Ancient wells, a cultural point in Hoi An

By HOANG LY – KHANH CHI |

(QNO) - Ancient wells, an indispensable part of the materially cultural heritage in Hoi An, closely connected with the daily life of local people for years, contribute to make a very specific original point of Hoi An culture.

The Hoi An’s ancient wells are mainly distributed along the North side of the De Vong River (Hamlet 5 and 6, Cam Thanh commune, block 4, Thanh Ha Ward), in the ancient quarter; and the rest are scattered in many other places. These wells are normally from 50 to 150 meters far from the rivers; especially there are some just between 6 and 10 meters from the river. In the suburbs, the wells are often round-shaped and located in the habitants’ houses. However, the ones at the old quarter are square-shaped or rounded above and squared below. The reason for this is derived from the yin - yang concept (yang is round and yin is square). All the old wells are in the religious monuments such as club-houses, family temples, communal houses, Minh Huong and Ngu Bang Chinese temples. Thanks to this well system, the Cham could exist during long-term drought seasons.

Some researchers suggest that the round and round - square wells were built by the Cham before the 15th century. When the Vietnamese came Hoi An, they inherited them for their needs. The others were done by the Chinese and the Vietnamese who learnt the Cham’s well building techniques?! There are many different designs, but all the wells have a common feature - a square ironwood frame under the brick orifice. The wooden frame plays an important role in ensuring the longevity of the well, keeping the well from sinking. The well’s walls were made of bricks which were stacked without plaster so that water could flow into the well to maintain the water high level of the well. Particularly, there was always an altar on each well to worship the God of the well, which was a spiritual feature of Hoi An ancient inhabitants. It was believed that there was a God to protect the well.

The water in the ancient wells is always naturally fresh though they are very near salt water. The water level is always high and stable, even in the dry season; therefore, the Cham’s techniques to prevent salt intrusion and their secrets to find artesian water have attracted many scholars to explore. Moreover, the ancient wells in Hoi An are also the symbol of national culture - the world cultural heritage of Vietnam.

Among about 80 ancient wells existing in Hoi An, Ba Le may be the most noticeable. It dates from the ancient Cham’s time. It was built of bricks without plaster. An ample-wide ironwood frame at its foot is thousands years old. It was named after the event told that in the 20th century, there was a woman collecting 100 Indochinese coins to restore the well.  Ba Le has been known since then. The well is square with brick walls, wooden floor and about 12m deep .

According to reference materials, the Ba Le well dates back to the 8th – 9th centuries. Its water used to be sold to merchant ships from Persia, Japan... No one knows its original name. In the 20th century, it was named after a rich woman, Ba Le, who spent 100 Indochinese coins restoring the well.

On the first day of the lunar month and the full-moon day, Hoi An’s inhabitants often bring offerings to the well for thanksgiving. If they do that because the well may exist in Hoi An for thousands of years. It may also be that the well gives them the source of income (both physical and spiritual). Hoi An’s inhabitants also believe that the baby bathed in water from Ba Le well will have white and pink skin, especially never get prickly heat.

 If you are interested in Hoi An’s cuisine culture, you learn that all the specialties of Hoi An such as Cao Lau, Quang noodles are made from the water in these ancient wells because of their natural freshness which makes an important contribution to a special taste of Hoi An’s dishes.

Till now in Hoi An there still exists a career called ‘well water carrying for rent’. Even there are three or four generations in a family earning living by carrying well water. It will be a flaw if Mr. and Mrs. Nguyen Duong are not mentioned in the story of Ba Le well. They have been working as well water carriers for tens of years. At the age of 82, Mr. Nguyen Duong, the last to carry well water, is very healthy with the shiny black skin, sinewy hands. He is strong enough to carry water along the streets twice or three times a day.

Along with Ba Le well, the Mái (female) well located at the five corners, in front of Hoi An Market and Ong Pagoda is one of the two oldest wells in the ancient quarter of Hoi An. This is the only public well with the roof of fish-scale tiles and a familiar symbol associated with the inhabitants of the old quarter.
The ancient wells are an indispensable part of the materially cultural heritage in Hoi An, contribute to make a very specific original point of Hoi An culture and people’s lives.

By HOANG LY – KHANH CHI