Hoi An is a small, ancient town on the Vietnamese central coast. A popular tourist hot-spot, the UNESCO world heritage site is known for winding canals, mouth-watering signature food and local handicrafts. Perhaps most famous of all is their love of lanterns.
Hoi An’s obsession with lanterns began in the 16th and 17th century, when the town was home to one of southeast Asias biggest ports. Japanese merchants often hung tube and cage-shaped lanterns along the poles in front of their houses, which lit up the commercial quarters at night. Locals soon began hanging lanterns out as well, with hopes of bringing good luck to the town.
Fast forward three centuries and Hoi An’s lanterns are recognisable around the world. On the fourteenth night of each lunar month, all the lights are turned off in the ancient town for the popular Lantern Festival. Don’t worry if you can’t make it at the right time though, as the lanterns feature prominently every night in Hoi An.
Today, the town is heaving with visitors from all over the globe, and aside from admiring or simply buying the famous ‘Hoi An lanterns,’ you can learn how to make one yourself.
We spent a fortnight in and around Hoi An, taking in the sights (and the food) while trying our best to stay out of the sun. At upwards of 35 degrees, there was little we could do comfortably during the daylight hours, which is why I was so pleased to have stumbled upon The Lantern Lady.
The Lantern Lady, otherwise known as Thuy, is a warm, charming and incredibly patient Vietnamese lady, who has been running daily workshops on lantern making for the past two years. Operating out of a converted garage on the outskirts of the old town, she teaches curious customers from all walks of life.
You can chose to simply decorate one of her pre-made lantern frames, or you can make one yourself from scratch. I chose to do the latter, and it was a good insight into the time and effort that goes into making such a popular and delicate item, that is now so widely available through mass production.
Traditional lanterns are made using Vietnamese staple materials; bamboo and silk. The bamboo is bent around a circular tube and tied together with wire to make the frame. A thicker metal wire is placed in the heart of the lantern, and this can be squeezed together when you want to flat-pack it (great for fitting in the backpack!). Once completed, the inside of the lantern is left hollow, allowing for a bulb to sit inside!
The workshop takes forty-five minutes to an hour and a half, depending on your skill and the size of the group (I had Thuy to myself that morning which was a strike of good luck). It costs 90,000 VND ($4) for a decorative workshop and 135,000 VDN ($6) to make one from scratch.