Paper Lanterns of Vietnam

A photo from the blog post "Paper Lanterns of Vietnam" with a woman shopping for paper lanterns in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Written by ian robert knight

Travel Photographer, Bangkok

Paper Lanterns of Vietnam

In the middle of Vietnam, along the eastern coastline, there is a small town called Hoi An. This town is one of the most popular places for western tourists to visit. The history is plainly visible on almost every street and the local residents cater primarily to the tourist trade. And probably the thing that Hoi An has become best known for are paper lanterns.

“Hoi An Ancient Town” as it’s officially known, is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Because of this, its heritage is protected from the development that is quickly taking over the rest of Vietnam. Thankfully, Hoi An will maintain the charm that attracts millions of tourists every year. And most of them will see the beautiful paper lanterns during their visit.
A photo of a woman shopping for paper lanterns in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Paper Lanterns for sale in a market

The most popular area of Hoi An is a small island sitting in the Thu Bon River. There is a pedestrian bridge connecting the island to the mainland, and the river flow is controlled so that it can be used for recreational purposes. Most of the good cafes and shops are in this area. And most of the street vendors operate in this area as well.
The riverbanks are very popular with professional photographers for wedding and graduation photos. Without exception, every time I’ve visited the town, there’s been half a dozen pro photographers with their assistants there, wrangling their models, trying to get the right light and trying to avoid tourists wandering into their frame. The city makes such a beautiful background; it’s easy to see why people come here to be photographed.
A photo of a woman placing floating lanterns into the river, from a boat, in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Paper lanterns set afloat.

Permanent and Ephemeral Paper Lanterns

Hoi An offers two kinds of paper lanterns for sale. The first kind is the traditional lanterns that you’d hang in your house or on your porch. They come in many sizes and colors, and all look beautiful to photograph. The other, more ephemeral kind are simple paper boxes that look like Chinese take-out containers, with a little tea candle in them. After you make a wish, you’re meant to place the lantern into the river and watch it float away.

A photo of a local senior selling floating lanterns in Hoi An, Vietnam.
Who wouldn’t buy a paper lantern from this sweet old woman?
A photo showing paper lanterns lit up at night, in Vietnam.
A photo of people sitting in a riverboat, with paper lanterns around them, in Hoi An, Vietnam.
A photo of a young girl selling paper lanterns in Hoi An, Vietnam.
Each day, as the sun starts to lower, a large collection of street vendors start to emerge. Women and girls of all ages hit the streets with the goal to sell the little paper boxes with candles in them. As the box floats away, glowing in the twilight, your wish is meant to come true. It only costs a dollar or two, and it’s a nice idea to make a wish as you set the lantern free. The trick after that is to somehow convince the other vendors that you’ve already bought a lantern and made your wish.
One thing I’ve observed over the years is that near the end of the river inlet, there is a net strung up across the river from bank to bank. All the lanterns that float down the river are collected in the netting and are pulled out of the water every day. I suspect that they recycle the boxes each day and actually resell them once they’ve dried out. Pretty clever, and helpful to the environment too!

Photography Tips


    • The best time to shoot lanterns is at twilight. It’s not dark enough to lose the background, and the blue sky color compliments the lights of the lanterns.
    • You’ll absolutely need a tripod. Otherwise you’ll be shooting handheld at slow shutter speeds, and that usually doesn’t work out too well.
    • Expose for the brightest part of the scene (usually the lantern), and everything else will look good.
    • Avoid using flash if you can. It will just eliminate the glow of the lantern.
    • If you use long exposures, you won’t need to worry if someone walks through your frame of view. They won’t likely show up in your image.
    • Err on the side of underexposure. Most camera meters will tend to be fooled by the bright lights and dark background. If you shoot at -1 or -2 compensation, you’ll probably be a lot closer to the correct exposure.

If you’re interested in visiting Vietnam, check out Private Photo Tours, for personalized photography experiences. 

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