The 17th century wit-nessed the rise of two trading ports: Pho Hien in the northern region, or Dang Ngoai, and Hoi An in central region, or Dang Trong. While Hoi An continued to thrive until the 19th century, Pho Hien was abandoned at the end of the 17th century on account of natural causes. Today, Hoi An has become an attractive tourist destination while Pho Hien has fallen into oblivion.
“Thu nhat Kinh Ky, thu nhi Pho Hien” (The first is Kinh Ky, the second is Pho Hien), a widely known saying in Viet Nam, confirmed that the importance of Pho Hien was only outmatched by Kinh Ky, which refers to the Thang Long royal capital, Ha Noi today. Pho Hien is now called Hung Yen city in the northern province of Hung Yen, which lies about 60km south of Ha Noi.
At the end of June, we left Ha Noi for Hung Yen city to look for traces of the old port. At present, the site is an alluvial plain spreading from Lam Son District’s Dang Chau Hamlet to Hong Chau District’s Ne Chau Hamlet. For 2-3km there was no sign of the port, just open ground. Standing on Yen Lenh Bridge, we tried to conjure an image of ships transporting goods in a crowded area but couldn’t see it.
The development of the agricultural and craft industries in the 15th and 16th centuries increased the country’s desire and capability to trade with others. Among the earliest foreigners to buy the exported goods were the Chinese, Japanese, Malay, Dutch, British and French.
Pho Hien reached the peak of its prosperity in the 17th century, when ships busily crossed its waters and dozens of Asian and European products were stored in its warehouses. Craft districts such as Hang Non, Hang Be, Hang Chen, and Tho Nhuom tailored products according to the orders of international businessmen.
“Located near the Hong (Red) River, Pho Hien, established in the 13th century, was an ideal place for buying and selling products between local businessmen and to foreign traders,” said Pham Xanh, professor of history at Ha Noi National University’s College of Social Sciences and Humanities.
“The products for sale came from all over the country, including silk, pottery, bamboo and rattan. The local businessmen also imported powder, weapons, glass-ware, gold, silver and jewellery,” he said.
“Because of flow change in the Red River at the end of 17th century, ships could not dock at the port. From this time, Pho Hien lost its role as a mark of opening to international market and enhancing local economy.”
The only remaining evidence of the port consists of the historical places on Pho Hien Street in Hong Chau District, notably the Hien Pagoda and Dong Do Quang Hoi, a gathering place for Chinese businessmen.
The Hien Pagoda, built under the reign of Tran Thai Tong (1232-50), still possesses two stelae inscriptions describing the foundation of the trading port. In front of the pagoda was a more than 300-year-old longan tree, bearing fruit that would have been among the delicious foods presented to the kings as tribute. We were very disappointed when we saw closed doors and no other visitors. The introduction on the board outside the pagoda did not satisfy our curiosity.
We tried our luck with Dong Do Quang Hoi, which was not far away from Pho Hien. Sadly, we had the same result. A name board hung above its doors seemed to have been restored recently, but there was nothing special left. It was built in 1590 in a Chinese style with building materials brought from China’s southern provinces by sea.
Leaving Pho Hien Street, we headed to two other interesting places, which have also silently witnessed the city’s rise and fall. The Chuong Pagoda, built in the 16th or 17th century, is located in Hien Nam District’s Nhan Duc Hamlet. Along two of the main house’s stood statues of 18 La Han (Arhat) and 10 Diem Vuong (King of Hell). A large stele on the west side, erected in 1711, sang the praises of local and foreign people who donated money to build the pagoda.
Meanwhile, Hung Yen’s Temple of Literature, situated in Lam Son District’s Xich Dang Hamlet, is often known as the Xich Dang Temple of Literature. Like the Temple of Literature in Ha Noi, the Xich Dang Temple of Literature has become a popular local destination. We came across some parents who had come to make offerings to a deity to win his support for their children in their university entrance exams.
Pham Thi Thu, a worker in Hung Yen’s garment joint-stock company, said: “Before my son took his high school graduation exams, I made an offering here. He graduated with 47 points. Therefore, I came here again with the hope that he would pass university entrance exams.”
Built in the 17th century and largely rebuilt in 1839, the temple is well-known for its two rows of nine stelae, eight made in 1888 and one in 1943, which recorded the names, hometowns, and positions of 161 graduates. They were considered to be a symbol of the province’s knowledge.
Bui Xuan Son, director of the provincial Information and Tourism Promotion Centre, said: “Besides promoting tourism through media and exhibitions, we are trying to promote it at the traditional festivals of the province. I think this will be effective because visitors will become interested and want to discover new things.” — VNS by Vu Lan Dung
Frozen in time: The Chuong Pagoda is famous for its 18 La Han (Arhat) and 10 Diem Vuong (King of Hell) statues. — VNA/VNS Photo Phung Trieu
The other Hoi An: The Hien Pagoda and Dong Do Quang Hoi, a gathering place for Chinese businessmen, have witnessed the city’s rise and fall.
Retro: Pho Hien Market on Dien Bien Street was built in 1970. — File Photos