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?
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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!