Should You Attend the Full Moon Festival in Hoi An?
There are few images more romantic than lanterns floating down the river in Hoi An. The Full Moon Festival each month draws hundreds of tourists to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed old town for what seems to be a quintessential experience in Vietnam. In fact, it’s so popular that the “festival” is no longer limited to the date of the full moon. You can find vendors selling lanterns to float on the river every single night in Hoi An. As I was preparing for my RTW trip, a blog post on Getting Stamped seeded my mind with questions. Is the Full Moon Festival an authentic cultural experience, or just a gimmick for tourists? More importantly, what happens to the hundreds of candles and paper lanterns that float down the river daily?
Table of Contents
Expectation vs. Reality
The history of the Full Moon Festival is hundreds of years old. Supposedly, people from all over the region would come to Hoi An, an important riverfront trading town, to honor their ancestors with the lantern offering. When you hear about a festival as a traveler, you naturally assume it’s an historically or culturally significant event. Festival travel can be a great, unique way to connect to a destination. Unfortunately, because vendors now sell lanterns every night, the Full Moon Festival in Hoi An seems to have been stripped of its significance. I totally respect that vendors are people trying to make a living and don’t begrudge them that. But walking around Hoi An each night for the few days I was there, including the proper night of the full moon in January, I never saw any local person participating in this tradition. There is a huge difference between a festival and something that is simply sold to tourists on a daily basis. As I walked around Hoi An’s old town, surrounded by its colorful multi-cultural architecture and strings of lanterns lighting the night sky, I saw a lot of beauty, but when I reached the riverside and saw the small paper boats bearing tea lights out to sea, I felt nothing.
The Expat’s Perspective
The next night, I sat down at a restaurant near the riverfront. As a solo female traveler, I often find myself subject to the double-edged sword that is communal seating. So I wasn’t too offput when the owner of the restaurant asked if she could seat one of her regulars at my table. The gentleman who wound up joining me was an Australian expat who had been living in Hoi An for about a year. At some point during our conversation, I asked him about his opinion on the floating lanterns. According to him, the paper simply dissolves rather than piling up against the riverbanks. And as for the candles, they are made from animal fat, rather than being petroleum based, and vendors often head down the river each night to collect the candles and re-use them. Though his opinion might be best taken with a grain of salt, he didn’t think it was a danger to the local environment.
I still chose not to purchase a lantern. The remainder of my time in Hoi An, I’d go down to the river at night and observe. The daily activity and the fact that it was only tourists participating still gave me pause. I simply felt like I would not have gotten a meaningful experience out of doing that. And while I was glad to know that the candles at least get reused, I still have reservations about the possible environmental impact of the practice. At the end of the day, I’m someone who visited this town for a few days. I’m not in any position to say with certainty whether this festival is right or wrong, whether it’s authentic or a gimmick, whether it’s bad for the environment or not. It was that very lack of certainty that made me feel like I should take a pass. All I could do was listen to my gut and decide that for me personally, the reservations weren’t worth it, and I’d encourage other travelers to trust their instincts here as well.
What to Do in Hoi An Instead
Hoi An’s old town is filled with plenty of other attractions. While walking around the city center is free at night, during the day, you buy a ticket that grants you access to the center and your choice of five attractions out of about 20 options. The Japanese Covered Bridge is a local icon, and sure to be one of your five picks. For the other four, you might go in an historic house, family chapel, assembly hall, browse museums full of ceramics or other folk crafts, or watch a brief excerpt from a traditional Vietnamese opera. Hoi An is also famous for its tailoring, and many visitors choose to get a custom dress or suit made during their stay. Lanterns – handcrafted works of art, not the little paper boats that get sent down the river – are also a major symbol of the city. These are a popular souvenir or you can shell out to join a lantern workshop and learn how to make your own. If you have time for a day trip, you might venture out to the Thanh Ha pottery village, where you can try your hand at making an animal-shaped whistle. Hoi An is also home to a water puppet theatre, like Hanoi, and various highly renowned cooking schools.
Have you ever changed your mind about participating in a festival or attraction? Tell me about it in the comments!
I am so glad you wrote about this! I love hearing an authentic perspective on what’s traditional vs. what’s just become a event for tourists only. Really helpful to know for when I go! Thank you!
There are so many other awesome things to do in Vietnam. I hope you have a great trip!
It does look beautiful and I love the idea of it being a special thing to honour family members long gone, but if it’s happening every night, I agree that the festival loses it’s significance and becomes more a tourist thing. I wouldn’t have purchased a lantern either.
Bingo. Part of why tourists love festivals is because they’re special opportunities!
Thank you for sharing! Great food for thought. Very often as tourists, we don’t take the time to do “due diligence” on the extent of commercialization of a festival. I recently attended a panel where destination reps shared the “secrets” to festival marketing and it was always the involvement of locals that make festivals as popular and significant as they are. And thanks for the alternatives you’ve recommended!
How interesting! That makes perfect sense. If there isn’t local buy-in, why would anyone else travel to do it?
Crazy I was in Hoi An and didn’t even know about this because there are so many other things to do! I totally agree with your perspective. It seems that there is a potential for environmental damage but more importantly, if it’s only something tourists do, it seems less special!
How funny! What was your favorite thing you did in Hoi An?
Thank you for this post! Sometimes things that were probably amazing in the past turn into a bit of a tourist trap… It’s important to be aware of. I love how you included things to do instead 🙂
Glad you liked it Anya. It can be hard to separate out what’s deserved hype and what isn’t, particularly as attractions and destinations change.
Wow. The full moon festival sounds cool. There are many festivities tied to full moon in India. Really good read. The lanterns look beautiful.
I’ll admit, my feelings on this “festival” are not as positive. I would definitely be interested in seeing what full moon celebrations look like in India. Hopefully they’re actually tied to the full moon and not happening every night like in Hoi An!
It does sound like they are just making it up for profit. Probably best that you didn’t add to the river’s debris
I think it probably started out as a real tradition, but once they realized it could be a draw for visitors, things changed. We as travelers definitely need to be conscientious about our impact on destinations, not just in the environmental angle. Things like this are definitely interesting to think about from a tourism marketing perspective – when you learn something in your hometown is popular with visitors, what is the best way to handle it?
I’ve heard some really….unsavory…things about full moon parties in Thailand. It sounds a like less chaotic in Vietnam. Even though sometimes our expectations don’t match reality, I find it important to use those moments as a way to refresh my mind and try to be more open.
Oh yeah, I have never had any interest in the full moon parties in Thailand. I don’t think those two festivals have anything to do with one another, and I certainly didn’t expect the full moon festival in Hoi An to be like that. (If I had, I probably would not have gone.) I’m all for managing our expectations as travelers and being gracious about things not going as planned. But this is a case where I don’t think my expectations were unreasonable. I kept an open mind, observed, talked to people who live there, and then reached a conclusion that this activity was not for me.
Nice post, because of this I wanted to attend that full moon festival in the future. thanks for sharing this.
I hope you have a better experience with it than I did.
Interesting that they now have the lanterns going every night. I agree–that does seem to make it less special, which is a shame. But it sounds like there are plenty of other lovely things to do there.
Certainly! While this was a big part of my time in Hoi An, I still enjoyed my time there overall and would by no means suggest others not visit the city. Just maybe think carefully before sending a paper boat down the river.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I would have been one of those tourist buying the lanterns without knowing the real meaning behind it. I also recently read a post about The danger of lanterns to birds. I will definitely think twice now before doing some of the “tourist attractions”
There are so many things we don’t think twice about as travelers, regarding our impact on destinations. I am definitely no expert on responsible travel, but seeing this festival first hand was certainly a step in the right direction for me.
Wow- just for the sake of photography I’d like to attend. This is stunning! Great post!
Yeah, I thought the same thing before I arrived. I hope you have a more positive experience than I did.
I think Vietnam just became my number one on the list of places I haven’t yet seen! ?
That’s great – I definitely recommend checking out my other Vietnam posts for things to do and places to go beyond this festival.
I remember how crowded it was when I last visited Hoi An in August with my family. It was just a normal day, but still there were lots of people. We could not move to the other part of the bridge due to the crowd. However, I still love to see Hoi An in a festival! Must be so fun and interesting 🙂
It was definitely very crowded, but I didn’t feel the “festival” added much to my experience. I would love to go back and see the city at a different time, exploring some of the more artistic parts of its culture like the pottery village and lantern making workshops (the bigger hanging lanterns, not the ones that float down the river).