Question: What Southeast Asian landmark—and one town’s official symbol—is actually Japanese and invokes a monstrous legend that starts in India?
Answer: Chua Cau Bridge, Hoi An, Vietnam
In Vietnamese folklore, Mamazu was a terrible monster whose slumbering form stretched out for thousands of miles underground. Mamazu started in India, where its head was said to rest; Vietnam was the spine of the beast, and the tail was reputed to wind all the way through the sea to Japan. Whenever Mamazu stirred, it tore up the landscape in the form of earthquakes or whipped the sea into tsunamis. Legend says that the Chua Cau Bridge was built to shackle Mamazu and thus free the land from danger.
The reality was less fanciful but no less multicultural. Nestled at the intersection of the Thu Bồn River and an estuary of the South China Sea, Hoi An was a perfect hub for the spice trade that linked Vietnam and neighboring China with more distant Japan, India, Portugal, and the Netherlands. A diverse city by the 16th century, with residents from all these lands, Hoi An (Hai Pho as it was then known) was especially rich with the culture of its biggest group of immigrants: the Japanese, who occupied one side of the river as their own.
In 1593, the Japanese began building a bridge across the water to unite the two halves of the city, and the finished bridge did exactly that once completed two years later. The bridge was not only practical but beautiful, and became an attraction for visitors as well. It was declared the official symbol of Hoi An, despite its Japanese origin. Celebrating its 425th birthday in 2018, believers could credit the bridge with warding off earthquakes—but it has been damaged twice by flooding in the past twenty years. Perhaps this shows that you can harness a monster, but you can never a tie down a river.
6 Fun Facts about the Japanese Bridge of Hoi An
- Chua Cau is the only known covered bridge in the world that ends in a Buddhist temple.
- Buddha isn’t the only god here. Inside the bridge itself is a shrine to Tran Vo Bac De, the God of Weather, who is both worshipped and feared.
- One end of the bridge features a monkey statue and the other features a dog. Though both are auspicious symbols in general, they specifically refer to the construction period, which started in 1593, Year of the Monkey; and ended in 1595, Year of the Dog.
- The tile roof ends in a border that is studded with 50 delicate porcelain bowls on each side of the bridge.
- The bridge was built in an arched shape in accordance with Japanese design, but the French flattened out the floor during the Colonial era to make it easier for driving. After decades of complaints, in 1986, Hoi An restored the bridge to its original shape with era-appropriate materials.
- In 1719, the ruler of southern Vietnam carved the Chinese words “Lai Vien Kieu” above the entrance to the bridge. It means “Bridge for Travelers from Afar,” welcoming the spice traders. He never could have imagined just how true the title would still be centuries later, greeting travelers from countries which did not yet even exist.
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