Paper lanterns glowed orange and bounced about on the night air like fire flies on their singular summer outing.
I had accidentally timed my arrival in the coastal town of Hoi An with the monthly lantern festival. Although the traditional celebration of the full moon was so mesmerising, I wondered why the locals didn’t release them more often.
That night I felt for the very first time, completely at one with Vietnam’s unfathomable complexity.
In fact, everything about Hoi An gave me a false sense that I finally got it. The understated riches of a roadside market, and the mixing of architectures from French colonial to the Far East. The blend of old and new traditions that manifested itself in anything and everything from London’s hipster coffee connoisseurs draped on beanbags to ancient Japanese courtyards. It was seemingly all in sync.
Of course, I hadn’t even scratched the surface but my enthusiasm infected the few days I spent trying to get under the skin of my new favourite town.
On a day out that included a stop at the UNESCO-listed My Son ruins, I learnt a little more about the region’s clever craftsmanship and compelling history. From the building prowess of the Cham Civilisation that used to inhabit the area to the current generation of carpenters upholding those skills to pass onto the next generation.
Back in town, my education continued with a walk around Hoi An’s famous tailor shops. The very modern business culture still deeply rooted in ancient trade, from a time when the port of Hoi An received materials from the Silk Road. Any suit could be made for a bargain price and in the same complex, I was also able to invest in a much needed manicure.
Hoi An packed a punch for its size.
Over the centuries, it had become well known for many reasons, including its foodie scene. In just three days, I sunk a few bowls of Cao Lau (rice noodles and pork) several different styles of dumpling and countless snack-sized Banh Mi that I convinced myself were powering my bike peddling. I even delved into the world of insect-brewed alcohol for the first time, which led to a thrilling, if not slightly unwise, ride home on the back of a moped at 2am one morning.
Despite pocketing a series of memorable adventures into the space of a long weekend, cycling my way into cutesy cafes, past Japanese bridges and along buzzing, sunny riversides made time slow down in Hoi An. Ultimately, only the realisation that my budget couldn’t cope with the frivolity that this town inspired, drove me onwards.
As my bus pulled out of town to take me ever further north, It dawned on me that those lanterns were an embodiment of humble Hoi An. The welcome that floated on its breeze, wrapped around a culture full to bursting with skilled craftsmanship and rich history that somehow made every visitor feel lighter than air.
Right there and then, Hoi An became a highlight of my time in South East Asia.