Annual floods don’t dampen spirits in Hoi An

Used to a yearly overflow on their doorsteps and into their homes, Hoi An's residents have found a way to live in harmony with the floods.

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A photo from the archives depicting a flood, during which the water spread to the streets in the center of the Ancient Town

Situated in a low-lying area, close to the mouth of Thu Bon River, flooding, which has been occurring for hundreds of years, is not new to the ancient town, with nature usually unleashing all its fury during this time of the year, the stormy season.

These floods are generally triggered directly or indirectly by storms, forcing water down from the nearby mountains, as the sea water level rises and only adds to the problem.  

Despite the challenges brought on by the storms, life goes on in the town even when the streets and pavements are inundated. Living in an area prone to storms and floods, homeowners have had to find ways to protect themselves from annual disasters.

As such, almost all the houses on the ancient streets in Hoi An are two-storey, with trapdoors to help move things before the water level rises. The people there show great resilience in their ability to deal with the floods, only amplified now by climate change and development.

Bach Dang Street along the Thu Bon River (or Hoai River) is the first street to get flooded, and sometimes, the murky, blue-green water reaches the first floor of the two-storey homes, leading to many households climbing onto their roofs to be rescued by boats.

However, the flood water eventually ebbs within a day or two, and merchants clean their house and reopen their places of business almost instantly.

Even so, the tempestuous weather can sometimes lead to harmful consequences.

The worst flood I have ever experienced was in 1964—the year of the Dragon—when I was 11 years old. In November that year, the flooding in Hoi An continued for a week, and the water reached all the way to the roof beams of the houses, including my great grandmother's house.

It was the worst flood of the 20th century, which resulted in the deaths of 6,000 people in Quang Nam, Quang Ngai, Binh Dinh, Thua Thien-Hue and Quang Tin. The exact number of flood victims in Hoi An is not known.

According to data collected by the government at the time, water levels in some areas reached as high as 22.16 meters. 

Some have recommended the building of low dykes around Hoi An to shield the town from floods. But the idea was shot down as apart from there being no budget for them, the dykes could also destroy the charm of the town, with its well-preserved merchant residences, temples and pagodas as well as ancient tea warehouses dating back to more than 200 years.

Hoi An still has more than 800 preserved historical buildings which are listed by the UNESCO (Classification in 1999).  

Throughout the 16th-17th centuries, the town was one of the most crucial trading ports in Southeast Asia, a key stop on the Silk Road.

In 1999, UNESCO named Hoi An a World Heritage Site because it was such a well-preserved sort of 15th-19th century Asian trading port.

Until today, Hoi An, situated in the central Quang Nam Region, remains a small city with its history intact, ravaged by floods but almost untouched by time.