Sometimes you can go to a new place without any expectations. Nothing but a name, the place is an empty vacuum until the moment you step into it, breathe its air and look around. Hoi An was not this. Hoi An was a place I had already vividly imagined, a collage of postcards and adverts with a soundtrack provided by every person who had already been. The verdict was unanimous, Hoi An was ‘beautiful’ and ‘historic’ and ‘the highlight of my trip’.
Hoi An is beautiful and historic and the streets of the old town are charming but just a little too charming to be true. Some buildings have been so recently and heavily restored they could just be brightly-coloured facades with nothing behind and who would know. Thankfully, not every old shophouse is an art gallery or Italian-style café and some have been left to decay in peace, allowed to look their age and to my eye all the more beautiful for it. Everything is so photogenic in Hoi An there’s a tendency look at it all in miniature, captured through the lens of a camera and displayed on a digital screen.
We arrived in Hoi An as we seem to arrive everywhere, soaking wet and battered by the winds of an epic storm. Our room was large and clean but couldn’t really be called a homestay as it was a completely separate building from the main house and our only contact with the family was when I interrupted a stroppy teenage girl from her gaming to ask for more toilet paper.
After two days on a motorbike I felt so stiff it hurt to do anything other than lie completely still but we had to eat so shuffled along a busy side street to look for pho. The man and woman who ran the tiny restaurant we settled on looked so much like the couple from Kung Fu Hustle I couldn’t stop staring. One bowl of Cau Lau (pork noodles) and one plate of Com Ga (chicken rice salad) arrived at our table, local specialities that must actually be local because it was the only two things they served.
It rained all of that night and all of the next day, wild Vietnamese rain that bounced a foot above the ground, and I was grateful for the excuse to rest only leaving our room to eat or buy a hot drink. Guidebooks, leaflets and maps detailing the tourist trail around Hoi An town sat undisturbed on a bedside table. After a day spent touring the DMZ and a two day motorbike ride through the jungle I just couldn’t get enthusiastic about visiting more temples, communal houses and museums. There was something forced about Hoi An, it just all felt a bit fake and a bit too safe.
When I emerged from my self-imposed house arrest the next night, the last thing I wanted to see was a Scottish girl handing out flyers for happy hour at a bar that blasted Maroon 5 out over the picturesque riverfront. The girl was perfectly nice but all that stuff just didn’t seem necessary, not here. I know it’s all artifice anyway, Hoi An is a tourist town, but can’t we at least keep up the illusion?
We escaped the flyer hounds and wandered into the midst of a group of excited schoolkids in matching t shirts carefully placing hundreds of paper lanterns in the dark street for unwitting tourists to trip over. It was almost Earth Hour, the global climate change awareness festival I had no idea existed until I asked one of the students what they were doing. A small stage appeared with two people singing traditional Vietnamese songs and the tourists started taking photos. Everyone wanted to be at the front, getting as close as possible to point flash after flash right in the performers’ faces with no idea what was going on but wanting an ugly, over-flashed photo of it anyway.
The lights went out in the whole town and you’d think that the velvety texture of a night lit only by candlelight would encourage everyone to hush and slow down and mellow but the opposite happened and everyone got frantic, trying to move around in the dark, not sure where to go but feeling that they were definitely missing out on something so better not stand still.
All the kids who were lighting paper lanterns on the ground were now standing in a massive circle with a ghetto blaster at the centre playing Gangnam Style. They started dancing, not in a rehearsed way but in a spontaneous, unhinged way, screaming and laughing and pushing each other around. The lantern sellers were really going for it, carrying trays of naked flames encased in notoriously non-flammable paper, shouting ‘one dollar, one dollar’ and blocking the path of people who were trying to escape the madness.
I’d seen this before – the lowering of paper lanterns into a river, not hundreds of students dancing to Gangnam Style – on a Mastercard advert I think, only in real life there were way more people and no gentle indie track playing in the background. All the tourists were trying to get to the river front at the same time, fearful that the tea lights might run out or the electricity might come back on or the river might dry up before they’d had their turn to take part in this ancient Vietnamese ritual and have their photograph taken doing so.
The river was lit less by paper lanterns more by the flash of five hundred cameras as everyone tried to capture this special moment at once. After being jostled around for a few minutes and almost set on fire twice, I managed to purchase a lantern and set about trying to lower it into the river. As I knelt at the river’s edge and reached down with my dainty paper vessel, a cockroach with dreams of a life on the high seas jumped in.
Determined to finish what I’d started I managed to carefully balance the cockroach cruise liner on the surface of the water and released it into the flow of hundreds of other glowing lights. I watched it for a few seconds as it struggled to join the procession until a little row boat carrying loud tourists came soaring in to dock and crushed the lantern, cockroach and all, against the riverbank.
The whole thing was nothing at all like the Mastercard advert and we wandered away from the riverfront, along the quiet alleyways that would take us back to our homestay that was not a homestay looking for a cold beer on the way. We found it in a café/bia hoi manned by a ten year old boy who called us ‘boss’ and flirted with a group of teenage girls as he hacked up Sugarcane to make their juice.