Nguyen Lords with Trading Activities and International Cultural Exchange in South Vietnam during the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries

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The 16th – 18th centuries were widely known as a fascinating period of Vietnamese history. It was characterized by the division between North (Đàng Ngoài) and South of the country (Đàng Trong) and the civil war accordingly between the Trinh Lords and the Nguyen Lords. It also witnessed the most vibrant cultural exchange and integration of feudal states in Vietnamese medieval times. With their well-defined vision and effective maritime trade strategies, the Nguyen Lords have actively promoted cultural and economic exchange in the region and to the world. The seaports along the coast of South Vietnam have become a central gateway for these activities. The current research is an attempt to give a vivid picture of the dynamic trading environment in Thuan Quang – the biggest province in this part of the country. A critical reassessment of the Nguyen Lords’ integration policies will also be presented.

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Nguyen Lords with Trading Activities and International Cultural Exchange in South Vietnam during the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries1


Acculturation is undoubtedly an essential element in the establishment, development and national identity building of every country. As one of the two biggest civilizations and most typical of the Orient’s, China has strongly exerted its influence on Vietnamese culture2. Obviously, institutional and political, socio-cultural similarities between Vietnam and China have been resulted from this “acculturation”3. However, that Vietnam has resolutely preserved their independence throughout the thousand-year history and that they made great effort for their Southward expansion is an inspiring story.

The century-long Southward expansion has been driven by firstly the overpopulation of the Red River Delta, and secondly by the “strategy” of getting the Northern influence out of Vietnamese feudal states. This is also referred by scholars as the process of “deculturalizing the Chinese culture”. This Southward expansion was not limited to geographical or territorial extent, rather, it offered great opportunities for the Viet to accept new values from the South. While the 16th - 18th century period has been attached to a tragic division between North and South Vietnam, between the Trinh Lords and Nguyen Lords, it was also known as the most significant territorial expansion ever (Fig.1).


Fig. 1. Division of Vietnam into North (Dangngoai) and South (Dangchong), 1757 map.

Source: Wikipedia


With a great strategic vision shown in a series of open and maritime trading policies, the Nguyen Lords (1558–1777) have reversed a passive political situation into a robust expansion which was independent from Tonkin (Đàng Ngoài). Given a favorable condition for coastal economic exchange and considerable advantages for regional and international integration, South Vietnam has opened up a dynamic climate for cultural and economic cooperation. For the first time in history, Vietnamese culture was defined by new factors such as Japanese, Asian and Western traits other than Chinese influence. The Nguyen Lords, despite being the later emperors, have played their pivotal role in revitalizing the earlier legacies of the Cham people [Wheeler 2006].

South Vietnam, with its distinctive ways of establishment and development compared to traditional culture, has received much attention from scholars worldwide. A number of ground- breaking researches have brought new perspectives on the role of the Nguyen dynasty in Vietnamese history. Among which was the study on Nguyễn Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries by Li Tana [1998]. This academic work, as a multifaceted view into Vietnamese history, has critically discussed the contribution of the Nguyen Lords to the political and socio-economic context of Vietnamese feudal times. The cultural exchange between South Vietnam and other parts of the world, however, have not been treated with much detail in Li Tana’s work.

Apart from foreign scholars (i.e. Keith Taylor [Taylor 2002], Charles Wheeler [Wheeler 2006], Andrew Hardy [Hardy 2008]), there have been a substantial number of important researches of the same topic by local authors. For example, a collection of treatises on Hoi An Ancient Town (Đô thị cổ Hội An4) [1991] – the most significant one during the Nguyen Lords period, published in 1991, or conference proceedings about Nguyen Lords and the Nguyen Dynasties in Vietnamese history since the 16th to 19th century [2008]. Other outstanding works include: Cultural communication in Cochinchina during the Nguyen Lords period by Dao Hung [2008] which gave a critical evaluation about Thuan Quang government’s attitude towards Western countries; The Foundation of the Nguyen Dynasty – a monograph by Alexey Ryabinin [1988], in which the issues of cultural exchange during the Nguyen Lords period and the Nguyen Dynasty in general have been under researched. The above gaps have brought a new path for the current study to present a vivid picture of the dynamic cultural exchange and integration in South Vietnam, accordingly give a critical reassessment on the policies adopted by the Nguyen Lords during the 200-year period.

A dynamic trading network with diversified activities in South Vietnam

Rich natural resources and geographically favorable conditions for trading have enabled the Viet people in the Central region to boost maritime activities since ancient times, making up for their rudimentary agrarian economy. It is no coincidence that, Champa people – the predecessors living in the kingdom of Nguyen lords, were known as active merchants in the Southeast Asian and international trade network for centuries [Trần Quốc Vượng 1985]. Their strong economic development was reflected in the magnificent stupas – also their invaluable heritage and such growth was attributed to not only agricultural activities but also forest resources and good international relationship between the Cham people and their counterparts [Hardy 2008].

Being founded in the land with “a glorious history” built by the Cham people, the Nguyen Lords have favorably established their powerful regime5. The age of commerce [Reid 1993] also helped them accelerate the international trade, especially the maritime one. Thanks to their making full advantages of these ideal internal and external conditions, the Nguyen Lords have turned the “haunted land” into a thriving economic region. They set up a rigorous fiscal and monetary system [Đại Nam Thực lục 2002: 165] to facilitate the commercial activities in the coastal ports, yielding substantial profits to make up for the agrarian economy. According to Thomas Bowyear, a British merchant who came to the South Vietnam since the time of Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu (1691–1725), there were a variety of goods shipped from Asian countries, including: betel leaf, red wood, paint, mother-of-pearl, ivory, tin, lead, rice (from Siam); orpiment, styrax tonkinensis, amomum, wax, paint, mother-of-pearl, red wood, pine resin, buffalo skin, deer skin and tendon, ivory, rhino horn (from Cambodia); silver, eucalyptus, betel nut, red medicine (from Batavia); silver, sulphur, seashell, tobacco, deer tendon. Common types of goods from the South Vietnam were: gold, iron, silk, textile, agarwood, sugar, alum sugar, bird’s nest, pepper, cotton, etc. [quoted from Thành Thế Vỹ 1961: 227].

Along with the influence of the Age of Commerce, the changes in trading policies of China and Japan – the two big Northeastern countries – have considerably commercial activities in the South Vietnam. After nearly 200 years (1371–1567) of maritime trade embargo, the Ming government allowed Chinese boats to reach Southeast Asian territory but contained the trading with Japan. Consequently, the Japanese market witnessed a notable absence of Chinese goods. Japanese merchants had no other choice but crossed the sea to reach Southeast Asian markets. In that case, Shogunate government issued the so-called Shuinsen, literally known as Red-Sealed Permit (1592– 1634), to legalize the trading relationship with the region and to purchase Chinese goods there.

Thanks to the liberalization, more and more Japanese traders arrived Southeast Asian ports, mostly located in the 10th parallel North, such as Hoi An ancient town, Phnom Penh, Ayutthaya and Manila where Chinese goods were brought for trading [Ikuta 1991: 256]. Interestingly, Hoi An port stood out as an attractive destination for the Japanese. The growing number of Shuinsen here explained why Christophoro Borri, an Italian missionary working in the South Vietnam (1618–1621) concluded that “Chinese and Japanese people made up the majority of merchants in Cochinchina” [Borri 1998: 90]. Within the intra-Asian trading network, the South Vietnam quickly became an important intersection for Chinese people. On the strategic location of Thuận Quảng, Lê Quý Đôn who lived in the South Vietnam (1770s) stated that: “Thuận Quảng shares borders with Quang Nam whose Southern part is next to other trading regions, its maritime route is only three or four-day far from Fu Jian and Guang Dong. That’s why almost all of merchant ship docked here” [Lê Quý Đôn 2007: 299]. It was also reported in a French document that: “As Chinese people are no longer interested in European goods, the trading strategies must be changed, for example, by shifting the focus on Cochinchina market. When the French merchant ship came here, they must purchase such goods as sugar, ivory, ironwood, gold in Hoi An, then shipped them to Guang Dong. Hence, the business needed employees with good Chinese to make the purchase of gold in winter because the price is much lower as compared to other monsoon seasons. Then the business will earn full profits” [quoted from Phan Du 1974: 67–68].

During the 16th–17th centuries, both North and South Vietnam were seen as strategic markets for the Intra-Asian trading network of the Western countries [Việt Nam trong hệ thống thương mại 2007]. Research revealed that the Dai Viet was a dynamic member [Hoàng Anh Tuấn 2007] in the international trading market, reflecting in the partnership between the Trinh Lords and East India Company (EIC), or between the Nguyen Lords and Western countries. Although the South Vietnamese government was not yet able to build up a strong commercial relationship with the Dutch or the British as government in the North did, the emergence of European merchants in the coastal provinces of the Southern part, either with the purpose of trading or religious indoctrination, undoubtedly had exerted positive socio-cultural influence on the land of Thuan Quang. The coastal areas of the South Vietnam then became an important gateway for East India Company to do their business (i.e., purchasing goods, repairing ship, taking freshwater) or to reach South China Sea. In such an intricate trading network, the South Vietnam turned itself from an inter-regional link to an international one, with dynamic activities in Hoi An port as the most striking example.

A review of cultural exchange activities in the South Vietnam

Differences in economic and cultural background have made the Nguyen Lords and the immigrants from the North the “foreigners” in the eyes of the people in the South. During the early days of establishing their new regime, they were faced with tough challenges in “winning people’s heart”. The way the Nguyen Lords redefined their pivotal role clearly presented their transcendent vision. For example, Lord Nguyen Hoang (1558–1613), despite being educated in the Confucian environment, was known for his openness and adaptability to the culture of Thuan Quang land. Instead of imposing a somewhat stereotypical and rigid approach of Confucianism, he practiced Buddhism as the founding ideology for the new government. Indeed, the Buddhist values of compassion and tolerance exactly fitted the lifestyle of newly settled immigrants.

In 1601, after one year returning from Đàng Ngoài [Taylor 2005], Lord Nguyen Hoang built Thien Mu Pagoda6 on the bank of the Perfume River (sông Hương), affirming the role of Buddhism in the South. His successors followed his ideology and made Buddhism the primary religion. That the iconic pagoda built on the central location of Champa stupas [Trần Quốc Vượng 1998: 413] vividly demonstrated his strategic policy on religious integration. In fact, Thien Mu Pagoda then became the biggest Buddhism center in the South.

Furthermore, the Nguyen Lords’ willingness to accept newly imported culture was clearly shown in his policies. During the 16th–18th centuries, Thuan Quang, as discussed earlier, not only served as an important commercial hub, but also became a destination for cultural exchange. More importantly, the Nguyen Lords were very proactive in choosing their trading partners. The huge number of Shuinsen here represented their strong partnership with Japan. As a wise choice, the Nguyen Lords gave opportunities for Japanese merchants to settle in Hội An [Vũ Minh Giang 1991]. The diplomatic letters [Phan Thanh Hải 2007: 222–253] from the Nguyen Lords to the Shogunate government or the marriage between Vietnamese princess and Japanese merchant both symbolized the great Vietnam – Japan friendship. During the first 30 years of the 17th century, Japan has become one of the biggest partners of Thuan Quang authority. However, the more than 200-year Sakoku Decree7 (1639–1853), also known as the isolationist foreign policy of the Japanese Tokugawa shogunate, has significantly affected Southeast Asian markets and Thuan Quang trading ports where many Japanese were living and doing their business.

In that context, the Nguyen Lords shifted their focus to the new strategic partner, China. Given the geographical proximity to Vietnam and their long experience in business doing, Chinese merchants had actively participated in the trading activities in the South Vietnam, then they were allowed to permanently settle in Hoi An. The report sent to Dutch East Indies on March 28, 1642 by Francisco Groemon who lived in Hoi An for more than 10 years, revealed that there were 4,000– 5,000 Chinese people in Hoi An while that of Japanese only reached 40 to 50 people, which means that the former outnumbered the latter by roughly 100 times [Chingho 2002: 299]. The emergence of Chinese merchants also reflected their role in transmitting great cultural values (i.e., via educational products like books and stationery) to the land of the Nguyen Lords The influence of Chinese culture and lifestyle was shown clearly in the current residential areas where Chinese merchantsonce settled, such as Hoi An8 and Sài Gon. Japan, previously Thuan Quang’s principal trading partner, had to give way to Chinese merchants who quickly occupied a remarkable position in the trading markets of Thuan Quang region.

One of the most outstanding diplomatic policies was to allow Chinese people to explore the Southern parts of Thuan Quang region. In the context of Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) overthrowing the Ming (1368–1644), Lord Nguyen Phuc Tan (1648–1687) gave permission for Chinese refugees (with Tran Thuong Xuyen as the leader) to explore the Southern territory [Lê Quý Đôn 2007: 76–77].

In 1698, the administration of Gia Dinh province was established. Lord Nguyen Phúc Chu then divided them into smaller administrative regions including Thanh Ha(in Tran Bien) and Minh Huong (in Phien Tran) [Đại Nam Thực lục 2002: 111]. The Qing people were allowed to reside here, leaving their mark on Vietnamese culture until now.

Thuan Quang is seen as the region where traditional culture of Northeastern Asia and Western values intersect. The diplomatic and commercial partnership with Western countries, especially Portugal was attached great importance by the Nguyen Lords. This helped enhancing the military and technological power for the Lords. Thomas Bowyear, a British merchant was genuinely amazed by the naval strength of Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu’s during the 1695–1696 period, with “200 battleships, each of which has 16 to 22 cannons; 500 small boats of 40 to 44 rowers; 100 boats of 50 to 75 rowers (three of them are European made). All the ship were built by Lord Nguyen’s workshop, the most outstanding one having up to 4,000 workers and they could be able to make a 4,000-ton ship” [Phạm Văn Thủy 2020: 506–523].

Western culture is famous for their upholding positivism and technological advance so the local authorities were willing to accept and explore the new technologies brought by the West. For example, medical inventions and watch-making techniques were popular at that time so Nguyen Lords were very familiar with using watch to estimate travel time and speed. In 1711, all the roads in Bo Chinh were equipped with clocks to help calculating geographical distances. In February 1731, Lord Nguyen asked three Department Heads (Nguyen Van Dao, Nguyen Van Tinh, Nguyen Van Dien) to travel in the national highways to calculate the accurate distance [Đại Nam Thực lục 2002: 126–141]. Regarding new medical policies, it was the first time ever Western health professionals9 to be employed in the feudal courts. Jean Koffler10 was the first personal doctor for Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat.

The acceptance of Western culture has been presented in the practice of Christianity and the emergence of national language script [Đào Hùng 2008: 536-538] (also known as “chữ quốc ngữ”). Although the local authority of Thuan Hoa province was cautious about the dominance of foreign culture and religion (shown in a series of inconsistent policies), many missionaries made great efforts introducing their Western culture. The most eminent one was Alexandre de Rhode [Nguyen Thiện Giáp 2017: 114] who made significant contributions to the Vietnamese language. He wrote in his dairy: “I had a great companion, a boy who spent three continuous weeks teaching me the native language’s tone marks and how to read it. We did not have any common language to communicate at first, but he was so smart that he could understand what I mean. He was proactive in learning the new language and his intelligence and memory really amazed me. Since then, he became our great supporters” [De Rhodes 1994: 56].

In summary, commercial ports have become the gateway for Oriental and Western cultural intersection. Most of the trading ports along Thuan Quang region played essential roles in facilitating various commercial activities where people from China, Japan and Western countries could meet and exchange their distinctive tradition and culture. It was cited from “European people in Annam” that: “Oftentimes, the trading exchange activities in Hoi An are held on the occasion of Lunar New Year.

Local people sell their high-quality goods, such as silk, fine wood for making furniture, agarwood, sugar, musk, cinnamon, pepper, rice. In return, Chinese and European merchants bring here fine china, silver coins, weapons, sulphur, lead, “toutenaque” alloy (zinc, copper, and iron) and many other types of goods. The exchange may last from February to September, which is around six or seven months. Then the local products will be brought to the merchants’ home” [Maybon 2006: 33].


During the 16th and 17th century, the trading ports stretching along the territory of Thuan Quang region have become gateways for socio-economic and cultural exchange. Hoi An was considered the biggest port of this region in the 16th–17th centuries and the Southward expansion in the 18th–19th centuries has opened the way for newly emerging ones such as Sai Gon and Quy Nhon. Simply put, this is the period of strongest exchange and integration between Oriental and Western culture in Vietnamese history. An international trading environment with various commercial and religious activities in the South Vietnam has been driven by strategic policies in socio-economic development by the authority of Thuan Quang.

Unlike the North with favorable conditions for agricultural development, the South was endowed with multiple commercial advantages which were seen by the Nguyen Lords as a solid base for economic expansion. With a variety of open trading policies which favour international merchants, the Nguyen Lords have revitalized the long-standing vibrant markets in Champa Kingdom. Accordingly, the exchange of culture between the South Vietnam and other parts of the world has been promoted. An enormous number of Chinese and Japanese people in the region demonstrated the good relations between the states. For ages, Japan has been an important partner of Vietnam. The bilateral relation and intimate friendship between two nations originated from the long- lasting relationship. Despite their presence in Thuan Quang and for a short period, Japanese heritage has left positive impression on Vietnamese people. This reaffirms the significance of strategic and diplomatic policies in the national development and integration with the world.

Meanwhile, the commercial relationship between the south part of Vietnam and Western merchants seem less satisfactory. One of the reasons lies in the local government’s policies which were seen as somewhat “pragmatic”, especially after 1672 when there was lower demand for Western weapons to serve the civil war between the North and the South. To some extent, the Nguyen Lords could not fully take advantages of Western technologies (i.e., ship-building, weapon manufacturing, medical techniques). Nonetheless, the greatest heritage left by Western people is their religious and language value which was brought by a long period of inter-cultural communication. Furthermore, it is a good lesson for the government working with Western countries that the balance between national interest and economic interest should be prioritized.

In conclusion, the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries of Vietnamese feudal society witnessed strong integration of Oriental and Western cultural exchange. With various open trade policies at regional and international levels, the Nguyen Lords in the South and the Trịnh Lords in the North have opened a new path for Vietnam to the world. This reinforces the role of combining commercial activities and cultural exchange in the national economic development. In the world of globalization, no country would be the outsider of what is going on. It is undeniable that the government’s policies are of paramount importance to the integration of each nation.

1 The author calls the northern half of Vietnam Tonkin, and the southern Cochinchina, although these new terms were brought by French colonization only in the second half of the 19th century. Therefore, the editorial board replaced them with North and South Vietnam, respectively. The author also applies the term Thuan Quang to the object of study - a generalized name for the two largest provinces of the South - Thuan Hoa and Quang Nam – Editors.

2 Arnold Toynbee argued that Chinese attributes are so marked that some nations (like Vietnam, Japan, North Korea) can be categorized as “satellite civilizations” of China. Although the three civilizations of Vietnam, Japan and North Korea bear striking similarities to China’s, they could subtly retain their own local culture [Toynbee 2002: 61].

3 Read more at: Woodside A. Vietnam and the Chinese model: A comparative study of Nguyen and Chʾing civil government in the first half of the nineteenth century. Harvard University Press, 1971; Tsuboi Yoshiharu. Nước Đại Nam đối diện với Pháp và Trung Hoa (1847–1885). Hà Nội: Nxb. Tri thức & Nhã Nam, 2018.

4 National Committee for International Conferences on Hội An Ancient Town. Hội An Ancient Town. Hanoi: Social Science Publishing House, 1991.

5 It was agreed by most scholars that Cham culture exerted its strong influence on the reign of Nguyen Lords. See: Li Tana. Nguyen Cochinchina. Op cit.; Taylor K.W. (1998). Surface Orientations in Vietnam: Beyond Histories of Nation and Region. The Journal of Asian Studies., 57 (4): 960–961; Lieberman V.(2003). Strange Parallels Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830. Vol. I. Integration on the Mainland. Cambridge University Press: 413–414.

6 In 1601, Lord Nguyen Hoang decided to build a pagoda. He learnt that the geographical condition of Ha Khe commune (Huong Tra district) would nicely fit his intention thanks to its beautiful landscape and interesting stories related to the bright future of the country [Đại Nam Thực lục 2002: 35].

7 The isolationist foreign policy of the Japanese Tokugawa shogunate lowered the status of Japanese people in Hội An.

8 According to a Chinese merchant, this commercial port is an ideal place for doing business. All kinds of products can be used for exchange, i.e., cloth of different types, medicine, silver, gold, stationery (paper, pen, ink, decoration…), furniture, fruits (lemon, pear, apple, orange…), food (egg, tofu, cake, mushroom, ginger, flour…). Le Quy Don. Op. cit. P. 295–296.

9 Read more at: Đoàn Văn Quýnh (2002). Các thầy thuốc Tây y dưới thời chúa Nguyen. Tạp chí Nghiên cứu Huế, 3: 83–84.

10 P. Johann Koffler (born in 19 April, 1711 in Prag). In 1739 he went to Goa, then to Macau on 26 July, 1740. After he came to Cochinchina, he became well-known for his medical competency. In 1747, he was assigned as a royal court’s doctor named “Nhiem” (which means “a talented and careful professional”)


About the authors

Thi Xuyen Vu

Vietnam National University

Author for correspondence.

Researcher, University of Social Sciences and Humanities

Viet Nam, Hanoi


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Supplementary files

Supplementary Files
1. Fig. 1. Division of Vietnam into North (Dangngoai) and South (Dangchong), 1757 map.

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