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[Photos] For Hoi An Residents, Learning to Live With Floods Is a Fact of Life

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. A 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 two years ago, almost every old house I saw had marks of the flood levels from years prior. These floods are 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 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 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 residents typically get a warning from the authorities before water from it is released. These warnings and preparation means flooding in Hoi An is an inconvenience, but isn’t typically life-threatening. Locals are quite accustomed to the streets turning into a temporary extension of the Thu Bon.

There hadn’t really been any flooding since I first visited Hoi An in May 2018. After five days of heavy rain last month, however, I decided to visit the Old Town and see how people were dealing with the flood.

Bình, 24, plays in the flooded streets of Hoi An, letting the current carry him along.

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

There was a kind of beauty in the Old Town; ocher 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 paddle board.

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

Perhaps the most interesting, and 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.

During the flood, local boat operators offered rides to people wanting to explore Hoi An.

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 dogs' 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 floods.

These small details brought me a greater understanding of Hoi An and a deeper, more personal meaning to the photographs of the people.

A local boat operator paddles around the Old Town.

“Local foreigner” Thomas Weingärtner explores the Old Town on his inflatable kayak. Thomas paddled out the front door of his partially submerged homestay in Hoi An.

The iconic Japanese Bridge partially submerged by the Thu Bon River.

“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 gave tourists boat rides around Hoi An Old Town.

“This ladder is used as a tool for us to climb down to the boat. It is tied to the balcony.” Nga holds her daughter Thảo, 6, on her balcony during the October floods in Hoi An.

Nga and her daughter Thảo watch boats go by in front of their house.

Nguyen Thai Hoc Street under water.

Sa stands at the emergency flood exit door built into the attic of her house in Hoi An.  “If the water flow is too strong and rises fast, we have to escape through this door,” she explains.

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

Tí, 70, paddles down Nguyen Thai Hoc Street with her grandson.

Tuân enters his house via the upstairs window with his dogs. After trying unsuccessfully to enter the house from the submerged ground level door, his family stopped by in a boat and helped him get onto the awning with his dogs.

Tuân hangs his clothes out to dry.

A local woman washes the gongs from her house in the flooded streets.

Top photo: Bình, 24, poses with a broom outside of his home during the flood. “I was using that broom to push the trash stuck on the walls away.” Bình rented a house to open a coffee shop in a small alley in Hoi An. However, the coffee shop has been closed due to COVID-19 and the flooding.