Known to control the tides and thought to make us all a little crazy at times, the moon has long been worshipped by cultures around the world. The moon goes through many phases but the full moon is one phase that holds great significance for many. And there are beach parties and festivals to prove it, including the Hoi An Lantern Festival in Vietnam.
What is the Hoi An Lantern Festival?
The Hoi An Lantern Festival is a monthly event that celebrates the full moon. The full moon is one of the most sacred times in the Buddhist calendar. It is said that Buddha was not only born on a full moon but attained enlightenment on a full moon. And so for centuries Buddhists have viewed the full moon as an auspicious time of transformation.
Even today, people all over Asia view the full moon as a time to meditate, observe rituals, reflect on life and worship their ancestors. This is done in many ways, from offerings made at family shrines to the burning of incense and the lighting of candles. In recent years these traditions have morphed into the popular Hoi An Lantern Festival.
What are the origins of the Hoi An Lantern Festival?
Vietnam has a strong tradition of Buddhism and so the full moon has always been considered a significant time in the lunar month. In Hoi An the particular tradition of lanterns developed during the 16th and 17th centuries when the port city was an important trading post. Hoi An bustled with merchants from around the world, including the Japanese who brought with them various shaped lanterns that they would hang in front of their homes. The locals began to imitate this in similar hopes of bringing good luck to their households.
Since those times Hoi An has maintained its diverse cultural influences and is today widely associated with lanterns. It is thought that in 1998 the local authorities decided to combine lanterns with the monthly full moon celebrations and since then both Vietnamese and international travellers have flocked to Hoi An each month to participate in the celebrations.
How is the Hoi An Lantern Festival celebrated?
As the name suggests, the biggest feature of this festival is the lanterns. Cute, multi-coloured lanterns are lit with candles and placed on the Thu Bon river with a wish for happiness, luck and love. At 8pm all fluorescent lights are turned off so that the floating lanterns are all that illuminate Hoi An, creating a magical glow. The ban on vehicles and bicycles in Hoi An's old quarter means you can wander around and soak up the atmosphere without fear of walking into the path of a motorist.
There are usually performances held along the river with music (bamboo flutes, drums and fiddles) and poetry readings. Locals will play board games outside their homes while others gather for Bai Choi - a musical version of bingo. Street food stalls pop up all along the river selling delicious vegetarian food alongside classic pork dishes. It's a great time to try tasty moon cakes (pastries filled with sweet red bean paste) and shop at the busy night markets. By 10pm the celebrations wind down.
In conjunction with the lantern festival, the full moon is a time to honour deceased relatives and ancestors. Local families will also visit shrines and present offerings of flowers, food and candles as well as fake money bills in exchange for prosperity.
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Where is the Hoi An Lantern Festival celebrated?
The Full Moon festival is celebrated across Vietnam but the UNESCO-listed town of Hoi An has become the most popular destination for travellers to enjoy the monthly festivities thanks to the dedicated lantern festival.
The best place to witness the action in Hoi An is the area between the Japanese Covered Bridge and the Cau An Hoi Bridge. Here you'll be able to see lanterns released onto the river with water that beautifully reflects the hanging lights of surrounding buildings. Much of the town is pedestrianized, so you can walk around and enjoy the lanterns from different spots.
To make the most of your Hoi An Lantern Festival experience, follow these tips:
- Use a wrist strap on your camera and attach your phone to a lanyard - you don't want your expensive items accidentally knocked out of your hand as you're taking photographs close to the river
- Visit in February for the Hoi An Lantern Festival at its most brilliant - the first full moon of the lunar new year is the biggest celebration of them all
- Buy handmade lanterns locally for a cost of around 50 cents - the vendor will usually lend you a long pole to lower the lantern onto the water
- Expect crowds and arrive early to get a good spot - it's a popular event with locals and tourists so Hoi An's river banks fill up with people quickly hoping to secure a good view of the candle-lit water
- If you want to escape the crowds, take a sampan ride on the river - you can watch the festivities away from the masses and more easily place your own lantern on the water's surface (expect to pay around USD $5)
- Wear sturdy shoes - there's a good chance you'll have your feet trodden on as you navigate the busy streets
Check out more of our top travel tips for visiting Vietnam.
Recommended Hoi An Lantern Festival Tours
Experience the Hoi An Lantern Festival with dedicated group tours that visit Vietnam for the October full moon. On these tours you'll visit a local home on the outskirts of Hoi An to learn about the family’s long tradition of lantern-making. Here you'll handcraft your own lanterns for the night’s festivities.