Background image of Vietnamese delegation in the Columbia Gorge. Photo courtesy of Julia Babcock/ Portland State

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Vietnam’s Hoi An and the resilience of culture

Over the last few decades, Hoi An has experienced a renaissance, growing to 100,000 local residents and hosting over 2 million tourists a year. Despite the economic shifts, Hoi An’s culture has remained strong creating a unique convergence of people, traditions, and philosophy.

By Julia Babcock

Historic preservation often occurs in between boom and bust cycles when strong communities endure the shifting economic landscape around them. The Vietnamese city of Hoi An’s story of preservation is strongly shaped by the Thu Bon River,which has attracted an ebb and flow migration of people from surrounding nations for hundreds of years. Since the first century, historians believe Hoi An was the premier port for trade in the region. When the river silted up in the 18th century trade declined sharply and Danang to the North became favored and developed by international influences.

Boat on Thu Bon River
A traditional boat plies the Thu Bon River in Hoi An. Photo courtesy Julia Babcock/Portland State

Over the last few decades, Hoi An has experienced a renaissance, growing to 100,000 local residents and hosting over 2 million tourists a year. Despite the economic shifts, Hoi An’s culture has remained strong creating a unique convergence of people, traditions, and philosophy.

We’ve come to know Hoi An through a series of exchanges over the last several years between Portland and Hoi An, hosted by Portland State in partnership with UNHabitat. Under the leadership of Dr. Marcus Ingle, PSU has developed the International Sustainability Investment Strategy for Vietnam which focuses on sharing leadership and governance model between Vietnam and Portland to meet sustainable development goals. A new State Department grant will support a Professional Fellows Program for mid-level Vietnamese professionals under Dr. Shpresa Halimi.

In Summer 2012, it was Portland academics and officials who got to learn first-hand about Hoi An’s renaissance.  During a tour of a recently renovated silk market, Mayor Le Van Giang shared what touches people about Hoi An:

Our people have a generous spirit that is contagious. No matter where people come from, when they experience Hoi An, it touches their heart. Our community is built on a longstanding tolerance and respect for a variety of cultures.”

That insight underlines the type of social legacy that lives on in modern Hoi An. Yet like all pillars of sustainability, without proper stewardship it can be lost in a generation.

Hoi An Old Town
Hoi An’s old town. Photo courtesy of Julia Babcock/ Portland State

Today, people come to Hoi An for a variety of reasons. Tourists come to enjoy the small city’s well-preserved historic district recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site on the riverfront and scenic beaches along the East Sea. Researchers come to study the effects of climate change which has been exacerbated by seasonal floods as well as erosion and loss of wetlands due to expanding development.

It is the shared goals to preserve Hoi An’s cultural history and  manage rapid growth by embodying Ecocity principles that makes for a unique opportunity for sustainable development in practice that has attracted international consultation from partners such as Portland State.

In Fall 2012, a delegation of leaders from UNHabitat and the central Province of Quang Nam (where Hoi An is located) came to speak at the EcoDistrict Summit about their experiences working with Portland practitioners to adapt the EcoDistrict framework. During a tour of Portland’s Southwest Waterfront, Mayor Giang reacted to the newly developed neighborhood by saying, “We may need about fifty years to replicate the sustainability principles we are seeing in the infrastructure here.”

His reflection was directly related to the explanations provided by Portland officials about the emergence of green streets, buildings and roof designs in the district to shape watershed health as well as the history shared by an local urban designer, through pictures of the sites decade-long transition from heavy industrial uses to residential and institutional district.

Though Hoi An has not had to face the clean-up of heavy industry, concurrency issues are mounting. Foreign investment in tourism facilities has led to increases in traffic and the use of public space without key infrastructure upgrades to treat pollution issues. Notably, there are no wastewater treatment facilities currently in operation and financing these investments without private dollars can be daunting to leaders in the developing world. A number of terrestrial and marine species are being monitored by staff from the offshore Cham Islands Biosphere Reserve as a means to educate Hoi An residents about the link between watershed health and the health of the islands.

Looking at Portland’s model, Provincial leaders were impressed with how many interests were embodied into projects like the Bonneville Dam and the recent Johnson Creek flood restoration. What international tourists find enviable in Hoi An’s rich culture, Vietnamese delegations have admired in Portland’s green infrastructure investments. Only time will tell if Hoi An can find a way to balance infrastructure upgrades to accommodate growth without losing the character that has evolved over centuries.

Just as green building professionals discovered the embedded energy in historic buildings, historic preservation in places like Hoi An is showing the potential to guide sustainability principles on a neighborhood and city scale. From the core of cities where commerce shaped culture for centuries, neighborhoods can arise from the stable structures that held the scale and feel of communities together during periods of change.

In this way, Hoi An demonstrates that sustainability is not only about balancing social, environmental and economic goals; Hoi An teaches us that sustainability is also about maintaining the cultural traditions that honor the past, inspire the present and protect future generations.

Julia Babcock is the Program Coordinator of the Intel Vietnam Scholars Program at Portland State.

 Babcock and Khanh Pham, a Ph.D. student in Urban Studies, have started a Vietnam Forum at Portland State that meets bi-weekly to share information about emerging research as well as hold a space for presentations from students, professors and professionals who come to Portland from Vietnam to study sustainable development. To attend a meeting or for more information about programs, please visit: http://www.pdx.edu/vietnam-forum/

Here is short video outlining some of Hoi An’s opportunities and challenges.