Breathtakingly romantic, endlessly charming, fairy tail-esque. Hoi An’s lanterns, hanging above a network of narrow lanes and alleys, will transport you to a Vietnam of old. A place where Chinese and Japanese influence ran wild, and the streets were illuminated by this captivating assortment of whimsical colors, shapes, and sizes. Today, just as in centuries bygone, each step of the lantern making process—from the construction of the bamboo frames to the dance of subtle brush strokes across exquisitely died silk—is completed amidst the 17th century architecture of the ancient trading port. This is the world of Hoi An’s present-day lantern makers.
A craft perfected over time, the lantern making process involves a collection of artisans scattered throughout town. Several vendors specialize in frame making, ensuring the orbs, teardrops, and cylindrical barrels are curved and rounded to perfection. A second set of craftsmen, painters, and illustrators delicately brush ornate characters and imagery onto a variety of silks. From here, the fabricated materials are sent out to a number of shop owners along the banks of the Thu Bon River.
Mrs. Nga has been running her own lantern business down one of Hoi An’s many quiet shaded alleys for more than a decade. Relying on prefabricated frames and silks already painted, she is a gatekeeper to the public. She combines all elements into one moving final product, ensuring the silks are cut and glued carefully and all accessories are added as needed. With a keen eye for spotting any aberrations or flaws in the fragile pieces to her puzzles, she is constantly sorting through materials, accepting some while discarding others. The majority of her business is in ready-to-buy lanterns; however, she’ll often field requests for custom designs or illustrations.
Other shop owners run a team of individuals, each with his or her own set tasks and duties. They’re highly skilled in their own right, whether it be the intricate cutting of cloth, the fragile process of molding fabric to frames, or the ornate assignments of adding handles, caps, and ribbons. Some businesses specialize in only one type of lantern, while others construct them across all styles and colors.
Any artist dedicated to her craft works slowly and carefully. Hoi An’s lantern makers are no different. The technique is very exact, and for some, progress can come exceptionally slowly. Beginners may hang cloth to just one or two lanterns a day; seasoned veterans with years of practice may finish up to 20.
The silk designs range from the modest and ordinary to the extravagant. Discerning shop owners are kept busy choosing the ideal frame to complement their cloth. Many elaborately patterned and textured silks are hung to their frames with little or no artwork added.