The Hoi An Full Moon Lantern Festival in Vietnam: Mixing it up in this longish article about with two series of photos including street photography, a time-lapse video view of the Perfume River and setup of the candles, some travel writing, as well as a few thoughts about the second series, featuring portrait photography taken during the Lantern Festival in Hoi An. Enjoy!
Every twenty-eight days, the moon celebrates its birthday with renewed fullness. But it is not alone, and the sacred temples devoted to its cause usher the guests through their gates to veneer its re-birth.
And so, on the fourteenth day of each lunar month, guests from around the world converge –
‘Tis the time of the Lunar Festival in Hoi An, and the fire burns steadily beneath the cauldrons, food and feast for all!
Already, throughout the city, the people are busy mending their lanterns, they wax the candles, fold the cardboard candle-holders that will, later in the night, follow the tranquil flow of the river, a glittery stream of patient fireflies smoothly espousing the curveous tremors of the waters, all through the darkness.
Enthused by the preparations, curious to witness their outcome, the decision to stay for an extra day is made easy – easier yet by reason of enjoying a rest in comfortable accommodations for the first time in a while.
A boat bobs its dragon head up and down. City workers finish lining up the red lanterns on the bridge. The celebration is tomorrow.
Hoi An Street Photography Gallery
Later in the day. Ten, twelve, twenty, fifty pedicabs, mid-age Chinese tourists being cycled through the narrow streets of Hoi An, camera in hand, followed by the unimpressed gaze of the locals sitting on small stools in the corners of moving shade offered by the low houses.
Coco and I buckle to a side of the sidewalk to escape the onslaught of pedicabs, and look at each other surprised. Could this be the end of our idyllic repose in this place? Indeed, we confirm that suspicion after walking a few more minutes to the river: gone are the quietly endearing charms of the pink and yellow-thatched town, in come the armies of visitors from the world around, sniffing through each corner and crack, zipping in and out of shops and restaurants, prattling about, their noses stuck in the air.
All onboard and eager to celebrate the Moon in its fullness, to vow their admiration and devout support –
or more likely: eager to snap away and disappear, bringing home the ‘iconic’ shot. Explanation follows.
We prudently retreat to our room.
The day has come, the day has come!
But I will not go into too much detail about the Lantern Festival itself. The occasion is joyous; the candlelit river, once the Lanterns are set off into the darkness, is a pretty moment, however much ridden of its religious frills. Despite the sudden boom in the small town’s population, and the endless bumble of the crowds that saunter along the river bank, across the bridge, and into the Old City, the event is pleasurable as Hoi An as a whole, its inhabitants and visitors, become wrapped in the aura of moonlight.
All that is true. I will leave it to others to tell this story better.
Hoi An Full Moon Lantern Festival Timelapse Video, Vietnam
Instead, let me rather use this moment to expand a little upon my photography approach and introduce the series of portrait photos that follows. (If this doesn’t cater to your interests, you may skip to the next section!)
In the evening, set up for a time lapse video along the Perfume River, as the row boats gently tug along the bank, Vietnamese families, mothers especially, gathering in their spot, squatting to light the candles one by one.
Hoards of tourists continuously pour onto the street as the evening drags on, and dusk turns to night.
After filming the video, I discover more about the trade that surrounds Hoi An’s Lantern Festival, for there is no other word to describe the state of what was once a simple, luminous ritual revolving only around spirituality, and which has now become a predominantly, albeit charmingly, commercial operation – as is the general trend for anything and everything really, the (un?)wise may note.
Once the local vendors have set up and lit their lanterns at their feet, they stand or sit by waiting for visitors to come to them. Often, they are dressed colorfully and donned in traditional garb certainly reserved for this sole monthly occasion. More often yet, and this may add to the delicacy of the matter, the mother (or fathers) are happy to stand back while they parade their offspring wearing the traditional clothes, their chubby faces both softly and dramatically lit by the wavering light of the candles; and therein lies the crux of the Lantern Festival business.
Why? Because the tourists who approach the people behind the candles – be they adults or children – and who are lured by the sure prospect of a ‘stunning’ photo to show off when they return home, are then expected to purchase candles, or in the least, to give up a healthy tip in exchange for their souvenir picture.
A few arguments could be made against this type of commerce.
One is ‘romantic’ or ‘pious’. I suspect most of the lanterns which are later set onto the river, and which constitute the beauteous attraction of the Full Moon Lantern Festival, are purchased with the mere intent to capture a good souvenir shot from Vietnam, and with little regard to their symbolic or ceremonial value.
The second, probably stronger, argument could be based on concern about social inequality and the typically vast income discrepancy between visitors and the local population: if the local population has more to gain by engaging in these forms of employment, it is arguably not a viable approach for the long-term growth and development of a community.
The more so when the common instruments for this form of employment are children.
In fact, these types of staged, fee-based photos are now common in a number of touristic places: on a large scale one may imagine the consequences on the local economy and people’s primary choices of income, making them further dependent upon growth-less tourism.
In that sense, we are directly contributing to further these inequalities by engaging in this seemingly innocuous trade.
The third, most disheartening argument: it’s obvious that most of the children and people throughout the night are saddened by their theatrical labor.
The last argument is simply linked to the candid approach I try to adopt with the (street) photography presented during these journeys.
This type of transaction, or manner to obtain photography, is something I absolutely prefer to avoid. Though the line may sometimes seem fine, I’ve drawn it quite simply in the past: all street photography and other pictures presented here are the result of spontaneity and serendipity, of unexpected moments and chance encounters.
Thus none of the pictures here are paid for – that said, however, there is no denying that these photographs are indirectly the result of this type economy as a whole, and whether I paid for them or not, they are the fruit of this type of trade, which explains the discomfort I grappled with as I took the photos of this series. Food for thought.
Thus ends the second of three very short parentheses about my photographic approach during ooAsia: the first episode was in El Nido, when I witnessed an amateur photographer guiding a group of kids through a set of poses against the sunset backdrop. In the third short installment, which will be in Myanmar, I will attempt to further refine this approach after witnessing what could be called the ‘parody of the monks’: first seeing ‘professional’ photographers stage a shoot with children-actors dressed as monks, then, with even more frustration, seeing an insolent Italian tourist disrespect the chief monks of a monastery.
So here I introduce the angle of the following photo series (something I do not often do), featuring portraits of the candlelit people of Hoi An: ‘Eerie Faces of the Full Moon’.
This is merely a working title and should be sufficiently self-explanatory. I know not to which extent this was my initial intent as I took these pictures, and to which extent this simply transpired through the shots, but these portraits offer a counterview to the typically jovial depiction of Hoi An’s Full Moon Lantern Festival, instead portraying the people through their grimness and grief.
Hoi An Full Moon Lantern Festival Photo Series
Coco has been patiently nursing a beer while I’ve shot the video and the first set of photos. We discover with delight that the bridge into the historic town is open! (The visit of this particular stretch usually requires an entrance fee.)
The crowd hovers around the players of a local variant of Vietnamese piñatas, guided by the voice of a presenter shouting into a microphone.
A group of female Buddhist monks tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the show, their tonsured heads bobbing in unison, holding hands.
Lantern shops, bright and colorful, shine through the night. The deep smell of incense sticks burning through the warm air.
Two older men fully absorbed in the sanctity of a chess game. Younger tyros silently watch their every move, dreaming of the future, when they too will be allowed to move the pawns.
We retreat, get lost in the quieter streets. The tremor of the city becomes a murmur, we holds hands too, lovingly, guided by the wisdom of the benevolent full moon.
The next day, return to check on the custom suit and its last seams, Coco keeps a watchful eye on the Vietnamese girl who pin the last creases and cuffs. The tailor himself comes in and, pen in mouth, jots down the last measurements.
The time has come… southwards we go.
We’ve decided to skip the next popular tourist stop, Nha Trang, and its trite promises of an overcrowded beach town.
Two roads diverged…
Only time will tell. And the time is now.
As dusk closes in, a line of youthful backpackers forms in the street: we’ve booked a ticket on the ‘open-tour bus’, a sleeper bus service specifically designed for backpackers. Again, Vietnam’s overwhelming sense of commercialism has gotten the better of us.
Our beloved hostel, and lets us take a much needed shower before our departure. We bump in to the French couple met in Hanoi, who’re traveling with their kids (the woman informs us about the local policy regarding accidents, which so shocked us in Hue.)
Later. Thrown into the double decker bus, along with a line of generic British and Australian backpackers. Coco and I creep to the back, and discover a clean mattress.
In the middle of the night, the bus stops several times, and Vietnamese locals hop onboard stealthily, lying down in the aisles.
At some point I kick someone in the head. Who knows if this is meant as a metaphor for our entire experience of the Hoi An Full Moon Lantern Festival…
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– Looking for custom-made tailored suits in Hoi An, Vietnam: a few travel Photos, Video, Writing.