The feel of Hoi An is electric. When we arrived sometime mid-morning, it was hard to tell whether or not we’d done the right thing. After all, P and I had just left beautiful Hanoi and traded in our relative comfort for this bus ride that nearly suffocated us when we were warned against opening windows. The airconditioning barely worked and the bus seemed to have seen better days as it creaked along the highway. We were approaching the half-way point in our journey through Vietnam and so far, everything had turned out to be wonderful except for this ride.
Nothing prepared me for Hoi An. As we made our way to the port area from the hostel, the town seemed to unravel revealing itself to us slowly and gradually building our excitement. Upon reaching the port, the charm of Hoi An was unmistakable. Lanterns decorated the rows of structures. Some streets were of cobblestone and each erection that was both home and store had shutters. By twilight, soft yellow light glowed from the insides of these edifices and the streets were lit by the many lanterns the town is known for.
This was only the experience of coming into Hoi An from the backdoor. We had walked in unlike previous generations who had arrived by boat carrying goods to be traded in. At night, the port came alive with traditional music, offers of boat rides along the river and countless men and women peddling peanuts. There were also children who are made to sell tealights sitting on paper frames to set loose on the river.
I know nothing about this is real and part of what keeps Hoi An thriving is this promise of exoticism and and old world that’s sustained by capitalism and the need to sell certain experiences–it’s probably just a ploy to get you to spend. I know this all to be true because it’s the story of most historical sights that are making their way into the 21st century. Nothing is as it was and so, for many, (and sometimes I agree) the magic is lost.
But in Hoi An, this may not have been the case. I knew it was all smoke and mirrors when I saw the throngs of tourists being told catchphrases about the port and its inhabitants. Just the volume of tourists alone would have otherwise made me want to leave; take a different road in search of something less contrived and consumed. But then, as the war was waged in my mind, my senses triggered many memories of a life I had not lived–or at least I hadn’t in this lifetime but as P and I continued to walk, everything felt familiar and some time ago, I swore I had reached this port…trading something? Maybe porcelain or antiques.
I can never be sure but I know I had seen this place at twilight–in those magical hours between day and night when even the most mundane succumbs to the sublime.
Hoi An, November 2012.