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The Hoi An Lantern Festival is beautiful, there’s no doubt about it, but when it comes to waterborne parties and flickering lanterns floating downstream you don’t need to be in Hoi An. Or Vietnam, for that matter. Southeast Asia has plenty of equally magical festivals, with far fewer visitors. Here are just 5 of our favourites.
With dates determined by the lunar calendar, shaking off the festival crowds takes a bit of planning. Drop us a line to avoid diary disappointment!
5 alternatives to the Hoi An Lantern Festival
Hue Festival, Vietnam
While Tet might be the biggest celebration across Vietnam, Hue Festival certainly puts up some competition; expect a razzmatazz of fireworks, historical re-enactments, traditional dances, pyrotechnics and enough sparkly costumes to make Strictly Come Dancing look understated.
Everything but the kitchen sink is in there, with the whole festival coming together in a riot of colour before the citadel. Good things come to those who wait… the only downside of this extravaganza? It only takes place every two years, making it more likely to cause havoc with your holiday dates than the Hoi An Lantern Festival. Worth it? You bet.
Wat Phou Festival, Laos
When you think of an incredible ruined temple complex in Southeast Asia, Cambodia’s Angkor temples have a permanent spot in the limelight. Don’t miss seeing the largest religious monument in the world, but make space in your itinerary to cross the border into quieter Laos to discover the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Vat Phou/Wat Phu/Wat Phou… Ok, the name of this ancient Hindu Khmer temple might cause confusion, but semantics aside, this incredible site is well worth a visit, particularly during Wat Phou Festival.
During this three-day event, you’ll watch traditional dance performances, play a few games (practice your petanque before you arrive!) and snap up souvenirs at the handicraft market during the day. This festival also has plenty of unexpected twists and turns – you weren’t expecting cockfights amongst this staid religious ceremony? – but by night, everything slows down as monks and worshippers congregate to light candles in an ethereal display beneath the bas-reliefs.
Fire Boat Festival, Laos
The clue is in the name! In Luang Prabang, locals celebrate the end of Buddhist lent by parading paper boats through the town, before sending them down the mighty Mekong in a spectacular ritual that’s more delicate than the blazing title might suggest.
You don’t need to spend days working on your papier-mâché to take part; join the locals on the banks to make your very own wishes to the naga (water spirits) with a handmade lantern crafted from folded banana leaves crowned with flowers, incense and, of course, a candle.
Ghost Festival, Vietnam
The Ghost Festival (or ‘Hungry Ghost Festival) isn’t unique to Vietnam. In fact, this (slightly morbid) Buddhist and Taoist Festival is a calendar staple across Asia, where ghosts and spirits are widely believed in. It is thought that the chains and gates of heaven and hell disappear, and the ghouls return to visit the living in search of food and entertainment. Dutifully, food and (mostly fake) money are presented as offerings, and water lanterns are illuminated to help guide the ghosts home.
There are some pretty serious rules though. You shouldn’t photos at night – you might find a ghost photobombing in the background; hang your washing outside – you never know if thieving ghosts will return them with a curse; or plan a wedding or new business venture – bound to end in divorce and financial ruin. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Ooc Om Boc Festival, Vietnam
If the gentle putting of Hoi An’s sampan rides seems a little pedestrian, find a front row pew for Ooc Om Boc’s speedy boat races in the Soc Trang Province in southern Vietnam. As an important cultural festival in the Khmer calendar, you’re far more likely to find yourself amongst hundreds of locals than the hordes of fellow snap happy tourists at the Hoi An Lantern Festival.
They don’t scrimp on the twinkly lights here either, but as well as tealights on the water, glowing paper lanterns make ascensions towards the full moon; gratitude to the moon god for good health, a bumper crop and the end of the rainy season.