The sky’s an inky blue, lanterns form necklaces adorning the yellow buildings, and the river is filled with wishes.
This is Hoi An, a small town near the coast in central Vietnam. Once a busy fishing port, the town languished into obscurity when the river silted up , meaning that the buildings have remained fairly true to their traditional state ever since. Now, Hoi An is a UNESCO heritage town with a thriving tourism industry, and a must-visit for anyone exploring Vietnam.
But this isn’t a post about Hoi An. At least, not really. This is a post about wishes.
At night, once the lanterns light up and the intense heat of the day pulls back a little, boats take to the river. Women on the bank sell coloured cardboard boxes with a candle flickering inside them, for tourists to take out in a boat and float down the river. If you set one of the candles afloat, you get to make a wish.
Every evening I saw people doing this, but it wasn’t until my final morning in Hoi An that I actually started to think properly about it. Which is where the photo comes in.
On my final morning in Hoi An, I got up at 5:30am to watch the sunrise. The town was starting to wake up and go about its daily business, but for now it was largely tourist-free. There was a low tide, and the streets and river still hadn’t been cleaned from the night before. Which meant that all along the exposed mud banks, little coloured cartons were scattered, run aground with their candles all burnt out.
There was something sad about the sight, something forlorn, as if they symbolised people’s wishes, washed up and unobtained. As if these mud banks were the place where aspirations and ambitions had fallen short.
I didn’t make a wish while I was in Hoi An. I always feel pressured when it’s time to make a wish (wishing wells, blowing out the candles on my birthday, stirring the Christmas cake). I feel as though I define myself and my priorities by what I wish for, which means that the choice of what to wish for becomes a kind of identity crisis. Do I wish for something career-related? But if I do, does that make me cold and heartless? Do I wish for something relationship-related? But then, does that mean I’m neglecting my career? Do I wish for something huge like a solution to climate change? But surely that’s a disproportional wish?
So I didn’t make a wish. Instead, I spent the time exploring the town to prove my own independence to myself. I sat in coffee shops and wrote, thereby working towards my career. I chatted to people in cafes and restaurants.
So far this year, things have been going pretty well for me (touch wood). In terms of travel, I’ve spent time in Cambodia and Vietnam, taken several trips to London, visited Dublin and Cambridge, and am now in Iceland. In terms of writing, I’ve had a poetry pamphlet published, I have a musical going to Edinburgh Fringe in August, and I’m being mentored by Penguin Random House on their WriteNow scheme. And while I did wish for a couple of those (birthday candles / Christmas cake), I also worked hard for them.
This was what was going through my mind when I saw all the cartons washed up in Hoi An. I was thinking of those people who’d set them afloat the night before, cradling their wish like an injured bird as they released it onto the water. How, after watching their candle flicker and float down-river for a few moments, perhaps even taking a photo of it, they’d returned to the shore, probably gone to a restaurant and then back to their hotel. Not staying to see it through. Not waiting to guide their wish between the obstacles of boats and fishing nets. Not putting in the hours to send their wish all the way out to the sea.
Of course, staying up all night to protect something as transient as a candle in a cardboard box isn’t the point of the wishes in Hoi An. I don’t actually believe all those people should have stayed up all night, and I’m actually quite glad that all that cardboard isn’t polluting the ocean.
It’s a metaphor. A metaphor for how we have to put the effort in. Of course, there’s always going to be a bit of luck involved, but luck isn’t a substitute for hard work and time; it’s an addition. And if you don’t put the work in and you neglect your dreams, pretty soon you’ll find them washed up on a mud bank with the flame buttered out.