Hoi An's lantern festival, perhaps more than any other place or festival in the country, symbolises the allure of Vietnam. Lanterns and their magical glow are synonymous with Hoi An, and they come into their own every month during the Hoi An Lantern Festival.
If you are already in or planning a trip to Vietnam, it truly is a spectacle not to be missed. Read on to find out exactly why.
The significance of the Hoi An Lantern Festival
The Hoi An Lantern Festival celebrates the full moon, which is considered a sacred time in the Buddhist calendar. For this reason, it is also known as the full moon lantern festival. Buddha was supposedly born and received enlightenment on a full moon date, and so monthly full moon celebrations are typical across countries with significant Buddhist populations and influence.
Traditionally, locals in Hoi An use the full moon date to pay tribute to ancestors, visit family shrines and reflect on life. The relatively recent popularity of the full moon lantern festival has also been great for local businesses and to showcase the wonders of Hoi An to the world.
Lanterns are the focal point of the festival and, along with the rich cultural celebrations and activities on this date, turn Hoi An into an ocean of colorful paper lanterns.
History of the Hoi An Lantern Festival
The Hoi An lantern festival can trace its roots back to the 16th and 17th centuries when Hoi An was an important regional trading post. Japanese and Chinese merchants, who settled in Hoi An, brought lanterns with them as nostalgic reminders of their homelands and to use as décor in their homes.
After some time, lantern-making became a staple of family businesses, festivities, and celebrations, and eventually a symbol synonymous with Hoi An. And although the city's days as a trading hub are long gone, its historic buildings and lantern traditions have remained.
Despite the lantern's storied past, the decision to make a dedicated lantern festival only came about in 1998. With the growth of tourism in Vietnam, the local authorities made the savvy decision to showcase Hoi An's lanterns to the world. Encouraging residents to replace electrical lighting with the warm glow of lanterns, the Hoi An lantern festival experience soon became a staple on the tourist trail for both domestic and international visitors.
When Does the Hoi An Lantern Festival take place?
The Hoi An lantern festival takes place on the 14th day of the lunar month, which marks the full moon, from 6 to around 10 pm. Most people prefer to arrive early - often before 6 pm - so they can enjoy dinner and sunset before the glimmering colourful lanterns steal the show. The festival is celebrated in and around the old town, especially in areas near the Hoai River, the Hoi Bridge and the Japanese Covered Bridge.
Upcoming Hoi An Lantern Festival dates in 2022:
- Quarter 1 - January 16th, February 14th (as the first full moon of the lunar calendar, this is the biggest celebration), March 16th
- Quarter 2 - April 14th, May 14th, June 14th
- Quarter 3 - July 13th, August 12th, September 10th
- Quarter 4 - October 9th, November 8th, December 8th
Although the Hoi An Lantern Festival is a monthly celebration on the lunar calendar, we suggest you take into account Hoi An's climate and seasons when visiting. The dry season in the region runs from February to September, and this is probably the ideal time to visit. Unless you are a fan of tropical storms, the monsoon season (October - February) is not the best time for a visit.
If you're heading to Hoi An but can't make the festival, check out some of the best things to do in Hoi An.
How to celebrate the Hoi An Lantern Festival?
1. Try the delicious local food
Hoi An is home to some of the best food in Vietnam. Although there is a wide range of cosmopolitan options available, as you're probably in town for just a few days, we suggest going for local fare.
Specialities in the region worth trying include:
- Cao Lau (roasted pork, greens and rice noodles): the resemblance of cao lau to soba noodles in this dish reflects the Japanese historical influence in Hoi An;
- Com Ga Hoi An (chicken rice): This dish, which exemplifies Chinese influenced cuisine in Hoi An, is much like the Hainanese chicken rice found in nearby Singapore and Malaysia. The only difference is that the chicken is shredded, and it usually features local herbs and greens on the side;
- Mì Quảng (rice noodles tossed with pork, prawns and fresh herbs): one of the classic pork dishes in Vietnam, these noodles come with a delicious broth and local herbs.
If you still have an appetite after dinner, you're in luck. Delicious street food stalls pop up all over Hoi An in the evening. The following street foods are all readily available at street vendors and busy night markets:
- Banh bao (steamed rice dumplings)
- Banh beo (local steamed rice pancakes with dried pork and shrimp)
- Tasty moon cakes (filled with sweet red bean paste)
- Banh Xoai (mango cake)
- Xi ma (black sesame pudding)
2. Visit Hoi An's famous landmarks and pagodas
Hoi An is home to several famous landmarks which reflect the city's diverse cultural influences, and these come into their own during the Lantern Festival.
The Japanese covered bridge, one of Vietnam's most iconic attractions, dates back to the 18th century. As one of the most romantic and beautiful spots in Vietnam, you'll want to get a photo here - even if you're single.
Tan Ky Old House, which is considered the most beautiful and ancient house in Hoi An, is a must-see. Here you'll get insight into how the locals live in harmony with Hoi An's historical architecture.
The Cantonese Assembly Hall, constructed in 1885, reflects Hoi An's strong historical ties to China. Although initially built for trade purposes, the hall is now filled with historical artefacts and paintings, and it operates as a pagoda-cum-meeting point for local Hoa (overseas Chinese) people.
The Quang Hong temple, located in the middle of the ancient town, is well worth a visit. Auspicious gold and red paint cover the grounds of the complex, which also houses multiple ancient statues, paintings and artefacts. On a full moon festival, you'll get an insight into how Vietnamese people visit shrines and observe rituals that are believed to bring good fortune and health.
You'll commonly see locals burning fake money bills, lighting colourful lanterns and giving fruit and incense offerings, which are also common ways to honour ancestors and attract prosperity.
3. Local arts and music performances
As you waltz your way through the wonderful ancient town, you'll see locals playing Chinese chess, folk performances, and live music. The music, which typically involves local instruments such as bamboo flutes, fiddles and drums, usually also features beautiful folk singing or poetry recitals.
Bai Choi, a local traditional performance that combines music, poetry and acting, is hugely popular during Hoi An's lantern festival. The show, inscribed into UNESCO's intangible heritage list in 2017, features songs and poetry readings about the pride locals take in traditional life and work in and around Quang Nam province.
Amongst all the singing, there is a card drawing game similar to bingo, which spectators can take part in. Whether you join or not, being around the good-natured fun and games only adds to the joyous atmosphere of the Hoi An lantern festival.
4. Buy handmade lanterns locally
Lantern making has been practised in Hoi An for over 4 centuries, and today there are over 30 lantern workshops and 200 shops selling them.
Unlike those in Japan, China or Thailand, which are largely made of nylon and flammable paper, Hoi An lanterns are made with cloth and silk, giving them a more premium and colourful finish. Highly skilled craftspeople use dry-aged bamboo for the frame, which they then mold to make various shaped lanterns, including prominent animals in Vietnamese culture and mythology like dragons and phoenixes.
The result is an incredibly delicate, intricate and unique lantern, and you should consider buying at least one. Expect to pay between 10-20,000 VND for one lantern, depending on the size. Hoi An lanterns make wonderful present offerings for family and friends, and they are also a great way to get involved in the traditional full moon festival celebrations.
5. Take a Sampan ride on the Hoai River
The sampan, a traditional wooden boat found across South East Asia, is perhaps the best way to take in Hoi An Lantern Festival's magical atmosphere. They are widely available to rent - just approach one of the boaters and negotiate. Follow our tips on Vietnamese culture and how to negotiate in Vietnam, and you won't expect to pay about 100,000 VND for an hour.
Make sure you take on board your own lantern, where you can lay it in the water and watch it drift off amidst an enchanting sea of floating lanterns. Lanterns released on the Hoai River are believed to bring about good fortune and love, and as you sit back and enjoy the serene surroundings and candlelit water, you'll probably understand why.
6. Snap a picture before you leave!
With vehicles, bicycles, and fluorescent lights prohibited after 8 pm, Hoi An's charming streets are yours to roam. Even if you don't get around to seeing all the sites, simply wander through the ancient town and marvel at the hanging lanterns which illuminate Hoi An, and you'll still appreciate the magical atmosphere of the city's biggest celebration.
Skilled photographer or not, you'll want pictures of Hoi An's lantern festival celebrations. As one of the most picturesque places in Vietnam, even the most amateur photographer would struggle to take a bad photo here - so snap away!
For more information on Hoi An and the surrounding region, check out our guides to Danang, Hue, and Hoi An.
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