If you happen to be in Hoi An on the 14th day of any lunar month, you'll be treated to central Vietnam's version of a full moon party.
The Hoi An lantern festival is an age-old tradition that sees the entire old town shut off electricity, close to traffic and transform into a magical melange of flickering candles, multi-coloured lanterns and lively gatherings.
For the locals the night of the full moon is the time to honour their ancestors by setting up altars and offering fruit and flowers, burning incense and fake money outside homes and businesses in exchange for good luck and prosperity. This is a great time for a temple visit – each of the town's pagodas are awash with activities, all free of charge. Monks hold candlelit ceremonies and the Phuc Kien (Fujian) Assembly Hall on Tran Phu Street hosts an inspiring gathering of local fishing families honouring Lady Thien Hau, goddess of the sea. All attractions are free for visitors on the night of the full moon. Other entertainment includes local street musicians playing traditional instruments, poetry readings, Chinese chess matches by candlelight and other traditional theatrics and games such as bai choi, a bit like musical bingo. To have any chance of knowing what on earth is going on, you’ll need a guide.
Once you’ve fought your way past the romantic Vietnamese couples holding hands and photo-bombed quite a few selfies, jostle your way to the riverfront where you’ll be accosted by locals selling cardboard lotus flower-shaped lanterns with a candle to be released on the river. We’re a bit skeptical about how traditional this actually is but the seller will convince you it will bring happiness, luck and love, all for the low, low price of 10,000 dong – like with everything in Vietnam, settle on the price before you release the lantern bearing your wish for future happiness. Those floating lanterns are a beautiful sight but at the risk of being a wet blanket, not releasing one means one less piece of rubbish in the river.
A cruise on the river by small sampan boat is lovely, and you can take one for around 100,000 dong — the final price subject to your negotiation skills, always agree on the price before boarding. This allows for some breathing room from the crowds, a good viewpoint to take in the glow of the festival and quite a humbling experience as these tiny Vietnamese grandmothers row down the Thu Bon with the prowess of an Olympic athlete.
The festival is also a great opportunity to sample cheap and delicious vegetarian street food, where you can find vegetarian alternatives to popular eats cao lau and banh mi, replacing meat with tofu. Try moon cakes, only available on these nights. These cakes made with green bean and lotus seeds are a lot tastier than they sound. The festival is a crowded affair, attracting many local Vietnamese from outlying communes, so be prepared to be bumped into a bit, dress appropriately to respect the local customs and of course, watch for pickpockets.
Celebrations wind down around 21:00 to 22:00. It’s easy to find the festival dates. Internet search for the year’s full moon calendar, and Hoi An hotels often have the dates on their website.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 14th August, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.