I was in love with Hoi An from the moment I arrived. Even before I explored remote islands with a crazy expat who tried to decapitate me, I was thoroughly charmed. The streets were narrow and lit with glowing lanterns and I wandered aimlessly until I found the hostel where I’d planned to meet up with an Aussie named Louise. A Vietnamese woman stood behind a small cabinet which functioned as a reception area.
“Ten dollars, very nice room.”
I wasn’t having any of these double-digit prices.
“Five dollars,” I responded, putting on my Street Aussa face.
She sized me up, moving her shrewd eyes over my ragged appearance. The Aussa back in ‘Murica would never have been so rude and insistent. But this was Vietnam—I was Aussa of the parasites, Aussa of the Squatty. I would not pay $10 for a room.
“Six dollars is okay,” she finally said, “but you share room.”
I followed her down a hallway, past a glass case full of Pringles and secondhand books. A long narrow room awaited, with mattresses packed so closely that you could only get on your bed by crawling in from the end. The tightly tucked white sheets made me want to do cartwheels and start singing songs from “Annie.”
Louise had already beat me there and came out of the shower with a towel on.
“What a room, hey?”
It was easy to come up with reasons to never leave Hoi An, the greatest of which was the much-anticipated “Hoi An Lantern Festival.”
The locals spoke of it with wide eyes and awed voices.
“When moon is bright and big we do full moon festival, so beauty!”
The other draw of Hoi An was it’s countless seamstress shops, where a dreadlocked 20-something could have an Armani-knock off made to fit his exact measurements. Every store was stacked to the ceiling with fabric and had a pile of fashion magazines for you to flip through and pick from. Within two days, you’d be slipping a couture dress over your sunburnt body.
Louise and I decided we needed new dresses for the festival and chose a shop at random. Before we’d had an opportunity to pick a style, we’d been swatted to a back corner and disrobed like fire ants on a fallen grasshopper. I hadn’t even started negotiating a price when they lifted my shirt over my head and started taking my measurements. When they’d finished writing down my enormous American girth, they diligently reassembled me, going so far as to tighten my bra straps for a little extra lift. It was hard to imagine I actually dressed myself every day.
The seamstress with the tape measure swatted my arse and made a sound that could only mean one thing:
“Wow, so big!”
I didn’t appreciate her enthusiasm—if she wanted a full moon, I’d show her a full moon.
We headed to the river at sunset, still unsure what the festival involved. We’d just settled at a café when the entire city plunged into darkness. Everything was still and quiet, the sound of the river amplified as water slapped the sides of wooden boats. I was just about to ask if it was a blackout when tiny lights slowly began appearing across the riverfront. A candle was placed on our table and hundreds more appeared around us, on ledges and open window frames. A crowd of figures converged upon the waterfront, holding little lights in their hands. We followed everyone towards a bridge, where a little girl called out to us from a low table covered in tiny candles.
“Two lanterns only 15,000 dong, I give good price for you!”
She was too adorable to barter with, so I quickly paid for two of these “lanterns” which were really just birthday candles on top of cardboard with colorful tissue paper wrapped around.
“What do we do with it?” I asked.
She was too busy calling out to other confused foreigners.
“Good fortune,” she answered halfheartedly, “Make wish.”
“Oh!” Louise squealed, “we get to make a wish!”
A flurry of movement caught my eye as I looked over the edge of the bridge.
“I think we have to put them in the river.”
The wind was picking up, and we cradled the flames to our chests, trying to keep them from snuffing out and ruining our chances of a wish-come-true. Hundreds of little lanterns floated downstream, but in the darkness and chaos it was impossible to see how they got there. We crossed the bridge and walked to the edge only to find a 10-foot drop and certain death for a birthday candle. It began to rain lightly.
“Hold on, my darling little wish,” Louise crooned, “I won’t let you die.”
We raced along the edge of the river until we found an indentation of stone steps leading downward. I felt my way one step at a time until my foot was submerged. Leaning as far as I could, I set my lantern free and watched as it was swept away by the current. I closed my eyes to make a wish.
“I wish that my life would be completely different when I go back home and that—“
“The little bitch burned me!”
I looked back as her darling little wish fell anticlimactically to the wet stone at her feet. I couldn’t help laughing.
“I don’t think your wish is going to come true.”
The wind and rain was picking up, and the river was wild and glowing as it threw shadows onto the city. We were looking for shelter when a boy took Louise by the wrist.
“Good fortune for you to putting lantern in river?”
“Good fortune is a bitch,” Louise replied.
“No, lucky for you, I take boat for lantern in river, make wish!”
Louise looked at me like a child who’s found a stray puppy. I questioned the wisdom of sailing a wooden boat down a river of fire, in the middle of a rainstorm, but we were already so invested. The boy led us to the riverside, where a group of men manhandled us over the edge and onto a boat the width of a church pew. A man scooped water from the baseboards as I tried to remember why I never learned how to swim.
Our guide paddled the boat through the tiny flames and it occurred to me that putting paper and wax into a river might not be the most environmentally friendly decision I’d ever made. But Louise was singing again.
“My darling little wish!”
We lifted them for a brief toast then leaned in opposite directions to place them in the water. I closed my eyes for another wish.
“I wish that I would not drown, and—“
The water was suddenly rushing towards my face as the boat tilted violently to the side. Louise had sat back rather triumphantly, throwing everything off balance. I heaved the lantern into the water and tried to steady us from tipping over. My wish imploded on itself, fizzling and sinking to its final resting place, where it would plague future generations of river animals. Louise couldn’t help laughing.
“I don’t think your wish is going to come true.”
The river was so tightly packed that our guide had to use his oar to push off the other boats for leverage. It started pouring and lightning ripped through the sky as the twinkling wishes of a thousand wanderers were lost to the river.
Do you take “wishes” seriously? Have you recently made any environmentally disastrous decisions? What would you wish for RIGHT NOW?
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