When I descend to street level, the state next to An Hoi Bridge is surrounded by a throng of excided punters. A game called bai choi is underway.
A band of musicians included a percussionist, a bamboo flautist and a two-chord fiddler sit waiting for people to but VND5,000 “cards”, which are not sort of like ping pong racquets. Basically, the cards have an inscription and the band performs depending on what cards they are dealt by the audience. An MC helps structure the event and explains the rules. Foreigners may at first be slightly mystified but will enjoy the spectacle with pleasant music and buoyant atmosphere.
Winners are awarded with silk lanterns or a CD of bai choi music opera. Sadly mu luck desserts me and after forking out VND30,000 I leave empty handed and head for the corner of Bach Dang and Chau Van Thuong streets and begin a session of retail therapy. Hoi An is awash with gorgeous silk products, which are a result of the cross-culture created by the Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Cham people in Hoi An during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The lanterns are perhaps the most iconic local symbol and make for nice decorative gifts.
Afterwards, I pass by the ornate gate of Fujian Assembly Hall, built by Chinese people from Fujian region over 400 years ago. This was firstly a traditionally assembly hall of Fujian people but later became a common temple for both Chinese and Vietnamese residents who came here to honour Lady Thien Hau, a goddess of the sea who protects sailors from danger.
On the night of the full moon, the temple looks splendid with red lanterns hanging above. All around town, altars – often placed out front – are laden with fresh fruit, flowers, votive papers and incense as homeowners and entrepreneurs make offerings to their ancestors and gods and pray for good business.
By eleven o’clock the streets empty out. Peace and quiet returns to Hoi An. The scent of wet aloe joss stick hangs in the air. The shops and restaurants have closed and only a handful of bars remain open. On the black roofs of ancient houses, dark green ferns and weeds quiver in the breeze. A mild, refreshing drizzle is falling. As I stroll back to my hotel, I can hear the sound of keys turning in bronze locks and wooden bars being drawn across as the town collectively heads for bed. I see one single lantern left hanging outside as I walk down an otherwise dark street and I imagine this is how the town might have appeared hundreds of years ago when these houses were first built and Hoi An was a proud and affluent port town.