Many tourists and visitors flock to Hoi An’s Old Town to see the candle lit river and smell the incense on the breeze for the Lantern Festival. The festival falls on the night of the full moon, a sacred time for the heady Buddhist/Confucian mixture in Vietnam and Ancient Hoi An provides the perfect setting for this monthly celebration.
Falling on the 14th day of the lunar calendar, the full moon is a time of transformation. Buddha’s birth, renunciation of earthly attachment and enlightenment all occurred on a full moon – it’s an important time for prayer and meditation. Also, as you walk around the Old Town you will see many shops with shrines out front adding another spiritual layer associated with ancestors.
The Lantern Festival begins at dusk and continues until 9 or 10 at night when people either head home or join the night life. For many it is a beautiful photo opportunity, so expect to see endless large lensed DSLRs and selfie sticks being wielded through the throng. The atmosphere is cheerful and celebratory and attracts widely mixed crowd of varying nationalities and ages. Plenty of street performers throughout the town, who vary from traditional theatrical performances to single musicians, keep the energy festive.
The main activity at the Lantern Festival for tourists is buying paper lanterns with a small candle inside to place on the river. These are offerings to ancestors and spirits – a very old practice of Chinese origin. However, you will not see locals lighting candles. They are all at home offering food and incense to the spirits at their shrines.
So, the lanterns are now purely for tourism – the riverbanks are lined with women and children with big trays of paper lanterns. Once you buy a lantern (5,000-10,000 vnd) a long pole with basket attached lowers it delicately into the river and off it goes downstream.
If you can stomach the crowds, the dazzle of floating candles on the river is delightful and it’s enchanting to walk through the Old Town by the light of paper lanterns with no scooters whizzing past and the street lights off. If you are looking for respite from the mob, loiter near the river for any amount of time and you’ll be offered a boat ride. Gondola-like long boats with lanterns hung on one end will float you through the flickering display in comfort – around 100 000 vnd for a 10 to 20-minute trip.
The heritage sites scattered throughout the Old Town do not require a ticket on the night of the full moon. Some of them do close early, but many have open doors so you can wander and wonder at the beautiful centuries-old buildings and artefacts.
When you have seen enough of the river and the Old Town, head to the night market. Large painted lanterns that can be collapsed into travel-friendly packaging are on sale. There is also an array of baskets, jewelry, clothes and other curios for sale. The market is also great place to eat with rows of street food carts selling pancakes, spring rolls, bahn mi, fruit shakes and lotus seed tea.
A special food to try is the mango cake, which confusingly contains neither mango nor cake. It is more like a dumpling rolled in powdered sugar and filled with a sweet peanut mix. Supposedly its name comes from the fact that it is shaped like a mango.
Personally, I prefer the Old Town on regular nights when it’s less crowded and has fewer hawkers. But there is something magical about the full moon shining above with just candle light and shadows below. It creates an otherworldly atmosphere that suits the quaint streets of Hoi An Old Town to a tee – and it’s one that will be unlike any other you have in Vietnam.
Check the calendar dates of when the festival is happening in our Full Moon Calendar.