The Dragon Sea Treasure
I carefully examine the tiny porcelain vase and find no Made in Taiwan sticker on its ancient surface. I look up at the careworn shopkeeper. She is standing beside me, pretending to tidy a huge stack of faded blue and white plates, which are encrusted with shells and old seaweed. "Where is this from?" I ask.
Her face lights up showing me a mouthful of blackened teeth. Nodding wisely in the direction of the nearby beach, she says, "In sea, very old. You want?"
Turning the blue and white vase over in my palm, I trace the faded blue flower painstakingly glazed onto its pitted surface. I have spent half the morning walking up and down the street, with its plethora of antique shops tucked away within the ancient laneways of Hoi An, searching for a souvenir to take home.
The double-story 18th century Chinese antique shops, overflowing with piles of porcelain jars, pots and plates, are crammed amongst the many restaurants and tailor shops. Each proprietor tells the same story: a 15th century Chinese trade junk sank in the dangerous Dragon Sea near Hoi An during a typhoon, laden with a hoard of precious porcelain; the treasure was only recently discovered.
"Fifteen dollars," the grandmotherly lady beams at me. She points to a little plastic chair, signalling that I should sit and begin the bargaining ritual. I glance out of the open shop front to where my friend is impatiently waiting.
He shakes his head at me, "Get real man, they probably knock them off in a factory down the road. Let's go to the beach." A pang of disappointment runs through me; I want to believe - surely there is some truth left in a world that runs on lies and deception. But I concede that he is probably right. Besides, even if it was real, I know it's illegal to take antiquities out of Vietnam without the proper export papers.
We hire some bicycles for a couple of dollars and peddle down to the beach. Apart from a few locals on overloaded bicycles, the road is remarkably free of traffic - a rare sight anywhere in Asia. The afternoon is spent basking on the picturesque beach with a handful of other backpackers, eating fresh fruit and barbecued fish that the local women carry around in huge baskets.
As I lay on the powdered white sand, watching the fishermen in their long tail boats, out past the surf, I wonder how long it will be before this beach is overrun with package tourists, five star hotels and hawkers selling t-shirts and marijuana?
Hoi An today is an anomaly in a world of change; little has changed in the old quarters of the town for the last 200 years. The town was an important seaport from the 16th to the 18th century, when ships from all over Europe and Asia visited to trade in commodities like silk, porcelain and timber. In 1999 Hoi An was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO, a testament to its uniqueness and cultural importance.
The little antique vase still haunts my thoughts - I want to believe in the possibility that not every tourist destination on the beaten path has lost its innocence - not all are geared towards selling an illusion. I resolve to find the truth.
My friend is interested only in visiting one of the many local tailors for new clothes, so we head our separate ways. I follow a winding street along the river that runs near the centre of Hoi An. Crossing the famed 16th century Japanese covered bridge and its stone guard dogs, I find the perfect place to have my questions answered, the local museum. I pay a small entrance fee and wander around the cool interior of the ancient wooden building.
Inside there is a huge display of weapons from the Vietnam War. Many have morbid signs detailing how many deaths were attributed to them. One of the odder displays is a ripped up helicopter seat, recovered from a US chopper shot down by Viet Cong forces. Finally in a small backroom I find what I am looking for - a room full of vases, pots, jars and plates of all sizes and description looking exactly like those back in the antique shops. Bent over a table strewn with shards of broken jars is a middle-aged Vietnamese man.
When I enter the room, the man turns and greets me before rushing to the corner of the room and picking up a small object, with which he eagerly approaches me. "Do you know what this is?" he asks.
I stare at him blankly. He has a small chopstick pillow in his hand. "It's for resting chopsticks on," I say politely.
He nods, "But what is it called in English?"
"A chopstick pillow," I answer, bemused.
"Ahh, thank you" he says, "I have always wanted to know what this is called in English."
By a stroke of luck the man turns out to be the resident archaeologist in Hoi An and an expert on porcelain. Apparently during the 1990s local fishermen started pulling up pottery in their nets. Realising they had found a shipwreck, they began to recover and sell it to local dealers. There was a flurry of international interest on the black market as the word got out. Then smugglers were caught taking the porcelain out of the country and the government stepped in and salvaged the wreck, recovering over 150,000 pieces. The find is known as the Hoi An hoard.
"So the pottery in the shops is real then?" I ask, bracing myself for the answer.
"All real," he assures me, but advises me not to buy it because it encourages the plunder of archaeological sites.
It's a bittersweet victory for me that Hoi An has not yet lost its innocence to commercialisation, and yet I cannot take the vase with me. Then I wonder, what happened to the pottery that was recovered? 150,000 pieces seems like a lot to put in a museum. The archaeologist is not sure what happened - it was taken somewhere else. I head to a nearby Internet cafe to look for more answers.
A quick search on the Internet leads me to Butterfield Auctioneers' online website and the Hoi An Hoard. According to the Butterfield site, unique objects of historical and cultural benefit to the people of Vietnam were retained by the Natural History Museum of Hanoi; in addition a selected 10 percent was dispersed to regional museums. The rest of the cargo was put up for auction on the Internet, via the Butterfield website and eBay.
It's ironic to think that I can legitimately purchase a 600 year old piece of Hoi An's history using modern technology - the 21st century has arrived and Hoi An seems oblivious. Yet, it's good to know there are still places like Hoi An, which time has forgotten for a while - a place where there are still some treasures left to be discovered. Now that Hoi An has truly arrived in the 21st century will time stand still a little longer?
* * * * *
Published on 2/13/03