Elephant No. 24: Hoi An, Vietnam


This elephant with its beautiful tusks comes from a slanted relief in front of a Chinese temple in Hoi An, central Vietnam (though you may also notice the red elephants on my trousers – it’s actually actively difficult to find loose trousers out here which AREN’T decorated with elephants!).  

Vietnam had in the past a large Chinese population (parts of northern Vietnam were actually ruled by the Chinese for over a thousand years), and the Chinese flocked to Hoi An in particular and set up shop as it was considered one of the most important trading ports in Asia. Each community of Chinese built its own temples and central gathering halls as they came from different areas of China and so each had their own customs and religious beliefs. The Japanese were also there in large numbers: a Jesuit priest wrote about the city in 1618 that “the city of Faifo [Hoi An] is so vast that one would think it is two juxtaposed cities; a Chinese city and a Japanese city.” The result is that Hoi An is stuffed full of beautiful little Chinese buildings – and one stunning wooden bridge over a waterway built by Japanese traders before they disappeared from Vietnam in the 17th century under the Tokugawa shogunate which imposed a policy of self-isolation on the country.

Hoi An still has a sizeable Chinese community, and relations between the ethnic Vietnamese and the Chinese here are apparently good. This isn’t the case at all in the rest of the country where the Chinese population has been in steady decline since reunification in 1975. This is because traditionally it was the Chinese who ran most of the small businesses in Vietnam (as in much of South East Asia) and so when the Communists closed private businesses overnight, it was the Chinese community who suffered the most. The Chinese were also increasingly discriminated against as relations between China and Vietnam broke down in the 1970s: communist Vietnam was angry with China for re-opening diplomatic relations with the US, while China became suspicious of Vietnam’s relations with the Soviet Union, thinking that they were beginning to become surrounded by a pro-Soviet, anti-Chinese bloc. Things came to a head in 1979 when China invaded the north of Vietnam, and many Chinese fled the country (as “boat people”).

Some have since returned but many have stayed away – relations between the countries are still tense over issues like the Mekong river (which flows through both countries) and sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea such as the Paracels and the Spratlys. The latter is an issue which periodically gets splashed across even UK newspapers – and it was only last week that Xi Jinping visited Vietnam and pledged to be good neighbours – it’s a hot topic here, and several Vietnamese have openly told us how much they hate and distrust the Chinese. Surprisingly, perhaps, they don’t say the same about the Americans.

When we visited the Chinese district of Saigon, Cholon, it was noticeable how non-Chinese it was – there were no little Chinese restaurants as one usually expects in a Chinatown and we couldn’t hear any Chinese spoken. (Though I wouldn’t count on my ability to be able to recognise Chinese! But I certainly couldn’t see much, if any, Chinese writing around.) All that remained was, as in Hoi An, many beautiful and atmospheric Chinese temples seemingly on every street corner.

Hoi An itself was nothing short of delightful – tiny narrow alleyways, wooden-fronted stores, lanterns strung up over the streets, a plethora of painted wooden boats on the river, no traffic allowed in the centre etc etc. It was absolutely lovely to pick up a bike from our hotel and cycle round the town in this way and that, poking into the nooks and crannies, though it must be said that our main activity in Hoi An consisted of making extensive use of the town’s copious number of tailors. So the cycling round was often done on the way from one fitting at one tailor for a new suit to another fitting across the town for a dress or a coat! Needless to say my dad went back to England at the end of his visit here with a very large suitcase of new clothes for us all which I can’t wait to try out when I get home. The red trousers in this picture may be fun and elephant-adorned but I have been wearing them maybe every other day for a few months now!

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