From bustling Hanoi, we made our way south to partake in one of the top things to do in Vietnam. The moniker of the city is a big giveaway to what awaited us during our stay in Hoi An, the City of Lanterns.
From the sun-drenched and vibrant architecture of the old town to charming lantern-lit nights and many unique experiences in between, Hoi An casted thicker spells over us with every discovery. The unique cultural fusion of the city also translates into local cuisine, which is varied for Hoi An’s port-side location. But the highlight was the thing Hoi An is most famous for – the lantern festival.
The combination of Hoi An’s ancient town recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Hoi An lantern festival is a unique draw for visitors and is a true bucket list experience. As we floated our lanterns, we sent wishes into the magic air of the night. We were so enamored of the experience and hope this post inspires you to add Hoi An to your Vietnam itinerary too. Here is everything you need to know about the lantern festival and other unique experiences in Hoi An.
Things to Know Before You Go
The best time to visit Hoi An is during the Full Moon Lantern Festival. Depending on the year there are typically twelve or sometimes thirteen full moon festivals annually. So, lucky for you, aligning your visit with a lantern festival is not a challenging task. And to help take some of the guesswork out of the process, the festival now occurs on the 14th day of the lunar month, regardless of when the full moon makes an appearance. But if your visit doesn’t coincide with the celebration, don’t worry because lanterns are always abundant in Hoi An. They are the things Hoi An is famous for, after all.
The Traditions of the Festival
The centuries-old tradition of lanterns is said to have been brought to Hoi An by international merchants visiting the port but worshiping ancestors and honoring the spirits of descendants is deeply rooted in Vietnamese culture. Traditions merged together to birth Hoi An Lantern Festival, which is a time to celebrate their forefathers and wish for prosperity.
During the day, the locals visit temples, and come dusk, Hoi An turns into a picturesque lantern-lit fairytale – the street lights go off, giving way to the magical lanterns. The main event happens between the Cau An Hoi Bridge and the Japanese Bridge in the ancient town. Aside from launching lanterns in the river, there are many other activities like old traditional games, street food, music concerts, and boat rides.
Shops and houses set up altars with offerings of fruit, drinks, incense, and candles in honor of their ancestors and as an expression of gratitude. And fake notes of Vietnamese dong are burnt for prosperity.
Join in the Celebrations
To participate, you can purchase your own lantern consisting of a candle in a nest of colorful paper resembling a lotus flower. It will be provided with a special pole used to lower the lantern into the water from the river bank. Walking around town during the day, you will notice workshops where these lanterns are being made, and it’s amazing to see the wonderland created by the hands of the local craftsmen. Taking a riverboat cruise will offer an even better angle of the lights all around, reflecting against the water. It’s a touristy activity, but worth the views and photos.
While releasing lanterns on the water may seem like a peaceful celebration, this festival is one of the most popular events in South East Asia, and that kind of reputation draws a sizable crowd. Although bicycles and motorized vehicles are banned in the old town during the festival, we recommend you stay alert in the sea of celebrators.
Wander around Hoi An’s ancient city, listen to live music of local instruments, and challenge someone to a game of chess. Admire the array of souvenirs and perhaps grab yourself a non la – a Vietnamese conical hat. You will need it the next day.
Indulge in Local Cuisine
When the festival gets too busy or loud for your liking, duck into a restaurant to sample the flavors of local cuisine, which is a fusion of Vietnamese, Chinese, and French.
Hoi An is a foodie’s paradise, but no other dish encapsulates Hoi An, Vietnam better than cao lau. A local must-try, cao lau is prepared with rice noodles, greens, bean sprouts, herbs, and broth, which is traditionally cooked with water taken from the ancient Ba Le Well, still found in Hoi An’s Old Town. Though originally this dish was prepared for the elite, nowadays the best cao lau is served by street food vendors or hole-in-the-wall type of restaurants. Head to Thanh Cao Lau famed for serving the best cao lau and extremely fast service.
The other regional sensations that must be tried are mi quang and bahn mi. The former is made with rice noodles, meat, herbs, peanuts, and turmeric broth, though the recipe tends to vary slightly. And the latter is a French-inspired baguette sandwich stuffed with vegetables, pate, pork, and herbs. The primary spot to find these delicacies is the Central Market. Highly endorsed by Anthony Bourdain as the ‘best bahn mi in town’ is Bahn Mi Phuong’s sandwich shop. As for mi quang, search for Mrs. Ha based in stall #35.
If you are looking for a romantic dinner venue, Little Faifo located in the Old Town is the perfect spot. Offering stunning views in traditional Vietnamese décor, the restaurant, which takes its name after Hoi An’s historical name, is a sophisticated take on local fare.
Greet the Sunrise Hoi An, Vietnam Style
While your sunsets should be spent by the river, your mornings should be welcomed with a long walk on the beach or by cycling through Hoi An’s countryside. Though the lantern festival was enthralling, we couldn’t wait for dawn to throw open the curtains of our hotel room at Little Riverside. But with an even more breathtaking vista in store, we hastily grabbed our hats and the hotel’s bicycles.
Most accommodations in Hoi An, Vietnam offer bicycles, but you can also rent one for the day at any of the rental shops in town. Grab one, and in just 10 minutes you’ll be cycling out of town and through infinite stretches of green rice paddies, dew glistening in the soft morning sun like sequins. You’ll meet local resident buffalos happy to pose for photos, and eventually end up at the beach. The best finale to a magical lantern festival in Hoi An.
We floated a candle for you, our friend! Let us know if you make it Hoi An.