Hoi An: Lanterns and Legends

Hundreds of floating candles and multi-coloured lanterns create a warm glow throughout Hoi An’s Old Town during the Mid Autumn Moon Festival.

Bernard O’Riordan

It’s nearing dusk in Hoi An’s ancient town and the normally tranquil maze of streets and laneways have become a writhing mass of tourists with selfie sticks.

Ahead, a curious crush of locals and visitors have blocked an entire street corner as a cacophony of drums, gongs and cymbals swamps the night air.

As we inch closer, the street erupts in a frenzy of noise and pageantry as a troupe of young lion dancers, with mesmerising footwork, perform an acrobatic ritual for local shop owners.

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Welcome to the start of Hoi An’s Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, known locally as Tet Trung Thu (not to be confused with the lunar new year, which is Tet Nguyen Dan or Tet for short).

This boisterous, colourful and chaotic event was introduced by the Chinese and has been celebrated for more than 4,000 years, originally signalling the end of the rice harvest in the Red River Delta near Hanoi.

According to legend, the lion dance (there are two performers in the lion costume, as opposed to one for when it’s a dragon dance) is said to bring prosperity and ward off bad luck.

Since Hoi An is a small town, groups of lion dancers often run into each other on the street and they put on a fierce dance to establish their dominance. It’s quite a spectacle and attracts a huge crowd of onlookers.

It’s a magical time to be visiting this UNESCO-protected 16th century port town, with moon cakes, lanterns, lion costumes and toys the order of the day.

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Beside the Thu Bồn River, groups of women sell candlelit paper lotus flowers to tourists who set them afloat on the water with a wish.

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Others take a ride on a sampan (a flat-bottomed wooden boat) to admire the floating lanterns close up.

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In the ancient town – where you’ll find a criss-cross jumble of streets, temples­, tailors, jewellers, restaurants and bars – the lights are dimmed and hundreds of lanterns (keo quan) hanging from trees and shop fronts illuminate the laneways.

Hanging lanterns on the front of a house or business is supposed to bring luck, happiness and wealth to those who live or work there.

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A blissful ban on motorbikes and scooters in the ancient town also makes it seem like some sort of Asian wonderland.

The festival’s association with children means there’s a brisk sale of toys, lanterns and colourful masks. Masks are worn to frighten away a tiger spirit that could devour the full moon and cause an eclipse.

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As you walk the streets under the full moon, you notice small tables with fruits, incense and drinks set up outside of many shophouses and homes.

Elsewhere, people light small fires on the roadside. These are offerings that usually consist of fake $100 bills, which are considered lucky.

Traditionally Tet Trung Thu (September 24) is a time to thank the gods, ghosts and ancestors for a plentiful harvest and to eat good food.

Street Food 

And good food is something Hội An is renowned for, a legacy of the many nationalities that lived and worked here when it was a trading port, including Japanese, Chinese and Portuguese.

You’ll find many street food favourites at carts that assemble along the banks of the Thu Bon River each night during Tet Trung Thu. The good news is they are also here  every other month for the Hoi An Lantern Festival.

It strikes me that many of the traditional foods enjoyed here are circular, obviously to replicate the roundness of the moon.

One of the most popular foods at this time of year are the dense, sweet moon cakes (banh trung thu). They come with many different types of fillings including red bean, mung beans, lotus seeds, nuts, and egg yolks.

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Boxes of mooncakes are traditionally given as gifts leading up to the Mid Autumn Festival. Because they’re so rich, they’re usually best eaten in small wedges with tea.

Another popular snack is banh xeo, or crispy rice pancakes. These are turmeric-yellow and stuffed with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and herbs. They’re often folded in a half crescent that resembles the moon.

You’ll also find plenty of banh bao (steamed buns filled with pork or red bean) that are fluffy, round and white.

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For a really cheap dinner, wander the north bank of the river after dark.

You’ll find dozens of little charcoal braziers set up with skewers of thịt nướng: grilled pork, chicken or prawns that come with some herbs and greens, and a few rice paper wrappers to roll it up in.

The whole thing is then dipped in a spicy peanut tomato sauce, with a few toasted sesame seeds.

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You’ll also find several carts preparing Vietnam’s favourite sandwich, the banh mi, while others serve up chicken rice (com ga).

For something sweet, try another local favourite, sticky banana pancakes. There seem to be a few different versions of banana pancakes but they are typically made with rice flour, banana and even sweet potato and are deep fried while you wait.

A good way to beat the heat is by trying a local favourite known as kem ong – ice creams on metal skewers. They cost about 7,000 dong (45c) and come in a variety of flavours including coconut, strawberry, durian and chocolate.

Hoi An Lantern Festival 2019



You can enjoy the Hoi An Lantern Festival on the 14th day of any lunar month. Here are next year's dates.

January 19, February 18, March 20, April 18, May 18, June 16, July 16, August 14, September 12, October 10, November 10 and December 9.

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