The Glowing Lanterns of Ancient Hoi An

The tradition to decorate the ancient town in Hoi An with multi-colored lanterns, which started three centuries ago, is still continued today on the fourteenth night of each lunar month in this small town in central Vietnam.

The history of the lanterns

In the past, Vietnamese people often put oil lamps in decorative spherical and hexagonal lantern shades, which were hung in the eaves and both sides of the door in the Chinese style. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Faifo (the name of Hoi An`s ancient town at that time) was bustling with foreign merchants from the Netherlands, India, and Japan around the clock. Japanese merchants often hung tube and canary-shaped lanterns along the poles in front of their houses, which lit up the whole commercial quarters at night with a glowing, mysterious light. Locals began hanging lanterns out as well, with hopes for bringing good luck and coziness to the town.

The decision to bring out the lanterns again in the autumn of 1998, however, was an unexpected success. Authorities of Hoi An`s ancient town chose the fourteenth night of each lunar month for a night of lantern festivities. On that night, most lights in houses and shops in the ancient town are turned off for the night and replaced with lanterns to light up their narrow streets and alleyways.
This year included a Vietnam-Japan cultural festival in Hoi An`s ancient town, where Japanese visitors showed off their famous art of paper lanterns. Local residents also had a chance to show their own multi-colored lanterns of many sizes made by experienced artisans, including large, unique lanterns made of rare woods with sophisticated designs and embellished with valuable works of art on each side. Those large, old-fashioned lanterns are now family treasures used only on the night of lanterns. Although lanterns are often lit up with ordinary light bulbs today, their soft light gives a hint of what romantic nights were like long ago.

Establishing a trademark for Hoi An`s lanterns

For many years, traditional colored lanterns have enchanted visitors to Hoi An, particularly foreign visitors. Every year, tens of thousands of Hoi An lanterns are exported or bought by foreign visitors as souvenirs and gifts. As a cultural and tourist product, the lanterns have helped raise incomes of Hoi An`s residents.

Hoping to cash in on the lanterns, several other areas have recently started to turn out so-called Hoi An lanterns. The low quality of these imitations, however, has harmed the reputation of traditional Hoi An lanterns, which has led long-time lantern makers to encourage local authorities to develop a specific trademark for Hoi An lanterns to preserve the beauty of the town`s long-lasting lanterns.

Nguyen Su, chairman of the Hoi An Town People`s Council and deputy party secretary, says the People`s Council has presented a resolution on developing the Hoi An lantern trademark, while the Quang Nam Province People`s Committee was asked to register collective protection of a Hoi An lantern trademark.

In the immediate future, the Hoi An Town People`s Committee named the Planning and Investment Department as project coordinator and developer. All lantern makers in the area can register for collective Hoi An lantern trademark protection, provided their products meet the required quality standards. Products meeting these standards can carry the words Hoi An and the emblem of the Cau Pagoda. Only then will lanterns be sold to the customers or be exported to other countries, which will establish a better reputation for Hoi An lanterns abroad.

Hoi An ancient town now has many shops selling a variety of lanterns, which are often red, yellow, or green depending on the surrounding fabric. Prices range from several ten to hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese dong depending on the size, colors, and quality of the surrounding fabric. Tang Ngoc Thu, owner of the Ngoc Thu Lantern Workshop, says, "Our products are sold at a wide range of prices to fit the budget of all customers. Our goal is to increase the popularity of Hoi An lanterns among domestic and foreign visitors."

Presently, Ngoc Thu is one of several enterprises producing lanterns with metal frames for both indoor and outdoor decoration, which have been exported to France, Germany, the US, and Australia. The products have also been showcased in fairs and exhibitions in Da Nang, Hue, and other domestic locations. Last year, a Hollywood studio placed an order with Ngoc Thu for 300 big lanterns to use in scenes in its films. The lanterns have also been written about in foreign journals.

Hoi An lanterns carry distinctive cultural values of the town that can help present one of Vietnam`s cultural heritage sites, Hoi An ancient town, to the outside world, while high-quality will ensure a better standard of living for residents.

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