Hoi An by Lantern Light

The town of Hoi An, Vietnam, was a major trading port from the 15th to 19th centuries, until its river harbor silted up and trade moved 30 kilometers north to the port of Da Nang. During its heyday, Hoi An attracted traders from as far away as Japan, China, India, and Europe, and each community put its stamp on the town’s architecture.

Vendors selling little boxes with candles that you can float on the river

The area along the river is now a carefully preserved tourist attraction, with pedestrian-only streets and old houses converted to museums, restaurants, craft shops, and clothing stores. It can feel a bit artificial, especially when swarming with busloads of tour groups. But other times it feels charming, with its weathered mustard-yellow buildings decked in multicolored flowers and lanterns and its cool afternoon breezes blowing off the river.

Once a center of the silk trade, Hoi An is still focused on fabric. It has a ton of tailor shops, and tourists flock to them to get suits and dresses sewn to order. Melissa and AJ both had clothing made for them (with varying degrees of success), and we all spent some fun hours poring over fabrics and sample photos of designs.

The other craft that Hoi An is best known for is making silk lanterns—the kind that Westerners think of as Chinese but that Vietnamese people consider traditionally their own. Virtually every building in the old part of Hoi An is decorated with colorful lanterns, which make the town glow when they’re lit up after dark and reflecting off the river. Market stalls and workshops are filled with lanterns of every shape, size, and hue. AJ, eager to decorate her new house, bought about a dozen of them, and then had to haggle in the market for a new suitcase to carry them home in.

Fabric strips are carefully pasted onto bamboo frames

We stayed just over the river from Hoi An on a small island called (confusingly) An Hoi. Our guesthouse, Moon’s Homestay, was an easy walk from the historic district but part of a quiet, authentic neighborhood. Across the street was a small Chinese community center, built to resemble an ornate temple and painted blue—a reminder of the ethnic background of some of our neighborhood’s residents.

Our first night there, we peered out the windows at dusk and were surprised to see our quiet street being transformed into a bustling night-time craft market. Curious, we joined the crowds strolling along the riverfront in the balmy evening. In one of those odd coincidences that sometimes happen when you travel, we heard strains of “My Darling Clementine” wafting across the river. It turns out that the chorus from Philips Exeter Academy (a prep school in New Hampshire) was performing in the old quarter as part of a spring-break tour in Asia. We laughed at the unexpected reminder that home wasn’t quite as far away as we’d thought.

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