While Hoi An is known as the perfect place to get away from the hustle and bustle of major cities and to kick back and relax in the countryside, there is one occasion that brings this town to life: The full moon.
The moon and its many phases have long been worshipped by cultures around the world, and come full moon, things get even more festive. From religious festivals to crazy beach raves, the full moon is celebrated in various ways.
The Hoi An Lantern Festival that occurs monthly on the full moon is one of them; a good mix of the traditional and the modern. Tourists travel from far and wide to see hundreds of lanterns light up the old town.
The date of the festival changes monthly according to the lunar calendar.
When is the Lantern Festival?
The Hoi An Lantern Festival brings together thousands of locals and travelers to celebrate the moon when it is at its fullest and brightest. The festival occurs monthly – traditionally held on the 14th day of each lunar month. Vietnam is heavily influenced by Buddhism, and to Buddhists, the full moon signals two extremely sacred events: The birth of the Buddha and his enlightenment.
The best one to partake in is the one that happens during the first full moon of the Vietnamese lunar calendar. This is also Vietnam’s largest holiday, called Tet, and the whole country celebrates on a grand scale.
Try not to head over during the rainy seasons from October to December when the region is prone to flooding, as the water may rise up to 2 meters high. Plan your time well!
The lanterns were a Japanese influence
When the moon is full, it is time to meditate, to reflect on life, to observe rituals and to honor deceased relatives. Rituals include offerings made at family shrines, prayer, burning of incense, the lighting of candles and more. The particular tradition of lanterns came about much later, during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Hoi An was once a bustling and very important port city, teeming with travelers and businesspeople from around the world. Many Japanese merchants would visit, who brought with them many traditions – one being lanterns that they would hang in front of their homes under the superstition that it would bring good luck to their households.
The locals soon began to imitate this in similar hopes. Soon after, Hoi An became illuminated with lanterns and became associated with them, and the traditions morphed into what is known today as the Hoi An Lantern Festival.
Release a lantern down the Thu Bon River
The festivities generally start at dusk and finish at around 10:00 PM. During this time, the whole town gets lit up with colorful lanterns. They are hung in front of households, strung above alleyways, and decorate the riverside. Locals light up lanterns with candles, make a wish for happiness and fortune in every aspect of their lives, and release it down the Thu Bon river, creating a beautiful spectacle of glowing lights.
Around 8:00 PM, fluorescent lights are turned off and electricity use is kept at a minimum level so that the floating lanterns are all that illuminate Hoi An. There is a ban on vehicles and bicycles in the old quarter, which means you can wander around without fear of bumping into a motorist. Head over to the Japanese Covered Bridge, Fujian Assembly Hall (Phuc Kien), Cantonese Assembly Hall (Quang Trieu), and Old House of Tan Ky for some amazing picture opportunities.
Releasing lanterns on the Thu Bon river is an absolute must-do. It can get a little crowded along the river during this time and it may be difficult to find a place to release your lantern, so we suggest you first board a sampan (a traditional Vietnamese canoe) and take a ride down the river.
This way, when you release your lantern, it will not be caught by a traffic jam caused by the many lanterns drifting on the water. Plus, you get a wonderful view of the lantern glow of the town as you cruise peacefully down the river, away from the crowd.
Finding a sampan to board is easy as you’ll find many ferryman and women around the river who will offer you a ride. Some carry their own lantern and stick too, which you can purchase from them. A ride will not cost you more than VND 100,000 – VND 200,000 (about $4.34 – $8.70) and lanterns can also be purchased anywhere in the streets for as little as VND 5,000 ($0.22).
Alternatively, you can build your own lantern during the day to make this experience extra special. Countless workshops are scattered around town where you can learn to make lanterns of various shapes. Popular workshops include Hoi An Handicraft Tours, Reaching Out Lantern Workshop (extra special as it is run by the hearing and speech impaired) and the Lantern Lady Workshop.
The streets are awash with activities
While lanterns are the main focus of the event, the city comes to life with plenty of other activities. There are usually performances held along the river with music (bamboo flutes, drums, and fiddles) and even poetry readings and board games with large crowds.
Others may gather for a Bai Choi, which is an interesting folk game that originated among peasants in the Quang region. The game is a musical version of Bingo, and is a fun combination of music, poetry, acting, painting and folk singing.
In addition to being viewed as a time of transformation, locals also turn to the full moon to honor their deceased relatives and ancestors. Shrines get packed with families going about their rituals. You’ll see baskets of flowers, food, candles and even fake money bills presented as offerings in exchange for good luck.
You can visit certain temples around the town to observe these rituals from the sidelines or take part in some of them. Quan Cong Pagodas or Fujian Assembly Hall are popular ones to visit to wish for luck and happiness.
Who can forget the food?
Street food stalls pop up all along the river selling delicious vegetarian food alongside classic pork dishes. The lantern festival is a great time to try tasty traditional foods, such as mooncakes, which are thick pastries filled with sweet fillings and an egg yolk in the middle to symbolize the full moon. It’s difficult to stomach a whole one by yourself, so share it with a friend.
It would also be remiss of you to not try Cao Lau, a dish endemic to the region. This noodle soup is influenced by the Japanese and Chinese cultures that were brought by foreign traders when they settled in Hoi An.
The influences are apparent: The thick noodle is almost the same as Japanese udon, the rice crackers and pork are cooked Chinese style, and the broth is Vietnamese. It is said that to make the dish you must use water from the Ba Le Well, which is why you can’t find this dish outside of Hoi An.
Other dishes to try in the countless food stalls here are banh bao (steamed rice dumplings with pork and mushrooms), banh vac (steamed rice dumplings with ground shrimp and veggies), banh dap (rice crackers with steamed rice pancakes and anchovy sauce), banh xoai (mango cake) and xi ma (black sesame pudding).
Getting to Hoi An
To visit Hoi An and to be part of this magical festival, you can take a car from Da Nang to Hoi An. Hoi An does not have its own airport, and Da Nang is the closest city.
The drive will take you about 40 minutes. You can also choose to spend a few days in Hoi An around this festival so you get a chance to explore the beautiful region, the Ancient Town and the beautiful countryside. There is really so much to take in, that a single day won’t do your experience justice.