Hoi An Underwater

Local Stories from the Flood in Hoi An

Flood Hoi An 2020
Hoi An Floods — October 2020

The water reached my shoul­ders and when I stepped into the street I sud­den­ly felt the cur­rent try­ing to pull me into its invis­i­ble grasp. An all too famil­iar feel­ing that set off an alarm inside my head “Be care­ful! It looks like noth­ing, but don’t get caught in it.”

When I first vis­it­ed Hoi An more than 2 years ago almost every old house I vis­it­ed had marks of the flood lev­els from years pri­or. The flood itself is actu­al­ly an over­flow of the Thu Bon Riv­er along which Hoi An is built. This became abun­dant­ly clear when I stepped into the street and felt the cur­rent of the riv­er near­ly knock me off my feet.

Hoi An Ancient Town sprung up around the banks of the Thu Bon Riv­er in Cen­tral Viet­nam and for hun­dreds of years was a nexus for ship­ping routes around the world. In the 20th Cen­tu­ry osten­si­bly due to the riv­er fil­ing with silt (among oth­er fac­tors), the ship­ping hub of Hoi An was grad­u­al­ly replaced by Da Nang and oth­er ports that were more acces­si­ble to large sea-far­ing ves­sels. Hoi An was left, large­ly undis­turbed by mod­ern devel­op­ment and in 1999 was des­ig­nat­ed a UNESCO World Her­itage site.

These days in Hoi An there is a dam upriv­er and the locals typ­i­cal­ly get a warn­ing from the author­i­ties before it’s released. The flood warn­ing plus the dam and prepa­ra­tion means the flood in Hoi An is an incon­ve­nience but isn’t typ­i­cal­ly life-threat­en­ing. The locals are quite accus­tomed to the streets of Hoi An turn­ing into a tem­po­rary exten­sion of the Thu Bon River.

Click on the blue text to go to a page with more of the story.
Sa during the flood in Hoi An, Vietnam

There hadn’t real­ly been any flood­ing since I first vis­it­ed Hoi An in May 2018. After 5 days of heavy rain in Octo­ber 2020, I decid­ed to vis­it the Old Town and see how the locals dealt with the flood.

The first per­son I saw was Sa, stand­ing in the door to the attic of her house. The flood escape hatch as it were.

Bình with his broom, Hoi An Flood
Tuan with dogs Hoi An Flood

It was in these sto­ries that I learned more about the flood, how the locals respond to it, and lit­tle details about the lives of the peo­ple liv­ing in Hoi An.”

Nam, Flood Hoi An Boat

The water was flow­ing strong. We had to pad­dle against the cur­rent so much that we were almost out of breath.” Năm and her hus­band live on An Hoi Island (across from the old town) which was under­wa­ter. Dur­ing the flood­ing, they give tourists boat rides around Hoi An Old Town.

There was a kind of beau­ty in the old town, ochre walls reflect­ed in the turgid water, brown from the silt of the fields and moun­tains above. The revving and honk­ing of motor­cy­cles replaced by boats and the occa­sion­al paddleboard.

Hoi An Flood 2020

Dur­ing the flood local boat oper­a­tors offer rides to peo­ple want­i­ng to explore Hoi An while its flooded.

A “local for­eign­er”  pad­dles through Hoi An on his inflat­able kayak.

Playing in the flood Hoi An 2020
Hoi An Flood 2020

Du, 72, wash­es the gongs from her house in the flood­ed streets.

By the ear­ly after­noon, water lev­els had reced­ed con­sid­er­ably and the street where the water was up to my neck was now just over waist high, mak­ing move­ment eas­i­er and safer.

Hoi An Flooding 2020

Nor­mal­ly, I just stay home to rest. I was rid­ing the boat with my grand­kid on that day.” Tí, 70, looks for clients around Hoi An ancient town.

Stories from the Flood in Hoi An

Per­haps the more inter­est­ing, but cer­tain­ly the most reward­ing part came two days lat­er. As crews scraped the mud from the streets my part­ner Trinh and I drove around Hoi An to deliv­er pho­tos and learn the sto­ries from the peo­ple I’d encoun­tered dur­ing the flood.

It was in these sto­ries that I learned more about the flood, how the locals respond to it, and lit­tle details about the lives of the peo­ple liv­ing in Hoi An. Sto­ries like why Tuân was haul­ing his dogs back through the sec­ond-sto­ry win­dow of his house as well as his dog’s names and the mean­ing behind them. Or Sa and why her house has a strange door in the attic. Bình and what he was doing hold­ing a broom in the mid­dle of the flood­ed street, why he lives in Hoi An, and how he deals with the flood.

It was in these small details that brought me a greater under­stand­ing of Hoi An and a deep­er and more per­son­al mean­ing to the pho­tographs of the people.

Delivering Photos

Stories from the Flood in Hoi An