A Maritime Logic to Vietnamese History?
Littoral Society in Hoi An’s Trading
World c.1550-1830

I. Introduction

Is there such a thing as a “littoral culture” in Vietnamese history? To even begin to answer this, we must consider first whether Vietnam has a maritime history at all, because it has not been customary for historians to think of the sea as the primary arena of interaction between Vietnamese or with those beyond their shores. True, many scholars have recognized the centrality of water in Vietnamese lives. Much has been made, for example, of the fact the word nuoc that signifies “water” also signifies “state.” Water has been described in a number of texts as a central metaphor in Vietnamese culture. A few scholars have even identified a sea orientation of ancestral cultures.[1] However, none of this recognition has led to a serious search for the kinds of influences that a “maritime cultural base” or a maritime environment might exert upon self-identifiably Vietnamese societies, economies or political systems over time, influences that might explain or suggest Vietnamese interactions, across space and time, within or beyond the present day borders of the Vietnamese nation-state.

Vietnam has been generally seen as “disadvantaged in that its elongated domain lacked a central river artery,” a feature that allowed peoples settled along the Chao Praya and Irrawady river systems to form the economic and administrative cores of modern Thailand or Burma.[2] The possibility that the adjacent sea might have functioned much the way that massive rivers did in other countries isn’t considered, because Vietnamese produced no great sea trading fleets like the British or Dutch, a fact that has been judged the result of Vietnamese detachment from the sea, an outgrowth of fundamental disinterest in foreign trade.[3] Even in highlighting statements like these, however, I may be giving a false impression of a literature that merits extensive analysis. In reality, scholars of Vietnam consider the sea hardly at all, despite the fact that, when we are in Vietnam, we are never very far from it.

Strangely enough, in a country where nearly every Vietnamese-speaking person in history has lived near the sea (until only recently), speculation about the relationship between environment and sociopolitical unity has focused on the checkerboard of overlapping mountain ranges that fragments Vietnam. Without a unifying great river, these mountain barriers separate Vietnamese into diverse regional enclaves. This has created, in effect, “the least coherent territory in the world,” a geographical characterization attributed to French geographer Pierre Gourou, and dating to the 1930’s.[4] Those who invoke Gourou’s judgment have done so in order to promote the recognition of long ignored regional differences among Vietnamese. Instead of undifferentiated space inhabited by an unchanging monoculture, we find a number of variegated regions, each unique in their expression of being or “acting Vietnamese.”[5] This alpine compartmentalization and the “lack of any direct link” by water has thwarted homogenizing trends and furthermore has enforced a physical, political, and cultural distance that maintains individual regional expressions.[6]

All this appears plausible enough, but it is worth digressing for a moment to consider the context of Gourou’s statement. Doing so reveals that Gourou’s judgment may have been derived not so much from empiricism as from ideology. In another work, he declares:

The shape of French Indochina would not seem to destine the country to unity; the relief Ä makes communication difficult between east and west, and between north and south. It is therefore not surprising that, until French intervention, eastern Indochina never formed a political unitÄ
He goes on to say, “French Indochina is the rational creation of France. Ä Political unity has favored the birth of economic relations, which reinforce it.”[7]In other words, without French impositions, the unifying skeleton to the Vietnamese “geo-body” would never have formed; French willpower rationalized the earth and so brought unity to Vietnamese where none had apparently existed before. Can we regard Gourou’s concept of fragmentation, then, as anything but an extension an oft-used justification for French colonialism in Vietnam?[8] The segregating effect of mountains is no doubt real, but it is clear that an uncritical reliance upon echoes of Gourou’s imperialist conclusions has artificially set aside questions about the relationship between environment and history.

We should not dismiss the idea of an integrative alluvial artery, either. The reason is simple: boats are ubiquitous to Vietnam, even in the age of trains, planes and automobiles. Before the twentieth century, waterways were the preferred and often the sole mode of transportation. River and canal craft linked regional centers with their hinterlands, while coastal navigation linked one region with another.[9] As I will show in this essay, when faced with a formidable mountain wall, Vietnamese, a coastal people, simply passed around it, in boats, thereby subverting whatever limits the mountains may have imposed in the first place. This coastal traffic merged with one of the largest thoroughfares for oceanic shipping in Asia, too; therefore, we must also reconsider this alleged detachment of Vietnamese from the sea and its commerce. Regardless of any lack of great sea trading fleets, in the littoral that outlines the territory of today’s nation-state, signs of maritime engagement abound. Among these signs, one can detect a pattern, and within that pattern the coast emerges as the missing “direct link” that people used (unwittingly or not) to tie apparently disconnected parts into the whole we recognize today as Vietnam. It is in the consideration of this coastal zone, rather than a great river, that we can begin to understand the connections that have informed the structures of Vietnamese states and societies over time. In order to understand Vietnamese history, then, we must look to the sea.

The sea has always been the defining element for the people who inhabited its shores. Vietnamese rulers understood that. It was an important site of everyday interaction, even in the days when Vietnamese settlement was concentrated in the Red River Delta. The magnitude of the sea’s importance to this relationship increased as Vietnamese conquerors and colonists expanded Vietnamese domains south, along the coast, a trend mythologized today as Nam tien, the “Advance South.” Maritime importance grew dramatically during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the period of “advance” across what is now Vietnam’s southern half. There, Vietnamese settled around waterways where Cham and Khmer (Cambodian) people had lived and sea traders had frequented for centuries.[10] This intensification of maritime interaction occurred during what is now known as the early modern era, a period of time characterized by the growth of inter-Asian trade, the commercialization of regional economies, and the territorial expansion, administrative centralization, social regulation and cultural integration of states.[11] These changes occurred in Vietnam as well. The littoral was crucial to these processes, so any thorough understanding of Vietnam’s early modern transformation must look to the sea.

Nearly all Vietnam’s cities incorporate seaports. Each seaport once served as a nexus for sea, coastal, riverine, and land traffic that integrated Vietnamese regions and linked Vietnam with maritime Asia. Yet, none of these port cities have been properly studied for their importance to the history of Vietnam, not even Saigon, despite the availability of materials that make local histories possible.

The purpose of this paper is to point out the centrality of the maritime to Vietnamese history. I will do this by describing a particular time and place in Vietnamese history, a formative period identified with the Nguyen lords (1558À1777), who ruled over a territory seized piecemeal from Cham and Khmer neighbors. It was during this era when most of Vietnam’s seaports were developed, supplanting previous Cham-governed seaports that had centuries of experience with seafaring merchants. I will roughly sketch the most important of these seaports, called Hoi An pho, the “landing of safe haven.” Hoi An formed the nexus of a network of commerce and trade that catalyzed the integration of a volatile mix of indigenous remnants, colonial migrants and maritime sojourners under the rule of an expansionist Vietnamese state, and played a key role in the processes of state formation that describe the so-called early modern era. I will outline the basic contours of Hoi An’s trading system, and provide some illustrations of coastal inhabitants who were deeply invested in Hoi An’s sea trade, in ways characteristic of a littoral culture. In conclusion, I will argue that their activities exemplify a maritime orientation common to all Vietnam’s coastal inhabitants. Moreover, they demonstrate that one does not have to directly participate in the sea trade in order to be fundamentally shaped by it.

II. The Hoi An System[12] Region, Port, Hinterland and Trade

The region centers on the long-silted seaport of Hoi An. Just south of Da Nang in present-day Quang Nam province, Hoi An sits at the mouth of the Thu Bon River, about three kilometers upriver from the Eastern Sea (V: Bien dong), aka the South China Sea (see Map 1).[13] Known to Europeans as Faifo, the city in its heyday throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries served as a major export and transshipment site serving Asia’s sea trade, the primary commercial nexus within the Nguyen state of Cochinchina (aka Dang Trong) that ruled over what is now central and southern Vietnam during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Most notably, Hoi An’s merchants exploited the port’s strategic position in overseas shipping networks in order to compete successfully against other Asian port cities, especially Macao, in capturing the covert triangular trade between China and Japan, diplomatically divorced but still interacting on an informal basis, through sea merchants who exchanged silks, silver, copper, and other manufactures from both countries at clandestine “offshore” markets like Hoi An.[14] Hoi An’s warehouses also accumulated goods from diverse sources throughout mainland and island Southeast Asia for re-shipment overseas. The town’s merchants, predominantly Hokkien Chinese (and Japanese before 1639), collected local goods transported by porter, beast, and boat from the mountains, the alluvial plains, and the seacoast for export abroad. Between the northern and southern monsoons—roughly February through July—the town’s estimated 5,000 inhabitants doubled, as people crowded around warehouses, in the town’s market, and in numerous “floating markets” along the wharf. As the monsoon winds of August arrived, mariners transported their entrepot goods, along with native metals, stones, flora, and fauna, to markets in China and Japan. In the months following, ships arrived with the winds from the south, from South and Southeast Asia. With the lunar new year, ships returned to Hoi An laden with manufactures always in high demand, for they satisfied a range of practical and luxury demands for uses in medicine, ritual, cuisine, dress, and so on. As the central market for Cochinchina, Hoi An served as a collection and distribution point for its regional neighbors, including a string of rivermouth seaports situated along the coast of Cochinchina. It also provided a key station in the clandestine overland and coastal trade between northern Trịnh and southern Nguyen realms within the theoretical L¡ empire, separated from one another throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by political rivalry.[15]

The development of Hoi An played an important role in Asia’s early modern trade, but more importantly its commerce influenced the establishment of the a Vietnamese state in formerly Cham and Khmer (Cambodian) territories and the consequent reorientation of sociopolitical identification within these territories toward a Vietnamese cultural norm.[16]

Hoi An as a sub-region of the South China Sea

Hoi An lies near the exact center of a strand of small, parallel river plains that snakes around a north-south axis between the great deltas of the Red and the Mekong rivers (see Maps 1 & 2). Mountains and sea are the dominant features of this territory commonly identified today as Central Vietnam. To the west, mountains hug Vietnam’s coastline that undulates as it progresses south. This phenomenon is most dramatic in the vicinity of Hoi An. There, the north-south range called Truong Son veers closest to the sea. Mountain and sea pin “[Vietnamese] towns Ä back into the mountains facing the seaÄ,” a seventeenth-century visitor recorded.[17] From these north-south ranges of worn sandstone plateaus and weathered mountains, high spurs of granite and limestone peaks extend transversally into the sea and create offshore islands. Mountains, then, effectively boxed the inhabitants of Central Vietnam into “islands” of small alluvial plains fed by short, steep riversheds. To historians, this mountainous characteristic supports the standardized view of Vietnam “the least coherent territory in the world.”[18]

But, what mountains divide, waters unite. This can be perceived when we shift our perspective from that of the barrier-conscious historians of Vietnam to that of Champa. “Champa” generally describes the Malayic-speaking peoples who had inhabited the coastal plains of Central Vietnam and created a series of ostensibly Hindu-Buddhist polities over the millennia before Hoi An thrived.[19] In their analyses of geography, scholars of both Champa and maritime Southeast Asia have generally emphasized a basic similarity between Central Vietnam and the lands inhabited by Malayic groups in island Southeast Asia. Attention to these similarities was inspired as much by geography as by culture or language. In much of the Malayan world, we find the same land- and water-scape, producing the same results: Diverse, small river-sheds flowing at steep grades, separated by mountains, their populations concentrated at the alluvial plains near the river-mouths. This model, first described by Bennet Bronson, emphasizes the ecological determination of trade and polity formation in island Southeast Asia (see Map 2). Cham scholars have incorporated this archipelagic model into a number of studies, and have used it to explain and theorize a broad range of topics, suggesting a profound impact of environment and ecology on the political, cultural, and social patterns that shape the region’s commerce and trade. For example, this environmental dynamic even explains the Cham custom of plunder—or piracy, depending on where you stand—as a central function in Cham economy and politics. Assumptions about the sea as a medium (rather than a void, the case among Vietnamese historians) have motivated historians of the Cham regions to search for signs of activity overseas, and conversely for signs of overseas interactions within Cham territorial domains. Regions like Hoi An, no longer a mainland anomaly but a typical “island,” have been usefully compared with similar environments in, say, Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, Borneo or the Philippines.[20]

This contradiction between Vietnamese and Cham scholarly perspectives is worth dwelling upon. Regarding the same sea from the same territorial vantage, Vietnamese scholars have perceived only a void that reinforces isolation; in contrast, Cham scholars perceive a fluid medium that fosters movement and connection. One sees environmental determinism, the other ecological dynamism, as people negotiate their world between the dialectic of mountain and water. It demonstrates the extent to which the geographical determinants we rely upon are subjectively perceived.

Scholars of Champa and insular Southeast Asia have emphasized the unifying role played by waterways; ironically, evidence of these waterways is much easier to find within the historical literature identified with Vietnam. For example, recalling his 1695 visit to Cochinchina, a Chinese monk described water’s primary function in transportation:

There is no way to go between two prefectures [via land]. When one goes to a seaport, that is the prefecture. If you want to go to another prefecture you must sail from one port onto the sea and, following the mountains, proceed to the other port.[21]
The boat was the principal mode of conveyance in Cochinchina, and the coastal route threaded its riverine strands together. (The monk’s statement is not entirely true. Roads did exist, paralleling the coastline, though their travelers faced steep obstacles along the way.) This makes sense when one considers that, in general, it was much faster to go by water than by land.[22] Offshore coastal traffic, then, configured the trunk that linked Vietnamese together, tying them together into the slender matrix that the politically willful configured into their various Cham federations, into their Vietnamese state of Cochinchina, and more recently into the nation-state of Vietnam. This maritime logic is reflected in early Vietnamese administrative geography, in which rivermouth-centered provincial units outside the Red and Mekong river deltas conform nicely to Bronson’s Southeast Asian scheme.[23] A number of movements in Vietnamese history followed maritime streams as well, from the legendary conquests of Le Thanh Tong to Nguyen Hoang’s departure for the southern frontier in 1600.[24] Most came by boat, along the coastal corridor. Into this north-south conduit flowed not only goods but also migrants, most importantly to the history of Hoi An (and Vietnam at large) Vietnamese from their historic territory surrounding the Red River delta, which transformed the face of historically Cham and Khmer domains.

Interestingly, these geographical similarities are not confined to Southeast Asia. As they reached their new, strange land, Central Vietnam must also have looked quite familiar to the Chinese sojourners and settlers who dominated Hoi An, especially the Hokkien Fujianese. The influence of Fujian’s mountains and sea on its development has long elicited the attentions of Chinese economic historians and anthropologists. In its fundamental aspects, descriptions of Central Vietnam’s geography differ little from that of most maritime regions of southern China, in particular those of Fujian, the source of most of Hoi An’s merchants.[25] In fact, with the exceptions of the Pearl, Red, Mekong, and Chao Praya rivers, the mainland Asian coastline from the Yangtze to the Melakan Straits conforms to Bronson’s archipelagic model.

The only element missing in this scheme is offshore islands, for they play an important role in the development of trade in this archipelagic world, too. The sea’s nature was reliable, but it was not simple. It set regularity for trade and transit but still posed a menace to the sea voyager. Ships could be suddenly upset by the violent tempests that swept across the South China Sea region during the heavy rains of the so-called winter monsoons, often and without notice. Yet nature intervened against Neptune’s wrath: thousands of small islands settle around the South China Sea’s rim, broadcast amidst the great islands of the Indonesian archipelago and off the Asian mainland’s shore (Guangdong alone counts over 700 off its shores).[26] These offshore islands provided convenient navigational markers, and those like Culao Cham, which had fresh-water sources, became useful for refitting and re-supplying ships. True, these islands could prove as much a headache as a haven, since they offered the same safety and succor to pirates, and have helped to insure their constant existence. This heightened the anxiety of merchants and mariners, and especially vexed the states that could never exert reliable authority over the islands. Sea crossings were not without hardships; but predictable winds and an abundance of island havens made coastal travel relatively easy, and insured the regular circulation of commerce (legal or otherwise) through the societies of the South China Sea.[27]

Hoi An, then, typified not just a Malayic world, but more broadly, a larger South China Sea one. In this scheme, great rivers are the exception, rather than the norm. Touring the littoral that makes up its “center,” one finds a series of parallel rivers separated by rocky promontories that create small alluvial plains as the rivers rush toward the sea. Similarly, bays and inlets tuck into this coastline, and numerous coastal islands pepper the waters offshore, offering safe passage from one coastal region to the next. Of course, in such a wide comparative context, the similarities soon break down under the weight of particulars, like climate, habitat, and so on. Central Vietnamese shores are much sandier, Chinese coasts more rugged, and the archipelago so many more islands. But the fundamental geographical similarities are real. The permeable sea mitigated isolation in this world of crested valleys.

Where scholars of mainland Southeast Asia might see dissolution in the region’s lack of a unifying river like the Mekong or Irrawady, or mutual isolation in its transversal mountains, scholars of insular Southeast Asia perceive a unity made possible by coastal vessels. The seacoast, then, served a central role as a unifying thoroughfare in the economic lives of central Vietnamese inhabitants, performing a function essentially the same as the great rivers of the mainland. This feature does not rule out the divisions created by mountains, but rather counterpoises against them. This littoral dynamic, where mountain and sea complement one another through a coastal artery, defines the basic structure within which economies, polities and societies developed in a South China Sea world, and it is within this littoral context that we must make sense of Hoi An and its hinterland.

III. The Interdependence of Coastal Societies and Maritime Trade in Hoi An

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the economy of Hoi An and its hinterland commercialized. Evidence of this commercialization presents itself in the artifacts of trade, and in its historiography, especially in the literature of seafarers and merchants, and the administrative reportage that describe monopolies, mining colonies, taxation, and so on. Their aggregate data is enough to suggest that people thoughout the hinterland engaged in commerce directed toward Hoi An, whether they were highland gatherers, lowland cash croppers or plantation workers, or coastal fishers.[28] Many within the vicinity of Hoi An engaged full time in this production, trafficking and trade, however these local inhabitants entered into the commercial economy only during certain portions of the year, complementing their more obvious “subsistence” labor. Their role in Hoi An’s trade was hardly peripheral, however. Enough data exists to draft a composite of these lesser noticed constituents of Hoi An’s trade; enough to show us that Hoi An could not have functioned without these local inhabitants, and the services and goods they provided.

This was especially true for Hoi An’s coastal inhabitants. After all, ocean-going ships of the South China Sea were not at all self-sufficient. They required a great deal of local help along the way. One monk’s voyage provides an example of this. Da Shan, a monk from Guangzhou, traveled to Cochinchina in 1695, and lived there a year, following a long stream of sojourning and settling Chinese monks who had joined the flow of compatriot migrants to this Vietnamese realm. When Da Shan and his 500 co-passengers boarded their ocean vessel (yangchuan) at Guangzhou’s Huangpu Landing (Whampoa), local fishing vessels were on hand to tow the great ship through the shallows of the Pearl River delta until they reached the open sea at Humen, the “Lions’ Gate.” There, while a small boat from the Yuehai Customs approached “to collect tax receipts,” Da Shan saw that “the two small ships that led our passage then left us, while small oared boats loaded fresh water onto our boat.” Four days later, the ship neared the coast of Hainan Island, halfway to Cochinchina. As they neared a harbor, local fishermen approached the great junk, seeking hire to refit the ship for the final leg to Cochinchina. With fresh water and new stores were aboard, the ship continued on. Three days later, it arrived at the island of Culao Cham, opposite Hoi An (see Map 1).[29]

As ships neared the Cochinchinese coast, they were typically steered toward an offshore island (culao) designated for ocean ships. There, representatives of coastal villages would travel to the ships, to offer their services as messengers, translators, pilots or procurers of supplies. Thomas Bowyear, who also traveled to Cochinchina at the same time as Da Shan, in 1695-96, recalled the arrival of his ship off Culao Cham’s shores:

The 20th[of August, 1695], with our Colours out, to invite the Fishermen on board, having many in sight, but none offering to come near us, in the Afternoon I sent the Purser on shoar, to acquaint the People at the Isle, that we were bound in, and desired Boats to help usÄ The 21st in the forenoon He and the Surang were brought off, in two Boats, with two small officers, belonging to the isle, and ten other Boats with them, all Fishermen, which they told us should help the Ship in.[30]
In a few days, Bowyear’s ship received its clearance from Nguyen officials that it could enter Da Nang port (Cua Han), to which the state restricted Europeans merchants and their deep-keeled vessels (see Map 1).[31] That evening “the ship moored before the Custom-house, being towed up the River, by Fishermen.”[32]

Representatives of the state were also on hand. By the 1700’s, the Nguyen charged over 170 individuals with official responsibilities toward Hoi An customs.[33] Even offshore islands like these housed a magistrate or two. Once his ship had anchored, Da Shan recalled the boats that approached their side:

I gazed down at their unkempt hair, cloth around their waist Ä and blackened teeth. Some don’t dare board the ship. Two barbarian [Cham] monks, inspectors for the king [Lord Nguyen], came and spoke with [the captain]. Finally, they made a ceremonial speech so that our ropes could be dropped to the boats, and [they] could quickly report to the king. Ä
Once satisfied, the inspectors sent messenger boats to Hoi An Fort, while the ship awaited their return with “the chop” that would permit passage to the coast.[34]

Da Shan himself went on to the Nguyen capital, but his ship, like most merchant ships, continued on to Hoi An. Once arrived at the two main river outlets feeding into Hoi An’s river system, local fishing vessels towed the ship into safe anchorages within the estuary. A Japanese scroll produced in the 1640’s illustrates this process from start to finish, as it depicts a collection of boats towing a Japanese vessel from Han Estuary (in present-day Da Nang Harbor), down the now-evaporated tributary called the Co Co Lagoon that paralleled the coastline, to Cham Estuary in the Hoi An River where it finally anchored (see Map 1).[35]

Unlike refitting, which appears to have invited competition from all comers, the Nguyen court officially assigned fishing villages responsibility to perform towing services in specific areas; in return, “the King [forgave] these Fishermen their Tribute for their Services in helping in the Ships.”[36] These villages valued their charters, and preserved them in their village temples.[37] Other villages held charters to harvest birds’ nests from offshore islands, or to salvage wrecked vessels along the coast or amidst the perilous zone known as the Truong Sa, “Ten-Thousand Shoals,” in other words the Paracel Islands in the center of the South China Sea.[38]

In these anchorages, local inhabitants were busily engaged in attending to vessels, passengers and cargo. Our monk Da Shan, traveling from the Nguyen court to Hoi An by naval vessel one year later, described this scene well. Ashore at Hoi An Fort’s landing, Da Shan watched. “The inhabitants huddled around [us]. Suddenly Ä a makeshift morning market formedÄ People were carrying areca, seafoods, fruits, tea and other foods, respectfully offering foods for us to eat.” (After all, Da Shan was not only a royal guest, he above all a high monk.). The fort’s commander came out to greet him and his fellow monks, then hosted them to a breakfast, “freshly prepared” from their immediate suppliers.[39]

As they ate, the monk observed the loading and unloading of ships in the anchorage. He noticed the steady stream of porters and pack animals trucking cargo to and from the anchorage. “I learned that, all along this route, there are those who look after the supply and transport [of goods], in accord with the sundial’s mark, with rather few mistakesÄ I pitied the constancy of a mariner’s labor.”[40] Those who needed them could also hire “coolies” to suit individual needs, which often involved overland transport to areas difficult to access by water, such as the deep interior or mountain passes. Much to the surprise of Western observers, many or most of these foot carriers were women. Pack animals and carts were employed as well for longer or heavier cargo. Elephants were especially prized.[41]

Such scenes were typical of Cochinchina’s coastal ports, though Hoi An’s was by far the busiest of them. A Vietnamese official, touring these coastal ports in the mid-eighteenth century, remarked, “there isn’t anything you can’t buy.” In coastal port markets, local inhabitants exchanged with peddlers from the hinterland, coastal traders, and sea merchants. They “exchanged with each other” as well. Commenting on one small port, he wrote: “There isn’t a time when the river is still.”[42] Coastal traders then channeled these goods into Hoi An’s warehouses for export, not only on the great sea ships but also on smaller Chinese or Vietnamese traders that followed the coast to Thailand or crossed the Gulf of Thailand to ports farther south.

These maritime inhabitants typically did more than serve just trade, they regularly engaged in it, too. At anchorages on Culao Cham or on the coast, an arriving ship would find a makeshift market quickly form around them. A year before, in an aborted attempt to sail to Guangzhou, “dozens of fishing vessels (dien co) towed [our ship] out of the harbor.”[43] As his junk lay in the harbor at Culao Cham, Da Shan marveled at the inhabitants on shore:[44]

The remaining boat has an officer with a chignon, barefooted, who kept watch by lamplight to insure no one left [the ship]. All night, commotion and clamor. I lay there, unable to sleep well. In the early hours of the morning, boats surrounded us like a swarm of ants. The barbarians jostled [for] varieties of fans, hats and stockings, taken without haggling. They especially love umbrellas.
These “floating markets,” as Da Shan called them, were a common feature to the daily life of Cochinchinese ports. Inhabitants combined one or more of these maritime occupations, often dividing tasks according to gender, for example, or alternating them according to the season. Da Shan remarked that “those in the hut-shops are all women,” but the same was true for the main warehouses, market stalls, inns, eateries and other important spaces in Hoi An.[45] The inns and eateries that populated the sides of water and road ways were typically run by women, and were often complete with “public women,” another factor in Hoi An’s local economy.

Vietnamese can be found among the ranks of seamen moving goods across the seas.[46] Da Shan was impressed by the ability of one Vietnamese sailor aboard his vessel, one night during a fierce storm:[47]

The aban was a Viet, not fully twenty, strong, robust and lively. Atop each sail that he hung, he left a kerchief. He maneuvered through the rigging as if he were treading upon flat earth.
Such identifications are rare, that is, in the literature of legitimate trade. In the annals of piracy, however, Vietnamese figure well. Piracy seems forever endemic to the seas off Cochinchina, attributed for most of history to Cham, for whom plunder formed a core component of their political economy. Their activities were infamous to travelers of the South China Sea. Even as late as 1599, sea travelers complained of Cham raids, long after the supposed destruction of their political autonomy.[48] Compounding the headaches these Cham raiders caused were the activities of other freebooters. In her survey of confessions by pirates captured by Qing authorities in the 1790’s, Diane Murray found that more than half identified themselves as either fishermen or sailors.[49] Their activities typically revolved around the trading season; “as a rule, from the second or third month to the ninth month all the bandit boats make their sweeps.”[50] Indeed, many of the pirates who troubled Chinese shores were Vietnamese. During the piracy crisis of the 1790’s, Qing authorities listed Central Vietnam as among the many pirate bases threatening China’s security.[51] Much of this piracy involved the capture of people as and the trafficking of them as slaves.[52] The Vietnamese state actively worked to quell piracy from its shores, though it was never any more successful than its Chinese or Southeast Asian counterparts.

A state-sanctioned predatory aspect of the coastal economy was the activity of salvaging wrecked vessels, which coastal inhabitants deemed their right. The Italian merchant Gemelli Careri noted:[53]

From this Mountain, till sixty Miles beyond Pulcatan (Culao Canton), there is a continual row of Flats 300 Miles in length, where several Ships are cast away every Year; for which reason Pilots must be on their Guard to avoid them, and keep always in sixteen fadom Water. The worst of it is, That is any Misfortune happens, the Cochinchinese Gallies seize [sp] not only the Goods, but even the very Vessels, that only lose or spring a Mast; and therfore Many of them scour the Coast all the Year, to gather Wrecks, nor is there any hope of escaping them when there is a Calm, because thy are well provided, and the Cochinchinese brave men with Fire-Arms.”
This right was reserved not only for the Nguyen navies but also for fishermen. Here, the state legitimized a form of prey that augmented the dangers of sailing overseas.

Just as Hoi An’s local inhabitants were crucial to the operation of great sea ships, they were vital to the functions of the sea trade. This was true for all the coastal inhabitants of Cochinchina. They best illustrate, in my mind, the primary position of the sea in influencing economic organization locally, and the importance of seemingly disengaged local societies in the functions of global enterprises. Inhabitants of the coast depended upon the sea for their livelihood not only as fishermen, but also sailors, merchants, boat-builders, and petty transporters. They actively sought opportunities for survival and surplus both within the bounds of political and social conventions as well as beyond it, one day adopting the role of a petty merchant or a refitter, the next day that of a smuggler or pirate. As with other commercialized inhabitants settled in the interior plains and highlands, their occupations were attuned to the rhythms of the monsoon’s clock, and the whims of the sea economy.

IV. Conclusion

Perhaps we give too much emphasis to merchants and great fleets as indicators of engagement with the sea or integration with large-scale maritime trade, and not enough to the littoral groups who make that possible. Through their own direct functions as commercial agents, or through the vital support they provided to visiting mariners and merchants, Cochinchina’s littoral inhabitants stitched the mercantile strands of a nascent hemispheric economy into the fabric of their society and state. The coastal highway provided the pattern through which these locals could unite their “island regions.” For the population of Cochinchina, the sea presented a medium, not a vacuum; it connected rather than isolated. The local peoples of the Hoi An region demonstrate that one did not have to directly participate in the sea trade in order to be fundamentally shaped by it. Nor were long-distance traders independent of, or unaffected by, the local environments in which they sojourned.

MAP 1: Da Nang Harbor constitutes the large bay north of Hoi An, just south of Hai Van Pass. From the channel at the south end of the bay, fishing vessels towed ocean vessels south, along the Co Co Lagoon (dam) to Cham Estuary (Cua Dai Chiem).

MAP 2: Bronson’s scheme as applied to Cochinchina (Dang Trong). The river unifies its hinterland around a central downriver port. Each watershed doubled as a province of the Nguyen state. The coastal routes unified parallel regions, and functioned as the coastal corridor or highway that integrated these parallel regions. The overseas routes link ports to markets abroad. Like their Cham predecessors, Nguyen rulers situated their regional administrative centers slightly upriver, at the foothills where tributaries in these short, steep and swift river systems merged, before they quickly fanned out across a deltaic plain. The central regional market was also located here; in Hoi An’s case, it sat opposite the provincial garrison command (dinh).


1 Keith Taylor, in Birth of Vietnam, describes an ancient, unitary Vietnamese culture (a concept he has long since disavowed), developing from a “basic psychological truth”: that the “sovereign power” of this ancient Viet culture “came from the sea.” The Birth of Vietnam (Berkeley, 1985), 6. See his explanation of this “sea orientation” in his introduction, 1-41passim. For an anthology of expressions that exemplify water’s centrality in Vietnamese culture, see the set of essays by Huynh Sanh Thong in Vietnam Forum (Hamden, CT).

2 Victor Lieberman, “Transcending East-West Dichotomies: State and Culture Formation in Six Ostensibly Disparate Areas,” Modern Asian Studies 31.0 (1997): 475. Studies of foreign trade in Vietnam, only a handful, recognize the agency of foreigners only, despite evidence of Vietnamese participation in coastal and overland trade beyond their sovereign realms. For a discussion of this literature, see Charles Wheeler, “Cross-Cultural Trade and Trans-Regional Networks in the Port of Hoi An: Maritime Vietnam in the Early Modern Era” (Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 2001), pp. 1-27.

3 See, for example, Alexander Woodside, Vietnam and the Chinese Model (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 261-276. Here, Woodside describes a classic sinic indifference toward foreign trade, though he doesn’t clarify whether this attitude derives from indigenous Vietnamese culture or “Little Dragon” mimicry of their larger dragon’s model.

4 Gourou, The Peasants of the Tonkin Delta: A Study of Human Geography (New Haven, 1955), 3. For the original French, see Les paysons du delta tonkinois: étude de géographie humaine (Paris, 1936), 8.

5 Keith Taylor, “Surface Orientations in Vietnam: Beyond Histories of Nation and Region,” Journal of Asian Studies 57.4 (Nov. 1998): 951. This is the best example of such efforts to promote difference, in the form of “episodic” histories. See “Surface Orientations,” 949À978.

6 Li Tana, Nguyen Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Ithaca, 1998), 18. Li argues that, as Vietnamese moved into the southern frontier, they moved into a new geo-historical paradigm.

7 Pierre Gourou, Land Utilization in French Indochina (a translation of L’utilisation du sol en Indochine Francaise, New Haven, 1945), 6-7.

8 Besides, what has held Vietnamese together since France abandoned its colonial enterprise in Vietnam? Postcolonial mimicry of former masters? The triumph of Vietnamese will over nature? Such ideological explanations suggest the sort of unitary interpretation of Vietnamese society and history that those who have invoked Gourou sought rightly to undermine in the first place.

9 One can still find a wide variety of vessels, albeit with aluminum, steel and plastic added to the inventory of building materials along with the likes of wood, bamboo and rattan, ever adapting to the particularities of local exigencies. For a recent study of boatbuilding in Vietnam, see FranÐoise Aubaile-Sallenave, Bois et bateaux du Vietnam (Paris, 1987). See also Blue Book of Coastal Vessels, South Vietnam (Washington & Saigon, 1967).

10 Vietnamese call this expansion of Vietnamese settlement from the Red River Delta to the Gulf of Thailand Nam tien, “The Southern Advance (C: nanqian).” This history contains much of the same mythic qualities as the westward expansion in American historical literature, and is a standard theme in most general histories of Vietnam. Like the American case, too, this mythology shrouds much of our ideas about this transformative period in the history of peninsular Southeast Asia in nationalist fancy. There are many works that discuss this migration. Much of this work is now under scrutiny, which will hopefully begin to distinguish myth from event.

11 These are the common traits Victor Lieberman identifies in his Eurasian comparison See “Transcending East-West Dichotomies,” 463-546.

12 Portions of this section draw upon another article of mine, entitled “One Region, Two Histories: Cham Precedents in the History of the Hoi An Region,” For Viet Nam: Borderless Histories, ed. Nhung Tran & Anthony Reid (forthcoming).

13 For clarity’s sake—and clarity’s sake only—I will stick to the term best known to most English-language readers, the South China Sea, rather than the Vietnamese Biển đ»ng, “Eastern Sea.” Following the same rationale, I will refer to the southern realm of Dang Trong as Cochinchina, and the northern realm of Đšng Ngoại as Tonkin.

14 Ralph L. Innes and John K. Whitmore have both done excellent studies of this triangular trade, especially with regard to its Japanese angle. See Innes, “The Door Ajar: Japan’s Foreign Trade in the Seventeenth Century” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Michigan, 1980); Innes, “Trade between Japan and Central Vietnam in the Seventeenth Century: the Domestic Impact (unpublished mss., 1988); Whitmore, “Vietnam and the Monetary Flow of Eastern Asia, Thirteenth to Eighteenth Centuries,” in Precious Metals in the Later Medieval and Early Modern Worlds, ed. J.F. Richards (Durham, 1983), 363À396.

15 The itineraries of monks, merchants, and officials, mainly from Europe or China—suggest a good deal of informal coastal interaction between Tonkin and Cochinchina; unfortunately, little study has been done. Do Bang is the sole exception; see “Relations between the Port Cities in Dang Trong and Pho Hien in the Seventeenth-Eighteenth Centuries,” in Pho Hien: The Centre of International Commerce in the XVIIthÀXVIIIth Centuries (Hanoi, 1994), pp. 195-203. As for overland connections, sources describe routes linking Hoi An’s with Nghe An in Tonkin. For example, Wuysthoff noted that merchant subjects of both Cochinchina and Tonkin visited the same markets on the Middle Mekong. See Jean-Claude Lejosne, Le journal de voyage de Gerrit can Wuysthoff et de ses assistants au Laos (1641-1642) (Paris, 1993), pp. 74, 95, 181, 211. A Chinese monk who visited Hoi An in 1695 described the overland routes leading from Hoi An to the “Kingdom of Ai Lao,” Cambodia, Thailand, and the inland Chinese province of Yunnan and Guangxi. Da Shan, Haiwai jishi[Record of travel overseas] (Taibei, 1963), 4: 107. On these overland routes connecting the two realms via Laos, see also Thien tai nhan dam (Concerning ideas of a thousand years), Gia Long 19 (1820), Han-Nom Institite, no. A.584. This is also reflected in a number of Vietnamese maps, albeit of nineteenth century provenance. Nghe An appears to have operated as a base from which to move goods between Tonkin and Cochinchina, which involved both local fisherman and Chinese merchants on both sides of the border. Le Quy Don, Phu bien tap lucDesultory noted from the (southern) frontier] (Saigon ed., [1971]), 1: 167-168.

16 For an excellent study of the political situation, and its relation to trade and society, see Li Tana, Nguyen Cochinchina. See also Yang Baoyun, Contribution a histoire de la principaute des Nguyen au Vietnam meridional (1600À1775) (Geneva: Editions Olizane, 1992).

17 Da Shan, 3: 92.

18 Gourou, op. cit.

19 P.B. Lafont (ed.), Proceedings of the Seminar on Champa: University of Copenhagen on May 23, 1987, trans. Huynh Dinh Te (Rancho Cordova, CA, 1994). For their perspective on Cham geography, see essay by Quach Thanh Tam, 21-37.

20 Bennet Bronson, “Exchange at the Upstream and Downstream Ends: Notes toward a Functional Model of the Coastal State in Southeast Asia,” in Karl Hutterer (ed.), Economic Exchange and Social Interaction in Southeast Asia: Perpectives from Prehistory, History, and Ethnography (Ann Arbor, 1977), pp. 39À52. Examples of works influenced by Bronson include Kenneth Hall, Maritime Trade and State Development in Early Southeast Asia (Honolulu, 1985), 12-20; and Robert S, Wicks, Money, Markets and Trade in Early Southeast Asia: The Development of Indigenous Monetary Systems to A.D. 1400 (Ithaca, 1992). Kenneth Hall also shows the environmental effects of the water world on Cham political and economic practices (practices that no doubt gave them their feared reputation throughout the seas) in “The Politics of Plunder in the Cham Realm of Early Vietnam,” in Robert van Neil, (ed.), Art and Politics in Southeast Asian History: Six Perspectives (Honolulu, 1989).

21 Da Shan, 3: 92. Such descriptions can be found for other regions of Vietnam as well.

22 Nguyen Thanh Nha points out that, whereas a road traveler might be able to cover 30 kilometers in one day, a ship could regularly sail 100. It is interesting to note that it took about as long to travel overland to the Cochinchinese capital as it did to sail to Guangzhou. Tableau Economique du Viet Nam aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siúcles (Paris, 1970), 366n1.

23 There are some Nguyen-era maps and itineraries (ca. 19th century) which describe this coastal post system in great detail. Major forts were always located at the mouth of each river, which of course constituted both economic and administrative centers for the regions that centered on them. The most interesting example is an imperial atlas, completed in 1806, that provides detailed, empire-wide descriptions of coastal, riverine and overland routes, posts, as well as settlements, markets and hostels that lined these pathways. Le Quang Dinh (comp.), Hoang Viet nhat thong du dia chi (Union atlas of Imperial Vietnam), Gia Long 5 (1806), Han-Nom Institute, no. A.584; (see also EFEO microfilm, A.67/103).

24 Examples abound. See for example, Nguyen Hoang’s campaigns during the 1550’s, as well as his final voyage south; Dai Nam thuc luc tien bien (Hanoi, 1962), pp. 33-41.

25 See Floy Hurlbut, The Fukienese: A Study in Human Geography (Muncie, Indiana, 1939); Hugh Clark; Community, Trade and Networks: Southern Fujian Province from the Third to the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge, England, 1991), pp. 3-10; Hans Bielenstein, “The Chinese Colonization of Fukien until the End of the Tang,” in Studia Serica: Bernhard Karlgren Dedicata, ed. Soren Egorod & Else Glahn (Copenhagen, 1959), pp. 98-122. A parallel to Vietnamese scholarship, Chinese anthropologist Maurice Friedman emphasized the limiting effects of mountains to describe Fujian.

26 Diane Murray, Pirates of the Southeast Coast, 1790-1810 (Berkeley, 1987): 9.

27 Looking at them on navigational charts, they look more like connect-the-dots than landforms, which only emphasizes their role in sea travel. I am indebted to the generosity of Nguyen Thua Hy, of Vietnam National History’s Faculty of History, for enlightening me on this point.

28 I include coastal dwellers in my definition of “hinterland,” since their relationship and proximity to the central market appears to be similar to that of traditional hinterland inhabitants upriver and upland.

29 Haiwai jishi (Taibei ed.), 11: s.p.

30 In Alexandre Dalrymple, Oriental Repertory (London, 1808), 1: 75, 79.

31 Hoi An dwarfed Da Nang, in terms of both the size of its community and its trade. Until the mid-nineteenth century, this trade was dominated by merchants from Macau, plying a trade in mundane items for everyday use, like eatery, tools, etc. See, for example, Henri Cordier (ed.), “Voyage de Pierre Poivre en Cochinchine (Suite): Journal d’une voyage a la Cochinchine depuis le 29 aoust 1749, jour de notre arrivee, jusqu’au 11 fevrier 1750,” Revue de l’Extreme-Orient, tome 3 (1887): 364À510.

32 Dalrymple, Oriental Repertory, 1: 79

33 Nguyen Thanh Nha, 183. Most of these customs-related jobs were reserved exclusively for the Minh Huong, “Ming Loyalists,” a distinct Sino-Vietnamese mercantile-bureaucratic ethnicity that the Nguyen legitimized in 1679, created out of settled overseas merchants and former operatives within the anti-Qing Zheng regime, for the most part based on Taiwan, that had controlled the Chinese shipping between Hoi An and Nagasaki from the 1640’s until 1683 when the regime collapsed. In stark contrast to every other Sino-Southeast Asian community, very little has been written about the Minh Huong. See Ch’en Ching-ho, Notes on Hoi-an (Carbondale, Illinois, 1974). Incidentally, though Da Nang dwarfs Hoi An today, European merchants who arrived there described it, as Pierre Poivre did, as a collection of “huts.”

34 Da Shan, 1: 19. The word “chop” appeared in an English commercial manual, which contains a fairly accurate description of the customs procedures in Hoi An. (Officials “will assist you in your commerce, to whom it will be necessary to give a small present.”) Milburn, Oriental Commerce (London, 1825), 442.

35 Chaya Shichinorobu’s scroll, dated 1645, illustrates the towing of a Japanese shuinsen vessel from Cua Han (now Vinh Da Nang) to Hoi An via one of the coastline’s numerous waterways running parallel to it, Song Co Co, which connected Da Nang Harbor (Cua Han) with the Thu Bon River. To view a copy of this scroll, see Noïl Péri, “Essai sur relations du Japon et de l’Indochinoise au XVI et XVII siúcles,” Bulletin de l’Ecole FranÐaise d’Extr¡me-Orient 23 (1923): s.n.

36 Dalrymple, 1: 75; Nguyen charters to coastal fishing villages, see Le Quy Don, 1: 202-211.

37 These rights are typically laid out in village temple (dinh) registers. For an example, see the study on Cam An by John Donaghue, cited below.

38 Sea swallow’s nests, a delicacy that always fetched high prices in China, were gathered by chartered villages or “colonies.” Instead of colonies, however, the Nguyen formed a “brigade” (V: doi; C: dui), selected from among the villagers of Thanh Chau, in Thang Hoa prefecture, just south of Hoi An. The brigade operated during certain months of the year, circulating throughout Dang Trong’s coastal settlements and offshore islands to collect nests from local inhabitants, or to collect nests themselves. After they returned to Thanh Chau, they would save the highest quality nests to present to their Nguyen sovereign in the annual tribute. The rest they sold on the market. Thanh Chau also enjoyed exemption from all taxes and corvee labor. Le Quy Don, 2: 380. For a history of the Thanh Chau Brigade in English, see John Donaghue, Cam An: A Fishing Village in Central Vietnam. Ann Arbor, [1961?]. Salvage is discussed below, 25-26.

39 Da Shan, 4: 111.

40 Da Shan, 4: 101-102.

41 Pierre Poivre describes the “coolies” that he hired to transport him and his goods over the mountain pass to the Nguyen capital. Cordier, “Voyage,” 372. Like Poivre and others, one French captain employed porters. He, like many Westerners, were astonished at the number of women porters. L. Rey, “Voyage from France to Cochin-China, in the ship Henry,” in Schoolcrafts Journals (London, 1821), no. 5, vol. 4: 117.

42 Le Quy Don, 1: 193, 196-197.

43 Da Shan, 4: 111.

44 Da Shan, 1: 19.

45 Da Shan, 1: 20. “The buyers and sellers in the shops are all female,” Da Shan wrote. All of the markets in the villages and towns were “in the hands of women,” remarked Pierre Poivre, even Hoi An. Cordier, “Voyage,” 390. And did so throughout the port’s two centuries of ascendancy in Asian trade. Foreign merchants operating in Hoi An married local women, to act in order “dispatch their wives to conduct trade, and cannot do business without them.” Da Shan, 3: 107. Temporary marriage was a common institution in Hoi An, which placed women in an advantageous position as broker between merchants and everything else. Local women, wrote Robert Kirsop in 1750, “will be very faithful, in the tedious work of counting your Cash,” and “household affairs will never be rightly managed ’til under the care of one of them.” Kirsop, “Some Account of Cochin-China,” Oriental Repository 1 (1808): 250. Women also ran inns an eateries along the roads and waterways the trellised the mountain forests of Dang Trong. Prostitution was commonplace as well. For more on the role of women in the Hoi An trade, see Wheeler, 143-150.

46 Alexandre Dalrymple tells about a “Cochin-Chinese pilot” who steered the ship Amphirite in 1792. See Dalrymple, Memoirs and Journals (London, 1786), 2: 1-18. Vietnamese from Cochinchina can also be found in the literature of shipwrecks. See letters between Cochinchina and Thai officials discussing how to handle Vietnamese sailors shipwrecked in Thailand, in Phu bien tap luc (Saigon ed.), 5: 160-168.

47 Da Shan, 1: 18.

48 “Dispositions Regarding the King of Champan [sic],” c.1599, in The Philippine Islands, 1493À1898, ed. Emma H. Blair and J.A. Robertson (Cleveland, 1905), 10: 236-244. It would not be surprising if the Nguyen subjugation of the last Cham chiefdom were done as much in the interest of protecting customs revenues as territorial conquest.

49 Murray, Pirates, 6.

50 Lan Dingyuan (early 18th century), “Lun haiyang mibu daozei shu (Essay discussing the apprehension of sea bandits), in Huangchao jingshi wenbian, comp. He Changlin (c1826, repr. Beijing, 1992): 11a. This is confirmed by Robert Antony’s study of the seasonal frequency of piracy attacks. See Antony, “Aspects of the Socio-Political Culture of South China’s Water World,” 83. See also Murray, Pirates, 17.

51 Susan Naquin reproduces an interrogation by authorities within military jurisdiction of Liang-Guang. Unfortunately, they are from Dang Ngoai rather than from Cochinchina. Nonetheless, the confession is interesting for what Diane Murray describes as the imperceptible boundary between maritime Guangdong and Vietnam (Murray, Pirates, 7). See Susan Naquin. “True Confessions: Criminal Interrogations as Sources for Ch’ing History.” National Palace Museum Bulletin 11.1 (Taibei, 1976): 1-17.

52 For examples, see John Barrow, A Voyage to Cochinchina, in the Years 1792 and 1793 (London, 1806), 307-308; “Letter by Jeronimus Wonderaer,” in Southern Vietnam under the Nguyen: Documents on the Economic History of Cochin China (Dang Trong), 1602À1777 (1993, ed. Tana Li & Anthony Reid (Singapore, 1993), 22; G.F. de Marini, A New and Interesting Description of the Lao Kingdom (1663), trans, Walter E.J. Tips & Claudio Bertuccio (Bangkok, 1998): 2.

53 In “A Voyage Around the World,” in John Pinkerton, A Collection of Voyages and Travels (London, 1709): 4: 283-284.