Halima Ali tries the delicate art of lantern making in the historic Vietnamese city
I take my curved scissors and go in for the kill, ready to enthusiastically cut away all excess fabric. “Wait! Be very careful not to cut the white, or it will all collapse,” says Dung, my teacher for the morning. I pause, my confidence now a little shaky, and begin to examine the soft green silk in my hand, and the bamboo and string frame of the lantern beneath it, giving considerable thought to my next move. Slowly and cautiously I begin to snip away at the material.
I’m at a lantern-making workshop in the centre of Hoi An’s Ancient Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once a vital trading port, the yellow-painted houses here hold centuries of history within their walls.
So far this morning, after picking my silk from a colourful pile, I’ve cut it into four squares, and under the instruction of Dung, methodically glued sections to the thin bamboo strips which make up the frame. I began ever so slowly, wielding the curved scissors rather awkwardly as they feel completely alien in my hand (according to my teacher, they’re meant to help).
From the 15th through to the 19th century, Hoi An grew to be the most important trading port in the South China Sea, drawing traders from Asia and as far afield as Europe. The influence of those who came to do business, particularly the Chinese, Japanese and the French, remains.
“The lantern business is the most successful in Hoi An,” says Dung, as we work in quiet concentration. “In the past, the Chinese and Japanese in the city would use lanterns in front of their houses. When they left, we carried on the tradition as we believe it’s good luck.”
Hoi An is famous for the lanterns that adorn the streets of the Ancient Town. It stands to reason, then, that the best time to visit is after nightfall — the small lanes running through the centre, and along both sides of the Thu Bon River, are aglow with an array of colours. The town also hosts a festival once a month when all the lights are switched off to showcase the lanterns. And there’s more light down by the water, where countless old women sell candles in little paper boats to float down the river with a wish. The remnants of war have also left their mark. The hills around Hoi An, in the province of Quang Nam, were sprayed with Agent Orange by the US army during the Vietnam war; as a result, the area has one of the highest incidents of disability in the country.
Lifestart Foundation — which runs this class — is a grassroots, not-for-profit charity that helps disadvantaged Vietnamese people and their families to become self-sufficient. It also has a traditional painting workshop to try out, and in the shop below the workshop space they sell an array of handicrafts, art, accessories and photographs.
It doesn’t stop there. The Foundation provides educational scholarships for children, a free disability community centre and a housing project (that has so far built six houses around town).
My task is almost complete. I look at the exposed dark wood on both the top and bottom of the frame, contrasting against the green silk, and taking a red ribbon from a basket, cover up both sections. There, I hold it up to admire, the perfect souvenir from Hoi An.