hoi An are usually very long and pass through two streets in a style convenient or trade. When they stand side by side, the houses also form an architectural space suitable for a cultural stroll. Hoi An’s narrow streets are only wide enough for two people to elbow each other.

    The river laps at a merchant’s back door, which opens wide to unload merchandise from ships docked just outside. Coolies – their backs and shoulders shinning with sweat – carry sacks loaded with fruit, medicinal herbs, and tea. Great winches lift the load to the mezzanine warehouse on the level above. The herbs exude a fragrance, which assures the merchant that that are of good quality and that his wife will get a god price at the front shop facing the street. He checks the sack’s weight, and his fingers fly across the abacus as he calculates the amount due the Company agent; after some haggling over the ne sack damaged by water, the price is agreed upon. Then he pays the coolie manager in copper coins threaded on strings.

    Perhaps that day I am imagining was in the spring, the busy time when the sight of the masts bobbing in the harbor delights him and he feels his heart beat to their rhythmic rise and fall. The Chinese and Japanese junks have arrived in January and February with the north winds. In July, when the summer winds from the south come up, the ships will leave.

    Home away from home 

    Wood houses deteriorated in the humid weather and were destroyed by wars and accidental fires. Most of the houses standing in Hoi An today were built by merchants and traders in the same style as their mother country, using some local and some imported materials. Some Chinese groups brought over their own skilled carpenters and lumber.

    There are many types of architectural relics in the Hoi An area including ordinary houses and family ancestor shrines.

    Residential and commercial houses

    Ordinary Houses are of two types: Nha Pho and Nha Ruong. The Nha Pho had doors at the front and back. They were shop houses opening on the river.

    The Nha Pho or street house opened onto the street directly and was not in a compound or fenced. There were no gardens around the shop houses; however, the Association houses and temples had greenery and sacred trees. 

    The Nha Pho is two houses with a covered passageway joining the front part for guests and customers to the back, where the family lived and had storage space; farther back are the intimate spaces of the family: the kitchen, the latrine, and the well. These houses are wooden, with two stories and have a swinging double door opening right onto the street. The upper level has two symmetrically placed windows. 

    The Nha Ruong has from three to five compartments and more space around the structure. In front is a paved courtyard, and there are gardens and perhaps a pond. The roof has a tiered frame, which is narrower in the gable than houses in the Red River Delta. 

    The most famous house in Hoi An is the Tan Ky House at 101 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street. It is 200 years old and, in 1985, was the first ancient house to be recognized by the Ministry of Culture. The house has retained much of its original state. One side of the house looks over the river; the other side looks over the street. There is a space in the middle, a small open yard, for moving goods. The house is made of jackfruit timber. The rafters in the main room are arranged in Japanese style, whereas the next rooms have upturned tiles in the Chinese model of a “crab’s shell”. 

    The traditional two-story house at 80 Tran Phu Street is now a museum. The second story is high and has a balcony in front. The space between the two stories was used as a warehouse. The house at 85 Tran Phu Street is considered one of the most ancient in Hoi An. Two old floors and two yards belonging to two dynasties were found when excavating the area behind the house. 

    The ancient house of Mr. Thai Te Thong’s family is called the Vinh Tan House. Silk painting flow from the high second story. The pictures and other inherited antiques, perhaps the largest collection in Hoi An, include a chair where Emperor Bao Dai once sat. Some furniture was sold, but treasured heirlooms remain. If you travel to Hoi An but don’t visit the Vinh Tan House, then you never visited Hoi An.

    Family Chapels 

    These temples honoring the family ancestor’s are long buildings with three to five compartments; they are purely Vietnamese. Each temple is of a different style, with one kind of rafter used in front and another in the back.

    The civil mandarin of the Nguyen court, Tran Tu Nhac, built the Tran family’s ancestor house at 21 Le Loi in 1802 prior to leaving on a mission to China. Today the family still treasures some of his relics, including swords and seals. The house is located inside a garden bordered by a high Japanese or Chinese style fence. The Tran family worship house is divided into two parts: the main part serves as a place of worship. The auxiliary one is for the family and a guest residence. The worship rooms has three doors, with two side doors reserved for males and females (males on the right and females on the left); the center is for grandparents and is opened only on special days. A divider separates the living quarters and the worship room. This divider is used as a block to remind people to lower their heads and bow down before entering. In the back of the house is a high mound of earth called the “native birth place”, which was brought from the family’s natal village. 

    Family members came to the ancestral house when they wanted to ask for advice or support from the ancestors. There are small boxes on the main altar arranged in order, with each holding a relic and the ancestor’s biography carved in Chinese characters. The position of each box depends on the social position of the person worshipped. During festivals and ceremonies, the family opens these boxes and pays homage to the ancestors. Visitors may visit the Tran family worship house.

    Structural Details: Rafters 

    Rafters are used to hold the pillars together in two-storied buildings with a double-tiered roof. Rafters were elevated to allow the roof to be quite high, as commonly seen in houses of East Asian settlements in Southeast Asian commercial areas. The Japanese term for this high rafter is udatsu; there is an expression in Japanese, “high rafter, good business.” The udatsu is a characteristic of the long rows of ancient houses surviving in Japan today.

    The elevated rafters give the roof a proper angle so the rain does not fall between the gaps of the buildings. These rafters allowed the buildings to be built “roof to roof”. Houses were so close that there was very little space between the adjacent buildings. Then streets could be linked and lined with shops and inns. 

    Tiled Roofs 

    Roof tiles, which give Hoi An so much of its charm, are of two kinds: tubular ceramic tiles and curved, baked clay yin-and-yang tiles. The yin-and-yang roof tiles are a product of southern China. The tubular tile was used for Chinese meeting halls in many commercial cities of Asia. The curved tiles are placed in an arrangement called yin-and-yang: one convex, one concave. These curved tiles are manufactured as one-fourth of a cylinder by laying clay on a wooden mold. When the mold is collapsed, the cylinder is dried and later divided into four curved pieces. The roof slopes in Hoi An are the hypotenuse of a right triangle, the vertical side of which is 2/3 the horizontal. This steep angle is uncommon in southern China, where this type of tile  originated. 

    Spiritual Protection at the Entrance

    “Door eyes”, whose origin is traced to Buddhist temples in southern China, are large wooden “nails” driven into the lintels over the doorways. Hoi An has fourteen different designs, including semicircles, squares, and octagons. Most common is the eightpetal chrysanthemum shape with the eight characters of the I Ching or the yin-and-yang symbol in the center. Another type has the sun or the cosmos. The “door eyes” at temples are more elaborate. For example, there are fierce tigers at the Guangong Temple. On the front of the Fujian Temple, dragons surround the yin-and-yang characters. The upper one represents worship of the sun and the other, homage to the moon. 

    Practical and elegant: Interiors 

    The practical merchants were creative in the management of their small interior spaces and in joining various wood elements together in the roof designs. The interior of the house at 77 Tran Phu has a panel relief representing the scholar, artisan, farmer, and fisherman. 

    Since the Chinese word for “happiness” has the same sound as “bat”, the bat becomes a symbol. Five bats represent the blessing of long life, riches, health, virtue, and a natural Death.

    The carp is a good omen for sea-farers; most Fijian ships have carp in their weather vanes. Fish represent prosperity; their many eggs symbolizes many heirs. 

    It is fun to enjoy the old architecture, but it is even more fun to imagine the people who lived in the buildings.
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