“Hoi An is like a fairytale. Lantern-lit boats on the river remind me of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. (Except, of course, for all the tourists, including myself. But it’s still beautiful).”
This was what I tweeted at the end of our first evening in Hoi An, the fifth destination on our Southeast Asian adventure. After dusty Siem Reap tuk-tuks, hectic street food markets in Ho Chi Minh City, the sprawling Mekong Delta and Hue’s imperial splendour (all of which were wonderful in different ways) it was refreshing to be somewhere with a slightly gentler pace and an old-world charm.
Formerly known as Faifoo – a lovely word – Hoi An is situated about halfway up Vietnam, very near the coast. As with most places we visited, it was full of tourists, but regardless of the familiar jostle and repeated invitations to buy various wares, that first night held one of the most unique and memorable scenes of the honeymoon.
The town is famed for its tailoring, cuisine and lantern festivals, which usually occur with each full moon. Even though we’d missed the March festival by a couple of days, it was still a delight to encounter Hoi An’s streets festooned in rainbow chains of lanterns, with vivid fabrics stretched over curved wooden frames in different shapes. Picturesque by day; by night their colours took on an added vibrancy as they were lit from within. Having gone for dinner around sunset, the garnet and emerald globes outside our restaurant were in full glow as we finished our meal, and we stepped outside to the riverfront.
On the opposite bank, strings of balloon lanterns in white and orange added to the yellow houses’ warmth, their reflections pooling in the river like the stars of a Van Gogh painting. As we stepped closer to the water, tealights in cardboard vessels began drifting by, the flickering flames bearing tourist wishes downstream. Then all of a sudden – I don’t know how but it seemingly happened within a few seconds – the river was full of lantern-lit sampans: low boats gently propelled by local guides, each with its own pink, purple, red, blue or green guiding light.
My thoughts immediately turned to The Twelve Dancing Princesses, a fairytale in which (much to their father’s chagrin) a dozen royal ladies wear out their shoes each evening, waltzing in a land hidden beneath a trap door in their bedroom floor. They travel through forests of silver, gold and diamonds, then cross a lake to the castle ball, each in their own boat. It was as if the illustrations of quaint lanterns suspended on rowboats from my childhood copy of the story had transported themselves from Once Upon A Time to 21st century Hoi An.
It may have been tourists rather than princesses, and vessels in their hundreds rather than just twelve, but the array of multicoloured glowing lanterns both on the sampans and the riverbanks, their bright reflections rippling alongside the floating tealights, was a truly magical scene. I wasn’t able to fully capture its essence on camera, or the wonder we both felt as we watched from a crowded bridge, but it was a sight I shall never forget.