In a small cobbled park, situated between a pair of buildings in Hoi An's old town, a crowd has gathered. People shout and laugh raucously, while a man announces something in Vietnamese through a car-battery-powered PA. As we work our way through the masses, we can see it's some kind of a carnival game being played!
For a fee of 5000 VND (25¢), anyone from the collection of onlookers can play a round. Participants, (mostly local, with the occasional westerner) are given a stick and an eyeless mask which serves as a blindfold. The object of the game is to smash a clay pot hanging from a string, like a piñata.
Because contestants can only take one swing, the announcer, along with the shouting crowd, try to tell the player where to step and where to aim. Meanwhile, a chaotic, disorienting racket drowns everyone out, adding to the fun and difficulty of the game.
Most of the time, players miss their target by a wide margin. But occasionally, a stick will make contact with the pottery and it shatter it into oblivion. The crowd then goes wild, and the contestant wins a small lantern.
Once we've taken sound recordings and photos of the fun, it's time to play! Five thousand VND goes to the man with the microphone, in exchange for a mask and baton. Before I don the papier mache blindfold, I eye my target, carefully measuring out the distance in paces. With the crazed crowd cheering enthusiastically, I slip the mask over my face.
Now blind, my confidence drains rapidly. The prospect of smashing a tiny, dangling piece of pottery, somewhere out there in front of me with this narrow baton is more daunting than I'd anticipated. All around me, people are shouting, cheering, yelling instructions. "Left! Left!" they say, while the announcer tells me "Right, right, a little bit to the right!"
Patiently aiming, I shuffle to and fro, left and right, trying to isolate the voice of the announcer, trying to follow his directions alone. When, at last, he shouts "NOW!" into the microphone, I pull my right arm back, and bring it down as hard as I can, swinging with all of my might.
*CRaaaCCK* I connect! Yesss!
When Tara sees me grinning like a school-kid, she gives me a huge hug and a high five, then hands me the camera and runs into the crowd, eager to play a round herself. When her turn arrives, I stand at the edge of the mob, trying to scream directions louder than the fifty people around us.
I watch her waffle, then step confidently up to the spot she's measured. She pauses a moment, draws her arm back, and then swings it down, right on target. The pot shatters, and she throws off her mask, elated.
And with that, the games, and Hội An's latern festival have ended. Tara was the last contestant! Giddy with excitement, we meander back to our hotel, thanking our lucky stars for being so slow, as we had seriously considered leaving this morning.
What a great night!