I knew Hoi An for its charm. The historic port city, nestled halfway down the long strip of land that is Vietnam, home to traditional trades and the freshest seafood. As sunset brought a wash of cool to the air, in the aftermath of searing daytime heat, tonight was even more special than most. It was full moon in June.
Paper lanterns, traditional fare of the old trading centre, proliferate around every street corner. The twilight leaves its own glow, painting the sky with streaks of purple and amber, matched by the brighter, and no less tranquil, colours at street level. The primary reds and yellows of lanterns beam from windows, gutters and lines overhead, their internal residents flickering in the gentle breeze.
Its busy but not loud. Cafes and restaurants are filling up. The market across the river thrives with activity. Everywhere are the shapes and shadows of people, now half-masked by the growing darkness. There is activity down every street, a climax of it on the riverfront, but the volume is mute. The river seems to swallow the noise, absorbing it into its inky mass and casting back, instead, the soft tinkle of flowing water.
And as the sun departs and the sky deepens, slowly darkening to an oily black, the river sucks Hoi An’s festival visitors in. Both banks are filled now. The congregation, thicker, winds its way up along the river and over the old bridge. There’s still business being done, food enjoyed, drinks drunk, along the streets penetrating, their backs to the river, into the city itself. But it’s less regular, inconsistent, now. The evening energy is concentrated on the riverfront.
Here, old Vietnamese ferrymen carry their cargo – boatload after boatload of tourists – down the river. Their slender ships are traditional narrowboats, powered by the soft swish of oar plunging into the shallows, handled with all the nimble dexterity of a free-climber. Once out on the water, the cargo turns gleefully to handling their paper lanterns, provided by a few swift movements of the ferryman. A couple of flicks of a lighter later, and the lanterns are alive. As are their attendants. Faces, eyes, cheeks light up – expressions flicker, warm and eerie, against the glow of a mini sun. Then, the pinnacle of the experience. The moment, not worn for these one-time visitors, still preserved from a surely jaded authenticity. The candle, sheltered from the gentlest crests of waves by its little paper home, cast onto the water. A picture taken. A wish made.
The candle joins the throng of tealights on the river; the cargo is taken ashore, space cleared for the next boatload. The lunar festival in Hoi An. Haunting, beautiful, and unforgettable.
And consumed just like anything else.