Story: Tran Hong Ngoc

Photos: Hong Ngoc, Nguyen Phong, Le Huy Hoang Hai

Discover what remains of a once-bustling Nguyen Dynasty trading port

Every time I visit Hue, the beauty of this former citadel evokes a sense of endless discovery. Each corner, village, and town has a gentle and nostalgic charm guaranteed to captivate a visitor’s heart. 

It might surprise you to learn that the former citadel is not the only place in Hue full of remnants of a bygone golden era. Few people know about Bao Vinh, a port that lies only a few kilometers from the city center, which was once one of the busiest and liveliest trade gateways of Dang Trong (South of the Gianh River). This historic site boasts a glorious past and present-day charm.

A boat trip offers enchanting views of colorful houses and their reflections

A once-bustling river port

In the mid-17th century, the country was divided into two parts: Dang Trong (South of the Gianh River) and Dang Ngoai (North of the Gianh River). In 1636, Lord Nguyen Phuc Lan ordered that the Lord’s Palace be moved from Phuoc Yen to Kim Long and built Thanh Ha Port at Sinh Junction, where the Bo River meets the Huong River, a region that was home to many Hoa (people of ethnic-Chinese origin), who traded in commodities including salt, rice, forest products, and porcelains. Dai Minh was a famous section of Thanh Ha Port, and was among Vietnam’s most significant commercial ports, drawing Asian traders from Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, etc.

In the 18th century, silt began to accumulate in Thanh Ha Port. The construction of the Hue Imperial Citadel mandated by King Gia Long changed the flow of the Huong River, causing sand banks to pile up and impeding boat access.

As a result, traders turned to Bao Vinh, a port only a kilometer southwest of Thanh Ha. Suddenly, Bao Vinh was transformed into a bustling commercial port, and was recognized as the official trading port of the Phu Xuan Imperial City at the dawn of the Nguyen Dynasty. Everything from common domestic products like herbal medicines, fresh fruits, and children’s toys to premium gifts like silk, tea, and porcelain was on display in myriad wholesale and retail shops.

In exchange, traders would take home Annam specialties such as betel leaves and areca nuts, raw silk, wood, dyes, oil paints, and elephant ivory. Bao Vinh was also known for handicraft products, including mosaics, bricks, tiles, caskets, woven cloth, and flour.

In 1885, the Hue Imperial Citadel was defeated by the French, and Bao Vinh was stripped of its wealth. When the market town of Dong Ba was formed by King Thanh Thai, Bao Vinh completely lost its once-renowned position as the bustling “market gate, trading port”.

Wares spill onto the sidewalk outside a small shop

Today’s Bao Vinh

I arrived in Bao Vinh early in the morning, when the old houses were still asleep, standing calmly and wistfully beside the tranquil Huong River. Today, the old port town of Bao Vinh is reduced to some hundred square meters of townhouses, cramped street sides, and a mix of ancient and modern residences.

At the town’s entrance lies a communal house with four pillars and a  charming front screen, nestled in the shade of a monumental banyan. This scene stirred childhood memories, reminding me of familiar old villages in Northern and Central Vietnam, with ancient communal houses, grand banyan trees, moss-covered roofs, images of two dragons attending the moon, and the lingering scent of incense.

At the town’s entrance lies a communal house with four pillars and a  charming front screen, nestled in the shade of a monumental banyan. This scene stirred childhood memories, reminding me of familiar old villages in Northern and Central Vietnam, with ancient communal houses, grand banyan trees, moss-covered roofs, images of two dragons attending the moon, and the lingering scent of incense.

From the communal house, I walked along the street observing remnants of the bygone port town, and found myself overwhelmed with emotions. Only a dozen nha ruong (ancient wooden houses) remain, their pillars and roofs withstanding the vicious wheels of time, in between their modern neighbors.

The old houses in Bao Vinh are vivid examples of a style that fuses French colonial and Hoa architecture, resulting in two-story townhouses, wooden structures, and low tiled roofs. Life in Bao Vinh appears slow-paced and simple.

In the early mornings, Me, or middle-aged aunties in the Hue dialect, head off to work at various street corners, their bamboo baskets loaded with local breakfast delicacies such as noodles, mussel rice, bread, congee, and sweet soups. Some of the old houses have been transformed into coffee shops or grocery stores. You will find many picture-perfect scenes in narrow alleys, with bright bougainvillea bushes, mossy walls, and rustic, age-old windows.

 

ANCIENT HOUSE 51 AND ANCIENT HOUSE 79 to appreciate traditional Hoa architecture

Near the end of ancient Bao Vinh stands Thien Giang Tu Temple, which is over two centuries old and dates back to the era of King Gia Long and an old river ferry, which I thought only existed in long-ago written accounts. To my astonishment, the ferry boats continue to operate and are busy carrying villagers from Bao Vinh to Thanh Tien village, famous for its paper flowers; Sinh village, known for folk prints and wood carving; and to Tien Non painting village.

Perhaps the most exciting experience in Bao Vinh is a boat ride along the gentle Huong River, watching a magnificent still-life of colorful houses and their reflections glide by.

Although golden moments fade and the town’s original architecture is gradually shrinking, Bao Vinh’s beauty remains. The essence of Bao Vinh lingers in the simple lifestyles and genuine charm of the locals, and in evocative images of the banyan tree, river ferry, communal house yard, local markets, and old streets.  Visitors to Bao Vinh can find inner peace as they reflect upon the town’s golden past.