I Feel a Full Moon Rising

posted by Katie on May 20, 2019

We arrived! We made it to Hoi An two nights ago, on Saturday, May 18th, on a full moon. It must have been some kind of special full moon, the mooniest of moons, as Korean cult leader Sun Myung Moon might have said, if he saw it, because the town be abuzzin.

A leisurely stroll around the old quarter indicated something mystically exotic (Yes! I got to use that word for my first Vietnam entry! Check!) was happening on this night because nearly every storefront had a small metallic table set up smack dab in the middle of its already non-existent sidewalk, filled with bowls of rice, cigarettes, fruit, paper money, Lotte brand Choco-pies, and hella incense burning.

So, on top of the many hazards we were actively trying to avoid on our walk (loose, mentally unstable bricks, piles of sand taller than Remy, speeding bikes, speedier motorbikes, honking cars, potentially rabid dogs sniffing around our ankles, leathery women who probably lost all seven children in the war and are still forced to sell tiny bananas on the street to make ends meet) we were also confronted with huge clouds of incense smoke blowing directly into our faces.

I’m not complaining. In fact, each time it happened, I inhaled as deeply as possible, hoping to get some new kind of buzz besides the matcha/oolong/coffee combination I’ve been drinking regularly for the past two weeks.

I saw a shopkeeper with his hands folded at his forehead holding incense sticks, eyes closed, praying to the gods? His dead ancestors? The Chinese for lower trade tariffs? Who knows? But in that moment, I was reminded of Tet, or Lunar New Years, of my childhood. My siblings and I were forced to stand before the VHS tape cabinet in our living room that had been converted to a makeshift altar. Like the tables I saw on the streets of Hoi An, our family altar had bowls of rice, oranges, traditional Vietnamese sweets, burning incense sticks, and a large, framed, black and white photo of a dead ancestor. In our case, the photo was of my dad’s dad, a hollow-eyed man whom I’d never met. He died here in Vietnam before I was born. My dad ordered us kids to pray to him and other black and white dead ancestors we never knew. “What am I supposed to pray for?” I moaned. “Anything! More money! Health! A long and healthy life for your old man!” I did as I was told. Eyes closed. Incense sticks gripped in my folded hands. And now, decades later, I see a middle-aged Vietnamese man doing as I had done as a kid. The ease in which he does it, the lack of inhibition as gawking foreigners on the street stare at him, both impresses and comforts me.

In honor of this full moon night, (and now I’m realizing, every night), bright paper lanterns were lit up everywhere. Dangling from trees, doorways, ceilings, and floating merrily down the river. Was this some kind of T Magazine photo spread? Where was I? “I can’t believe how beautiful this town is,” I kept repeating to Matt as we looked down the river. He grunted in return, either in agreement or from exertion of holding Remy in his arms while soaked in a shower of sweat.

When my family arrived to Northfield, MN as Vietnamese refugees—Boat People, my dad liked to remind everyone—the annual Defeat of Jesse James Celebration was taking place in town. It was Labor Day weekend, 1979. Our normally sleepy town came to life, with a traveling, toothless carnival, a petting zoo, rickety rides, food stalls, and people out and about and not hidden inside their split-level homes watching TV. My dad thought America was like this all the time. He enjoys telling this story to this day: his first, untarnished memory of America.

I understand that our arrival to Hoi An on this Full Moon night is no different. The paper lanterns, incense smoke, the man praying with his eyes closed, are shiny and bright because they’re new. But I don’t care. Because there is a beauty in exhilarating in something new for the first time. There is a beauty in not knowing enough to know better. It feels hopeful. And earnest. And carefree. And goddammit. After reading the NYTimes headlines religiously every day for the past two years, I haven’t felt this way about my place in this world for a long time. So forgive me, just this once, for this fiction. Allow me, cynic of cynics, to savor this magic, just a little bit. Because I know in a few weeks, maybe even by the end of this week, I will tire of the tourist trap of the old town. I’ll look back and roll my eyes at my fresh-off-the-boat naivete. But for now, I am enjoying this toothless carnival. It feels comforting. It feels auspicious. All the tears I shed before I left, all the painful goodbyes to friends, family, and dearly beloveds back home in San Francisco and beyond, wasn’t in vain, but in honor of seeing a full moon, in a new country, on our first night, with the starriest of eyes.