I doubt there’s ever a bad time (rainy season aside, maybe) to visit Hoi An – Vietnam’s jewel in an already sparkling crown.
But if there’s a particularly good time, or shall we say even better time to visit this perfectly preserved colonial port, it’s on the night of a full moon; Hoi An’s Lunar Festival.
Hoi An Full Moon Festival
To call this a full moon party would be to do it a disservice, conjuring up misleading images of the famously hedonistic antics of Thailand’s lunar celebrations.
The Hoi An Full Moon Festival is a different experience entirely.
It’s more by luck than clever planning that we find ourselves here when the moon is fat, but it’s been clear for the past couple of days now that something special is brewing, something well worth sticking around for.
Not least because of the “Are you staying for the Lunar Festival?” questions asked by almost everyone we meet – locals and travellers alike – leading up to tonight.
And now, strolling across the small bridge that crosses the Thu Bồn River into Hoi An’s UNESCO World Heritage Old Town as dusk falls, we understand why the question came so frequently.
On this one night every lunar month Hoi An switches off all electricity to be lit up only by multi-coloured paper lanterns and flickering candles. And it’s undoubtedly when the town looks its best.
We’ve done this same short stroll for the two previous nights now, from our hotel Vinh Hung Emerald Resort, through the residential streets of Minh An island, past the busy night market on main street Nguyễn Hoàng and over the bridge that crosses the Thu Bồn River into the (traffic free!!) Old Town.
And sure, the shops and stalls sell their pretty, bold coloured paper lanterns every day…
But they’re glowing brighter tonight when not diluted by the street and shop lights.
Sure, the town smells exoticly fantastic every day too, as the aromas of the sumptuous food being prepared in restaurants and street stalls mix with the burning incense wafting from homes and shops…
But it smells even sweeter tonight thanks to the pungent incense and flower-filled parcels left out on doorsteps as offerings to ancestors, in return for luck and fortune.
The Lunar Festival is everything that’s already beautiful about Hoi An, turned up an extra notch for one night a month. It’s Hoi An in HD. Hoi An in technicolour.
Of course it’s busier too. Despite the lack of electricity, it’s fair to say the atmosphere is pretty electric.
Weaving in and out of all the people on the main bridge takes twice as long tonight. And not just because there are more people, but because everyone is stopping to buy a lantern – single candles in a lotus flower shaped paper case – to float down the river. Seemingly the main event of the festival.
And there’s no shortage of street sellers to buy the lanterns off. In fact, the sellers are as much of the attraction as the lanterns themselves. And they sure know how to make the most of their one night of fame a month.
Old Vietnamese women with faces that hold wrinkles almost deeper than the Thu Bồn River itself vie for your attention (and pennies) with fresh-faced Vietnamese children. Both looking to sell you a paper lantern to set free on the river… and a great photo opportunity.
Although it’s the children who have the advantage in this friendly battle for dongs and dollars (both accepted). Mums pimp out their cute kids with no shame, rounding up tourists for photos with their posing, preening offspring.
“You take a picture here. Here, you take a picture with boy”, they shout to passers-by as behind them children strike a pose like true modelling pros.
At what age do they become ‘not cute’ anymore and worthless for this small money-spinner, I wonder?
In the interest of fairness we give in to both a grumpy old lady and cheery duo of children, buying small lanterns from both to send down the river.
I don’t know this, but as I lower my own lantern into the water using the large rod-cum-lantern-lowering-contraption-thingy I’ve been handed, I assume I’m to make a wish as the candle starts its journey down the Thu Bồn River in its paper case. That’s the norm with this type of thing, right?
Well if so, I don’t hold out much hope for the wish I do make. Within seconds my lantern becomes stuck on a boat’s mooring ropes and stops moving at all.
Alex’s lantern has similar problems, and we both look on in envy across the river as hundreds of others float rather more successfully downstream.
As is often the case, we decide our disappointment can only be tempered by food.
So off we go along Bach Dang, the road running alongside the river, to try and find a fine Vietnamese restaurant. Of which there are plenty; Hoi An is one of Vietnam’s prime foodie spots too.
We find all restaurants still have their electricity off and are lit only by candlelight. And discover some have upstairs terraces looking out on the lunar festival in full flow below. Which all makes for a fantastic dining experience on this special night.
Gorgeous Vietnamese food, happy hours for drinks, candlelight, views over a lantern-lit Hoi An and twinkling Thu Bồn River… seems like my wish may have come true after all.