top of page
  • Writer's picturefromelsewhere

The Symbol of Hoi An

I try my hand at Hoi An's ancient art of lantern making

Silk lanterns swing from the trees and houses as soft music plays. They look so pretty; romantic and sweet in all the colours of the rainbow and decorated with embossed or painted blossoms. They are the undisputed symbol of Hoi An. Like every tourist in town, I want one. Never mind I don't have the room in my pack, or I can buy one as easily and cheaply at any $2 shop back home, I want one. In fact, I'm going to get crafty and make one.

So what if it costs 3 times the going rate at the market to make it myself? I made it myself. And it doesn't look as good as a bought one? But hey, I made it myself!

So keen was I to spend 3 US bucks on my own handmade piece of tourist tat I wasn't put off by the old lady in the workshop gesturing at me to F-off. Turns out she was actually trying to tell me her English speaking granddaughter had gone to the market, but that was lost in translation I tell you. Still, I came back later, found the grand daughter, not the scary old lady, and booked my place for the next morning.

The Venice of Asia

Hoi An is the Venice of Asia, a former riverside merchant town that's given over, almost wholly to the tourist trade. An Asian Venice complete with low boats that row around the islands that make up the city. Oh, and like Venice, it floods pretty much every year. With the streets closest to the river mostly closed to motorised traffic, walking, bicycling and rickshaws are the way to go. Artisans work out of their historic homes. Here you can get anything from bespoke clothing to embroidered artworks to chopsticks. But maybe the most common items shoved into backpacks and wheely cases are the shiny tailored suits and the silk lanterns.

Hoi An is a fusion of the ancient Cham, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese cultures who each descended on Hoi An as one of the more important trading ports in South East Asia. The different cultures are reflected in the fusion of architecture, often with multiple influences within the one home. It's this unique blend, and the well preserved state of the old town buildings, that makes this small city of 120,000 people a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

With tourist paraphernalia hanging from every ancient facade and ticketed tourists tramping through family homes and mood music pumped through loudspeakers, Hoi An has to be one of the tourist traps of South East Asia yet it doesn't feel like it. In one way it is your imagined oriental destination: romantic riverside setting, plenty to buy and eat, markets and lanterns and rickshaws. But mainly it passes muster because catering to the whims of international trade is what this city has done for 100s of years. That's the towns identity, the authenticity of it. The 'tourists' may be new but a sale is a sale and it what this city was founded on.

Getting my craft on...

The next morning, I don my purple poncho and ride my pushbike through the rain to my lantern making class. Grandma is sitting in the storeroom, watching me suspiciously. The granddaughter isn't teaching me this morning, it's their shop assistant Tren. Although she's a dab hand at the lantern making, she doesn't actually make the store's lanterns, they're made in a workshop down the road. She works as a sales assistant while she studies business management at uni, with a tourism stream, of course, this is Hoi An where tourists outnumber locals (I said it was like Venice!).

Tren gives me a bag of material, the frame of my lamp, a pot of glue and we're off. I'm pretty crap at craft so I don't know why I keep trying. As my fingers stick to the the lantern and my material flails between the bamboo spines, I'm thinking this won't end well. But actually, even without my morning coffee, it's a lot less difficult than I thought. Either that, or I've found my affinity. Tren's impressed. She might just be saying that, but I don't think so.

My handmade lantern looks just like a bought one

I did my lantern making course at:

WHO: Long Vy Lanterns

WHERE: 6 Phan Chau Trinh St, Hoi An





Recent Posts

bottom of page