Deep in the tropics of Southeast Asia, there is a colorful, bustling city that hugs the coast of central Vietnam. Its name is Hội An, and it is one of those mystical magical faraway places that you should visit at least once in your life.
Hội An’s colorful houses and temples and businesses sprawled along the vital estuaries and islets, all the way out to the white sands of the aquamarine beaches reaching outwards to what was once known as the Eastern Sea.
I sound like a travel brochure, don’t I? Honestly, I don’t want to write yet another travel post because there are so many of them out there and I don’t think I can add much more to the commonalities of the travelers who have raved and gushed about Hội An.
Still, I at least want to touch upon a few points of special interest that have been sorely neglected, namely that of the Taoist and spiritual persuasion.
The last time I was there, I stayed at a villa called Nghê Prana Villa & Spa. I wrote about my experience there in my previous post Hội An Mystique and the Toan Nghê.
I was so enchanted by the many Toan Nghê statues all around the estate that I did not do the city of Hội An much justice and barely mentioned it, so this post will address my short-comings from the previous post.
First, let’s take a quick overview of the history of the place.
History of Hội An
Hội An was once one of the most active Southeast Asian seaports that existed over 400 years ago, between the 15th to the 19th century CE. It facilitated trade between Europe and China, as well as India and Japan, enabling goods to be easily imported and exported, and its 500-year cosmopolitan nature really shows.
Embedded within its ancient architectural bones lie the vestiges of Hindi and Buddhist influences. Also visually apparent everywhere are the stylistic contributions of the Confucianists and Taoists, as well as traces of French colonialist days between 1887 to 1954.
Going there is like stepping back in time…but with modern conveniences like 5G wireless everywhere and flush toilets.
A Taoist Temple in Hội An
Chotto matte!!! There is a Taoist temple in Hội An?
Why, yes. Yes there is. I kid you not. Take a look at this awesome old bridge.
It has a few names, but it is mostly known as the Japanese Covered Bridge, and let me tell you, it is a stunning Taoist architectural landmark!
The local Vietnamese, whose families had lived here for many centuries, told me it was originally constructed to connect the Japanese quarter with the Chinese quarter in the region due to the canal that existed which separated the two sections of the city, which was, at that time, quite small.
“It looks like the Japanese built it,” I said to the local security guard as I gawked at the architectural details of the building.
“It was,” he responded. “My family has lived here for many centuries so we know this bridge well.”
“This bridge was originally built by a wealthy Japanese merchant who fell in love with the young daughter of a Chinese merchant. Unfortunately, at that time, the Japanese lived on one side of the canal and the Chinese lived on the other side, and neither of them commingled. This caused the two sides to remain divided, especially along the canal lines.”
“Why?” My mouth opened in surprise, although this shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, given the way these two countries are still in a state of continued simmering tension.
I was then told in no uncertain terms that this was due to the fact that there was quite a bit of animosity arising between the Japanese and the Chinese from various issues, mostly having to do with the ancient grudges that gripped their respective countries.
Since it was a long-winded conversation, I will spare you the boring details and fast-forward to the pertinent details at hand–the temple bridge.
The man continued his long-winded tale which culminated with the conclusion that, due to the power of love, the Japanese man was able to build the bridge and connect the two merchant groups together, which also allowed for the two lovers to more easily meet.
“So I understand that the Chinese and Japanese were not exactly best of friends, but how well did the Chinese and Japanese do with the locals?” I wanted to know.
“Do you mean the Vietnamese or are you talking about the Champa?” He asked.
“Cham–Champa? No, I mean did they have issues with the Vietnamese?” I sputtered.
“Why would they have issues with us? We were their slaves at that time. They came and enslaved us all, Vietnamese and Champa alike.”
“Oh.” I said, disquieted at the tidbit that never really made it into official history.
I know this because during my travels throughout Hội An, I spent an inordinate amount of time talking with the locals and also looking up the official history of the bridge’s origins. Nowhere did I find this romantic account of the origins of this bridge, or the accounts of the Vietnamese being chattel.
All I could find was some ancient mythology about a monster catfish named Namazu. Apparently, we Viets know about it too because we called this monstrous catfish a Con Long Cù.
According to ancient legend, this beast lives deep underground (underground mud is what is stated in ancient texts). Its head is located in India, its body runs through Vietnam, and its tail winds all the way to Japan.
Apparently, every time it moved or thrash its tail, disasters like floods and earthquakes would occur. Therefore, the temple was built at this location and it acted like the blade of a long sword, speared deep within Namazu’s back to prevent it from moving.
This was supposedly to help the people of all three countries (India, Vietnam, and Japan) to live more peaceful lives and lessen the threat of major quakes, tsunamis, and floods.
Nowhere do the official accounts talk of this romantic gesture, but of course, it does NOT mean that the romance story is false. It could just be that official accounts needed to be more mythical or legendary or dignified and less…mundane in order to allow it to remain mystical and magical.
In my very humble opinion, it could be something as simple as this.
In order for the Japanese man to justify building a bridge of that scale and scope, he had to gain the approval of the Japanese officials.
What better way to get things quickly built than to play upon the fears of a people plagued with the constant threat of earthquakes?
At least, that’s what I would do if I were him.
I mean, think about this. If I was the Empress and was told that a bridge could solve the issues of earthquakes ravaging my country, what would I do?
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’d say: “Heck, build two bridges! Build three! Here, take all my money for the project. And make it quick!”
Only problem is: The damn catfish isn’t even anywhere close to India or Vietnam.
If there was such a mythical creature named Namazu, its head would start somewhere within the vicinity of New Zealand, with its body curving around the entire Pacific Island chain.
Its body would continue winding up towards eastern Russia and the Aleutian trench, down the coastlines of North and South America, with its tail ending at the southern tip of South America.
It would be called the Namazu Ring of Fire, and it would be more like an eel and less like a catfish, if you ask me.
In any case, India’s earthquakes are due to the Indian plate grinding up against the European plate and causing a ruckus that resulted in the Tibetan Plateau.
As for Vietnam. Heck, Vietnam isn’t even anywhere near earthquake zones. We may have weather issues and climate change issues, but earthquakes??? Nope.
But let’s humor the ancients, shall we? If they actually believed that a sword was going to solve the issue of tectonic plates, then a better location would be at the Aleutian trench, where its real ‘back bone’ would be located.
And while they were at it, one in New Zealand and another one off the coast of Chile would also be prudent.
To be honest, I would much prefer that it was a love story which allowed for the bridge to be built, rather than simple commerce-cum-disaster prevention. But that’s just me.
End of historical accounts. Let’s get into the present and talk about the Taoist god being venerated here.
(Continue to Temple Bridge God)