The earliest evidence of human habitation here dates back 2200 years: excavated ceramic fragments are thought to belong to the late Iron Age Sa Huynh civilisation, which is related to the Dong Son culture of northern Vietnam. From the 2nd to the 10th centuries, this was a busy seaport of the Champa kingdom, and archaeologists have discovered the foundations of numerous Cham towers around Hoi An.
In 1307 the Cham king presented Quang Nam province as a gift when he married a Vietnamese princess. When his successor refused to recognise the deal, fighting broke out and chaos reigned for the next century. By the 15th century, peace was restored, allowing commerce to resume. During the next four centuries, Hoi An – known as Faifoo to Western traders – was one of Southeast Asia’s major ports. Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Indian, Filipino, Indonesian, Thai, French, British and American ships came to call, and the town’s warehouses teemed with treasures: high-grade silk, fabrics, paper, porcelain, areca nuts, pepper, Chinese medicines, elephant tusks, beeswax, mother-of-pearl and lacquer.
Chinese and Japanese traders left their mark on Hoi An. Both groups came in the spring, driven south by monsoon winds. They would stay in Hoi An until the summer, when southerly winds would blow them home. During their four-month sojourn in Hoi An, they rented waterfront houses for use as warehouses and living quarters. Some began leaving full-time agents in Hoi An to take care of their off-season business affairs.
The Japanese ceased coming to Hoi An after 1637 (when the Japanese government forbade contact with the outside world), but the Chinese lingered. The town’s Chinese assembly halls still play a special role for southern Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese, some of whom come from all over the region to participate in congregation-wide celebrations.
This was also the first place in Vietnam to be exposed to Christianity. Among the 17th-century missionary visitors was Alexandre de Rhodes, who devised the Latin-based quoc ngu script for the Vietnamese language.
Although Hoi An was almost completely destroyed during the Tay Son Rebellion, it was rebuilt and continued to be an important port until the late 19th century, when the Thu Bon River silted up. Danang (Tourane) took over as the region’s main port. Under French rule, Hoi An served as an administrative centre. It was virtually untouched in the American War, thanks to the cooperation of both sides.
Then in the 1990s, a tourism boom transformed the local economy. The town was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1999, and there are now very strict rules in place to safeguard the Old Town’s unique heritage.
Today Hoi An's economy is booming, and at times the Old Town can struggle to contain the sheer number of visitors. Many accommodation options have opened around the town's periphery, as Hoi An expands to the fulfil the ever-hungry tourism sector.