When the moon is full, the candles are lit, the fluorescent tubes take a rest and the lanterns glow. Twice a month, the World Heritage Site of the old Vietnamese trading port of Hoi An reclaims its romantic charm. Well at least that’s the politically correct version you read about in all the brochures. But actually, it was hot, sticky and extremely crowded (come nightfall everyone in the resort-laden strip of Danang suddenly descends upon the town). Despite the kitsch and the heat, it was hard to be unmoved by the colourful lanterns that hang above our heads or the pushy spunky charms of a child selling us our lantern offerings for the river. If you look hard enough, beyond the sweaty crowd, and venture a little beyond the main drags, there are vignettes, lit by candlelight and solitary street-lamps that hint of the romance of Hoi An offers.
Part of the fun during the lantern festival is to purchase these floating candles and set them adrift in the river. The vendors, mostly elderly ladies, come out in full force. And make no mistake, the grannies can be very pushy.
But in the crowd, I spotted this girl who knew me for the soft pigeon I obviously was. She looked like my youngest daughter – barely 11. But she was hawking candles like a pro. Still, my heart suffered a bit of a hairline crack at the thought of this child out here selling candles.
I bargained half-heartedly. She looked up at me with big pleady eyes and while I knew that 30,000 dong for a candle was a rip-off, it also occurred to me that the equivalent in home currency was a tiny sum not really worth squabbling over. So I gave in and bought three candles.
Transaction over, she lost interest. I was not sure how to lower the candles into the river but she was not interested in helping. Instead she rolled her eyes impatiently and gestured vaguely. We finally got it done after observing other people with more helpful after-sales service.
Honestly I don’t know why I was so curious about her. Even after we lowered the lanterns, I tried to make conversation – does she go to school, does she like it? She seemed a bit surprised that I was asking her all these questions but business was more important than satisfying my curiosity. Her final line to me was a well-rehearsed perfunctory but dismissive: “Wish you happy life, good luck!” Ah well.